Lexicon of Meaningless Words: “Anthropomorphism”

Again, allow me to welcome my friend Bill Hutchison, philosoper, curator of The Anthologist’s Cabinet of Musical Marvels, and author behind The Philosophical Animal this time supplying an lexicon entry from the world of animalism.


Anthropomorphism (n.): ascribing humanity or human qualities to what is not human

My dog feels guilty when I come home and find he’s knocked the trash bin over and sorted through its contents for tasty bits of refuse. Or I say he does, at any rate, and depending on the audience, I’m greeted by nodding agreement or—and here it comes—the charge that I am simply “anthropomorphizing” my dog and his experience. That’s where the word is most used these days, with our pets or animals in general, and why it belongs in the Lexicon of Meaningless Words.

The 18th century had us using the word in English to speak about ascribing human traits to the divine. (The entire Greek pantheon is a perfect example.) But at some point—within a century or so—it became a term of disdain. I’m particularly fond of an example that the OED gives from 1853: “We speak with large latitude of anthropomorphism when we speak of the ‘vision’ of these animals [molluscs].” But on the heels of one mollusk, we have Hume with another that will bring us around to our larger point: “The life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” But to the human, universe aside, there’s little of greater importance than the life of that human. And if we are to find any honest relation to animals, how then but through that human lens could we find them? We’re not approaching the vision of oysters from the perspective of the universe. It’s just little ol’ me: the tall, pink, shell-less thing in need of a haircut.

Xenophanes, a forerunner of Socrates, mocked Homer’s descriptions of man-like gods, saying,

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands

or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,

horses like horses and cattle like cattle

also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies

of such a sort as the form they themselves have.”

The Greeks imagined gods in their image and Christians have a God who made them in his image. Cattle would make cattle gods, and horse-Zeus would hurl lightning bolts with his hooves. (Or maybe with his mouth? I’m not sure the best way for horses to hurl lightning.) We necessarily work to conceive understandings through the beast we know best—ourselves.

And though we wrestle repeatedly with how better to understand animals, muttering “anthropomorphism” under our breath as though those who do so commit a sin against the agency or subjectivity of the animal, it becomes meaningless to levy the accusation if we haven’t a better solution. In Thomas Nagel’s famed critique of reductionist theories of mind, “What is It Like to Be a Bat?”, he grapples with the idea that for something to be a conscious something, there must a way for that something to be. If you want to know how it is to be a person, says he, you must be acquainted with the mental states that belong to people.

So what if I want to understand my dog better? How shall I engage in canipomorphism? Is there a felipomorphic manner in which I might ask my cat to stop peeing on my favorite sweater? I’m reminded of Wittgenstein: “Even if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” We are, for better or worse, embodied beings, and as such are embodied in certain ways that both limit us and enclose us. All my efforts—and they are legion—to understand my dog or my cat must necessarily begin with how I understand myself. That’s the quest that led me to philosophy in the first place.

But what of science, where to anthropomorphize animal subjects is to do “bad science?” I’m inclined toward the position of Frans de Waal, the Dutch naturalist who coined the term, “anthropodenial.” This, he says, is the true scourge of understanding our universal co-inhabitants. To see animals in the Cartesian mode of stimulus-response machines is to consciously avoid granting them any kind of inner life. But from behaviorists to neuroscientists, it is precisely the anthropomorphic foundation that is crucial for their work to take on broader meaning. If primatologists want to study chimps for clues to how other animals—primarily ourselves—might have engaged in and learned societal and civilization-building behaviors, then we must grant there is some commonality there to begin with. If neuroscientists are imaging the brains of rats, pigs, beagles, and chimps to model and increase the understanding of the human brain, then we are left with the same non-choice: either we, too, are Cartesian machines, or consciousness perhaps exists across a broad spectrum of beings and in a multiplicity of manifestations. Am I saying that an oyster has a consciousness? I’m not ready to go that far, but I’m also not willing to commit anthropodenial to the little mollusk.

I don’t know what it’s like to be my dog. He’s dreaming as I write this, twitching and barking at some wee beastie that lives only in his mind. Am I anthropomorphizing him to say that he dreams, to suggest some subconscious or unconscious state in which he chases infinite squirrels across endless campus quads? Absolutely. Because I want to know him, and this is the best way I know how. In point of fact, I don’t know what it’s like to be you, either. Anyone who has ever been in any kind of long-term interaction with another human being knows that we are radically different from one another in some crucial ways. But if I am to make some attempt to engage with you, I’ve got to play a little projection game to make the connection.

There’s a great line in the Swedish vampire movie, Let the Right One In, in which the very old but very young-looking vampire girl demands of her adolescent human friend who is condemning her actions, “Be me a little.” Whether it’s for my dog, for you, or for the lion who is frustrated because I can’t figure out what the hell he’s saying, “Be me a little” seems like the best—and only—way for us to understand anything, even if it is in the mode of benevolent misunderstanding that may lead, eventually, to some kind of understanding, incomplete as it might necessarily be. As Heidegger says, “And so, on our way toward thinking, we hear a word of poesy.” This particular poesy is from poet Ted Hughes, to champion why anthropomorphism may be lexically meaningless, but absolutely essential:

There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in the crow’s flight. All we can do is use a word as an indicator, or a whole bunch of words as a general directive. But the ominous thing in the crow’s flight, the bare-faced, bandit thing, the tattered beggarly gipsy thing, the caressing and shaping yet slightly clumsy gesture of the downstroke, as if the wings were both too heavy and too powerful, and the headlong sort of merriment, the macabre pantomime ghoulishness and the undertaker sleekness. And a bookload of such descriptions is immediately rubbish when you look up and see the crow flying.”


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