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  • The Quiescent Ass and the Dumbstruck Wolf
  • Tom Tyler (bio)

The DONKEY and the LITTLE ASS (asinus et asellus) are so named from being sat upon—as if from the word ‘seat’ or ‘saddle’ (a sede). People captured the Ass by the following stratagem. Being forsooth a tardy beast and having no sense at all, it surrendered as soon as men surrounded it. The Little Ass, although smaller than the Wild Ass, is more useful, because it puts up with work and does not take exception to almost unlimited neglect.

A WOLF’s eyes shine at night like lamps, and its nature is that, if it sees a man first, it strikes him dumb and triumphs over him like a victor over the voiceless. But, also, if it feels itself to have been seen first, it loses its own ferocity and cannot run.

T. H. White, The Book of Beasts1

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”2


The medieval bestiary relied on the pedagogic potential of individual animals. This compendium of observation and time-honoured anecdote [End Page 9] derived from sources stretching back to the ancients and before, drawing on the works of Aristotle, Pliny, the anonymous “Physiologus,” and others.3 The medieval scholar appreciated that the animals it contained could be edifying. Thus the beaver, knowing himself to be pursued for his medicinal testicles, would remove them with a bite and cast them before the huntsman. In like manner, the bestiarist asserted, “every man who inclines toward the commandment of God and who wants to live chastely, must cut off from himself all vices, all motions of lewdness, and must cast them from him in the Devil’s face.”4 The weasel, meanwhile, who conceives through the ear and gives birth through the mouth, signifies those “who willingly accept by ear the seed of God’s word, but who, shackled by the love of earthly things, put it away in the wrong place and dissimulate what [they] hear.”5 The principal role of the bestiary, then, was didactic. It was recognized that each beast could teach the reader something different, and this by virtue of its distinctive way of life.

In the following, I would like to discuss two ways in which non-human animals function in the works of philosophy and cultural theory. I do not claim that these two roles exhaust the ways in which animals appear in such texts, but they recur with sufficient frequency to warrant a closer examination. The first and most common function of the animal is as a cipher. The philosopher J. L. Austin will illustrate the part that the cipherous animal plays with the help of his pigs, before we look in more detail at a particular ass discussed by the medieval scholar Jean Buridan. The second function of the animal is as an index. Here we will examine one of Austin’s fish, before we turn to the white wolves who provide the focus of a famous case study of Freud’s. In each of these four cases the animals seem at first to remain dutifully silent. By attending to the manner in which they are presented, however, we will find that, like the creatures of the bestiary, they can be remarkably instructive.

Austin’s Cipherous Swine

The term “cipher” derives from the Sanskrit &Śūnya, which literally means “empty.”6 Translated into Arabic, it became the adjective çifr, also employed as a substantive to designate the arithmetic symbol “zero” or “nought.” The concept was adopted by Europeans in this [End Page 10] latter sense during the Middle Ages and became the Latin cifra. Acceptance of Arabic numeric notation (really Indian) was slow and in many quarters reluctant, but the importance of the addition of the symbol zero was revolutionary and the whole system came to be known by its name, cipher. The process of calculating by means of the “new” system was, by extension, ciphering...


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