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Animal Boredom

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Boredom Is in Your Mind


Goethe jokingly claimed that the capacity for being bored was the essential property that separates humans from nonhuman animals and that if monkeys could be bored, we would have to recognize them as fully human. Contrary to what I claimed in A philosophy of boredom (2005), there is a good reason to assume that boredom exists also outside of the human species. However, relatively little research has been done on animal boredom, and animals are virtually absent in boredom studies. The first part of the chapter will discuss how we can justify the ascription of various mental and emotional states to nonlinguistic creatures. I here draw on my book Understanding animals (2019), arguing that such states are not hidden from view in some ‘inner’ realm, but are for the most part in plain view. This is especially clear in the case of such phenomena as fear, where the criteria for establishing that an animal experiences fear are quite straightforward. More complex emotions like grief, loneliness, and boredom will have more complex criteria, and you need information about the context in which the emotional expression occurs. The criteria will further differ somewhat from species to species (e.g., cats and dogs who wag their tail). Nevertheless, I will argue that we can plausibly argue that boredom occurs in many other species than humans and that this is especially clear in the case of mammals, birds, and at least some species of octopus. Using the term ‘boredom’ to describe the emotional state of these animals will invite charges of anthropomorphism, but I will argue that it is legitimate use of anthropomorphism. The acknowledgment of boredom as an emotion to be found also in nonhuman animals creates problems for theories of boredom that place the concept of meaning (existential meaning, not semantic meaning) at the center of their account, and argue that boredom consists of a lack of meaning. My book, A philosophy of boredom (2005), is an example of such an approach. The main problem is that such meaning seems to presuppose language. I will argue that we have reason to believe that no nonhuman animals have a capacity for proper language—and that includes even the most meticulously trained primates—and therefore one must give an account of animal boredom that does not employ the concept of meaning. When we analyze the concept of meaning, we find that the notion of caring is useful. And it is no stretch to say that many nonhuman animals have a capacity for caring for various objects and activities, but what they care about will to a great extent vary from species to species. We can then define animal boredom in terms of being deprived of objects and activities for which they care.

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  1. 1.

    One notable exception is Toohey (2011, Chap. 3). More work on animal boredom has been done within animal behavior studies, and especially the pioneering works of Françoise Wemelsfelder.


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Correspondence to Lars Svendsen .

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Svendsen, L. (2019). Animal Boredom. In: Ros Velasco, J. (eds) Boredom Is in Your Mind. Springer, Cham.

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