The small volume Philosophy and Animal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) consists of a series of contributions by Cary Wolfe, Cora Diamond, Stanley Cavell, John McDowell and Ian Hacking, each of the latter three commenting on those that precede it. The essays are highly readable and they raise a number of intriguing issues.
In my reading, the essays are more centrally concerned with questions about the limitations of language than with animal life. The theme is adumbrated by John McDowell in speaking of situations "when something we encounter defeats our ordinary capacity to get our minds around reality, that is, our capacity to capture reality in language. That dislodges us from comfortably inhabiting our nature as speaking animals, animals who can make sense of things in the way the capacity to speak enables us" (p. 134).
One situation to which McDowell refers is that invoked in Cora Diamond's essay in the book, "The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy". It comes from a poem by Ted Hughes, "Six young men". (The poem can be read at http://www.hebdenbridge.co.uk/news/news07/102.html .)
The poem is about a photograph of six young men who were soon after all to be killed in the first world war. "The poem", as McDowell expresses it, "is about a kind of impossibility the poet finds in trying to combine that fact [of their imminent death], in a single mental embrace, with the vibrant aliveness with which they are present in the photograph" (p. 132). The poem ends:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One's own body from its instant and heat.
The poem connects with experiences with which we are familiar: the very incomprehensibility of the death of those who matter to us and of the thought of our own non-existence, the senselessness of the slaughter of young men in war, the poignancy of a photograph capturing a moment in time that is almost palpably present and yet forever lost.
The question I wish to raise is whether experiences like these actually do throw light on our predicament as speakers. Do they reveal something about the essence of language? Or are they just one way of reacting to a powerful experience?
Here are some things to ponder: I believe some of us are more inclined than others to speak of experiences defeating our capacity to capture reality in language. Do those who do not have this experience miss out on something? Or is it merely a matter of what forms of expression we prefer?
Experiences of the sort hinted at by McDowell seem to be speaker-centred rather than bound up with problems of communication. It is I as speaker who experience my inability to capture the experience in words. It is not a matter of someone else finding my words hard to understand. Indeed, we could imagine a situation in which I tell someone of an experience of mine, and when he responds by saying "Yes I understand" I may react by feeling that he does not understand at all. (Perhaps we could even say that in these situations the criterion of one's being understood is that one's interlocutor should have a sense of not understanding?)
McDowell equates "getting our minds around reality" with "capturing reality in language", and he says that the capacity to speak enables us to make sense of things. Again, it is as if I need language to tell myself what it is I experience; language failing I do not understand my experience. However, there is a special twist to this. It is not that I cannot find the right words to articulate my experience. That would be a different situation altogether. Here the problem is that even the right words (say, "these young men died shortly after this picture was taken") fail to capture the experience - that is what takes me aback.
But if so, what is the understanding that we are missing here? It is not that we are at a loss how to interpret the description: we know what the relevant evidence might be for such a claim, and what follows from it. My suggestion is that the feeling of not understanding is partly constitutive of the experience - of how it feels. In saying that this experience "defeats my capacity to capture reality in language", I am using words in a secondary sense.