On the importance of Heidegger’s anthropogenesis, and of moving beyond it


The following is a copy of the paper I presented at the Unruly Creatures, 2: Creative Revolutions conference at the Natural History Museum yesterday. It was a great event and, if the main papers (by Andre Dias, Erica Fudge, Jonathan Burt & Anat Pick) are posted as a podcast, they are well worth catching. My own paper, which was put together at short notice, is largely drawn from my “Animals in Looking-Glass World” article and, in a sense, serves as an introduction to that paper, which explores in detail the implications of thinking “language” beyond its traditional reduction to the human.


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Here I want to talk about the originality and importance of Martin Heidegger’s notion of anthropogenesis which, once it is stripped of its remaining humanist-metaphysical trappings, paradoxically offers much for thinking with other animals.

In a series of lectures from 1929-1930 entitled The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, Heidegger argues that nonhuman animals are excluded from the world as a necessary result of their essential “captivation” within an environment. Put simply, and in contrast to the human, for the animal there can be neither anything beyond, nor any differentiation within, the ring which marks the absolute limit of her environmental capture. She is trapped, completely absorbed and dissolved within her specific environment, essentially unable to perceive herself as a separate being. As a result, an animal can therefore never “have” her own captivation, can never apprehend her own capture, and is thus, Heidegger concludes, “poor-in-world.”

Despite the time spent considering “the essence of animality,” it soon becomes clear, however, that Heidegger is only interested in animals to the extent that they might serve as the scenery against which the essence of the human can be thereafter revealed. In this way, says Heidegger, we come to recognise that only the human exists in a world rather than an environment because only the human is able to apprehend or “have” her own captivation. Hidden in this apparently simple gesture, however, is the award of ontological difference to human animals alone – a gesture with devastating consequences. Put simply, the human differs from the animal insofar as the former can perceive the difference between Being (as existence), and beings (as discrete entities). For Heidegger, this founding distinction consists in the having of “the ‘as’-structure” as that which gives to the human alone – in the originary event of what Heidegger calls “profound boredom” – the ability to apprehend beings as beings and thus, in contrast to the animal, to perceive itself as an individuated being. It is here, with the worlding of world, that Heidegger locates the origin and genesis of the human in the simple wonder that beings are. For other animals, however, there can be only dissolution. A chimpanzee, for example, can never perceive another chimpanzee as another chimpanzee (or as a non-chimpanzee), nor can she cognise water as water, as a liquid that quenches thirst, nor recognise her mother as her mother. Moreover, the apprehension of ontological difference is at once the apprehension of finitude, that is, to recognise that beings are is also to recognise the possibility of not being. It is here then, with the capacity to apprehend something as something, that Heidegger draws the line between the human-Dasein and the nonhuman animal.

In negating the animal as lacking the revelation that beings are, this leaves Heidegger free to posit the Dasein, whom we can now positively identify as the human, as that which “is” closest to Being, and thus reserve for her alone the possibility of authentic existence. However, the poverty attributed by Heidegger to nonhuman animals raises an immediate problem. Given the essential withholding from the animal of the apprehension that beings are, it is clear that this apparent “poverty” can be a “deprivation” only when viewed from the perspective of the human. This, as Heidegger himself points out, would appear to disallow his thesis, given that such an essential characterisation is in fact conceived only in comparison with man and “not drawn from animality itself and maintained within the limits of animality” (270).

Heidegger, however, does not object to this charge, arguing instead that, while the perhaps unassailable charge remains, it nevertheless “surely suffices that his admittedly problematic thesis has nonetheless “led us to our destination in a practical fashion.” Let us wait, defer our objection, he suggests, because “[i]n spite of everything it has brought us closer.” In other words, he tells us to wait and see, because ultimately the essence of animality as captivated will serve us in a pragmatic fashion as the “negative” by which our own “positive … proper essence has constantly emerged in contrast.”

