Moving beyond the horizon of humancentrism. What is an animal and what is a human?

Moving beyond the horizon of humancentrism:

What is an animal and what is a human?

Palang LY

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The basic question about the categorical division into (nonhuman) “animals” and “humans” (homo sapiens), brings up, probably before the question of its moral implications, the question about what exactly hides beneath both these big generalized identities. Why has the view about that what-animals-are and that what-humans-are finally lead to us only viewing animals under biological terms today? Is it enough to attribute only an instinctual behaviour to nonhuman animals? Is it the ‘fault’ of animals themselves that we can’t relate to them in any further way than how we are relating to them currently? …

If we don’t accept the view that nonhuman animals are those who have to stand below humans within a frame given by a biological, divine or philosophical hierarchy-of-being, then such a claim doesn’t have to be solely morally motivated, but it can mean that we question the way in which both identities („animal“ and „human“) are understood. We can ask if the interpretation of the characteristics that are considered to make up the marking dividers within a human-animal hierarchy, are in reality a negation of the autonomous value of otherness in nonhuman animals. We know that the single criterion that serves as our standard is the human parameter, i.e. the human model counts as the ideal, as the standard, for creating norms. So what happens if we put this standard of measurement into doubt?

Conclusions deduced in the fields of biology and psychology – with those being the main sectors that deal with the foundational explicability of animal identity – nail the perspectives on relevant characteristics and on how animal characteristics (in either, the case of humans or nonhuman animals) have to express themselves and in which exact correlation they have to become measurable, in order to reach a certain relevance or meaningfulness from a human point of perspective.

So the problem lies in the question why humans won’t accept nonhuman animal autonomy when it can’t be made fathomable through the perception of a value-defined comparison. Why are own animal criterions and why is their independent meaningfulness (for the sake of themselves and for their situation within their natural and social inter- and co-specific contexts) rendered irrelevant when they cross our perspectivic glance, when these animal criteria could also lay outside of our hierarchical-framework?

To be willing to accept an autonomous meaningfulness of nonhuman animals, means to question a.) the deindividualization that our views and explanations about nonhuman animals purport and b.) the views that allows us to set nonhuman animals in comparison to us, as the-human-group, and that seek to sort out how the meaning of nonhuman animals might relate to anything that matters to us. The deindividualized view of nonhuman animals almost automatically goes along with a subtraction of their value in terms of meaningfulness and so takes us to the moral question.

If we can view nonhuman animals, apart from their localization in the realm of biology, for example also in a sociological context, then we could ask the question: „How do people act towards nonhumans animals?“ Can we explain the behaviour of humans towards nonhuman animals solely by referring to the common notion that one can’t really behave in any particular way towards nonhuman animals because they are instinctively set and supposedly communicatively restricted compared to us, and that thus our behaviour towards them can’t contain an own quality of a social dynamic? Can we legitimate our behaviour by referring to the narrow dimensions that we interpret into nonhuman animal behaviour? We probably can’t ask any of these questions a sociologist. Most sociologists would most likely prefer to deal with the Animal Rights movement instead of dealing with the interaction between humans and nonhuman animals overall.

Biology has already determined what the identity of nonhuman animals is, and even the Animal Rights movement has satisfied itself to a large extent with placing the moral question (which comes down to “how to we act towards each other” is a very basic sense) somewhere out of reach, by accepting the explanation of the identity of animals as something strictly biological.

A geometrical image ( – an observation alone is not necessarily bound to a moral conclusion)

Imagine two abstract groups. Group A consists of triangles and everything that surrounds them becomes mathematically relevant to their own triangular form. Say this happens as all which either resembles or doesn’t resemble a triangle gets a certain colour. Group B are circles. Now group A says that group B aren’t triangles (because A are triangles) and that they also weren’t squares or rectangles. Would any reason follow from this that they could exclude the circles as equally valid geometrical figures? The triangles are different compared with the circles, but both are geometrical figures and insofar of an equal value. They can be correlated due to each of their geometrical qualities, even when the circles do not match the characteristics of the triangles … .

