© Lukas Schaller

Animals. Humans and their Nature

First published in 2013 in the series Philosophicum Lech in Zsolnay Verlag
Protocol: Matthias K. Heschl, May 26 2020
7 min to read

Topic: Domesticated Nature

Are humans part of nature? Or is it part of their nature to change the natural environment? How do new habitats emerge? And who decides what these should look like? Humans? Animals? Humans as animals? During this rapid ride through the history of culture the philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann throws open doors to mental and associative spaces and illustrates how the history of philosophy has always also been a history of thinking about animals. Accordingly, it is the relationship of humans with animals that also determines the role that humans claim for themselves in the world and the positions that they seek to allocate to other living things. On the other hand, thinking about this eventful relationship is causally associated with ideas about shaping the world around us. Liessmann's essay is complemented by artistic photographs by Ines Lechleitner, Theresa Wey and Lukas Schaller, which shed light on the thematic area of humans, animals and nature – from the image to the allegory, from domesticated nature to the built environment. An associatively illustrated essay in excerpts. An invitation to reflect.

Konrad Paul Liessmann


But what are all the things that animals have been for humans: mirror image and counter image, figures of longing and terror, expressions of dread and domination, quarry and beast, and, time and time again: nature, nature, nature – in all its savagery and beauty and in the knowledge that this nature can be the antithesis of man and yet, also, man himself.

This interrelationship between humans and animals has a long, eventful, rich and deeply contradictory history, and whether animals are humans or vice versa has never been particularly clear. Ever since they first considered themselves as having escaped the animal kingdom, humans have shaped their relationships with animals in a huge variety of ways. The animal remains, even in an age of technological mastery over nature, the threat, the predator, the enemy of humanity that can be neither tamed nor even properly restrained and that appears close to people, spreading fear and panic as a result of which it has to be hunted, defeated, killed and eradicated. And yet the animal, as a domesticated creature that humans have transformed, has become their constant companion, as a pet and fellow member of the household, sometimes as a friend, but also as an object of pleasure, an expression and projection screen for desires and emotions: Almost every term of endearment that people whisper to each another is the name of an animal. As soon as humans embarked upon the systematic control and breeding of animals, it was an animal that became their first means of mobility. For millennia, not only did the horse shape human movements and military forces, but the rider, who can only be thought of as a symbiosis of human and animal, became the bearer of ways of life and cultures and it was only the invention of the motor that downgraded horse-riding, in the 20th century, to a form of recreation for young ladies. But animals have also always been a source of nutrition for humans, nomadic hordes of early hunters prowled the forests and savannah, searching for animal prey, while the art of animal husbandry enabled people to use cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens in many different ways, as food and clothing and, in particular, as a means of increasing their level of independence from the vagaries and violence of nature. The primeval embodiment of wealth, which we only understand today in terms of abstract financial values, was the growing herd of cattle.


The history of philosophy, insofar as it has invariably been a history of humanity's interpretation of itself, has also always been a history of how we think about animals. These were and still are the filter through which humans seek to see themselves and their nature, for it is this relationship with animals that determines both the position in the world that humans claim for themselves and the position to which they would like to assign other living beings. We can follow two basic concepts here that have been continually debated in their manifold variations, from antiquity to the present day. The first theory, which can be traced back to Aristotle and the Stoa, is that humans, by virtue of their reasonableness and their associated potential for rationality and freedom, differ fundamentally from all other animals, whose capacity for direct perception and emotion is limited. The second idea, which was put forward by the Pythagoreans and the Sceptics, is that so many actions performed by animals are so complex and refined that these can only be explained if we first assume that animals are rational, an assumption that, at best, reduces the difference between humans and animals to one of degree. Argos, Odysseus' aging dog, who was the only one to “recognise” his master after an absence of twenty years, is a classic example of this.

Ines Lechleitner, Waldszene, 2015


This is part of the artistic research project H like Horses, in which Ines Lechleitner collaborated with the cultural scientist Marion Mangelsdorf on an investigation of the potential for humans and horses to come into contact with each other beyond the boundary between their species.

The interdisciplinary artist, photographer and cook Ines Lechleitner, who was born in Vienna in 1978, combines media such as photography, drawing, sculpture, sound, film, cooking and scents in her installations, performances and artists books. She researches non-verbal communication and designs dialogue situations with artists and scientists. Ines Lechleitner lives in Berlin.

