Ancient philosophy has bequeathed its vision of the animal from a problem of man in the world: the Stoics have a dogmatic and anthropocentric vision of the animal, while Academicians have a holistic vision, placing the general history of animals and men in the wider history of the biosphere.
The French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) is dualist, clearly distinguishing two forms of reality: thought (the soul) and extension (matter). The animal, which has no soul, is therefore only a “machine”, an advanced automaton. This is the animal-machine theory. This theory, standing out from the benevolent gaze of Montaigne (1533-1592) on the animal world and rejecting its hyperbolic nominalism, was vigorously attacked by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida with his latest work. In The animal that I am, referring to Descartes’ “I think so I exist”, he accuses the dangerous idealism of the latter.
The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) also sees in every animal, including Man, an “ingenious machine”. But he distinguishes Man from the animal in that “nature alone does everything in the operations of the beast, instead of the fact that man concurs with his owns, as a free agent.” The difference here comes from the thought and the capacity for initiative and freedom of the Man that results from it.
Criticism of radical dualism has turned to the theory of continuism according to which animals have drafts (proto-language, proto-culture, sketch of conscience or soul) of what man has in full. Thus in this philosophical spiritualistic perspective, man is an animal not only among the others, but also like the others. A materialist and evolutionist vision of this continuism, on the contrary, supports the thesis of human singularity: according to Ian Tattersall, animals are neither rational nor endowed with consciousness.
The Gaia hypothesis proposed by the English ecologist James Lovelock in 1970, but also mentioned by other scientists before him (like the geologist Eduard Suess who emitted in 1875 the concept of biosphere, theorized in 1926 by the mineralogist Vladimir Vernadski), considers all living beings on Earth as forming a kind of vast super-organism (which he calls Gaia after the name of the primordial goddess of Greek mythology personifying the Earth), realizing the self-regulation of its components for promote continuity of life and a certain stability of the climate.
Philosophical criticism of the term “animal” and the concept of “animal life“
The term “animal“, in the singular, is rejected by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in its generality, – because it is a “conceptual simplification” seen as a first act of “violent repression” with regard to the animals by the men, which consists in making a total break between humanity and animality, and an equally unjustified regrouping between animals that remain living beings radically different from one another, from one species to another.
The phenomenology of animalism proposes the concept of “animal existence”, going beyond the existentialist dualism between “animal life” and “human existence”, insofar as subjectivity is not confused with reflective consciousness.
The notion of animality has often been used as a repellent by the major religions of the revealed book or by politics, but currents of thought suggest to better recognize and take into account the animality present in each of the men, on scientific bases, which questions the status of the human and the frontier animality/humanity (Is there a “transcendental animality”, wonders Depraz), could for some legitimize certain forms of violence and is not according to Brels without ethical-legal consequences.