PopMatters: What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?

By Catherine Ramsdell

What Would Animals Say (Vinciane Despret)It’s fitting that the title of Vinciane Despret’s latest book takes the form of a question. It sets up expectations nicely as What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions? is full of questions.

The forward, written by Bruno Latour, also tries to prepare readers for what is to come. Latour begins, “Be prepared to read a lot of science but also to learn about the many ways to do good, bad, or terrible science. You are about to enter a new genre, that of scientific fables… true ways of understanding how difficult it is to figure out what animals are up to.” The emphasis should perhaps be on the “true ways of understanding”. Consider what might be two of the most popular ways of “understanding” animals. On the one hand, anecdotes—my dog did this, my neighbor’s cat did that—aren’t particularly scientific (although I would argue probably enough for many animal lovers). On the other hand, as both Latour and Despret contend, scientific experiments are often created under artificial conditions, which can also be problematic. The solution for Despret seems to be twofold: first, the genre of the scientific fable, which includes both narratives and science. (Despret herself is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Liège and Free University of Brussels.) Second, asking the right questions.

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