There is nothing that humans consider to be particular to them that has no counterpart in the animal world.

In the modern age, these and similar arguments become more refined on both sides, as paradigmatically represented by the renowned and, at the same time, notorious theories of René Descartes and Michel de Montaigne. While Descartes sought to understand the animal exclusively as a body, a res extensa, upon which he conferred neither intellectual functions nor any true ability to suffer or to perceive, Montaigne criticised the arrogance of humans and their completely unfounded conviction that they inhabited a different world from the animals. Montaigne employed countless examples, which were based much less on the close observation of animals than on literary tradition, in order to demonstrate the fundamental similarity between humans and animals, to the extent that there are instances in which the animal can be invoked as a model for man. Whereas Descartes focusses on the systematic question of whether and to what extent the act of thinking, the res cogitans, is exclusively the province of humans, as a result of which animals belong to a completely different subject area, Montaigne's theory is dominated by a moral programme that interprets the similarity between animals and humans as a decisive argument for curbing human hubris. There is nothing that humans consider to be particular to them that has no counterpart in the animal world. Montaigne ascribes not only logical thinking but also religious feelings to animals and he interprets the belief of humans in their own superiority as, rather, an expression of their inability to properly understand that animals, too, are distinctive and sovereign beings: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not more a pastime to her than she is to me?”1 Montaigne also makes use of the “equality” between humans and animals2 to point out to his readers not only that they have no right to grant themselves a special status but also that they have no good reasons for doing so.

Lukas Schaller, Parc Zoologique de Paris, 2005


In 2005, Lukas Schaller spent time in the foreign atelier of Austria's Federal Ministry in Paris as the holder of a scholarship. According to the photographer, the city's zoo was then in a state of dilapidation: “I was particularly fascinated by the artificial character of the various stations and the attempts to copy nature.” Between 2008 and 2014, 167 million euros were invested in the renovation and redesign of the zoo.

Lukas Schaller is an architectural photographer and autodidact. He lives and works in Vienna.

This debate also recurred in more recent philosophy, as exemplified by Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer. Hardly any other philosopher insisted as vehemently as Kant that it was rationality that defines humans as individuals who are capable of determining the purpose for their existence themselves, an ability that assures them the rank and dignity that fundamentally differentiates them from “irrational animals” with which “one can do as one likes.”3 And while Kant certainly also spoke out against cruelty to animals, he did so less out of concern for their welfare than out of concern for human morality, which he saw as threatened by the brutalisation embodied by such mistreatment. Schopenhauer, although a Kantian, saw things quite differently. The misanthrope, who enjoyed a deeper relationship with his dogs than with his contemporaries, saw animals as sentient beings who are capable of suffering and from whom humans only differ due to their intellect, which is why animals are also entitled to be treated in a way that recognises that they, like humans, have a right to “existence, well-being, life and propagation.”4 Hence, Schopenhauer’s ethic of compassion, which principally saw the human ability to be moved to act by the suffering of others as the basis of morality, was also able to include the animal, and its capacity for suffering, in this moral narrative.

This proximity between people and animals was also underlined by the Schopenhauerian Friedrich Nietzsche, albeit with a completely different emphasis. The controversial philosopher, whose mental breakdown was heralded by an incident in Turin in which he compassionately hugged a tortured horse, saw humans themselves as animals, albeit “still undetermined” ones, who are characterised by an openness and freedom vis-à-vis the wider world that is lacking in other animals, who rely upon their instincts.5 Nietzsche, however, interpreted this openness and freedom as being quite negative: as indications of an unhealthy development. In the 20th century, Günther Anders was alone in taking up this “pathology of freedom” as a human characteristic. And, incidentally, it was also Anders who recognised, long before the current speciesism debate and with a view to his early anthropological work, that “the idea that the single species “human” can be opposed to the thousands upon thousands of immensely different animal species and types is simply an anthropocentric delusion of grandeur.”6 Friedrich Nietzsche may already have harboured a similar suspicion. In this delusion of grandeur, humans don't only appear to animals as deficient but animals also possibly know why: “I fear that animals see man as a being like them who in a most dangerous manner has lost his animal common sense – as the insane animal, the laughing animal, the weeping animal, the miserable animal.”7

Theresa Wey, Zwillingskälber – Pustertaler Sprinzen, Tiergarten Schönbrunn, 2019


In the 1950s, there were only around 300 registered Pustertaler Sprinzen. Now the population of this breed of cattle has returned to over 2,000. Around half of these can be found in Austria, where subsidises are now available to farmers, who keep the endangered species.

