Jonathan Safran Foer relates a story that historians like to tell about Abraham Lincoln. Once, while leaving Springfield for Washington, Lincoln noticed some distressed birds on the side of the road and forced his party to stop and help the birds. When questioned about it later, Lincoln said, “I could not have slept to-night if I had left those poor creatures on the ground and not restored them to their mother.” Foer goes on to make the observation that Lincoln “did not make (though he might have) a case for the moral value of the birds, their worth to themselves or the ecosystem or God. Instead he observed, quite simply, that once those suffering birds came into his view, a moral burden had been assumed” (267). This moral burden, I believe, is what is behind Derrida’s essay on animals. By looking at the manner in which philosophers have discussed animals in the past, Derrida points out the othering of the animals and the ethical implications of this othering. The main problem with philosophizing animals is that it misses the question that only Bethem asked: “The question is not to know whether the animal can think, reason, or speak, etc,. … The first and decisive question would rather be to know whether animals can suffer” (Derrida 27). While that is the first question, Derrida looks at the all the other questions raised by philosophy as well.

In Derrida’s signature playful manner, he explores the question of the animal by looking at the history of the animal in Western culture from the Bible to Descartes to Heidegger to the classifications of science and always with Levinas’s ethics in the background. Derrida begins his essay with Heidegger’s question, which is “what do I do when ‘I am’” (3). Derrida extends Heidegger’s “I am” by adding to it that he is an animal and explains human’s uncanniness and uneasiness with being animal. With the trace of Levinas and the Bible, Derrida equates this uneasiness with a shame, similar to the fall, in the gaze of his cat. IN thinking about his cat, which makes him think of Alice in Wonderland, Derrida questions what it means to respond, and how we can know an animal’s response. The animal’s response to humans takes up the ethical question of facing the other. People have theorized the animal—“seen” the animal—but, Derrida wonders, have anybody noticed the address by the animal.

These ethical questions, the shame in the face of the cat, I would argue, are already there in Heidegger and Levinas. I am very interested in how Derrida will explore philosopy’s role in the animal, especially Levinas and Heidegger. Derrida equates his shame as a (literal) nakedness in the gaze of his cat, but this shame is also a metaphorical, Levinasian nakedness as well. Derrida is encountering the face of the other (his cat), and by not reducing the cat into the same , Derrida is trying to ethically encounter the cat. Levinas explains this nakedness in the face of the other: “The face has turned to me—and this is its very nudity. It is by itself and not by reference to a system” (75). Derrida is trying to get away from any categorization, such as zoology, biology, or even philosophy, in order to encounter the cat in a true face to face that Levinas promotes; That is to say, Derrida encounters his cat as cat, wholly and singularly, not as a cat in reference to the animal kingdom and not as some alien other. Derrida’s language in describing his cat’s gaze is further suggestive of Levinas when Derrida explains “Nudity gets stripped to bare necessity only in that frontal exhibition, in that face-to-face” (Derrida 11). Derrida appears to extend Levinas’s ethical call to animals. When the cat is face to face with Derrida, the situation recalls Levinas’s assertion that “the Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me by his essence qua infinity” (207) . Levinas examines the gaze of the other, and Derrida extends that idea to animals because for Levinas one’s subjectivity is constituted in the other, which is why Derrida wants to explore the limits of being human and what it means to be human. The animal’s gaze shows man the limits from where man dares to call himself man.

Heiddeger is also present throughout Derrida’s analysis. Heiddeger rejected what Hubert Dreyfus calls predicate philosophy made popular by Aristotle. For Aristotle, a self-sufficient entity had properties; for instance, a hammer is brown and is heavy as if all intelligible things could fall under this simple predicate model. The predicate model is, after all, what Derrida is exploring in this study. Throughout the philosophical tradition, the predicate model is used to describe the animal/ human divide. For example, the animal has no language or the human is the thinking animal, etc., as if this predicate model explained everything. For Heidegger, the world is not understandable in terms of substances and properties. Knowing this about Heidegger makes Derrida’s reading of Heidegger and the animal interesting; it is also interesting that Heidegger (and other philosophers of Heidegger) missed this obvious connection between Dasein and animals (that is, if one can judge that animals do not have a Dasein).

However, I feel that the question of an animal having Dasein or not is somewhat superfluous, nor do I feel the question Derrida raises about Heidegger’s analysis of the animal which is “living but nothing more,” ultimately, very important. Questions of the animal’s subjectivity and Dasein aside, Heidegger does assert that Dasein is in-the-world. At the very least, animals are a part of that world, which would mean animals are a part of Dasein. What is behind Derrida’s analysis and what I believe Derrida will eventually explore is Dasein’s in-the-world-ness.

Our understanding and interpretation of the world arises from our place in the world. In Being and Time, Heidegger’s central question is the question of being itself, and more precisely, that mode of being that is specifically human. In order to understand how understanding works, it is important to understand the being that is doing the understanding, and that being is Dasein. Dasein is the way of being of humans; This mode of being is one that makes existence an issue for itself, takes a stand on its existence; furthermore, Dasein interprets and is able to take a stand on its existence and understands by using equipment and acting in the world. This Dasein, who is always-already interpreting the world, is in the first place always-already being-in-the-world. Heidegger says “There is no such thing as the ‘side-by-side-ness’ of an entity called ‘Dasein’ with another entity called ‘world’” (81). This analysis breaks down the subject/object binary of Husserl and Descartes. Therefore, if existence is Dasein’s concern, the way it takes a stand on itself, then would it not follow that Dasein should take a stand of not hurting the world it is a part of? Of course, if an animal does have Dasein and can takes a stand on its life, then this analysis wold complicate humans relationship with animals because it would mean that animals would have a towards death, which would mean that when humans kill an animal, humans cause animals anguish and pain.

In an effort to rethink animals, Derrida wants to create a new language, and I believe this desire for a new language and a new way to look at animals comes mostly from Heidegger and Levinas, who both saw and commented on the limits and dangers of language. It is through language that humans put the animal in the category animal—a word that encompasses all “animals” from lizards to dogs and cats, to fish and birds, on through the entire spectrum. It is in this totalizing language that Derrida appears to make a rare universal claim when he says “This agreement concerning philosophical sense and common sense that allows one to speak blithely of the Animal in the general singular is perhaps one of the greatest and most symptomatic asinanities of those who call themselves humans” (41). I read this as saying that the one truly human thing that separates humans from animals is human’s ability to use language in this violent way to subjugate animals and categorize all of them under a single word: animal.

Derrida’s analysis of the animal and his exploration through Biblical stories, Greek mythology, and Western philosophy calls into question the language and thought used to explore the animal. He wants to break down the definition of animals through what the animal does not have and focus and explore rather what the animal ethically calls humans to do. It is interesting to note that Derrida’s title has within it the implication of “The Animal that Therefore I Am (More to Follow) because what has followed is the exploration of animal suffering. While the questions about the animal’s ability to communicate, the animal’s Dasein, the animal’s address to humans, is all very interesting, I think that what follows is Safran Foer’s book which ask the same question Bethem ask about the suffering of animals.