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Pop-book: The Philosopher and The Wolf

I really enjoyed reading Mark Rowlands’ The Philosopher and the Wolf (I finished it in a day), despite disagreeing with many of the arguments that Rowlands puts forth. This book was on Christof Koch’s book list, and so I thought I would give it a read despite usually avoiding “pop —– (philosophy, psychology, science)” books. It concerns a young philosophy professor who adopts a wolf cub – Brenin – and their various adventures throughout Europe and America. A long the way, Rowlands riffs on a variety of subjects, most of them concerning how horrible humans are. The philosophy within the book is not complex, and perhaps the book earns the genre of “pop philosophy” simply because of Rowland’s constant dismissal of humanity. It’s not even a good dismissal but the negativity may help the philosophy feel deeper.

The central conceptual premise of his dismal outlook is the “Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis” (which was interesting if not entirely convincing). The hypothesis states that the reason apes became so intelligent is to navigate complex social situations among large groups. Rowlands claims that the ability to lie, and notice when others are lying is what jumpstarted the rapid growth of intelligence, although he offers a few sentences of caveats along the lines of “we can still be nice, we can still love despite our heritage”. By doing this, Rowlands scholastically hedges against criticisms that he is participating in the naturalistic fallacy in moral philosophy: “just because it’s natural does not necessarily make it good”. However, since this hypothesis is the central conceit on which Rowland’s further observations are made, it does not seem like he truly believes his caveats. In fact, he goes on to describe his misanthropic tendencies and how humans are generally evil. Rowland’s conception of evil is consequentialist and based on unexamined ideas of the self. His assumption is that at some point we ceased being moral patients and became moral agents – but the substance and process that led to this change is never explored. We became smarter apes, but we did not acquire a soul through that intelligence (as Rowlands agrees). Rowlands argues that people are to blame, that we are not simply products of our environment and genetics. He does not explain this, but rather explains how people are evil – simply evil. He attributes this evil to two personal “failures”: failure of one’s moral duty, and failure of one’s epistemic duty. Pragmatically, these two sorts of failures are important for a person to be aware of – the importance of doing the right thing, and the importance of rigorously investigating one’s beliefs. In the book, he repeatedly mentions that people should be punished and sent to jail for what they have done to others. The ape “self” that is punished by the justice system, is never investigated. It seems to me, that without a self, the purpose of the justice system is rehabilitation and containment; with a self, the purpose of the justice system is judgment and condemnation. His ideas of “selfhood” are naive because he repeatedly switches between selves that should be held accountable for evil (apes) and selves that should not be held accountable for evil (wolves and other animals). To cap off the discussion, Rowland then offers an unqualified consequentialism for how to judge moral actions which is composed of two very flawed assumptions: 1. there are no such thing as consequences – there is only infinitely cascading causal chains – at what point is “the end” reached? 2. morality is meant to be a heuristic for action, if there is no “end” within reasonable perception of our actions, of what use is consequentialism? (i.e. a consequentialist morality does not shape my actions since I cannot know if the drowning boy will grow up to be a saint or a murderer). Furthermore, he seems to justify animal behavior through a sort of Nietzschean “master morality” that is vastly superior to our degenerate “slave morality”. Throughout the book he seems to be inspired by Nietzsche’s ideal of strength and claims “resistance is what redeems us” - resistance against our natures? against god? against our oppressors? - what is with this strange metaphor of struggle and deception that permeates Rowland’s book?

I wish that Rowlands would have discussed his ideas related to the philosophy of mind and embodied/environmental cognition rather than his thoughts on the various demerits (and merits) of apes and wolves. I also wish that he had spent time discussing the distinctions between humans and various sorts of animals. He mentions that he wrote some important and well-regarded books regarding animal rights, but I don’t find his discussion of the issue convincing (or, like his vegetarianism, particularly consistent). Rowlands says that since we have a conception of a future we have more to lose than an animal with no conception of the future. This seems a needlessly narrow definition; the important distinction between animals is their level of awareness, or their ability to comprehend the world. Although it is wrong to kill insects, it is more wrong to kill a deer, and even more wrong to kill a human – because we have so much more awareness and comprehension of the world. Their is every reason to believe that a fruit fly has less awareness than a rat, there is every reason to believe that we have more awareness than a wolf. This does not mean that we should kill or harm sentient organisms, quite the opposite, they are still on the spectrum of consciousness. But we are not identical.

Rowlands brings in Husserl to describe how humans don’t actually observe the present moment, we use it to reach “through” and grab hold of other things. Rowlands then makes the claim that humans can’t actually observe the present moment unlike other animals ( is this true in his own experience? I would recommend Rowland to spend some time investigating it). However, Rowlands’ idea of a ciruclar conception of time (related to Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, and “all joy wants eternity”) rather than a linear one is quite interesting. Rowland says that the important thing is a sort of “peak experience” where we resist our fates, where we are truly ourselves (which is like a wolf’s nature). I was reminded of a question from My Dinner with Andre: is there a difference between a cigar shop and the top of Everest? Or is it simply a matter of how we see? Rowland seems to making a split between our experience and the perceiver of our experience – he claims that when when our best “selves” are truly in alignment with our experience, then we are participating in the moments that define our lives. He seems, at the end of the book, to criticize conceptions of self, and linear ideas of time, but still uses them to reach his conclusions. Once again, metaphors of resistance, struggle, and strength are used, and once again, I wasn’t convinced.

All that being said, I did enjoy the book. And I did enjoy the ideas of other philosophers that he brought to the book. For example, his definition of a theodicy: “an attempt to find a reason for the unpleasantness of life” and his related ramble on valuable experiences not always being pleasant experiences. Rowlands draws an interesting connection between John Rawls’ idea of the “original position” and cutting a pizza and getting the last slice (to ensure you cut it fairly). I also enjoyed his discussion of Wittgenstein’s idea of death as the limit of our perception; just like we can’t see the end of our vision (otherwise it wouldn’t be the end) we can’t see the end of our life. Rowlands than makes the trite point that death is still a robbery since it robs us of our future – I don’t think that Wittgenstein claimed that death is insignificant, just that it is something we never actually experience. He also mentions Sartre’s ideas of existence preceeding essence in humans, a fancy way of saying that since we concern ourselves with questions of our purpose we feel like we do not have a given essence. Since we can have a perspective on our perspective, we do not act out of “first-order” drives like a wolf or another animal, whose essence precedes their existence.

All in all, I appreciate that Rowland sees the importance of animals, and I found his deep fraternal connection with Brenin touching. I also found the various anecdotes concerning Brenin engaging and worthwhile. Furthermore, the book was fun to read! But I don’t think this book is redeemable as a work of philosophy, despite the worthwhile tidbits scattered in it’s pages. If I was forced to use a rating system in order to convince you that I did enjoy this book, I would probably say it was a 3.5/5.