The Animal Mind (Routledge, 2014) introduces and assesses the essential topics, problems and debates in the field. In this exclusive interview the author tells us what first sparked her interest in the area of animal cognition and gives us a behind the scenes glimpse into her book.
‘An outstanding, highly readable, and carefully argued introduction to a variety of increasingly important topics in philosophy. I can think of no better way to get philosophers and cognitive scientists up to speed on the issues, and I look forward to teaching this book in my own courses on animal minds.’ – Bryce Huebner, Georgetown University, USA
What sparked your own interest in the area of animal cognition?
I was four years old when my first cat companion adopted me. My little sister named her Seedwe. I was fascinated with Seedwe, and loved her, and felt like she loved me too. It was a good age to get to know a nonhuman animal. My discoveries about the human mind and the cat mind were occurring in tandem. I was soon reading books with animal protagonists—Big Red, Lassie, Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf and Jean Craighead George’s Julie and the Wolves. I also loved Dickon’s relationship with the animals of the moor in The Secret Garden. Flipper was on tv, and all this exposure to good relationships between humans and individuals of other species made me want to meet other animals too. As I discovered philosophy in my teens, I wondered about existential angst in other animals, fear of nonexistence, striving for meaning. I thought then that learning about the perspective of other animals might help us grapple with some traditional philosophical questions. And my interest in species very different from our own stayed with me, leading me to apply for an internship at a dolphin cognition laboratory in Hawaii during college. After that, I was hooked!
One reviewer describes the philosophy of animal minds as a ‘notoriously difficult subject’. Why do you think it is an important area of study?
Other animals are the intelligent aliens that many have been looking to find elsewhere in the universe. When we have other minds right here, and when we are interested in mind and cognition, we have to look at animals minds! I wanted to call this book Kinds of Minds, but that title was already taken. If you want to know about some category, you want to look at the range of entities that fit into that category. Imagine trying to study cardiology and only looking at middle aged human men. We couldn’t generalize about the heart if our subject pool is so specific. The same goes for the mind. If we only study human minds, then we are only discovering things about human minds. That may be fine for psychology, but philosophy is interested in the nature of mind itself, so we need to examine the range of minds that we know of.
The philosophy of animal minds may be a ‘notoriously difficult subject’ but perhaps no more than the philosophy of mind more generally. I might look at you and wonder if you have a mind, and you might look at me and wonder the same thing. But we can’t talk about that out loud (and outside of a philosophy class) without risking people starting to worry about us. Wondering whether your cat or dog has a mind isn’t socially problematic in the same way.
What makes The Animal Mind different from other books on the market?
The Animal Mind is the only book that examines different philosophical issues—the nature of consciousness, belief, rationality, communication, moral action—and shows how the current science of animal minds can help to illuminate these classic philosophical questions.
Can you sum the book up in one sentence?
We can’t do a good job understanding foundational issues in philosophy of mind without looking at other kinds of mind.
How do you envisage The Animal Mind being used in courses in the field?
I am looking forward to using this book in undergraduate and graduate courses in the philosophy of animal minds as the centerpiece text. I will be supplementing with articles that are discussed in the text. I would be excited to see this book taught not just in philosophy classrooms, but in psychology, biology, anthropology, cognitive science, and animal studies courses too.
In the course of writing this book, what has surprised or challenged you the most?
It can be challenging to translate between philosophy and psychology. The technical terms might sound the same, but in the different disciplines the words often mean very different things. In the course of writing this book, I realized that philosophers and psychologists have a different notion when it comes to metacognition, and clarifying those differences really helps to dissolve some debates. It also offers us a way to look at human minds differently, and to see that language may not be as important to many cognitive processes as we often think.
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