As is well known, Heidegger explicitly seeks to escape from the confines of traditional metaphysics. As regards the human-animal relation, two dominant configurations have shaped its conception since the beginnings of the Christian era in the West. In the first configuration, the genesis of the human is predicated upon the death or nonexistence of the animal, thus marking an absolute break between human and nonhuman being. In the second, the human remains in a constant struggle with his or her own animality, an animality that must be repeatedly overcome in being-human. As a result, and regardless of whether the break is absolute or reiterated, in every instance “the human” is thus defined in contrast to other animals and at once as ontologically incomparable – a fine example of what Freud calls kettle logic. Moreover, insofar as both configurations define the nonhuman animal by what he or she lacks within a teleological dialectic, every nonhuman animal is paradoxically determined only as that which the human transcends, that is, as incomplete and thus subhuman, while nonetheless remaining absolutely, incomparably other. Such is the contradictory position that the metaphysical tradition has forced nonhuman animals to occupy, and which Heidegger sets out to escape.

To do this, Heidegger draws a very different kind of line between human and animal. Instead of sublating the animal, the human rather “stands out” from a background animality that serves only to focus attention while providing an arbitrary point of departure. The line, in other words, is that of an organisational frame that establishes and delineates its focus. At the same time, this frame is also a boundary wall, the determined limit of which is rendered invisible by its mirrored surface and which, while appearing to open up the space of “the animal,” in fact serves to enclose “the human” within an infinitely regressive image of itself which reflects only the essence of being-human which being-human itself renders invisible. The animal, in short, serves as a reflective framing device in which “we humans” will find only ourselves. Hence, we begin to understand Heidegger’s insistence that the correctness or otherwise of his claim regarding the essential poverty of the animal must paradoxically await the disclosure of the essence of the human, a circling back to the animal such as is available only from within the human world, and he does so in order legitimate in retrospect the posited essence of animality which “founded” that world.

In a gesture familiar from Being and Time, Heidegger thus sites his discourse outside both the human sciences and traditional metaphysics, claiming for himself an absolute distance from discourses which, on the one hand, “abandon” the human to animal physiology and, on the other, from those which posit the human as dependent upon the dialectical negation of the animal. For him, the animal of biology is simply “a free-floating thesis” that remains to be secured by “the proper method” that is its turn through the hermeneutic circle (61). Again, Heidegger insists that such a turn is indifferent to its apparent object (“the animal,” in this case), remaining instead always within the orbit of the human-Dasein. The animals of biology and ethology are thus merely “everyday” points of departure that set the stage for an ontological understanding of the human-Dasein which never in fact encounters any other animals whatsoever.

Ultimately, in The Fundamental Concepts Heidegger proposes only an extended fable, a fabulous sacrificial myth that focuses upon the origins of humanity to the exclusion of all else. As Heidegger himself acknowledges, he is, in the end, always talking about nonhuman animals as if they were human animals. He anthropomorphises them, in short, with an unapologetic Procrustean violence. But then again, Heidegger asks himself, if it is the case that animals are senselessly absorbed in their environments, what then of the overwhelming evidence that animals do indeed relate to other beings as beings? Heidegger’s answer is brutally simply: appearances are deceptive. The animal, he says, only “appears as a living being,” and it is this “seeming like which gives rise to the mistaken claim that animals too “have” the “as.” With this, Heidegger thus writes off every single piece of evidence, now and forever, which even suggests that other animals exist as beings-in-the-world.

Put simply, animals only appear as living beings as a consequence of one exceptional animal’s “having” of the “as”-structure, an exclusive property that subsequently reduces every other being, whether poor elephant or worldless stone, to a dependence upon the existence of the human insofar as it is the human who, albeit mistakenly, constitutes other animals as beings. Hence, one understands why Heidegger claims that the essense of animality is something available only from within the human world. Other than as a ghosted outline, a phantom individuation through the looking glass that is the human-Dasein, all other beings come into being merely as a frame to reflect the uncanny brilliance of the human.

