Understanding Animals

How do animals perceive the world? What does it really feel like to be a cat, or a dog? In this extract from his major new book Understanding Animals: Philosophy for Dog and Cat Lovers, Lars Svendsen explains how humans can attempt to understand the lives of other animals.


Anyone who has ever had a pet has wondered how the animal perceives the world, or how it feels to be in the world of a dog or cat, for example. No dog or cat has ever written an autobiography telling us anything about it. When I see a moose, fox or hare on a woodland road, I wonder how they perceive me. When we see nature programmes on tv where an eagle glides, a killer whale swims or an octopus walks on the seabed, we try to imagine what it’s like to be in the consciousness of these animals. American biologist Stephen Jay Gould writes:

Give me one minute – just one minute – inside the skin of
this creature. Hook me for just sixty seconds to the perceptual
and conceptual apparatus of this other being – and then I will
know what natural historians have sought through the ages.

It is, as Gould somewhat mournfully points out, impossible. We can do nothing more than work indirectly, study these creatures from the outside and always remain in wonderment at what actually goes on in their consciousnesses, and how it is to be present in the world of one creature or another.

This is not primarily a book about animals, but about humans. Of course we humans are also animals, but we are animals with a range of characteristics that no other animals have. This book, therefore, is about what possibilities there are for us humans to understand animals that are not humans. The book is a defence of the amateur’s view of the animal, and I would argue that an amateur’s relationship with animals is just as valid and insightful as the scientific view. Having said that, the amateur might learn a lot from the scientific findings. For example, if you want to understand an animal, it helps to have some knowledge of the animal’s evolutionary history, which will provide explanations that facilitate understanding. This book will therefore contain a lot of scientific material. In my opinion, however, the sciences can also learn something from the amateur’s view. The amateur is, as the word quite literally means, one who loves – and that loving view in itself can reveal something that the distanced one cannot grasp. Martin Heidegger objects to the saying that love makes us blind, and emphasizes rather that love allows us to see things we cannot see when we do not love.

If my approach in this book can be linked to a particular philosophical tradition, it is the hermeneutic tradition. This might seem strange to anyone familiar with this tradition, since it has typically dismissed animals from the domain of understanding, claiming that animals are something that can only be explained, not understood. One goal of this book is therefore to draw animals into hermeneutics, or the theory of interpretation; something from which they have traditionally been excluded.

In studies of animal mental life, chimpanzees and pigeons are over-represented. Cats and dogs show up far less often, but there is also an exhaustive amount of literature on them. In this book, there will be a lot about cats and dogs because they are the animals most of us are closest to in our daily lives. Chimpanzees are far closer to us genetically and evolutionarily, but very few of us have a chimpanzee at home, something which both chimpanzees and humans should be happy about. The proportion of cat and dog researchers who have all their fingers intact is far higher than that of chimpanzee researchers. Cats and dogs are more at home in our lives than chimpanzees are. This book will make good use of the observations I have made of my own cats and dogs – particularly Luna the dog and the cats Lasse and Geir, who will feature regularly in the text – for the simple reason that you learn a lot about an animal by living with it for many years. Of course, many other animal species will be included, and since the book is called Understanding Animals, that understanding should be put to the test; so I have chosen to give a little extra attention to the giant Pacific octopus, an animal with an advanced consciousness. However, since it has less in common with us than most other animals, it presents a real challenge. Understanding an octopus is like understanding a visitor from another planet.

The motto of the seti programme, which searches for intelligent life on other planets, is a question: ‘Are we alone?’ Meaning more precisely: ‘Are human beings alone, as intelligent life, in the universe?’ The answer to the question is evidently a resounding no! Admittedly, I am a little agnostic on the question of whether understanding animals there is intelligent life, or any kind of life, on other planets. On our planet, Earth, there is plenty of intelligent life, in addition to the Homo sapiens species. While writing these lines, I am sitting in the family cabin, where I have retreated for a few weeks to write undisturbed. However, I am not completely undisturbed because I have no doubt at all that there are two conscious beings here, or two subjects if you like: my dog and myself. We go for a walk now and then, and chat a little. It’s not like in the movie Cast Away (2000), where the protagonist, stranded on a desert island, draws a face on a volleyball, talks to it and calls it Wilson. The volleyball evidently has no consciousness – but I have no doubt at all that my dog, Luna, does. That she is an example of intelligent life is obvious, but I ask myself, can I understand this variant of intelligent life that is quite different to my own? Can I understand Luna? Can I understand what it’s like to be her?

This is a philosophical analysis of our relationship with animals. The purpose is to use philosophical perspectives which the individual reader may include in their own reflection of our relationship with animals. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: ‘Work on philosophy . . . is really more a work on oneself. On one’s own conception. On how one sees things. (And what one expects of them.) Self-reflection like this cannot be done for you. You have to do it yourself. Rather than giving clear answers, I hope that I can, above all, contribute to the reader seeing something that would otherwise have been overlooked; and think thoughts that
might have remained unthought.

– Lars Svendsen

In Understanding Animals, Lars Svendsen investigates how humans can attempt to understand the lives of other animals. The book delves into animal communication, intelligence, self-awareness, loneliness and grief, but most fundamentally how humans and animals can cohabit and build a form of friendship. To order the book online, please go to our online shop.