Theresa Wey works as an artist and photographer in Vienna. She is a graduate of the Friedl Kubelka School for Artistic Photography. In her pictures she collects her observations on the subject of vigilance.

Of course: This is also anthropomorphism with the spirit of cultural criticism. But is it only this? And isn't the anthropomorphism that has been used over the years to attribute to animals all those concepts – capabilities, feelings and behaviour patterns – that we also know from humans, not well on the way to being rehabilitated by modern biology? Didn't Nietzsche, avant la lettre, use the theory as the basis of his conclusion that the animal is not just an object for us but also a subject of which we – and not only in the sense of being its prey – can become the object? In the final analysis, however, couldn't one ask whether the relationship between humans and animals is, after all, determined by experience? Regardless of how much we may like theorising about the question, isn't it humans who have given animals their special status due to the way they treat them? The domestication of animals, their transformation into pets that are dependent upon people, their industrial production and exploitation and, not least, the eradication of animals in places where they pose neither a danger nor a threat to humans and are merely sacrificed to meet the human craving for trophies and the hunt: Isn't this all merely an expression of supremacy and human power and, hence, the categorial devaluation of animals? In his day, Montaigne attempted to rebut this argument by noting that the practical exercise of domination is no justification for ascribing a different existential status to the dominated – because, after all, some humans are also dominated by others without ceasing to be humans themselves. And long before the current discussion about animal ethics and animal rights, Horkheimer and Adorno noted that the act of simply hiding the violence that is practiced against animals every day is reminiscent of the ignorance with which people under totalitarian systems close their eyes to outrages.

And yet this is exactly the paradox of today. One cannot escape the impression that, even in matters of animal philosophy, the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of dusk. The greater the theoretical complexity of the debate about the difference or non-difference between humans and animals, the greater our level of knowledge about animals, the greater the recognition that we are products of an evolutionary process that is not leading us out of the animal kingdom, and the greater our moral obligation to animals and, indeed, to living things in general, the more obvious it becomes that our collective behaviour is practically unchanged. Even if philosophical deliberations led to forms of vegetarianism as far back as antiquity and even if there are individual examples of ethical reflection and shocking reports of the suffering of animals leading to changes in behaviour – overall, the policy of eradication on the one hand and the industrial exploitation of animals on the other are not only going further than before but also appear to be intensifying. Seas that have been fished dry, skies without birds, species of big cats whose last representatives can only be found in a few zoos and huge animal processing factories that have to meet the growing demand for meat of an expanding society, all speak for themselves. One could say that animals remain, precisely because of their disappearance and relentless reduction to questions of nutritional value and material status, an all-out provocation to the one animal that differentiates itself from all the others by the very fact that it occasionally, teasingly, calls itself an animal. And yet the appeal to finally start treating animals appropriately and justly can only come from an animal that has at least, generally, ceased to be an animal as a result of which it is able to model its relationship with the animal kingdom from perspectives other than its nature.


1 Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays, translated by Donald M. Frame. Stanford 1957, p. 331

2 Montaigne, The Complete Essays, p. 354

3 Immanuel Kant: Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, translated and edited by Robert B Louden, Cambridge 2006, p. 15

4 Arthur Schopenhauer: The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, translated by E.F.J.Payne, New York 1966, p. 204

5 Friedrich Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Judith Norman, Cambridge 2002, p. 56

6 Günther Anders: On Promethean Shame, translated by Christopher John Müller, London 2016, p.89

7 Friedrich Nietzsche: The Gay Science, translated by Josefine Nauckhoff, Cambridge 2001, p. 145

Coverphoto: Lukas Schaller, Parc Zoologique de Paris, 2005

© Zsolnay Verlag, Foto: Heribert Corn


KONRAD PAUL LIESSMANN, born 1953 in Villach, is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, an essayist, literary critic and cultural journalist. He was awarded the Honorary Prize of the Austrian Booksellers for Tolerance in Thought and Deed in 2004, the Donauland Prize for Non-fiction in 2010 and the Paul Watzlawick Ring of Honour in 2016. He edits the series Philosophicum Lech in Zsolnay Verlag.

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