Kelly Oliver


On her book Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human

Cover Interview of January 20, 2010

A close-up

Throughout Western history, philosophers have suggested that what is human is determined by what we eat.  Whether they think that we are what we eat (like Rousseau and Herder) or that we are not what we eat (like Freud and Kristeva), their notions of humanity either implicitly or explicitly maintain that man becomes human by eating animals.

I begin by looking back at eighteenth-century notions of humanity and animality that define man in terms of what he eats in order to set the stage for an investigation into how more recent philosophers from Freud through Kristeva repeat those romantic gestures that abject animals and exclude them from personhood or humanity, or from consideration as thinking or feeling beings.  I argue that within the history of philosophy, animals remain the invisible support for whatever we take to be human subjectivity, as fractured and obscure as it becomes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In Animal Lessons, I distinguish between two types of eating or assimilation that not only speak to our relations with animals, but also our relations with each other.  We can, as humans have for centuries, eat animals (and plants) as a sign of our dominion over the earth and its creatures; we can kill for the sake of conquest and mount our trophies on the wall, dissect them, or train them to jump through hoops.  Since we need to eat, a more ethical way to eat others might be to eat only what we need and not more; and to eat in ways that nurture and nourish ourselves, each other—including other animals—and our shared environment.  We have a fundamental ethical obligation to others and the earth that sustain us.