As far as the question is concerned whether animals can be regarded in any way as moral agents, one should ask, does morality exist outside the human concept of morality? When we discuss morality we presume that the substance matter which the term comprises came into life through our perceptions, and because we define what „moral“ means, we can claim a described phenomenon as solely ours. What does morality consist of? Does morality solely exist because of a theoretical framework? Probably not. Morality on one side has something to do with basic social interaction, through that morality gains value. On the other side are the superordinate agreements about morality, which are declared and decided upon perhaps by an elite or a defining group/process, but through that the agreements about morality only contain a forced validity (the negative sense of the pure “mores” in contrast to the wider frame of ethics), which is disconnected to its own basis, that is: the meaning of social interaction between beings. In other words, a construct about morality excludes that what lays outside of its hierarchy (other forms of interaction that contain „social values“ are being categorically excluded).

But there does exists that what we perceive and experience in our daily encounters as „morally okay“ between nonhuman animals or humans in the whole environmental context.. The superordinate agreements in regards to morality are not of more validity, they are in essence a consequence that follows after an action takes place in reality. When we discard the human decorum that surrounds the term morality, we can say that every action has a moral implication. That would be morality taken as a social value.

Animals obviously have very different philosophies-of-living, seen in a neutral comparison to our philosophies of life, and I clearly believe one can use the term philosophy here to describe the yet unnamed phenomenon in nonhumans animals of how they structure and perceive their own lives.

I ask myself whether the human problem with nonhuman animals isn’t rather to be found in the differences in their „philosophies of life“, rather than in the reasons of biological differences or in an assumed moral impotence on the animals behalf.. The problem always seems to be the difference and the coinciding similarities. In many aspects we equal nonhumans animals, but most notably in the aspect of our dominance claim, we see nonhuman animals as „the losers“, the bottom of the evolutionary or divinely ordained hierarchical order, on which we can postulate our power.

That nonhuman animals are the losers amongst the biological animals is even an attitude that you can subtly lurking through in the AR movement. Only a few theorists and influential theories reckon a consistently unique, self-sufficient quality in both the closeness and distance amongst different animals (including Homo sapiens). There is no theory of Animal Autonomy so far. In the forefront of every argumentation stands: How do they measure against us? How do we compare? As if humans and nonhuman animals had to compete on an single, equal scale within our frameworks. Another related argumentation goes: how much of their „instinct“ could possibly still entitle them to be granted rights (that would protect them from humans (whereby it is questionable whether those who have prejudices against you, can really grant you your own rights)?

Human society, it seems, will always consider the „us“ and the „we“ as objectively more important, insofar as the „we“, the how „we“ are, is the criterion, and nonhumans animals are measured against this parameter. The crucial point is to accept others and to accept the validity of otherness, for expanding our narrow view of the world and understanding moral wrongs.

Animal Portrayals in Mythology: Eating Animals and Moral Decay – Iblis and Zahhak in the Shahnameh

Animal Portrayals in Mythology: Eating Animals and Moral Decay – Iblis and Zahhak in the Shahnameh.

This also is an interesting case of an ‘absent referent’, who yet is (one could maybe say:) “an absent ethical factor’.

An interpretation by Farangis of ‘Zahhak and Iblis’:

The epic Shahnameh tells us about people’s behavior in a language full of images. The people and the kings decide for themselves and for others. There are the loved and the unloved rulers, everywhere we come across the intelligent, the stupid, the prudent, the weak, the strong, the active and the apathetic.

One tale of the Shahnameh epic seemed of special interest to Farangis, a story which tells about the human behavior in relation to diet or eating habits, in which a normally neglected aspect is being described of how someone experiences a change in character because of their eating habit.

Today we learn a lot about the impact of our eating habits on our physical health. In this story about Zahhak the attention is directed towards the damaging impact a diet can have on the mental condition or on the soul. The story tells how eating killed animals has changed the character of people. Shouldn’t we consider this story as relevant for our current society?

Read the story here:, or in an alternative version here: The Warner and Warner translation excerpt can be read here: (It must be noted that the original Persian version is completely not alike the Warner translation.)

* the passage in the story mainly referred to, is the section “How Iblis turned Cook”.

We’ve long been featuring this story on this blog in our links section (see below). During the time of our blogging on here we have collected so far a few items on Animal Mythology and on the issue of Animal Portrayals. Please see these sections: (some entries may overlap) this is in German )

Finally: Two protagonists in the Shahnameh eventually find out that the only existing cure to “the malady” is a complete removal of a violence-based “nutrition”; all blood and everything that’s been gained through violence has to be removed from one’s body.

