Husserl’s Hesitant Attempts to Extend Personhood to Animals


The question of the animal is one of the most intensely debated in the contemporary philosophical arena. The present article makes the case that Husserl’s phenomenological approach offers a stimulating and open-ended perspective on this discussion. The animal, indeed, is an instance of extreme otherness, which pushes phenomenology to its limits. The paper opens with an outline of the methodological issues raised by the question of the animal (Sect. 1). It then examines what the animal—at this point, taken as a whole—and the human being have in common and what Husserl sees as the main differences between them. A critical aspect here is the question of personhood (Sect. 2). Finally, Sect. 3 traces Husserl’s progression from a general concept of animality to detailed and nuanced phenomenological descriptions of different animals and their intra- and inter-specific relationships. Husserl understands that the threshold that joins and divides human beings and animals is difficult to pin down, because there is more than one threshold: it is plural.

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  1. 1.

    Cf. Heidegger (1977, p. 73): “Die Abgrenzung der Daseinsanalytik gegen Anthropologie, Psychologie und Biologie”. Heidegger was certainly familiar with Ideen II. In his 1932 lecture on Phänomenologie und Anthropologie, Husserl set out to dispel a series of misunderstandings: anthropologism and psychologism stand in opposition to the other school of modern subjectivism, represented by transcendentalism, and later by phenomenology itself. Yet, at the end of the lecture, he himself suggested that “Psychologie, und wenn man will Anthropologie, nicht eine positive Wissenschaft neben den anderen, neben den naturwissenschaftlichen Disziplinen ist, sondern zur Philosophie, der transzendentalen, eine innere Affinität hat” (Hua XXVII, p. 181).

  2. 2.

    On the methodological problems raised by Husserl’s approach to transcendental animality in Ideen II, see Cabestan (1995, pp. 41–47); see also San Martin (1995). For in-depth analysis of the overall theoretical structure of Ideen II, and its dual attempt to distinguish between the naturalistic and personalistic attitudes, see the key work of Ricoeur (1986). On zoology, see also Hua VI, p. 297; finally, concerning the relationship between phenomenology and biology, see Beilage XXIII, Hua VI, pp. 482–484.

  3. 3.

    See Steinbock (1995). On the animal with respect to generative phenomenology, see esp. pp. 225–230. On the paradoxes of normality/anomality in Husserl’s thinking about animals, see Ciocan (2017).

  4. 4.

    Beilage I (1912) is a copy of a manuscript outlining the first part of Husserl’s original plan for Ideen II.

  5. 5.

    Di Martino in particular lays strong emphasis on the role of differential experiences of temporality in shaping the differences between the human and animal worlds. Di Martino (2014, 2017, pp. 38–82).

  6. 6.

    While Bayley suggests that Husserl puts forward two different notions of the person, applying one to the human being and the other to the animal (Bayley 2013, p. 226), and Painter claims that for Husserl animals are persons, with crucial ethical implications (Painter 2007), in Di Martino’s (2014 and 2017) view, Husserl’s distinction between the human being as a person and the animal as a non-person is entirely rigid. For Lotz (2006) too, later manuscripts in which Husserl takes an intersubjective approach to the problem of animality do not substantially change the framework proposed in Ideen II, that is to say, the idea that animal consciousness is psychic but not personal. I myself would argue that, on the basis of Husserl’s writings, it is preferable to adopt a more prudent position, speaking in terms of hesitant attempts to extend personhood to animals.

  7. 7.

    Toulemont (1962) was the first to propose a catalogue of these: see, especially, “Les animaux”, pp. 79–82 and “La sociabilité animale”, pp. 192–198.

  8. 8.

    On this point, see Ferencz-Flatz (2017) for a reflection on the co-existence, in the world, of both humanization and animalization processes, and the crucial ethical implications of this.

  9. 9.

    As is well known, Husserl lumps animals in the category of threshold problems together with very young children, the insane, and primitives (Tieren, frühe Kindheit, Wahnsinnnigen, Primitiven (Hua XV, p. 167). With respect to primitives, Husserl was certainly influenced by Lévy-Bruhl’s work, La mythologie primitive. Le monde mythique des Australiens et des Papous (1935). Husserl met Lévi-Bruhl in Paris in 1929, and Lévi-Bruhl sent him a copy of his book in 1935. Cf. “Husserl an Lévy-Bruhl, 11.III.1935” (HuaDok 1994, pp. 161–164).

  10. 10.

    This is even more so in the case of embryos (Embryonen) (Hua XV, p. 178). Concerning the problem of Vor-personen, see Heinämaa (2013).

  11. 11.

    Husserl’s main sources of reference material in the field of ethology were W. Köhler (The mentality of apes, 1927) and J. von Uexküll. In his private library, Husserl held two of von Uexküll’s books: Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (1921) and “Das Organismus und die Umwelt” in Das Lebensprobleme in Lichte der modernen Forschung (1931). See Ferencz-Flatz (2017, p. 222).


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Vergani, M. Husserl’s Hesitant Attempts to Extend Personhood to Animals. Husserl Stud (2020).

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