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Alexandra Horowitz, "Considering Dogs"

Two hours before showtime, I happened to catch a poster for Alexandra Horowitz‘s lecture entitled “Considering Dogs,” part of the long-running Foerster lecture series on the Immortality of the Soul. Knowing a bit about the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab, I was eager to be in attendance, but I was all the more piqued to see how she might direct her talk towards the nominal demands of the lecture series. Dogs, after all, have typically been excluded from official entry into soulfulness…

The posted blurb was brief:

    “Considering Dogs,” with Alexandra Horowitz, Associate Professor in Psychology, Barnard College

    Domestic dogs, Canis familiaris, have insinuated themselves into our society and imagination: long present in our art and narratives, they are now ubiquitous in American homes. I will discuss the dog’s historical and contemporary role, attributions typically made to dogs, and an alternative empirical approach to considering dogs.

Horowitz began by laying out the history of this spiritual, ethical, and philosophical paradox, then carefully rerouted the topic back towards her own canine-centric research. Noting the anthropomorphic tendency to ask “people questions” of dogs, Horowitz gently lay aside the issue of whether or not dogs have souls by arguing that souls are not relevant to dogs by virtue of their dogness. It is the human that has invested value in immortality, which in part produced the very conception of soul, whether or not the soul’s existence transcends the linguistic discourse that has so long endeavored to capture it. Canine concerns, though closely aligned to those of their human companions, take on a vocabulary and experiential distinction unto their own; “soul” may very well be a meaningless term to a dog.

Alexandra Horowitz, "Considering Dogs"

Not that she advocates rejecting anthropomorphism altogether, as this is a fundamental aspect of how we humans engage with the world. However, the task is ours to deconstruct our anthropomorphisms and question why our attributions persist, when (and whom) they help, how they may be harmful, and what types of animal understanding they may obstruct. Walking the audience through various examples, Horowitz showed how anthropomorphisms have historically worked to pervert, divert, and subvert animal natures through misapplications of human values and cognitive systems. There are very real consequences — often with violent and gruesome outcomes — that we humans must be mindful of when we give consideration to species other than our own.

As to the question of animal immortality, Horowitz had a rather moving conclusion that I found myself implicitly agreeing with, having thought about it in similar terms. Dogs, by biological nature, account for just a fraction of their human companions’ lives. Immortality, defined as a sense of endurance beyond corporeality or virtual deathlessness, can be achieved by the means in which humans cannot help but to memorialize and commemorate the dearly departed canines. Whether or not dogs possess “souls,” the very real ways in which humans continue to endow their pets’ lives with meaning beyond death grants them the very kind of immortality that we ourselves desire.

In that sense, anthropomorphism does not always obstruct us from giving full recognition to the animality of the creature before us. At its best, anthropomorphism can also serve as a kind of alchemy of love, vitalizing and transfiguring both the canine and the human.

Alexandra Horowitz, "Considering Dogs"

My summary is really not adequate to the depth of her presentation. The whole talk was recorded and will eventually be posted on the website for the Graduate Council Lectures. Check this link in the future for video availability:

[EDIT: Audio file now available at above link; no video.]