(c) Nicky Renckens

Interview Ton Lemaire: ‘I’m an animal in the depths of my thoughts’

Whether ‘the political animal’ literally exists Ton Lemaire only ventures to say about the chimpanzee. But that animals differ much less from humans than was assumed for a long time, he’s quite sure about that. That’s why he pleads for a new universal morality, which he calls humanimalism.

by Erica Meijers and Socrates Schouten for de Helling 3, 2017. Translation Green European Journal

If Ton Lemaire were to compare himself with an animal, he’d mention his beloved dogs, and more particularly his border collie because of its ‘spontaneity, mischievousness, cheerfulness and liveliness. Maybe especially the things I possess less of.’ The question makes him grin, when we meet him in Utrecht amid the city din, far away from the quiet of the French countryside where the anthropologist and cultural philosopher lives. For in his latest book, Among Animals. For a More Animal-Friendly World, he stresses repeatedly that we don’t know what actually goes on in animals, not even the animals we deal with on a daily basis. With the phrase ‘I’m an animal in the depths of my thoughts’ Lemaire in his book particularly alludes to the continuity between man and animal so often denied in western history.


‘The environmental and climate crisis confronts us with the consequences of a world and human image which has placed humans outside and beyond nature and the animal world,’ Lemaire writes somewhere in the last part of his voluminous book. ‘To put it differently: this has made us conscious of the pretentiousness of humanism and anthropocentrism. We have every reason and all the concern not to stampede like an elephant in the proverbial china shop but to be part (again) and fit into the web and fabric of life; very concretely to experience the unity of all life on the planet and to make it count.’ This fragment characterises the mission Ton Lemaire takes on in Among Animals. Lemaire thoroughly scrutinises the relationship between man and animal, thereby engaging biology, ethology (which studies the behaviour of animals in their natural habitat), the social sciences and the humanities. In many of his books Lemaire goes in search of the way in which we deal with what and who is strange to us, whether it be humans, animals or plants. In this book too, he searches for an ethics in which ‘the unity of all life on the planet’ finds expression.

Quite a lot has changed in the study of animals. They used to be studied in captivity, whereby anthropomorphism, the humanisation of animals, was feared so much that people tended to reduce animals to some sort of instinct machines. Modern ethology studies animals in their own habitats and sees them more and more as fellow-subjects, which, however, threatens to humanise animals too much. In his book Lemaire tries to balance both aspects: the animal as the ‘other’, and the animal as a fellow-being. In all this he realises that it is never really possible to get through to an animal, to get to know it. But eventually this is true for humans too, among themselves. For Lemaire it’s about interaction: ‘Insofar as we get to know the animal we get to know ourselves and vice versa. Man and animal stand in a mirror relationship to each other, whereby we can use ourselves as access to the animal, as long as we keep reflecting critically on this.’


The first part of Lemaire’s book consists of portraits of the wolf, the elephant, the bowerbird, the bees, the horse and the dog. Lemaire tells about his own experiences with his bees and dogs and pursues in greater depth the images which have come into being about the six depicted animals in relation to human history. In the second part of the book he more contemplatively goes in search of an animal-friendly ethics for the anthropocene, the age in which man has become a geological force. The basis of such an ethics is that man no longer stands above nature and the animals, but is part of them. Lemaire turns against an idealism determined by Christendom, rationalism and a philosophical view of man which places ‘the essence and the destination of man above and beyond nature’. This presupposed superiority of man above the animals he calls – it has already been quoted – ‘the pretentiousness of humanism and anthropocentrism.’ Lemaire: ‘Even if we accept the modern humanist view of man, then man is a dominant species, essentially different from and superior to the animal. The theory of evolution added to this the idea of continuity between man and animal without questioning man’s highest place.’

There’s a lot to say about evolutionism. One might posit that certain elements from the theory have been used to legitimise capitalism ideologically, such as the ‘survival of the fittest’ and the competition between the species. Lemaire, who considers Marxism as part of his spiritual heritage, acknowledges this: ‘There is indeed a tension there. Darwin was undoubtedly influenced by the capitalist and competitive individualistic society in which he lived. And subsequently his theory was used to legitimise that society. Yet, I do see a possibility to criticise the exploitation of animals by humans with the aid of the theory of evolution, on condition that it is stripped of the capitalist interpretation. In Darwin’s days someone like Kropotkin corrected this competitive view of society. He showed that cooperation played exactly the same role in evolution as competition, both in human communities and among animals. Meanwhile biologists and ethologists have adopted the term “human and non-human animals”. That would have been considered shocking in the age of humanism!’

But the idea that man differs essentially from the rest of the animal kingdom and can therefore exploit and kill animals, is much older than humanism. Lemaire places this, to him, ‘fatal step’ both in the classical and Jewish and Christian traditions. And he isn’t exactly mild about this. ‘I have become very anti-monotheistic. Monotheism has caused the rift between man and animal. Judaism was crucial in this; it tore itself away from the interwovenness with nature by no longer worshipping nature itself, but the god who had created it all. Apart from that I certainly do not deny the achievements of Judaism and Christianity. They have provided us with the idea of charity, and I have great respect for the figure of Jesus. I’d call myself an atheist or a pantheist, who feels that the divine can be found in all of nature, but therefore not beyond it. I partly consider myself a Buddhist, but I don’t want to be orthodox in any respect. Rather, I’m interested in whether the link between eastern and western religion is possible. In the East the animal is much closer to man.’

