Interiority and Animal Life

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Stephen Talbott:

Theme #2: Interiority

Every animal’s life narrative is an outward expression of interior meaning.

It may be that when humans communicate, there is nothing (apart from certain instances of spoken and written language) more richly and specifically informative than the expressions of the human face. Much of our life is shaped and guided by the facial expressions all around us. All that these expressions tell us, however, cannot be encompassed by the physical-causal terms of facial musculature, skeleton, and flesh. That which bears the expression is indeed outward, material, and physically lawful. But what is expressed is, we can reasonably say, interior. Sadness, pensiveness, elation, doubt, anger, vexation, impatience, uncertainty, satisfaction — these possess, at least in part, a non-spatial character. Or again: while the material embodiment of what is expressed is both real and spatial, what is expressed through the outward manifestation is real but not spatial. So the word “interior” is problematic; it typically suggests a spatial relation, whereas I am using it to suggest something like “not out there in a spatially locatable sense”.

We look through and by means of the face as a material manifestation in order to see the interior meaning that is being expressed. It is much the same as with spoken words, whose interior meanings are not revealed so long as we are noticing them only as sense-perceptible sounds. We must “hear through” the sounds so as to grasp their immaterial meaning.

But it is not just humans. All living performance expresses one or another form of interiority. In our own case: if I walk to the corner store in order to buy a gift for a grandchild, what I am doing can never be captured by what we think of as a purely physical description of the movement of my legs and arms, vocal apparatus, and so on. So, too, with an animal engaged in anything we would call “behavior”. The meaning of the behavior — whether a courtship ritual, or burial of food, or tracking of a scent, or digging of a burrow — can never be described in strictly physical terms (if such strict terms are ever possible).

Further, as I try to suggest throughout this book, even our descriptions of cellular and molecular “behavior” refuse to be altogether cleansed of interiority. We can always recognize a meaning — what a biological activity is about (synthesis of a protein, or extraction of usable energy from a substance) — when we look at cellular goings-on, and our biological inquiries are guided by this meaning. Meaning itself is never spatial or sense-perceptible, even if spatial structures are required for giving material expression to meaning.

A dramatic fact about contemporary biology is that biologists seem to have a horror of interiority, or the non-spatial and non-sense-perceptible. Given that the life of animals is through and through an interior business, this horror is not only perplexing, but also devastating for the prospects of a truly biological science."