It’s Me or the Dog!

JSeay: 2008

It’s a dog’s life, so the saying goes. Thanks to one dogged photographer we are finally privy to the reality of this proverbial canine existence. London-based Martin Usborne has drawn inspiration from the secret world of dogs for his latest project, entitled Mute: the silence of dogs in cars, a series of photographs of forlorn and forgotten four-legged friends. It comes as a darker follow-up to his more overtly amusing collection Life as a dog in the recession, and was yesterday described by the Independent as ‘capturing dejectedness, anger and sadness.’  Not quite as dark, though, as the controversial piece of dog related art executed by Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas, who, as part of an exhibition in 2007, tied an emaciated stray dog to the wall of the Códice Gallery, Nicaragua, and reportedly left it to starve. (Due to incandescent outrage within the blogging community, the truth was later revealed that the stray dog was both fed and spared death – Vargas, however, refused to officially comment on what exactly became of the hound). Vargas’s contribution provokes some obvious ethical questions (including, Vargas would argue, one aimed at the hypocrisy of viewers/bloggers, their dismay towards a single stray in a gallery not matching up to their attitude towards the countless strays that continue to starve outside it). Usborne’s work, on the other hand, may elicit some subtler philosophical questions, relating to such diverse philosophical areas as aesthetics, ethics, and the philosophy of mind.

Our question, prompted by Usborne’s sad puppies, is this; to what extent do animals feel and/or express emotions? At one end of the spectrum, the celebrated Enlightenment thinker Rene Descartes famously concluded that animals are mere automata, that is, organic but nonetheless non-conscious beings, mechanically responding to stimuli. His reasoning was couched in the terms of the burgeoning scientific revolution of the time, which demurred from the Aristotelian ‘vitalist’ conception of nature, where the movements of entities were explained away by a force originating in the entity itself, in favour of the mechanistic view that we are more familiar with from Newton’s laws of motion and the present day models of the universe that they gave birth to. In the spirit of scientific parsimony, Descartes reasoned that there was no need to attribute a consciousness to animals in order to account for their behaviour, which was observably far more limited in its responses to environment when compared to the complexity of a human being’s conscious and rational behaviour. At the other end of the spectrum, which takes us to the modern day, utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer is perhaps best know for his contribution to the applied ethics of the animal rights movement, and is credited with introducing the term ‘speciesism’ to denote a prejudice in regards to the species that the discriminated creature belongs to. Singer premises his arguments on animals’ capacity to suffer and, contra Descartes, presumably be consciously aware of their suffering. It would be wise to say that suffering is not immediately equatable with emotions, but it may not be so bold to suggest that Usborne’s dogs document behaviour closer to Singer’s analysis of animals that to Descartes’s, as they are at least seemingly aware of some discomfort, even if it is of an unspecified kind.

In another line of thought, we may ask less about man’s best friend and more about ourselves. Peter Kivy, a philosopher of art and music, has a favoured example to illustrate the difference between expressing an emotion and being expressive of one, which is a St. Bernard dog’s face. The face of this dog, he claims, can appear sad even if the dog is not feeling sad; it is expressive of sadness generally without actually expressing the (absent) sadness of the dog. Kivy uses this distinction to show how music, which for obvious reasons cannot itself feel anything, can still be expressive of emotion, but it also points to a very human cognitive trait which Usborne clearly exploits in his work; the inclination to think anthropomorphically. From the furrows in a jowly bulldog’s brow to the cocked back ears of a spaniel, we cannot help but attribute emotions where have no evidence to think that they actually exist. So, we might ask ourselves, is it us or the dog?

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