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Matthew MacLellan 301157548 October 17th, 2012 The Lived and the Intelligible: two conceptualizations of animality from

Ren Descartes and Michel de Montaigne

Ren Descartes and Michel de Montaigne, two philosophers writing between the 16th and 17th centuries, wrote about the figure of the animal in relationship to the human subject. Though they both articulated their conceptualizations of the human subject and its relationship to animality in very contrasting ways, they can be read against each other fruitfully. Descartes famously maintained a position of mind-body dualism, arguing that the possibility of thought is what constitutes the human subject; or in his words, cogito ergo sum. Montaigne, considered a humanist thinker, and inaugurated a revival of skepticism that can be seen with the line of thought he pursues in the Essaies concerning human/animal relations. Why should we care what these two philosophers articulated in their thought systems three centuries ago? I believe there are incarnations of their thought circulating in popular discourse concerning how we communicate and converse with that which we view as Other. It may be that by reading Descartes against Montaigne we will be in a better position to negotiate our interactions with and about those groups of people who are construed as beastial: colonized groups of people living under oppressive regimes, people of color struggling in society, and those who struggle with queer and alternative views of sexuality to name a view. I will assert that, opposed to Descartes model of the human subject centered on the logos, Montaigne maintains a more fluid exchange of communication (through language and gazes) with the animal.

This fluid exchange of looking enables Montaigne to maintain more direct contact with the live, construing Descartes conception of the lived and the sensory as purely intellectual. I will begin by considering Montaignes arguments on what separates the human subject from the animal subject, especially concerning language and communication. Secondly, I will consider the implications Descartes argument has for maintaining a dualism between the mind and body. Finally, I will conclude by speculating a few thoughts on where this comparison leaves us in terms of negotiating our interactions with another, whether literally or figuratively animalistic. In his essay Apology for Raymond Sebond, Michel de Montaigne makes two powerful arguments. Most importantly, he calls into question the conceptualization of the animal as lacking intellect and communication. Secondly, he seems to imply a few attributes that make man distinct from animal, though does not make an explicit argument regarding this point. The animal understood as lacking intellect is made explicit throughout classical philosophy, but most especially in the writings of Aristotle.

In Chapter 3 of the 2nd book of On the Soul, Aristotle asserts that it is rare for an animal to possess reason and thought (30). Montaigne turns this assertion on its head by using the example of the cat: When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me? (331). By posing this question, Montaigne positions the observer in a different relation to animals. To articulate it in a different way, Montaigne asks why we observe animals and they do not observe us. This implicit assertion of Montaigne creates a more fluid notion of the gaze between the human and the animal, one that proffers a more nuanced understanding of communication between them. From the beginning of the section Man is no better than the animals, Montaigne maintains a

more holistic and encompassing view of mans relation to animal by explicitly emphasizing that man is a creature (330). By emphasizing our own animality,

Montaigne creates a more comprehensive worldview, suggesting that Nature embraces all her creatures (citation). Thus, there is no reason for humans to assert a higher status over animals, but only for us to appreciate the continuity and varieties our own creaturely life offers. Considering the human and the animal as one and the same, however, would be to subscribe to a huge relativism. We need to recognize respect the blatant differences in order to appreciate them. Still, Montaigne seems to recognize a need for relationality with the animal. Montaigne asks the reader to consider what connects the human to animals when he asks: By what comparison between [animals] and [humans] does [man] infer the stupidity that he attributes to them? (331). This question calls into question the human and animal as two, separate, universalizing categories as well as where we place the dividing line between the human and the animalmost importantly how the human identifies with that which is other. Montaigne shifts his essay briefly to look at models of communication that humans employ to assist us in understanding this complex issue. Montaigne asks, What of the hands?, and follows it with a lengthy list of ways that our bodies communicate in a way that functions like a language without using verbal communication. Implicitly, the argument Montaigne is advancing is that our anatomy and our body play a fundamental role in communication and structuring our language and subjectivity; our intellect or cogito alone will not suffice. Descartes arguments about the independence of the mind from the body will brush up against this argument of Montaignes in abrasive ways, but I would suggest that Montaignes argument is more convincing because it maintains