Of all the problems here, the most immediate concerns this apparent “fact” that nonhuman animals are without the “as”-structure, which Heidegger simply assumes – an inevitable assumption given the indissociability of language, Being, and human privilege fundamental to his thinking during this period. In this, Heidegger’s thinking is stymied by the very metaphysical tradition he claims to escape. More precisely, it is the traditional conception of language that ultimately prevents Heidegger from even considering the possibility that language may extend beyond the human, despite having liberated it from its constricting identity with the word. As a result, being-human remains corralled within a circle that excludes every other “who” or “which” who does not share “our” language, thus foreclosing any potential opening to a radical alterity: becoming-other, by definition, being a moment and a movement in which “I” can no longer recognise “my” reflection.

Moreover, Heidegger’s denial of the “as-structure” and thus death to nonhuman beings has, in common with the metaphysical tradition, far-reaching and murderous consequences that stretch well beyond the domain of philosophy. Heidegger, in short, joins forces with Christian and Enlightenment traditions to argue that nonhuman animals have no death, no possibility, and no meaning. Thus written out once again as soulless mechanisms, essentially condemned to the capture of “instinctual drivenness,” Heidegger reiterates the hubris of a human exceptionalism which, based upon the surety of absolute superiority, sanctions our doing whatever “we” like to other animals, further underwriting the current, resolutely material global practice of systematic violence and mass murder on a truly unthinkable scale.

However, once we commit to thinking the formative conjunction of language and being stripped of all its habitual humanist constraints, Heidegger’s notion of anthropogenesis opens up a radical new direction for thinking with other animals, one which interrupts the metaphysics of human exceptionalism on the one hand and, on the other, renders inoperative the murderous rhetoric of biological continuism. To understand this, however, it is first of all necessary to consider exactly how, according to Heidegger, the human-Dasein arrives to take its place authentically in the world.

This originary event is, as we know, an entirely human affair. This does not, however, refer to the biological origin of the species, understood as a specific stage of evolution located at some precise point in the past. Instead, what Heidegger is seeking in the event of profound boredom – the event he previously located in the experience of existential angst – is the originary moment of the human-Dasein’s becoming. That is, the supremely creative event through which the human is constituted completely anew, hence anthropo-genesis. This potential for creative transformation, moreover, belongs essentially, ontologically, to the human as the potential for authentic being-in-the-world. Opposite this is not some inauthentic sub- or proto-human, but rather a uniquely human version of captivation. Such, argues Heidegger, is our habitual human capture within the facile opinions of “the They” that offer reassurance while concealing authentic existence beneath sham inauthenticity. Moreover, this capture is not simply something that happens to the human-Dasein as the result of external, ontical pressures, but it too is an essential, ontological characteristic of the human-Dasein’s very being.

The experience of profound boredom, argues Heidegger, accords with the event of becoming-other because only in such a boredom does the human-Dasein find itself utterly detached from the usual everyday concerns that conceal the truth of existence. In such a state of untethered attunement, beings-as-a-whole ultimately disclose themselves in showing themselves as concealed, as withdrawn within an obdurate materiality that permits of no apprehension other than the fact and the force of their existence. No longer rendered invisible by the everyday use we make of them, beings appear as withdrawn, both hidden and obstinate, exceeding our habitual ways of making sense in such a way as to shock the human-Dasein out of its tranquilised captivation and into authentic existence. In other words, in the experience of profound, existential boredom, the human becomes other by sensing the existence of beings that exceed all prior sense. In this, beings reveal themselves as monstrous, unrecognisable, utterly uncanny, and in so doing the human-Dasein, as a bodying co-constituted in its exposure to being, finds itself transformed in encountering that which has been foreclosed by habitual recognition. Such an encounter thus marks an eruption of the real within the familiar and discloses a gap within the known. For Heidegger, it is here, and nowhere else, that the essence of man is finally “thought in its origin.”

