Introduction

Introduction

Our sense of our own humanity is to a significant extent tied to the notion that we are different from animals, and so to the tacit assumption that we are superior to them. The films in the series of Planet of the Apes films--Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and War of the Planet of the Apes (2017)--like many other works of fiction before and since play with this idea. Rise of Planet of the Apes, the first film in the series, traces the transformation of a chimpanzee into a human-like creature and thereby reveals a number of fundamental assumptions about the line that separates humans and animals.

But what exactly is the difference between humans and other animals, and is it possible to draw an exact line between us and them? If so, what is it that would distinguish humans from animals: clothing, cooking, shame, speech, rationality, or something else altogether? What might be the implications of an inability to draw a clear line between animals and humans? If humans are a species of animal, what might that suggest about our duties to other animals? As in the Planet of the Apes films, animals or rather images of animals, are everywhere around us, yet we tend not to reflect on the ways in which we imagine animals and our relation to them. What accounts for this preponderance of images of animals, of ways of imagining animals? What does this imply about humans' relation to, and in particular difference from, animals? And what might thereby be the role of the imagination in making us human? And: what can this lesson of what it is that makes us human teach us about how to survive and thrive in a world that in the future will increasingly be dominated by AI / intelligent machines?

In this course we will address questions such as these, and we will do so by reading the works of influential philosophers who have considered the problem of imagining animals, including our ability or otherwise to do so in the first place, and what says about our own humanity. We will think about what they can tell us concerning the ways contemporary culture imagines animals, so in addition to reading and discussing philosophical arguments we will  also be watching films and reading fiction that raise interesting problems concerning the relation between humans and animals. The course will culminate with an examination of a provocative text by the novelist J. M. Coetzee that stages a confrontation between philosophy and literature on the question of imagining animals, after which we will conclude the module by watching the documentary Project Nim (2011), about a chimp brought up as a human.

II Organization of the Module

The first unit of the module--"Philosophy"--will begin by considering how Rise of the Planet of the Apes raises key questions concerning how we imagine animals. We will explore the ways in which some of the questions might be answered with reference to especially influential views of animals by such prominent philosophers as Nietzsche, Descartes, Kant, and Bentham, as well as arguments by contemporary philosphers ranging from Thomas Nagel and Mary Midgley to Peter Singer and Jacques Derrida. This unit will illustrate the tension that inheres, at least in the occidental philosophical tradition, between those who would regard animals as subject to humans (and assume an absolute division between them on the basis of such notions as language or the faculty of reason), and those who question such assumptions. A close reading of one of the texts discussed in class is due at the end of Unit 1.

In the second unit--"Literature's Questioning of Philosophy"--we will consider how animals have been imagined in literature by such canonical figures as Swift, Kafka, and Coetzee, and how some of these texts raise questions that challenge philosophy when it comes to animals. They subvert generic expectations in seeming to refuse engaging philosophically with the question as to our relation to, and our responsibility towards, animals.

III Course goals

In order to investigate the ways humans imagine animals, the reasons they do so, and their implications, the course will consider questions such as the following:

  • What is it to be animal? And: what is it to be human?
  • How do the "human" and the "animal" relate to each other?
  • What can we learn from the work of philosophers in understanding these questions?
  • What are some of the problems attached to philosophical positions on the relation between the human and the animal?
  • To what extent is it possible to imagine the being of an animal and, more generally, of another being: to imagine what it is like to be that being?
  • What are the implications of particular philosophical positions with regard to these issues?
  • What perspectives might poetry/literature provide on these issues?

Investigating these questions will help us attain the following specific goals:

  • engaging in research in order to learn more about the course topic, and connecting that topic with questions and concerns of one's own;
  • developing familiarity with selected philosophical positions on the relation between the animal and human, including the notion that animals are machines; that humans are at the pinnacle of nature; the assumptions involved in these ideas, including the concepts of anthropocentrism, anthropomorphism and speciesism;
  • gaining a better understanding of what it might mean to imagine (being) an animal and, at the same time, what it might mean to be human;
  • the ability to read works of philosophy, literature, and film closely by noticing textual details and asking questions;
  • critically applying works of philosophy to literary texts and/or films by linking claims with evidence (analysis)
  • combining historical and theoretical material with textual analysis when discussing texts;
  • writing well-constructed and thoughtful essays using these texts as the foundation for arguments;
  • participating fluently in discussions of the issues dealt with in the module, both during class meetings and on the course blog.