“Perro semihundido” by Fransisco Goya, 131 cm x 79 cm, c1820, <a href="https://www.museodelprado.es/goya-en-el-prado/obras/ficha/goya/perro-semihundido/">Museo Nacional del Prado</a>

Museo Nacional del Prado: “Perro semihundido” (“The Half-Submerged Dog” also known as “The Dog”), mural painting by Fransisco Goya, 131 cm x 79 cm, between 1819 and 1823.

In a piece he wrote for The Guardian in 2003, art critic Robert Hughes (1938-2012) commented Goya’s painting, and described

the inscrutable dog’s head, the lonely pooch gazing over the rim of the world, looking (one presumes) for its vanished master, as mankind might look for its vanished God. (“The unflinching eye” October 4, 2003)

In a similar way, Tom Lubbock wrote of “a frightful picture of dream-like helplessness and despair”, where the damaged paint surface “exacerbate the poor animal’s misfortunes” which “has a most pathetic, anxious look in its eye” (The Independent: “Goya, Francisco de: The Dog (c1820)” July 11, 2008).

A black-and-white photos taken by French photographer J. Laurent between 1863 and 1874, while the painting was still on the wall inside Goya’s house, suggests the dog may have been looking at two birds flying over a cliff (see the photo below, or at the Fototeca del Patrimonio Histórico: inventory no. VN-06583; same at Wikimedia Commons).

Although various interpretations are still subject to debate, it seems to be rather common to provide Goya’s dog with feelings or affective dispositions. But how to bear witness of the animal’s world without substituting our human experience to its own?

The problem of the relationship between our world and the animal’s world once caught the attention of Martin Heidegger. He made it a central part of his lecture course during the winter semester of 1929-1930, at Freiburg. This lecture was first published in 1983, as part of the Gesamtausgabe (29/30; PDF). It was translated to English in 1995 as The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics World, Finitude, Solitude (tr. by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995; Google Books).

Here’s a short excerpt where Heidegger discusses the relationship we have with domestics animals: the fact that we are tempted to interpret their world even though, at the same time, it remains fundamentally foreign to our own.

Let us consider the case of domestic animals as a striking example. We do not describe them as such simply because they turn up in the house but because they belong to the house, i.e., they serve the house in a certain sense. Yet they do not belong to the house in the way in which the roof belongs to the house as protection against storms. We keep domestic pets in the house with us, they ‘livewith us. But we do not live with them if living means: being in an animal kind of way. Yet we are with them nonetheless. But this being-with is not an existing-with, because a dog does not exist but merely lives. Through this being with animals we enable them to move within our world. We say that the dog is lying underneath the table or is running up the stairs and so on. Yet when we consider the dog itself-does it comport itself toward the table as table, toward the stairs as stairs? All the same, it does go up the stairs with us. It feeds with us-and yet, we do not really ‘feed’. It eats with us-and yet, it does not really ‘eat’. Nevertheless, it is with us! A going along with … , a transposedness, and yet not.

However, if an original transposedness on man’s part in relation to the animal is possible, this surely implies that the animal also has its world. Or is this going too far? Is it precisely this ‘going too far’ that we constantly misunderstand? And why do we do so? Transposedness into the animal can belong to the essence of man without this necessarily meaning that we transpose ourselves into an animal’s world or that the animal in general has a world. And now our question becomes more incisive: In this transposedness into the animal, where is it that we are transposed to? What is it we are going along with, and what does this ‘with’ mean? What sort of going is involved here? Or, from the perspective of the animal, what is it about the animal which allows and invites human transposedness into it, even while refusing man the possibility of going along with the animal? From the side of the animal, what is it that grants the possibility of transposedness and necessarily refuses any going along with? What is this having and yet not having? (The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics World, Finitude, Solitude, [1983] 1995, p. 210 [307-309])

[UPDATE–February 22, 2014] In the original German text, the word used by Heidegger to name our “being-with” domestic animals is mitsein:

Dieses Mitsein ist aber auch kein Mitexistieren, sofern ein Hund nicht existiert, sondern nur lebt. Dieses Mitsein mit den Tieren ist so, daß wir die Tiere in unserer Welt sich bewegen lassen. (p. 308)

My thanks to Nathan Everson for bringing up that point.

• • •

Black-and-white photo of Goya’s painting “Perro semihundido” taken by J. Laurent while the painting was still on the wall inside Goya’s house, sometime between 1863 and 1874. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Black-and-white photo of Goya’s painting “Perro semihundido” taken by J. Laurent while the painting was still on the wall inside Goya’s house, sometime between 1863 and 1874. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

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