Can the Nonhuman Speak?: Breaking the Chain of Being in the Anthropocene
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Can the Nonhuman Speak?
Breaking the Chain of Being in the Anthropocene

The fact that nonhuman animals share the power of communication, plus the likelihood that some share our capacity for ideation, demands reevaluation of why human ideas matter, and especially whether they adequately convey a sense of our place within the rest of nature. Nonhuman beings and phenomena may be intrinsically unhuman, but are not necessarily less important than us. Analysis of this difference-as-significance is an ongoing problem of the Anthropocene. This essay focuses on Arthur Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being and Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime, describing alternative ways of situating humans in relation to the nonhuman.


Arthur Lovejoy, Anthropocene, nonhuman, Edmund Burke, sublime, history of ideas, intellectual history, climate crisis

The answer is easy, the answer comes first: yes, absolutely, the nonhuman can speak. Consider animals. Of course they speak. To be precise, they communicate with each other. And, moreover, they do so to transfer information that matters to them. By these measures, they do speak, and meaningfully, and—more to the point—that makes them comparable to us. That’s the simple answer. But the question is not so simple. It challenges a powerful claim of western philosophy that speech is unique to humans, a marker of their intellectual, ethical, political, and spiritual distinctiveness. If we are no longer uniquely endowed with speech, what is left to us? At the very least, the fact that nonhuman animals share the power of communication, plus the likelihood that some of them share our capacity for ideation, forces us toward a more careful consideration of why ideas matter and, therefore, why we might matter. By this “we,” I mean not just the scholars whose work addresses the history of ideas, but all us hapless humans. Still, historians of ideas and intellectual historians have a particularly important role here, albeit an ironic one. The “idea” that we may not matter as much as we have thought benefits from the exacting mode of [End Page 509] analysis that we perform as historians of ideas, even as it questions the point of our doing it.

Nevertheless, here goes. The moment has arrived for scholars to analyze a history of comprehending nature as a set of phenomena or perceived phenomena that may be intrinsically unhuman yet no less important for being so. This is a central problem of the Anthropocene, our ongoing state of emergency, and so I will proceed through four tasks. First, I will describe what the term Anthropocene means and how it has at its core a sense of problematic human alienation from the rest of nature, a historically constructed sense that humans have powers that other parts of nature lack, whether in type, scale, or contribution to history-making. Next, I will show that historians of ideas have been historically reluctant to tackle the problem, with special reference to a founding text in our field, whose author gives his name to the lecture on which my article is based, Arthur Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being. That foundational text examined a hierarchy of natural and supernatural beings, and although it set humans within a linked chain of those beings, as one among several, and while Lovejoy was critical of that concept, he nonetheless accepted its guiding assumption that humans were superior to other natural beings because they could reason and have ideas. Third, I will suggest that these assumptions are intellectually limiting if not ethically suspect bonds that should now be broken, taking my cue from the liberationist critiques made by postcolonial and feminist theory that attacked the concurrent hierarchical thinking about non-European and female human beings.

Fourth and finally, I will argue that, despite our late arrival to it, historians of ideas are among the academic communities most suited to examine the problem of the Anthropocene. We are uniquely equipped to argue for alternatives to intellectual traditions that denigrate the nonhuman by representing it as inferior. In this final task I will focus on Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, because the nature and existence of that work...