Animal Portrayals: in History and Literature, Pit Pony and from Germinal by Émile Zola, Chapter 5: The Horses Trompette and Bataille

Germinal, by Émile Zola. Chapter 5. The horses Trompette and Bataille dying.

[…] They all recognized the horse, with his head bent back and stiff against the plank. Whispers ran around:

“It’s Trompette, isn’t it? it’s Trompette.”

It was, in fact, Trompette. Since his descent he had never become acclimatized. He remained melancholy, with no taste for his task, as though tortured by regret for the light. In vain Bataille, the doyen of the mine, would rub him with his ribs in his friendly way, softly biting his neck to impart to him a little of the resignation gained in his ten years beneath the earth. These caresses increased his melancholy, his skin quivered beneath the confidences of the comrade who had grown old in darkness; and both of them, whenever they met and snorted together, seemed to be grieving, the old one that he could no longer remember, the young one that he could not forget. At the stable they were neighbours at the manger, and lived with lowered heads, breathing in each other’s nostrils, exchanging a constant dream of daylight, visions of green grass, of white roads, of infinite yellow light. Then, when Trompette, bathed in sweat, lay in agony in his litter, Bataille had smelled at him despairingly with short sniffs like sobs. He felt that he was growing cold, the mine was taking from him his last joy, that friend fallen from above, fresh with good odours, who recalled to him his youth in the open air. And he had broken his tether, neighing with fear, when he perceived that the other no longer stirred.

Mouque had indeed warned the head captain a week ago. But much they troubled about a sick horse at such time as this! These gentlemen did not at all like moving the horses. Now, however, they had to make up their minds to take him out. The evening before the groom had spent an hour with two men tying up Trompette. They harnessed Bataille to bring him to the shaft. The old horse slowly pulled, dragging his dead comrade through so narrow a gallery that he could only shake himself at the risk of taking the skin off. And he tossed his head, listening to the grazing sound of the carcass as it went to the knacker’s yard. At the pit-eye, when he was unharnessed, he followed with his melancholy eye the preparations for the ascent — the body pushed on to the cross-bars over the sump, the net fastened beneath a cage. At last the porters rang meat; he lifted his neck to see it go up, at first softly, then at once lost in the darkness, flown up for ever to the top of that black hole. And he remained with neck stretched out, his vague beast’s memory perhaps recalling the things of the earth. But it was all over; he would never see his comrade again, and he himself would thus be tied up in a pitiful bundle on the day when he would ascend up there. His legs began to tremble, the fresh air which came from the distant country choked him, and he seemed intoxicated when he went heavily back to the stable.

At the surface the colliers stood gloomily before Trompette’s carcass. A woman said in a low voice:

“Another man; that may go down if it likes!”

But a new flood arrived from the settlement, and Levaque, who was at the head followed by his wife and Bouteloup, shouted:

“Kill them, those Borains! No blacklegs here! Kill them! Kill them!” […]


[…] At the bottom of the shaft the abandoned wretches were yelling with terror. The water now came up to their hips. The noise of the torrent dazed them, the final falling in of the tubbing sounded like the last crack of doom; and their bewilderment was completed by the neighing of the horses shut up in the stable, the terrible, unforgettable death-cry of an animal that is being slaughtered.

Mouque had let go Bataille. The old horse was there, trembling, with its dilated eye fixed on this water which was constantly rising. The pit-eye was rapidly filling; the greenish flood slowly enlarged under the red gleam of the three lamps which were still burning under the roof. And suddenly, when he felt this ice soaking his coat, he set out in a furious gallop, and was engulfed and lost at the end of one of the haulage galleries.


A roaring sound came from afar; they could not understand this tempest which approached them, spattering foam. And they cried out when they saw a gigantic whitish mass coming out of the shadow and trying to rejoin them between the narrow timbering in which it was being crushed.

