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Social Anthropology

On not knowing animal minds


Scientific skepticism about animal minds is a frequent object of critique in animal studies. Instead, this article seeks to examine scientists' attempts to live by such skepticism, in much the same way in which anthropologists of religion have recently been examining conscious attempts to live certain modalities of belief. The perhaps surprising outcome of this strategy is a critical challenge to certain aspects of the 'ontological turn'.

Decried as the sign of a problematic detachment from nonhumans, skepticism about non-human animal minds is often simultaneously presented as an ideological stance by which no one who actually works and lives with nonhuman animals could truly live. This paper contrasts two different sets of researchers’ commitment to engaging in intersubjective relations with the nonhuman animals they study while simultaneously detaching from propositional beliefs about the latter's inner lives. This simultaneously engaged and detached attitude, which I describe as “epoché,” challenges descriptions of a settled “naturalist” ontology at play in animal behavior science and offers the potential for a comparative anthropology of doubt and operational skepticism.

Candea M. 2013 "Suspending belief: époché in animal behavior science" , American Anthropologist, Volume 115, Issue 3, pages 423–436

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