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Reviewed by:
  • Philosophy and Animal Life
  • Maya Ratnam
Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond, John McDowell, Ian Hacking and Cary Wolfe. Philosophy and Animal Life. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. 172 pages.

The collection of essays reviewed here explores, with insight and compassion, the vexed moral terrain that is our treatment of nonhuman animals and the particular challenges this raises for the doing and writing of philosophy. The essays gathered here respond to two lectures delivered by J. M. Coetzee at Princeton University (The Tanner Lectures, 1997–1998), entitled “The Lives of Animals,” presented in the form of an address by fictional Australian author Elizabeth Costello. The lectures were subsequently reprinted in a book of the same title, accompanied by responses from scholars such as Peter Singer and Wendy Doniger (The Lives of Animals [Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999]). They also appear as two chapters in Coetzee’s novel, Elizabeth Costello (New York: Penguin Books, 2003). Costello is haunted by the breeding and mass slaughter of animals in factory farms, an atrocity that she problematically compares to the slaughter of Jews during the Holocaust. The subject and her presentation of it discomfit her fictional university audience, as they are clearly meant to discomfit the readers of Coetzee’s novel. Cora Diamond’s essay, “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy,” closely examines whether Costello’s talk is a version of the problem of philosophical skepticism as it is treated in the thinking of Stanley Cavell.

Diamond argues that there are two ways of reading the lectures: “as centrally concerned with the presenting of a wounded woman, and as centrally concerned with the presenting of a position on the issue [of] how we should treat animals” (49). According to Diamond, to read the lectures in the latter [End Page 1206] sense is to miss the point entirely. She argues that Coetzee’s essays are concerned with presenting an altogether more complex and subtle rendering of the invisible choices and “bitter-tasting compromises” (72) that mark our everyday lives as human beings, especially in our relations with nonhuman animals. Elizabeth Costello suffers because she must live in a society that would like to consider itself civilized and humane, but can deaden its soul to the mass killing of animals. Her sense of suffering is so acute as to be almost embodied. Yet she is aware that there is no resolution in taking the moral high ground against her audience or fellow human beings; indeed, she is aware of the double-standards in her own practices concerning animals. The only explanation she can think of is that the same kind of soul-blindness that societies have historically displayed in the face of atrocities against fellow humans must be at work in our contemporary dealings with animals. Thus, Costello’s address is not about the moral status of animals vis-à-vis humans; it is a meditation on what it means to be alive in the face of an experience that is beyond one’s mental embrace. “Experience” here refers to the difficulty of seeing one’s fellow humans indifferent to the atrocities taking place around them, of recognizing one’s own double-standards in the face of injustice, and of facing the empirical fact of the injustice itself. Diamond deploys the concept of the “difficulty of reality” to characterize Costello’s experience as one in which reality presents itself with a force and intensity too difficult to be captured by words; to experience this reality is to feel one’s thinking come unhinged. The case of Elizabeth Costello shows us how much such a “coming apart of thought and reality” (78) is an embodied, not an abstract, experience. For Costello (and for Diamond), her vegetarianism (and other practices such as using animal-based products) cannot be defended or refuted by means of arguments. They reflect the inconsistencies that characterize our bodily and moral lives as human animals, and the scale of these inconsistencies might sometimes stagger us. Diamond argues that philosophy, in trying to bring soul-disturbing questions of this kind within the realm of debate, characteristically misrepresents the nature of the moral difficulties involved. She links this “difficulty of philosophy” to Cavell’s...


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