Monday, May 18, 2009

Bruns, Gerald L. Review of Two Books on Animals and J. M. Coetzee. NDPR (May 2009).

Cavell, Stanley, Cora Diamond, John McDowell, Ian Hacking, and Cary Wolf. Philosophy and Animal Life. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. Mulhall, Stephen. The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. In 1997 the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee was invited to give the annual Tanner Lectures at Princeton University. His presentations were entitled, "The Philosophers and the Animals" and "The Poets and the Animals," and were later published as The Lives of Animals (Princeton University Press, 1999), a volume that also included texts by Princeton's original respondents to Coetzee's lectures -- Peter Singer (a philosopher), Marjorie Garber (a literary critic), Wendy Doniger (an historian of religion), and Barbara Smuts (a primatologist); the philosopher Amy Gutmann provided an introduction. Some of the respondents were brought up short by the fact that Coetzee's lectures were not really lectures at all but rather a two-part short story about a lecture and a seminar presented by a fictional Australian novelist, Elizabeth Costello, at Appleton College, an imaginary American university. As Coetzee developed it, the subject of Costello's lecture is our pervasive indifference to the horror of raising and killing animals for food -- a blindness Costello compares to the willful ignorance of Nazi death-camps among ordinary Germans and Poles during World War II. As it happens, Costello's argument is not so much in behalf of animal rights or vegetarianism as it is a polemic against the support that philosophy, with its genius for categories and distinctions, has always given to our inhumane treatment of non-human creatures. Hers is a bitter critique of reason as a distancing factor that insulates us against animal suffering. After complaints against Aristotle, Aquinas, and Descartes, she cites Thomas Nagel's famous question, "What is like to be a bat?," in order to reject his answer that there is no getting inside bat consciousness. Costello thinks Nagel is just withholding himself and his concepts of subjective experience from the bat. She proposes instead something like Keats's idea of "negative capability," namely the poet's ability to inhabit imaginatively the lives of others, whether human or otherwise (a nightingale, for example). For Elizabeth Costello, the mere fact of fiction-writing refutes Nagel's position: "If I can think my way into the existence of a being who has never existed, then I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life." Sharing here means empathy with the "fullness of life" that every creature enjoys. Whether it is embodied in humans or non-humans, this fullness of life is Elizabeth Costello's definition of the good, and empathy is the requisite of the good life. . . . Read the rest here:

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