Animal ontology and philosophical ethology

- after Roberto Marchesini -

I. Roberto Marchesini’s posthumanism

What is posthumanism? Rather than just a philosophy, posthumanism is an all-encompassing approach to life: it is a way of thinking and experiencing the world that is deeply immanent, profoundly rooted in experience and in how the world expresses itself in both human and non-human forms. Posthumanism therefore embraces life as a whole.

Along with authors such as Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, Roberto Marchesini is one of the leading voices of posthumanism. He is an Italian ethologist and philosopher, founder of the Centre for the Study of Posthumanist Philosophy and of SIUA, the School for Human-Animal Interaction in Bologna. He has also established himself as one of the initiators of zooanthropology, the science that studies the contribution that non-human animals have given to the development of what we call culture.

Much of Marchesini’s work is committed to demonstrating that the human can best be understood through an ontology of animality that takes the phenomenology of life as its starting point. For Marchesini, viewing the human as an exception in the phenomenology of life in general, and in the animal condition in particular, is a gross epistemological mistake. He believes in the need for a radical revision of the traditional epistemological paradigm of the human, starting from a subversion of two milestones of traditional anthropology: (1) the myth of human incompleteness, namely the idea that technology compensates for the lack of natural attributes (e.g., wings, fur, claws, fins, etc.), which makes other animals fully-fledged to cope with their environment, and (2) the myth of human purity, namely the idea that there is a human essence that is independent from environmental influence.

Digital portrait of a man (Roberto Marchesini) in white pencil on a black background. He is looking at the viewer, his blue eyeglasses are hanging on his neck and he has two white birds on his shoulder. Around him are blue and turquoise vines.

II. Overcoming the myth of incompleteness and of purity

The myth of human incompleteness draws on Plato’s reading of the Greek myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus in the Protagoras. According to this myth, Epimetheus was entrusted with bestowing talents upon all earthly creatures. Due to his lack of foresight, however, he ran short of qualities just when it was the turn of humans. Naked and deprived of resources, mankind was at this point rescued by Prometheus, brother of Epimetheus. Prometheus stole technical knowledge and fire from the gods and gave them to humans. They thus became equipped for life on earth and succeeded in subduing the rest of the living world. Marchesini challenges this myth by reversing its assumptions. He believes that rather than deficient in natural talents, humans have them in abundance. It is indeed this wealth in talents that has facilitated human relational entanglement with the world, what has become known as “culture”.

This is where Marchesini also wipes out the myth of human purity. Overthrowing the myth of incompleteness means refusing to view culture as a compensation for the original nakedness of the human species. Considering the human as naturally affluent in talents implies having plentiful resources for coming to terms with the world, for being able to cope, and mesh, with the environment. The human therefore merges with the world to such an extent that it becomes impossible to say where the human ends and otherness starts. This endless process of relationship building, where the threshold of the human encounter with otherness, be it non-human animal or technology, is pushed further and further makes human attributes anything but pure or essential: they are the fruit of hybridization and contamination.

An illustration separated in two frames by Greek motifs. The first frame, to the left, shows a hand coming from the sky, bestowing orange zebra stripes on a non-human animal. The second frame shows a man kneeling with a torch in his hand under a super-sized golden hand that holds fire. Dashes of green-turquoise grass lay at the feet of both beings in the two frames, while white and yellow stars, and two moons occupy the skies. There’s also a blue butterfly with a white eyes motif, above the first hand.

III. A philosophy of relationship

By overthrowing the myths of human incompleteness and purity, the barriers that used to separate humans from animals, and nature from culture, collapse. The two most important consequences of this epistemological revolution are that the human stops being considered the measure of the world and the touchstone of all other animals, and ceases to be viewed as the peak of evolution. The human is neither pure nor self-sufficient. There is no such thing as a human essence which distinguishes us from non-humans, because there is nothing that pre-exists relationships themselves. Because all relationships are ontologically fluid, in-becoming, transforming and transformative, rather than fixed, defined and clear-cut, all dualisms fall apart: the phenomenology of life is based on reciprocation, exchange, the principle of hospitality, and openness to chance and change.

As a posthumanist, Marchesini has never failed to acknowledge his debt to Darwin’s evolutionism and its revelation that, far from special, the human is, just like all other animals, simply specialised. For Marchesini, being animal is one of the possible declinations of the living, and being human one of the possible declinations of animality. In other words, being animal is like a verb that can be declined in different forms: being human, being dog, being fish, being bird, and so on and so forth along the taxonomy of the different species.

This explains why Marchesini has established himself as the philosopher of relationship and the postulator of the ontology of animality.

A stylized tree-of-life drawing that demystifies the myth of human evolution as advancement, showing the species homo sapiens as just one form of life among many others: birds, mushrooms, a giraffe, a bear, insects, an octopus, a T-Rex dinosaur, drawn in orange color, a shark, a snake, a sunflower and other flowers and trees and starfish and cells drawn in turquoise and blue, a dog, other mushrooms and sponges drawn in yellow.