Given that such a genesis depends upon a moment of “affective manifestness” during which beings are sensed as concealed, the human-Dasein thus finds itself already “in” language at its origin. Similarly, in being thrown from the everyday discourses of “the They,” humans are thus already anxiously constituted within infinitely entangled structures of meaning. The human-Dasein, in short, is thrown into a world that precedes it, and then thrown from it again in the event of profound boredom. Nonhuman animals, meanwhile, in being denied language, are essentially denied the privilege of creation, refused access to a life-giving genesis that shatters habitual absorption.

Nonetheless, once we strip language of its old metaphysical constraints – as is being done today in domains as seemingly far removed from each other as linguistics, ethology and philosophy – this event of anthropogenetic boredom offers a new understanding of being-in-the-world, one that can deny neither individuation nor finitude to other animals. Instead, its co-constitutive exposing of being that is the creation of life becomes equally the potential of all life.

The importance of broadening the sense of the term “language” thus becomes clear. In short, “language” must be reconfigured as a species-specific way of being that is at once originary force and resource of creation. For this, the work of Jacques Derrida is crucial. Language, as Derrida insists, must be understood as the constructed community of the world, simulated by “codes of traces being designed, among all living beings, to construct a unity of the world that is … nowhere and never given in nature.” Language, as the originary relation of being as such as that in which the transfer of sense can take place, marks the community of all living beings – every passion being at once an act of interpretation and every action being at once dependent upon a passive infolding of externality. All living beings both inhabit, and are inhabited-by, machines for generating meaning.

In this way, as Derrida says, every living being constructs a world nowhere and never given in nature. Rather, the indissociability of being and language is marked, as and at the origin of sense, by the installation of technicity. Originary technicity is, quite simply, the condition of being alive, the condition of the reproduction of sense without which a being ceases to live as such, and the condition of genesis, of creation. One obvious consequence of this is that the divisions between “Nature” and “Culture,” and between the “natural” and the “artificial,” break down utterly – as indeed they must. Instead, we discover a world populated by living bodyings or materialities which, while already technical, need be neither organisms nor even “organic” in any traditional sense.

Other consequences of this reconfiguration of language are equally important. First of all, both vitalism and biological continuism are a priori excluded from consideration. Secondly, the murderous ideology of the undying animal is irredeemably fractured, thus undoing along the way every hierarchy of proximity and every narcissistic notion of identity politics. Thirdly, it makes clear that the perfect reciprocity demanded by liberal contract theory is simply impossible, one result of which is that its exclusion of nonhuman animals from ethical concern is rendered both unjust and unjustifiable. In place of the liberal delusion – whether naïve or cynical – of imaginary consensus, originary technicity demands instead the affirmation of an encounter with another whose language “I” do not recognise and with whom consensus remains impossible. At the same time, “language” – in the narrow sense of human verbal language – ceases to be the privileged site from which one can sovereignly attribute to another only a mute bestiality. Nevertheless, this by no means results in the subsumption of “the human” beneath “the animal,” which would simply reiterate an uncritical biological continuism. Rather, the difference of originary technicity necessarily structures infinitely diverse ways of being and, moreover, structures them differently. Hence, while differences subsist, a humanist hierarchy does not. Lastly, in both following and moving beyond Heidegger, this extended imbrication of language and being means that every living being, insofar as he or she lives, retains the potential to undergo an evental rupture in their specific way of being that is the moment not of anthropo-genesis, but always of zoo-genesis. In this creative event of the breach, this forced exposing to the possibility of being, any given existence realises the potential that is to be alive. To conduct one’s self towards such an encounter is to be open to the incalculable, to be exposed to that which exceeds sensible recognition. It is, in short, to affirm the chance and necessity of life’s ever again.

Ultimately, to accept the premise that language marks the community of all living beings is to accept that humans do not have the right to do whatever we like with other animals. It is to accept that our given state of affairs is unacceptable and must be radically transformed. Put simply, accepting such a premise is to no longer accept the habitual global economy of slaughter into which we have all been thrown. For this, however, it remains imperative that any genuine posthumanist philosophy think both the finitude and the nonsubstitutable deaths of other animals.


About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

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