Who did you say was dumb?

Mary Midgley

  • Adam’s Task: Calling animals by name by Vicki Hearne
    Heinemann, 274 pp, £10.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 434 31421 8

The Lord, having apparently grown tired of hearing a certain sort of behaviourist boloney talked about animals, seems to have designed a most unusual missile for dealing with it. The warhead consists of a skilled, experienced, professional animal trainer. The directive system – which is the most surprising component – is an acute, trained student of contemporary philosophy, psychology and literary criticism, who has paid particular attention to the work of Wittgenstein. The propellant is a general dislike of humbug and a particular commitment to the proper treatment and understanding of nonhuman animals. While any two of these elements have at times been found in combination before, the whole set certainly has not, any more than watches have been found on uninhabited planets or monkeys have typed out the Bible. My present business, however, does not extend to the theology of the matter: it is simply to consider the job as it has been done.

The view that is up for scrutiny is the one which is still taken for granted as established and scientific by most psychologists and many others of the learned. It is the view that outlaws all application of mental concepts to non-human animals. At an everyday level, it often takes the form of a factual denial, as if animals had been experimentally proved to be unconscious or incapable of thought. Officially, though, no rash suggestion is made that such empirical tests are possible. The view is a philosophical one about the limits of our knowledge. We cannot, it holds, attribute mental predicates to animals, because these would refer to hidden, unknowable phenomena, to private sensations quite outside our ken. Words describing thoughts or emotions are simply the names of such private states. If, therefore, we say that any animal is angry or frightened, that it hates cars, or is bored or puzzled, or is looking for its kittens, we are always making an illicit ‘anthropomorphic’ projection. If we cannot help using such words, we must put them in protective shudder-quotes to show that we do not really mean them. But really we ought to get rid of them entirely, replacing them by proper scientific descriptions of outside behaviour. Otherwise we are not real academics, but crude proles, contaminated by sentimental superstition.

Now this is such an incoherent view that it tends to leave its critics gasping. For some time, however, two lines of lethal criticism have been converging on it, and it is Vicki Hearne’s achievement to have put them together. The first line is the philosophical one about privacy. If words like ‘anger’, ‘fear’ and ‘boredom’ really were just the names of hidden private sensations, we could not, it is noted, use them to talk about human beings either, and such language could never have got off the ground. Words like these actually refer to ramifying, complex patterns of life, which have interlocking inner and outer aspects. Metaphysical behaviourism radically misunderstood how language works. That is why its attempts to reform it were doomed, and also largely why it has failed as a general map of the human scene – a failure that leaves it with no obvious qualification to dictate about the animal one either. Are animals so different? Here we encounter the second line of criticism, which is a factual one. People who seriously work with animals and know them well reject the behaviourist account root and branch. They report that any attempt to use it in their work turns out, not just unilluminating, but paralysing and often actually dangerous. Traditional ‘anthropomorphic’ ways of thinking, by contrast, fit the facts and lead to successful practice. Might this just be because the trainers were not academics and did not apply the concepts properly? Vicki Hearne’s experience is interesting here.

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