IV. The four principles of animal ontology

Marchesini’s animal ontology rests upon four fundamental principles:

  • The first one, diachrony, refers to the fact that life always implies, in Darwinian terms, the inheritance of something. When an individual is born, it is not thrown into life, but it carries with it – we could say it wears – the memories of its biological ancestors. These are not only the traits inherited from its parents and grandparents, but also from the species that preceded it: mammals, reptiles, fish, etc. So, every birth is ultimately a re-birth; not in religious terms though, but in terms of being prepared for life, of being able to rely on inherited resources.
  • The second principle, heteronomy, refers to the fact that each form of life leans on extrinsic elements, elements that are outside the entity’s body, but are indispensable for its existence: the body expects them. For example, the lungs of a human expect the oxygen in the air, whereas the gills of a fish the oxygen in water. Any form of life correlates to something outside of it, something without which it would not take the form it takes. Far from expressing an essence, life configures itself in relation to something else, which, somehow, explains its existence. Heteronomy creates expectations. These expectations are what Marchesini calls inherences.
  • The third principle, teleophoria, refers to the fact that life has an intrinsic goal and purpose; life is not a mechanism, it does not function like an algorithm. This intrinsic goal and purpose is what drives all living entities. Like Henry Bergson, Marchesini believes that a vital impetus permeates animals and plants: it is the drive that triggers their biographical development, urging them to search for opportunities of expression in the world and for opportunities to go beyond themselves.
  • The last principle, sympoiesis, refers to the contribution of otherness to the development of an individual’s or a species’ traits. Life is like a cake made of different layers, where each layer is the deployment of an alliance. Sympoiesis implies the creation of alliances at multiple life levels, from the simplest alliance between proteins and nucleic acid in a cell, to the most complex alliances between the organisms inside the biosphere. In other words, sympoiesis is the principle which makes life a process of co-creation whose participants not only influence and mould each other but tend to aggregate and evolve in larger and larger compounds.
„The first one: Diachrony” Illustration of the first principle in yellow and white lines, showing a cracked egg from which a chick emerges.
„The third principle: Teleophoria” An ant drawn in orange and white lines carrying a piece of a huge turquoise leaf over her head, all by herself.
„The second principle: Heteronomy” A shark drawn in blue and turquoise lines on a black background, breathing underwater. Bubbles abound.
„The last principle: Sympoiesis” A slice of the cake of life, showing layers of cells and nuclei, drawn in orange and white, with a DNA strand piercing the middle of the slice, all hovering in white small clouds over a black background.

V. The metapredicates of animality and the possibility of new becomings

The four principles explored before (diachrony, heteronomy, teleophoria, and sympoiesis) are the premises for what Marchesini calls the metapredicates of animality, namely the common traits shared by all animals. Metapredicates constitute the substratum of the animal condition, what unites humans and non-humans alike. Marchesini identifies five metapredicates: experience, peripatesis, copula, sentience and semiosis.

  • Experience is the fact that phylogenetic memories, what Marchesini calls the having-been-there-before, facilitate an animal’s recognition of and interaction with the world, but also help the creation of an individual self. Indeed, experience lies behind an individual’s appropriation of contents from the world, contents that, by becoming its own, create subjectivity; experience also implies that all animals are creative because they can deal with the margin of novelty inherent in all situations.
  • Peripatesis is the tendency to transcend oneself, the principle underpinning the continuous movement of the subject in the world in order to develop and go beyond itself.
  • Copula is the fact that all animals carry intrinsic interests: directed by desire, they spend their lives in search of opportunities to express the motivations and emotions with which they come into the world and dive back into it.
  • Sentience is not just the capacity to feel pain, but the drive towards pleasure: it is the hedonic principle that undergirds the animal condition.
  • And finally, semiosis, is the attribution of meaning to things.

The five metapredicates are a declination of the phenomenology of life, which we call ‘being animal’. This means that they feature in all forms of animality. Therefore, we make a perspective error whenever we compare other species to the human one: by considering humans as a universal parameter, we misplace them in the genealogy of the living. In the genealogical tree of life, animality is just one of the branches, which further branches out into humans, apes, canines, bovines and so on and so forth. Within the ontology of animality, therefore, humans are not higher than the rest of the animal species. They stand along and aside them, on a horizontal rather than a vertical scale. This does not mean denying the specificities of the humans, such as great creativity and imagination, but acknowledging that they belong to the predicative rather than metapredicative level of animality. The predicative level, in other words, is what makes the human, or any other animal, a particular kind of animal, while the metapredicative level signifies the basis of the animal condition, what all animals have in common.

Anthropocentrism collapses. Human and non-human animals are both similar and different. Similar enough to populate this planet, eat, reproduce and pursue pleasure; different enough to inspire each other, modify each other, adapt and create new ways of living and being. Humans met non-humans on a threshold from which new possibilities of being surged forth. By watching birds, Marchesini posits, humans realized that it was possible to fly; they thus gained a new existential dimension even before learning how to fly themselves. This is how so-called culture was born. Culture is not an emanation of the human, but the fruit of the epiphanic encounter with the non-human. This is how species (including humans) have evolved and continue evolving. They are not established for good. Evolution is always a co-evolution, the result of casual, unpredictable encounters and of reciprocal influence and contamination.

