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date: 02 April 2023

Ethology: The Narrative Turnlocked

Ethology: The Narrative Turnlocked

  • Dominique LestelDominique LestelDepartment of Philosophy, École Normale Supérieure


Distinguishing their work from the causalist approaches of objectivist ethology, sociobiology, or cognitive ethology, a growing number of ethologists lay claim to the possibility of describing what animals do through more or less complex narratives. Narration becomes a methodological tool in its own right. Animals thus become characters as in novels. This is an epistemological choice. Our capacity to perceive the complexity of animal lives is tied to our capacity to tell ourselves stories in which animals are the heroes. These animals are not robots. They are subjects, individuals, and even persons. From this results a new and transpecific form of third-person narration. This approach still relies, however, on a set of very carefully collected field data and requires a great familiarity with observed animals. It then becomes possible to concern oneself with the individual strategies of particular animals rather than solely with behaviors that would be common to all members of a given species. The recourse to narrative as a means of understanding animal intelligence is especially pertinent as we become increasingly aware that animals themselves tell stories and that our concepts of narrative must expand beyond the human. Knowing whether animals have narrative structures is a philosophical question before it is a biological one. The desire to extend narrativity to the animal necessarily modifies what narrativity signifies. We perceive in animals a processual narrativity, a behavioral narrativity, and a fictional narrativity. The study of animals forces to rethink what a fiction is and compels one to consider its phylogensis in a rigorous manner without locating its origins in Homo sapiens.


  • Literary Theory

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