Political Theory



H05(a) - Animals in the History of Western Political Thought

Date: May 30 | Time: 03:15pm to 04:45pm | Location:

Chair/Président/Présidente : Stefan Dolgert (Brock University)

Discussant/Commentateur/Commentatrice : Stefan Dolgert (Brock University)

Animal Irrationality as the Basis of Human Exceptionalism in the Western Political Canon: Serrin Rutledge-Prior (Australian National University)
Abstract: Aristotle’s claim that man, as the only animal endowed with the capacity for language and a sense of justice, was a uniquely “political animal”, has cast a long shadow over the history of Western political thought. This paper seeks to make explicit this common thread in the canon – that of other-than-human animals’ supposed “irrationality” – and how it has been used as a foundation for asserting the exceptionalism of humans in key texts by those such as Locke, Rousseau, and Bentham. Then, drawing on evidence from ecological and biological sciences and non-Western knowledge traditions, the paper seeks to challenge the assumption of other-than-human animals’ irrationality and, therefore, to challenge the anthropocentrism of the Western canon. The paper spells out the implications of rejecting human exceptionalism with a re-accounting of Locke’s theory of property that decentres the human agent. Locke thought that individuals gained ownership over natural resources through the ‘mixing of their labour’ with them. I suggest that, if we are to accept this account – and to reject assumptions of human exceptionalism – then we need to recognise property ownership in the nonhuman sphere. That is, that property may be held by animals who mix their own forms of labour with the land: by the beavers who build dams that shape the flow of river waters; by the birds who construct elaborate nests for their offspring; by the ants who construct elaborate nests featuring chambers serving distinct purposes.


Negative Tradition: Animal Absence and Challenging the Western Canon from Within: André Krebber (Leipzig University)
Abstract: When we speak of a Western tradition, and especially a Western canon of universality, including human uniqueness and superiority, Hegel proves inseparable from it. Yet in "Phenomenology of Spirit", this very archetype of Western universalist hubris concedes that “just as when I say: all animals the word cannot pass for a zoology, just as obvious is that such words as the divine, the absolute, the eternal, etc., do not pronounce what is contained in them.” Such observation, by someone like Hegel, confounds today’s claims in animal studies and ecocritical political theories that animals have been absent, overlooked and essentialized as universal foil to demonstrate a uniqueness and moral and intellectual superiority of humans in the Western canon, without of course unraveling them. Taking Hegel’s observation as starting point, I will consider the absence of animals in the Western canon more closely. Indeed, in combination with current research in animal studies, Hegel’s observation raises the possibility, that this absence is more nuanced and complicated than a mere forgetting of animals in politics and history. In a first step, I thus offer a more complex understanding of the absence, in order to provide a theoretically more rigorous starting point for a systematic appraisal of this gap. In a second step, I will ask for its political consequences through Susan Buck-Morss’ rereading of Hegel in the context of the Haitian revolution. Buck-Morss serves here as reflexive foil for me to consider aspects of place and decolonization in our critique of a Western canon.


Slavery and the Political Turn in Animal Studies: Jishnu Guha-Majumdar (Butler University)
Abstract: One of the more recent developments in animal studies has been the “political turn,” which theorizes the inclusion of animals as political actors and not simply recipients of ethical duties. This paper argues that despite its usefulness, much work in the political turn relies on an unexamined image of transatlantic slavery and its relationship to politics, especially when it discusses the status of sentient property, personhood, and the character of political membership in general. Scholarship has considered how earlier work in animal studies, especially in its “abolitionist” strain, has often instrumentalized slavery for its own ends. I argue that the more contemporary political turn has its own fraught relationship with slavery, but one that is more subtle and complex than earlier abolitionist work. To do so, I examine three works that have been central to the political turn: Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka's "Zoopolis", Robert Garner’s "A Theory of Justice for Animals", and Alasdair Cochrane’s "Sentientist Politics". Drawing upon black studies critiques of personhood and civil society, this paper suggests that unsettling the political turn’s image of slavery both offers better alliances between anti-racist and anti-anthropocentric politics and also challenges optimism about liberal-democratic politics’ ability to address animal suffering. The implications of this image become especially relevant in relation to an understudied dimension of politics within the political turn: punishment, and how politically including animals alters or extends problems in criminal (in)justice.


Multispecies Politics Beyond Liberalism: Animal Liberation and the Radical Tradition: Zipporah Weisberg (Independent Scholar)
Abstract: Thus far the political turn in animal studies has been dominated by liberal perspectives while comparatively little attention has been given to the radical political tradition. This paper aims to fill that lacuna by exploring what insights into reshaping human and nonhuman relations along equitable lines the radical tradition might offer. What would a multispecies grassroots democracy look like, for example? How might we conceive of multispecies communities outside the categories of citizenship, denizenship, and sovereignty as proposed by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka? Is it possible (or even advisable) to work towards the construction of an anarcho-communist multispecies society? Or are liberal frameworks the most amenable to meaningful transformation at this historical juncture?