A rich jungle scene with tree trunks and tropical plants, drawn in yellows, oranges and teals, showing a snake (top middle), a tiger (center scene), a monkey (top left), a toucan (top right), a tapir (under the monkey, behind a tree) and a human facing away from the viewer and towards the other animals, dressed in a camouflage hoodie, in the foreground. All species are looking at each other in a sequence, being inspired or reacting to one another’s presence.

VI. Animal subjectivity and the birth of philosophical ethology

In Marchesini’s ontology, animality becomes an open condition, no longer confined to fixed patterns either inherited (as in Darwinism) or learnt from the outside (as in Behaviourism). This is a liberating experience. Traits are never given but always virtual, open to becoming; they are not universal and eternally valid, carved in stone, but they are possible, potentially there, their emergence depending on the type of encounters, hence on the type of relationships, that living beings establish with otherness, be it their environment, other life forms or other individuals. Life is generous and rich, plentiful and abundant, characterised by an exuberance of possible ontopoietic paths. As a result, life is never the mere recapitulation of its legacy, the repetition of inherited traits and the manifestation of inherences: it always contains an element of creativity and innovation. As situations are never the same, there is always a margin of novelty that appeals to creative singularity.

Within this view of animality a new model of subjectivity emerges that challenges the traditional one based solely on reason, cognition and consciousness. In his latest book, The Creative Animal (2022) Marchesini continues the project inaugurated in the work Etologia filosofica (2016) and lays out four non-hierarchical levels of subjectivity. These planes integrate each other and can be more or less present in different subjects or at different times of a subject’s life. They are agency, affectivity, consciousness and mind.

  • Agency is the capacity to perceive the world, act upon it and respond to it on the basis of one’s perceptions. Far from mechanically, the animal responds to the world in ways that are always dialectic, new, unique and unrepeatable as much as the stimuli offered by the world are. In other words, animals re-interpret their phylogenetic legacy, what their history has imprinted on them, in innovative ways – so subjectivity is never something given, but emerges by means of a constant dialogue with the world.
  • Affectivity is the fact of being the bearer of emotions and motivations, namely of interests ignited by desire, the force that propels the animal into the world. Though moulded by the individual’s phylogenetic history, desire is open to be further shaped and transformed by the forthcoming encounters offered by the world.
  • Consciousness is the capacity to be aware of what is happening and to reflect upon it; once considered the litmus test for subjectivity, consciousness turns out to be just one of its elements. Marchesini underlines that human actions are not always consciously performed, nor are humans conscious while they are sleeping. This does not deprive them of subjectivity though. Marchesini compares consciousness to the light we switch on to illuminate a dark room: it enables us to see the objects in the room, but it does not create them. In order for the light of consciousness to illuminate something, the objects, that is subjectivity, must already be there.
  • The mind stands to subjectivity like the recipe stands to a cake: to make a cake, it is not just sufficient to have the right ingredients, but we need to know how to combine them. So, the mind combines and integrates all the perceptual, representational and cognitive elements of subjectivity together and confers to them a unity, which is what we call an individual. The mind is that from which individual subjectivity emerges.

Singularity therefore is not the fruit of a legacy or of a process of purification, but the result of an encounter through which individuality emerges. This complex system of relationships is what makes each and every animal, whatever the species, a subject rather than an object, the detainer of interests, which have value in themselves because they are of value to that particular, unrepeatable self. Subjectivity cannot be discussed in terms of all-or-nothing, but in terms of elements that are present to a larger or smaller extent. The way a dog is a subject is different from the way a bee is a subject. Ultimately, with the collapse of the mechanistic model, the animal, no longer a counterpart of the human, embraces the human itself. It is here that, along with the rest of the living species, the human also becomes the object of study and reflection of a new discipline, which Marchesini names philosophical ethology.

A happy dog with her tongue out, drawn in white, orange and yellow, over a black background. Above her stands a bee, a bird and a jellyfish, and all of them are surrounded by trees and clouds and rivers drawn in teal and blue, and by white stars and a fish constellation.


Writer & Narrator: Cosetta Veronese

Director, Script, Video, Sound & Music Editor and Narrator: Aron Nor

Art Director & Illustrator: Mina Mimosa

Narrator & Script Editor: M. Martelli

Selected bibliography in English

Bussolini, Jeffrey, Buchanan, Brett and Matthew Chrulew eds. The Philosophical Ethology of Roberto Marchesini. London: Rutledge 2017.

Marchesini, Roberto. Over the human. Post-humanism and the Concept of Animal Epiphany. Cham: Springer, 2017.

Marchesini, Roberto. Dialogo Ergo Sum. My Pathway into Posthumanities. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018.

Marchesini, Roberto. Beyond Anthropocentrism: Thoughts for a post-human philosophy. Sesto San Giovanni: Mimesis International, 2018.

Marchesini, Roberto and Marco Celentano. Critical Ethology and Post-Anthropocentric Ethics. Cham: Springer, 2021.

Marchesini, Roberto. The Creative Animal: How Every Animal Builds its Own Existence. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.