It was Bataille. On leaving the pit-eye he had wildly galloped along the dark galleries. He seemed to know his road in this subterranean town which he had inhabited for eleven years, and his eyes saw clearly in the depths of the eternal night in which he had lived. He galloped on and on, bending his head, drawing up his feet, passing through these narrow tubes in the earth, filled by his great body. Road succeeded to road,. and the forked turnings were passed without any hesitation. Where was he going? Over there, perhaps, towards that vision of his youth, to the mill where he had been born on the bank of the Scarpe, to the confused recollection of the sun burning in the air like a great lamp. He desired to live, his beast’s memory awoke; the longing to breathe once more the air of the plains drove him straight onwards to the discovery of that hole, the exit beneath the warm sun into light. Rebellion carried away his ancient resignation; this pit was murdering him after having blinded him. The water which pursued him was lashing him on the flanks and biting him on the crupper. But as he went deeper in, the galleries became narrower, the roofs lower, and the walls protruded. He galloped on in spite of everything, grazing himself, leaving shreds of his limbs on the timber. From every side the mine seemed to be pressing on to him to take him and to stifle him.

Then Étienne and Catherine, as he came near them, perceived that he was strangling between the rocks. He had stumbled and broken his two front legs. With a last effort, he dragged himself a few metres, but his flanks could not pass; he remained hemmed in and garrotted by the earth. With his bleeding head stretched out, he still sought for some crack with his great troubled eyes.

The water was rapidly covering him; he began to neigh with that terrible prolonged death-rattle with which the other horses had already died in the stable. It was a sight of fearful agony, this old beast shattered and motionless, struggling at this depth, far from the daylight. The flood was drowning his mane, and his cry of distress never ceased; he uttered it more hoarsely, with his large open mouth stretched out. There was a last rumble, the hollow sound of a cask which is being filled; then deep silence fell.

“Oh, my God! take me away!” Catherine sobbed. “Ah, my God! I’m afraid; I don’t want to die. Take me away! take me away!”

She had seen death. The fallen shaft, the inundated mine, nothing had seized her with such terror as this clamour of Bataille in agony. And she constantly heard it; her ears were ringing with it; all her flesh was shuddering with it.

Photo: Pit Pony, found on Pit pony work dust factor,

Sylvain Post: Les chevaux de mine retrouvés,

Cheval dans les mines,

(All links 3rd March 2014)


Animal Portrayals: in Mythology, where to start (a note)

(What kind of a relation to real nonhumans did a figure like the Sumerian Anzu, son of Siris depict?)

The Phoenix was undoubtedly a key mythological animal in various cultures. We’ve been mentioning his being called “the holy grail” by Wolfram von Eschenbach. (Das Geheimnis der Liebe zum Leben. Religiöse Widerständler und heidnische Modernisten

Nonhuman animals were more than just symbols where they were featured positively in myths. In this previous entry about the ‘Orphic Vegetarian Lifestyle‘, we quoted a soruce for Plato (The Laws) referring to civilizations that rejected or did not practice animal sacrifice.

And this would be the first question that needs to be asked when discussing nonhuman animals in mythologies: You find them in every culture, but mostly in a totemisitc form and along with that as “sacrifices”.

The Phoenix thus seems to make a good entry point for looking at ‘positive nonhuman animal portrayals’ in mythology, because in his/her context we don’t seem to find sacrifices tied to his “cult”. (And that sticks out!)

Two snippets I found mentioning that early cultures might not all have sacrificed nonhuman animals per se:

Godfrey Higgins, Anacalypsis: an Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis …, Volume 2, 1833, pp. 147.

Matthew Clark, Exploring Greek Myth, 2012, pp. 151.

The mention of such a mythologically mentioned time also appears in the Shahnameh, in the story of Zahhak and Iblis.

An impressive story of Persian origin is the Myth of Zal (human) and Simorgh (Huma / a Phoenix). Here are two Persian animated videos from the late 1970ies tellling the story of the Bird Simorgh saving the cast out baby Zal:

In this animated clip depicting “Kings and Heroes of the Shahnameh” using original miniatures, you can see how much the bird Simorgh was depicted as a chickenlike bird partly too. In the animations above the Simorgh has the features as depited in Persepolis: half mammal, half bird of prey. (Also very impressive.)

And finally I thought, I should add this more difficult aspect of how negatives and positives are merged when it comes to Animal Mythology:

Sir James George Frazer
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1890, pp 483.

Links: 22 Feb. 2014.