Those who know me, or even just looking at my recent blog posts, know I have been doing a lot of work on metaphysics. Particularly on the work of William James, and the trajectory of thinkers that could be called radical empiricists (Bergson, Whitehead, Deleuze, Stengers, Massumi, etc.). I often get some sort of question from people who know my work on animal studies why I have started studying metaphysics so seriously. The point of this post is to briefly explain some of my metaphysical commitments, and why I think they matter (especially for animal scholars all who are concerned with the more than human world).
I have been working on what I call weird empiricism. Weird empiricism is a subset of radical empiricism. Radical empiricism, for James, differed from the classical empiricists (you know, Bacon, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, & co.) in a few ways. First, the classical empiricists saw empiricism as essentially passive (one received experiences), whereas for James empiricism is both passive and active (one wills the world and self). Second, the classical empiricists separated the objects we experienced from our own experiences. That is, they jettisoned the relationship of experience as not real. Radical empiricism affirms the realness of relations.
Weird empiricism sees how these principles opens up a strange, bizarre, yes weird, pluriverse. One that can bring in the more than human world. Weird empiricism both sees the reality of our relationship to the more than human world (our relationship to other animals, but also ghosts, the sacred, imagined geographies, the dead and the undying). But also weird empiricism takes seriously the experience of the more than human world. That is, we can understand that other animals have a stake in claims of the truth because they can experience just as well as human. Though their truths may be alter than ours--weird truths from weird worlds.
Okay, so weird empiricism has something to do with the more than human world. Cool. But that doesn't answer why I think animal studies needs a metaphysics. And I do think it needs a metaphysics. I'm going to give three main reasons.
To the degree that animal studies has an avowed metaphysics, it is a rejection of anthropocentrism. That is, of course, simply a negative commitment. We know what we are against, but it doesn't produce the kind of answers I think we have assumed that it will. First, any number of people have tried to critique animal activism, and the commitments of many animal scholars, as being insufficiently anti-anthropocentric. As if the point of what we are engaged in is trying to simply reduce anthropocentrism, rather than trying to create a more just and livable world. And there is no guarantee that only overcoming anthropocentrism will lead to that more just and livable world. As Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa argues in his recent book The Celluloid Specimen, B. F. Skinner and other behaviorists were dedicated to overcoming anthropocentrism, and not for any sort of liberation.
Crucially, this shift did not lead to any programmatic improvement in the lives of animals. As Haraway and, more recently, the animal studies scholar Nicole Shukin have argued, one of the strongest catalysts for a posthuman worldview has been global capitalism, which often actively encourages the blurring of boundaries between human and animal. Yet animals are still cruelly tortured, killed, and driven to extinction at rates far exceeding any previous historical period. More than the centuries-old philosophies of Cartesian dualism, this late twentieth-century social formation remains far-and-away the largest threat to both animal and human life in our current milieu. (pp. 14-15).So, while I think it is still important to resist anthropocentrism (see Fiona Probyn-Rapsey's chapter in Critical Terms for Animal Studies, and Matthew Calarco's Beyond the Anthropological Difference) , it is far from sufficient as a ground for our metaphysical commitments. Weird empiricism's emphasis on relationships allows it to honor the specific forms of entanglements that we are involved with in the more than human world. As Lori Gruen points out in Entangled Empathy, "recognize life and its various entangled processes doesn't necessarily help us to respond to differences among kinds of fellow creatues" (p. 69). It is not enough to avow we are entangled, we must pay attention to the specific needs and relationships of those beings we are entangled with (see also my chapter on "Matter," also in Critical Terms for Animal Studies). Such a move allows us to have different conversations, such as engaging Eva Haifa Giraud's claim that we need an ethics of exclusion, and not one of entanglement.
So, we need an weird empiricism because we need more than simply a negative metaphysic against anthropocentrism. But we also need weird empiricism to help explore one of the central tensions in animal studies. Are animals fundamentally similar to humans, just another creature on evolutionary distribution that refuses any kind of human exceptionalism, or are other animals fundamentally other, alter, different? The answer seems to be yes, and rather than either/or. Matthew Calarco provides an excellent overview of this tension, as well as his own third term, indistinction, in Thinking Through Animals. Weird empiricism's emphasis on experience as the unit of truth, and the plurality of worlds, allow us to gesture to way to keep the relationship we have to other animals, while also demanding that attention be paid to the radical alterity of the worlds of other animals.
Lastly, for me at least, I have turned toward radical empiricism as a way of answering questions about how novelty and change come about. There are those who can only imagine our relationship towards other animals as fundamentally broken and in need of repair and restoration. They understand the factory farm and many invasive experiments are wrong, but they fundamentally cannot imagine a world of co-existing in a just way. Some wish to return to a model of dominion, and they simply reject the cruel excesses of the current order. Others, including many who see themselves of animal abolitionists, still do not see a possible world of co-existence. The problem for them is that all human relationship with other animals would be exploitive, and the goal is to create a human world for humans, and a non-human world for the non-humans. And on this, I can at least agree with both groups, what I dream of has not yet existed. What I want is something different, something new. And weird empiricism grants us the possibility of demanding the new, of having a metaphysics that depends upon novelty, change, creativity. I have tried to get at that here, here, and here. As Alexis Dianda argues in Varieties of Experience:
We must organize if we are to survive; yet, James cautions that we must not forget the subjective character of the world we take for granted. Such forgetfulness would likely increase the danger that we will not take responsibility for re-creating the world in new and better ways. This forgetfulness comes hand in hand with blindness to the ways in which other people value and make their world, and blindness to the power held to the power held by those in a position to enforce their views of reality under the auspices of objective, preexistent state of affairs. (p. 113)
In other words, we have made the world as it is. Our empiricism is not just passive, but also active. Our wills and desires and actions make and remake the world. But we also often depend upon a metaphysics that tells us to forget the ways we have made the world--a metaphysics that limits our creative forces. Instead, we need a metaphysics that understands the productive power of belief, will, and action.
In a 1903 letter to the philosopher Francois Pillon, William James described his "humble view of the world" as "pluralistic, tychistic, empiricist, pragmatic, and ultra gothic, i.e. non classic in form." The weird empiricist would say yes to all of this. And simply add, "and more than human."