Tragic animal

From the 1960s researchers have discovered more and more things in animals we thought only humans were capable of: elephants go through a grieving process; many animals can solve problems in a logical way, at least for them; chimpanzees recognise themselves in a mirror and have a certain degree of self-awareness; animals are capable of affection and empathy, etc. The boundaries between man and animal are becoming increasingly vague. What is left that is typically human? Lemaire writes about man as a being of rupture and doubleness. He sees man ‘as the only animal that has – as far as we know! – a relationship to himself, who can say, I think, but I thínk that I think that I think, and so on. That has to do with our ‘eccentricity’, a notion coming from the philosophical anthropologist Helmuth Plessner. As humans we have few instincts, which store our behaviour in certain situations. We are unspecialised and other than most animals we can flourish in all kinds of social environments: we are universal. Therefore, we are open and unfinished. In addition to this we are the only animal that can say ‘no’. We can even say no to life by committing suicide. We can perish by our own ideas. I myself suffer from depression. Man is a being that can suffer from himself, that is capable of doubt and despair; ultimately man is a tragic animal. In our age of consumption and forced laughter, in which you always have to smile and be sociable, tragedy is not much loved anymore.’

Besides, the role of the spirit, which in western culture is placed outside of nature, remains a difficult matter. Where does the spirit come from? Lemaire keeps finding this troublesome: ‘That question puts the finger on the problem. I don’t think there was an act of creation by a god, a spirit creating matter. I would explain the spirit out of increasingly complex organic systems. At a certain level of development the spirit came into being. But it remains something mysterious. One mustn’t fall into the language trap. We think too easily that when we express something in language it has a substance of its own. Hence we have come to think that what we have come to call “spirit” is something that exists in its own right, outside of us.’


Lemaire is readily inspired by the ethologist Frans de Waal: ‘He’s very optimistic, because he has discovered that our morality has a biological backing: in many animal species there’s empathy and a beginning of morality. Yet, that, say, tribal morality which you can find in animals is different from the universal morality which characterises humans, and which we owe to the monotheistic religions. Partly influenced by the emergence of world empires, cities and trade, they expanded the morality of the closed community to include the alien, the non-tribal member. With the coming of Jesus, foretold by the prophets and rooted in Judaism, a universal morality breaks through, which eventually came to a conclusion in the universal rights of man. And even if these are not unproblematic, they offer a guiding principle. In the East, too, independent of the West, a universal morality came into being. It was broader in layout as it comprises all living beings. The Buddha himself for example was an animal in various of his previous lives.’

The universal perspective in the West has always been strongly linked to rationalism. Lemaire stands by the importance of reason, but puts it in perspective: ‘a morality which is solely based on ratio would never be able to keep humans from murder and manslaughter and mutual annihilation. Reason must be carried by feeling, which you might typify as mercifulness, sympathy, compassion. Ultimately that is what joins us together, and that is what we have to strengthen by meeting each other. Not by giving technology an increasingly important place in our society, because staring at screens and the fact that you can kill people by pushing a button without having to look the victims in their eyes is a restraint in the development of empathy.’

In relation to animals, in addition to compassion, the right to self-preservation also plays a role, Lemaire notes. ‘It is difficult to recognise animals that bother you, such as mosquitoes and ticks. I kill them when they want to sting, I must admit. The question is: how far can you go if you don’t want to kill animals? There is always a tension between the right of self-maintenance and compassion.’

And so there are more tensions in universalism, like that between universality and particularity. The climate issue shows that world-encompassing moral matters soon tend to become too abstract. Add to that, Lemaire says, that ‘we are all atomised individuals in an age of hyper-capitalism, while that global economy first and foremost leads to uniformity – I would strive for optimal diversity and a multi-stage identity, rooting us in local and regional communities, even if it be within a universal view of man. And that can only be delivered by a universal ethics. The idea that someone I have never seen before, take a Chinese, is yet my fellow human being and equal, sharing the same rights, is a crucial broadening of morality and an achievement we must defend.’ 


Having dealt with his thoughts on the mirrored relationship between man and animal in history, biology and philosophical anthropology, Lemaire ends up with a new formulation of our moral relationship towards animals, one that does justice to the fading border between man and animal. His new worldview is called humanimalism. On the one hand this means a moderation of humanism, as it is being stripped of its anthropocentric side, whereby man was centre and measure of the universe. On the other hand it is a widening of humanism, as animals are placed within our moral responsibility as other species of the same kind. The basis of such a morality is the one which we, human and non-human animals, share with each other: empathy.

What do Lemaire’s ideas mean in practice? Here and there in the book he argues for a certain political and moral attitude, often in close relationship with five crucial abuses in relation to animals. Number one is factory farming with its unrestrained exploitation and instrumentalisation of animals, followed by animal testing, in which animals are often ‘wasted’ unnecessarily and cruelly. Then Lemaire examines hunting and fishing, animal fighting such as bull fights, and finally the abuse of animals for entertainment (circuses and zoos) and trade. From his reflections there emerges an image of a ‘humanimalistic citizen’, who is a vegetarian, or better still, a vegan; who places doubt above certainty and the community above the (competitive) individual; who exercises himself in empathy and cooperation and opposes violence and injustice against human and non-human animals; who breaks through traditional role patterns between men and women (on those grounds many wrong images of animals arose), and who protests against fetishism of the genes, that is, who rejects digitalisation insofar as it alienates us from nature.

When we put it to him, Lemaire acknowledges this list. He adds two more explicitly political aspects, namely the combination of cosmopolitanism and regionalism and the criticism towards the consumer society, in which we are ruled by things, just like Marx raised the issue in his theory of commodity fetishism.

But the most important characteristic of the humanimalist may be his commitment to man and animal as beings who together are part of that one planet they inhabit together. The word ‘indifference’ is no part of Ton Lemaire’s vocabulary.

Ton Lemaire, Onder dieren. Voor een diervriendelijker wereld, Ambo/Anthos, Amsterdam 2017. [Among Animals. For a More Animal-Friendly World]