CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers by Tom Tyler (review)
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Reviewed by
Tom Tyler, CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012, 320 pp. $90.00 cloth, $30.00 paper.

As I was beginning to think about preparing this review, a colleague picked up Tom Tyler’s CIFERAE off my desk and began flipping through its pages. A few moments later, he put it back down and expressed some bewilderment about its title and chapter headings, which include such mysteries as “On the Ring Finger a Ram’s Testicles” and “The Thumb Is a Little Hand, Assistant to the Greater”—each of the five chapter titles evoking one of the fingers of the hand. What, he asked, is this book supposed to be about? I can now give a straightforward answer: this book investigates and rejects the idea that epistemological anthropocentrism is a necessary component of realist, relativist, and pragmatist philosophies of knowledge. It also makes a less straightforward and possibly more interesting point about how philosophers can and should engage with nonhuman animals. And it does so precisely through its inscrutable titles and playful design, which includes 101 (CI in Roman numerals) illustrations of more or less wild animals (ferae). What might at first appear to be postmodernist obscurantism and needless noodling around turns out to be neither postmodernist nor needless, and indeed essential to Tyler’s project.

First, the straightforward argument. Tyler is concerned with what he calls “first-and-foremost anthropocentrism” or “epistemological anthropocentrism,” which he defines as the notion that humans “are stopped up, as if within a bleak, restricting container, unable to access the wider world except through the translucent but necessarily distorting sides of their prison” (p. 3). His focus is therefore not on that kind of anthropocentrism that has been called speciesism, which simply asserts the superior importance and moral status of humanity, but rather on the more subtle claim that knowledge as such is “inevitably . . . determined by the human nature of the knower” (p. 21). After an introductory discussion, Tyler dedicates one chapter each to realism, relativism, and pragmatism. For each of the three philosophical approaches, he investigates the ontology, utility, and validity of knowledge: that is, what knowledge is (either “mediating representation” or “immersive practice”), what it does (“explanation of the world” or “interpretations of a worldview”), and what it claims (“transcendental truth” or “partial perspective”) (p. 210). He concludes with a chapter on the figure supposedly at the center of knowledge—anthropos, Homo sapiens, humanity, “man”—and on [End Page 327] one of its allegedly defining attributes, the hand. This admittedly rigid scheme leads Tyler through an eclectic menagerie of Western thinkers, not all of them philosophers, and through the aforementioned 101 ferae.

It will probably come as no surprise that the pragmatists have the best of it. Try rolling each of the following terms around on your tongue: “naïve realism,” “naïve relativism,” “naïve pragmatism.” The last probably feels a bit awkward; we are more accustomed to offhand dismissals of the first two. To be fair, although Tyler admits to some Procrustean snipping and stretching to fit particular philosophers into the three beds he has made, he gives them all a respectful hearing. Although pragmatism comes off as the most reasonable option and the one most helpful for getting over the human/animal divide, his main aim is to disassociate all three schools from any necessary connection to epistemological anthropocentrism. Among the thinkers that appear in the book, certain ones emerge as particularly vital. These include, in no particular order, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Georges Bataille, Immanuel Kant, G. E. Moore, Richard Dawkins, William James, Ferdinand de Saussure, Martin Heidegger, Charles Darwin, Michel Foucault, Benjamin Whorf, Richard Rorty, and—just beating out Kant for the longest entry in the index—Friedrich Nietzsche. The realists and relativists are criticized for their commitment to representationalism, the pragmatists praised for their focus on knowledge as practice. But whatever your personal preference may be, Tyler argues, none of these positions necessarily entails epistemological anthropocentrism. Moreover, the very concept of anthropos built into anthropocentrism is suspect. As Tyler argues in his chapter on the hand and the human, only a certain chauvinism prevents us from recognizing that...