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An Ontology of Animal Minds


The problem of the evidence of animal minds was analysed across the following three dimensions: form, level and context. Among the themes and issues that we tackled within each of these were the following:

1. When exploring the ‘form’ that the evidence of animal minds tends to take, we scrutinized, for instance, the ubiquity of visual evidence, i.e. the epistemological significance of visual data – illustrations, diagrams, statistical graphs, brain imaging, photographs, documentary films – in accounting for the mentality of non-human animals. Our discussion considered the distinctive procedures of analytical coding and interpretation of visual data, as well as the vital role assumed by objective observational techniques and experiments rooted in the visual (e.g. the famous ‘mirror test’). We included popular forms of visual ‘evidence’, such as those present in public displays, demonstrations and performances of ‘animal minds’ in zoos, natural history museums, circuses or art exhibitions. What we were interested in here was how a particular epistemology, which grounds the study or representation of animal minds in scientific or cultural practices, produces a distinctive ontology of animal psychology. Of course, other forms of evidence of animal minds (e.g. evidence concerned with forms of animal communication or semiosis) were also explored.

2. When exploring the ‘level’ at which evidence of/for ‘animal minds’ is being generated we were interested in the ontological situatedness of this phenomenon. We followed concrete localizations of the evidence of ‘animal minds’ from the molecular level of neurophysiology to the level of (often anthropomorphized) social interaction; from the study of this phenomenon as an emergent property of neurobiological dynamics to its articulation as an effect of processes of learning; from its reduction to a specific set of outputs in a given experimental setting to its highly abstract conceptualization in philosophies of mind or theologies of the soul; from the deployment of the evidence of animal minds as part of the legal or ethical grounding of the case for animal rights and conservation to the presentation of this evidence as a function of purportedly ‘larger questions’, such as the explanation of the evolutionary process, or of the becoming of humanity, or of the definition of ‘the mind’ as such. By foregrounding the problem of (sometimes seemingly incommensurable) ‘levels’ of evidence, we aimed to explore what appears to be a multiple – whether horizontally fragmented or vertically hierarchized – ontology of animal mentality.

3. We recognize that the multiplicity of forms and levels of evidence of animal minds is contingent on the diversity of ‘contexts’ in which this evidence arises. We were interested in how the nature of ‘evidence’ was shaped by the contexts of its production and interpretation and what this then tells us about the phenomenon itself. Firstly, we reflected upon the significance of certain macro contexts – above all the distinctive, and often rival, disciplinary frameworks (e.g. experimental psychology vs. evolutionary biology vs. philosophy of mind). We understood these as (more or less) systematic structures that included a body of theory and an established methodology, i.e. reproducible research practices and established analytical and representational traditions. Secondly, we scrutinized, as case-study examples, a variety of micro contexts – namely, a number of specific experimental, observational, representational, or performative situations, settings, and moments (i.e. concrete experiments or demonstrations) in which evidence of animal minds is generated. In the case of both ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ contexts, we did not neglect to examine the terms and the nature of surrounding debates regarding evidence for capacities of animal minds (such as those typically dependent upon interpretations of the internal and external validity of the methods employed).