On philosophers and wolves

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On philosophers and wolves


Man's best friend?

In a web-exclusive review for Prospect this week, actor and writer Alexander Fiske-Harrison returns to the fertile topic of animal psychology and ethics that he explored in his much-noted essay for Prospect on bullfighting (a piece which sparked one of the most in-depth discussions ever to feature on this blog). This time, the mammal in question is a wolf, and the book under review is The Philosopher and the Wolf, by philosopher Mark Rowlands. During his time teaching in America, Rowlands became the owner of a pure-blooded wolf, and the book tells the story of how he raised it as his companion; and how the experience transformed his understanding of the divide between humans and animals. The book, Fiske-Harrison argues, is both illuminating and a missed opportunity; a provocative but ultimately self-subverting testament to the uniquely human qualities of empathy, compassion and invention. As ever, let

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  1. January 22, 2009

    Suleman Pervez

    I’m sure Wolves/dogs can empathise both with other dogs and even humans.

    I’m sure they can be compassionate like the time when Bobby the Scots Terrier lamented the death of his Master Greyfriar.

    I don’t think wolves have ever invented anything, but if they had opposible digits I’m sure they would have invented something by now – probably a canine can opener.

  2. January 26, 2009

    Caspar Henderson

    Alexander Fiske-Harrison wishes The Philosopher and the Wolf had included a section on what it is like to be a wolf. Perhaps Temple Grandin is helpful. Consider, for example, this from an essay on consciousness in animals and people with autism:

    Chimpanzees have self awareness. When they look at themselves in a mirror, they do not react to the image as if it was another animal, and if paint is applied to the chimps face, it will try to wipe it off. Because dogs are not able to do this, one should not jump to the conclusion that dogs are not self aware. Dogs may not be visually self aware, but are possibly smell self aware. A dog marking its territory is able to discriminate between its own urine and a strange dog’s urine.

  3. January 26, 2009

    Alexander Fiske-Harrison

    An interesting idea – I dealt very abruptly once before with the idea of dogs and self-awareness in some comments on my ‘Morality and Mortality’ post on this blog, but it deserves more thought. However, I suspect that given the way smell works, it would be impossible to verify. The smell of a dog’s urine is a snapshot of its internal chemistry at a given moment in time. One cannot manipulate and register this in the same way you can anatomical position with the constant feedback of light from the mirror. I don’t doubt a dog can distinguish the smell of itself from that of another dog, but I do doubt they go on to attach that to a concept of self in the way an ape, bottlenose dolphin or elephant does.

    It is interesting to hear Temple Grandin mentioned on this, someone who is not much known in the UK. The only reason I do is that a good friend is playing her in a forthcoming movie about her life. I hope she becomes better known as a result.

    (click my name at top to go to The Last Arena – The World of the Spanish Bullfight)

  4. October 26, 2011

    Charlie Gilmour

    Yes, I remember Fiske-Harrison’s essay on bullfighting, which is why I came here to find out if his book is any good as the TLS is clearly a contaminated source, but it seems you haven’t reviewed it yet. Do you not review your own contributors’ books? Perhaps the TLS should have followed the same policy. CK

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Tom Chatfield

Tom Chatfield
Tom Chatfield is an associate editor at Prospect. His latest book is "How to Thrive in a Digital Age" (Pan Macmillan) 

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