more direct contact with the lived and the sensible (as opposed to the logos and the metaphysical, which is what Descartes puts forward). Ren Descartes, in modes both explicit and implicit, responds to the conceptualizations of the human and animal put forward by Montaigne in his Essaies. Descartes was more explicit about his disagreement in the letters he wrote to various correspondents, but the argument is present in the Meditations on First Philosophy. In this writing, Descartes puts forward a dualism between the mind and body, or what we can understand as a thinking, logocentric cogito separated from an embodied, sensory body. In his responses to Montaigne, Descartes makes this binary view of the human

subject a necessity. It is a construction of the human subject that requires that language be given a primacy while sensory, embodied being in the world accorded secondary importance. Throughout his letters and writings, Descartes continually emphasizes the importance of the senses in gathering information about the world, making this tension seem ironic but worthy of note. Though the binary conception of the human subject runs like a thread throughout his writings, it takes on a particularly strong rhetorical thrust when read in the context of human/animal relations. He begins Meditation II with a seemingly harmless thought experiment: I consider that I possess no senses; I imagine that body, figure, extension, movement and place are but the fictions of my mind. (63). Through this thought experiment it is made explicit that Descartes constructs the mind as the ground upon which his philosophical system rests. While it may be appropriate given his motivations, it is necessary to ask what implications this has for the rest of his thought. I would assert that by creating the mind as what is primary in his philosophical system, he is able to

construe as Other anything that resides outside of that. By according language and the logos a primacy, Descartes need not interact or identify with animals at all. Montaigne

tells us about intimate interactions with a wide range of animals, both wild and domestic. Descartes, however, is more universalizing when he writes in his letter to Henry More: we see that many of the organs of animals are not very different from ours in shape and movement. (243). We need only think of the bee or the ant to consider animals that are radically different from ourselves in both thought and movement (Capperdoni). In his writing, Montaigne emphasized the role bodily gestures play in structuring language and transmitting meaning. Descartes, much like Montaigne, shows an intense anxiety around what constitutes the boundaries of the body. In his letter to the Marquess of Newcastle, he concedes that while some animals are stronger than us, he asserts that while animals may display passions (also identified as affections or emotions), it is not clear that this depends on thought. Descartes is only able to assert this because his mind has constructed it as such, he can conclude that human passions derive from human thoughts because of the dependence he has placed on the cogito and mind/body dualism in other writings. There is also a grave anxiety in this letter about casting out anything that would threaten the dualism of self and Other. Descartes goes through great pains to argue that animals bury their young (especially swallows, an animal that Montaigne discussed in his Apology to Raymond Sebond) and that it does not originate from any ritualistic or religious desire. By advancing this line of thought, Descartes negates the possibility of animals as participating in the same concept of life as humans dothey must goad on with a sort of basic existence. Finally, by conceptualizing animals as pure automata, Descartes excludes them from

possessing logos, a common thread running through classical philosophy. In his letter to More, Descartes distinguishes animal automata from man-made automata, classifying them as natural automata (244). Rhetorically, Descartes uses a very specific vocabulary to advance this notion: he emphasizes that they move with convulsive movements of the passions, a word that is hardly neutral (Capperdoni). Thus, by denying animals the possibility of participating in language (and furthermore, logos), Descartes re-asserts the primacy of the cogito and the mind. For contemporary thought, this Cartesian logic has grave consequences. We may wish to consider which conceptualization of the Other is more useful: Montaignes fluid model of gazing/looking, which recognizes a dynamic model of communication, paired with a decentered view of language that sees bodily activity and sensory experience as the center than an intellectual cogito or Descartes model of looking where we objectify and make subject to us whatever it is that appears outside our purview (or even worldview). I assert that it is Montaignes model which is more nuanced, and his liberal view of language allows for a more engaged, sensory exchange with the world rather than one that puts man at the center, everything outside this boundary viewed as what can be mastered.

Works Cited Aristotle. On the Soul. Trans. Joe Sachs. Santa Fe: Green Lion Press, 2001. Print. Capperdoni, Alessandra. Humanities 320 Seminar, October 10th 2012. Descartes, Ren. Discourse on the Method and Meditations of First Philosophy. Translated, David Weissman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Print. Descartes, Ren. Letter to the Marquess of Newcastle, Letter to More. Descartes: Philosophical Letters. Trans. Anthony Kenny, Gloucester Shire: Clarendon Press, 1970. Print. Montaigne, Michel de. Man is no better than the animals. The complete works of Montaigne. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1957. Print.