Video-Recordings of Talks
"Language and the Problem of Animal Minds"
Science Day of the Young Academy of the Austrian Academy of Sciences
Vienna, 23rd September 2021
According to a long-standing tradition of philosophical thought that reaches back to Descartes, non-human animals’ lack of language evidences their lack of (rational) minds. Descartes acknowledged that animals communicate their ‘passions’ via signs; but he inferred from the absence of verbal expression that animals are incapable of thought. Along the same lines Donald Davidson, a leading figure of 20th century analytic philosophy, argued that rationality is the privilege of language-endowed humans.
In my presentation I critically assess these traditional arguments in the light of recent developments in both the scientific study of non-human animal cognition and its philosophical reflection. Evolutionary biology suggests mental continuity between animals and humans, and so does recent research in minimal cognition and embodied cognition. Philosophically, we may conclude that there is thinking without language or, alternatively, that we ought to widen our notion of language to encompass various forms of animal communication. Discussing these options also serves to highlight some of the key questions of the philosophy of language and their wider impact on other fields of research in philosophy and beyond.
According to Eric Olson (1999), “no account of our identity has yet been proposed that guarantees […] the coincidence of what is important in our identity with the actual conditions of our identity”. This negative diagnosis applies also to Olson’s own view on personal identity, animalism. In my talk I argue that there are two reasons for the gap between ontology and ethics in existing theories of personal identity: a broad commitment to what I call thing ontology, together with a post-Cartesian version of dualism tacitly built into it. Animalism fails to give a unified account of both what is important in our identity and the conditions of our identity to the extent that it fails to integrate subjectivity. However, I also put forward a positive thesis: Subjectivity can be integrated in a biological account of identity through time on the basis of a process ontological rather than thing ontological framework. Animalism must go processual in order to harmonise the ontology of personal identity and its ethical relevance.
Read the published paper "Biological Subjectivity. Processual Animalism as a Unified Account of Personal Identity", in: Noller, J. (ed.), The Unity of a Person. Philosophical Perspectives, London: Routledge, 100-126.
"Animalism and the Problem of Personal Identity"
Interdisciplinary Conference "Biological Identity", Institute of Philosophy, London
London, 2nd June 2016
Animalism is the view that we are biological beings, i.e., organisms or animals, and have biological persistence conditions. Personal identity, properly understood, is biological identity. In this talk, I discuss this core animalist tenet, arguing for three claims: (i) the Harmless Claim: animalism has not yet sufficiently explicated its key notion of biological identity; (ii) the Not-so-harmless Claim: a large part of what animalists do say about biological identity is in tension with what biologists and philosophers of biology say about biological identity; (iii) the Radical Claim: animalism cannot provide a convincing account of personal identity so long as the notion of biological identity employed is based on the metaphysical assumption that organisms are substances or things composed of (smaller) things. I argue that only processual animalism which recognises organisms as processes can deliver a truly convincing account of biological and, hence, personal identity, thus overcoming a characteristic dilemma faced by psychological accounts of personal identity, rather than repeating it.
"Metaphysik - Wissenschaft - Fiktion"
'Science meets Fiction' arts & science exhibition,
organised by the Cluster of Excellence Engineering of Advanced Materials
Erlangen, 28th September 2017
"Novelty comes from encounter - between particles and materials but also between people and disciplines". My talk addresses this central theme of the EAM 'Science meets Fiction' programme and implements it with respect to three disciplines: metaphysics, science and literature. I defend the claim that these three disciplines are concerned with and conceptualise reality in different but yet surprisingly parallel ways. This holds true for literature at least according to the modern understanding that tends to equate literature with fiction. I call for a wider understanding that takes into account the specific way in which literature approaches reality. This wider understanding appreciates also the unique potential of literary texts to overcome traditional dualistic views of reality.