The animality of humans has been a basic axiom of philosophical thinking at least since Aristotle characterized the human being as the animal having logos. Logos is sometimes translated as speech, so that humanity is distinguished as the animal having language. Others, building upon Kant, translate logos as reason, itself a multi-faceted idea that alternates between the sense of calculative rationality and logic on the one side and a higher and less-well-defined sense of freedom and knowing on the other. Ambiguous as it remains, the appeal to man’s logos has for millennia named a hierarchical relationship, one in which human beings stand above irrational animals lacking logos.
The Aristotelian-Kantian elevation of the human as the animal who reasons is under attack. In part, the dissent results from our changing views of animals. At a conservation camp for the endangered Thai elephants in northern Thailand, elephants have been taught to paint. You can watch these amazing animals carefully administering brush strokes on internet videos. Elsewhere, scientific studies on mirror neurons in both humans and animals suggest that animals—especially elephants who are regularly observed in acts of empathy and grief—share the same neurological basis of the human moral faculty. The painting elephants and the grieving elephants—to take just two examples—raise questions about the traditional hierarchy of man over animal as the rational animal.
A more important challenge to human distinction originates from the discourse of human rights. One core demand of human rights—that men and women have a right to live and not be killed—brought about a shift in the idea of humanity from logos to life. The rise of biopolitics—the political demand that governments limit freedoms and regulate populations in order to protect and facilitate their citizens’ ability to live in comfort—has pushed the animality, the “life,” of human beings to the center of political and ethical activity. In embracing a politics of life over a politics of the reasoned life, biopolitics rejects the distinctive dignity of human rationality and works to reduce humanity to its animality.
Vanessa Lemm’s Nietzsche’s Animal Philosophy is an important contribution to the debate about the animality of human life. Deeply scholarly and rigorous, Lemm’s book points to the centrality of the animal in Nietzsche and will be an important resource for those seeking to understand the breadth and passion of Nietzsche’s writings on life, art, and creativity. While Nietzsche’s animals have long been read metaphorically, Lemm argues that beyond metaphor, the animal has a central place in Nietzsche’s philosophy. Her book extends, apparently independently, Martin Heidegger’s own similar reading of Nietzsche as the philosopher who grasps the essence of man from out of the essence of the animal—although Lemm’s account has a distinctly more positive tone (see my discussion of Heidegger’s Parmenides, below). And she offers what she calls the “first systematic treatment of the animal in Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole.” In doing so, she argues that the “future of humanity crucially depends on the human being’s ability to reconnect itself with the dream life of the animal, because only the latter can bring back to the human being the freedom and creativity of interpretation that it has lost in the process of its civilization and socialization” (4). Nietzsche’s overman, in Lemm’s account, is less a self-sufficient and sovereign artist, and is, rather, the return of humanity to its animal self.
On another level, Lemm’s book is a trenchant re-imagination of biopolitics. At the core of her book is her argument that Nietzsche’s new conception of animal forgetfulness establishes and deepens our understanding of the fertile bond between animality and creativity and thus between animal and human (155). Arguing that politics must privilege animal creativity over human rationality, Lemm outlines what she calls an “affirmative biopolitics,” a re-imagination...