It has long seemed to me no less than a logical truth that the nature of the human nervous system, its scope and limitations, are somehow present in all human knowledge. Kant laboured to reveal and expound the details of this in his great work The Critique of Pure Reason, but it is important to understand that he was not an idealist. Kant did not doubt the reality of the external world, although he placed a limitation on what could be known about it by distinguishing the phenomenal world (appearances) from the noumenal world (things in themselves). The most important feature of noumena is that they are not objects of intuition, but problems unavoidably bound up with the limitations of our sensibility.
It is a striking fact that despite the sensory equipment of chimpanzees being not vastly inferior to our own, their capacity for reflection and self-criticism is very limited. Therefore their experience of the world is largely as a stream of needs, drives and impulses. Their society is dominated by the rule that might is right, but because that is well understood, reasonably peaceful co-existence is sustained for long periods. The large expansion of the cerebral cortex in humans is not really explained, at least in my opinion, by Darwinian processes. But a readily available explanation is rather like hot air, it expands to fill the space available. Insofar as the human cerebral cortex enables thought, it might be seen as an organ of inhibition or postponement, but it is difficult to see why indecisiveness gradually acquired over millennia would confer advantage on evolving hominids.
In Freud’s Beyond The Pleasure Principle, he speculates about whether there are instincts beyond those which seek to restore an earlier state of affairs. He writes ‘What appears in a minority of human individuals as an untiring impulsion towards further perfection can easily be understood as a result of instinctual repression upon which is based all that is most precious in human civilisation’. This is fine as far as it goes, but Freud does seem trapped in his own reductive vocabulary. What of imagination, sympathy, empathy, and not least love? And I also want to suggest that the faltering progress of humanity is not entirely a human creation but reflects what is really out there in the world, the unrealised possibilities that are waiting for us like unseen fruit. Imaginative insight, and that rare thing, personal revelation, arise then from some deep harmony between the outer world and inner reflection. Freud remarks in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and The Magic Writing Pad, that the unconscious contrasts with the mode of operation of the perceptual/conscious system. He suggests that sensory organs and their innervation may provide a shield against stimuli, which is an extraordinarily suggestive way of approaching both psychotic and revelatory experience, which overwhelm in their intensity. Freud wonders whether our concept of time depends on a discontinuous method of functioning in which the unconscious extends ‘feelers’ through the perception/consciousness system into the outside world and then hastily and self-protectively withdraws them, leaving the system unaware of its intermittent manner of operation. ( I find this surprising coming from Freud: it is both mysterious and difficult to understand. However it contains an anticipation of what later came to be called by Aldous Huxley, the Doors of Perception.)
I mentioned the crude social arrangements of apes, but who has not been struck by the noble beauty of beasts, a little further removed from us, but often closer to our hearts? Their patience, their stoicism, their self-sufficiency, all admirable. And domesticated animals, how they reflect back to us our treatment of them, returning our kindness and offering affection and loyalty.
Rilke saw deeply into the pathos of animals. Here are some lines from the Eighth Duino Elegy translated superbly by my friend, Matthew Barton.
Beasts see the open world with their full gaze. Our eyes alone look inward and hold back, as though reversed, as though they lie in wait like traps to catch our freely wandering sight. . . . Only we see death; the animal’s free, its death always behind it, God before. It moves within eternity, like springs welling up, replenishing.