‚Krambambuli‘ is the title of a short story by the famous 19thcentury Austrian writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach which describes the deep emotional relationship between a dog and its master, a ranger in charge of the forests of a local noble. When I listened to it on a long commute recently, this story taught me lessons about the value of ‘non-scientific’ methods in approaching emotions.
In my previous blog, I mentioned that there is a debate in the neurosciences about the appropriate method to investigate emotions. One of the leaders, LeDoux, has now rejected his own views and adopted the opinion that verbal accounts matter most, which tightly connects the notions of ‘emotion’ and ‘consciousness’. One implication is that animals do not have emotions.
This is an issue with far-reaching significance. We currently observe the trend to recognize personal rights of animals, responding to the animal rights movement triggered by seminal philosophical contributions, such as by Peter Singer. The case for animal rights would be considerably weakened if we deny that animals have emotions. Clearly, this revives the old Cartesian divide between body and soul, with the body conceived as a mere machine, which would then apply for animals, too, since they have no soul.
The sciences employ various methods to find evidence for ‘human’ emotions in animals. However, there is the simple question whether in these contexts the original human emotionaöl intuitions about animals matter more than sciences: After all, most owners of dogs or horses would certainly affirm that their animal friends have emotions. Humans feel that animals have emotions. Now, sceptics would just say that they project their own emotions on the animal, similar to the argument that our capacity to ‘mentalize’ has led us to think that even trees or rocks may have mystic qualities and agency, such as in Shamanism.
I think that literary works such as ‘Krambambuli’ are extremely valuable materials to advance our thinking on these issues. In short, the plot: Krambambuli is a beautiful dog originally owned by a ranger turned drunkard. Another ranger buys the dog, but it proved to be very difficult to break the commitment of the dog to the original owner. After this succeeded, the ranger and the dog develop a very close relationship, including long ‘conversations’. The tragedy unfolds when the original owner became an aggressive poacher and leader of a local gang. The ranger-in-chief ruthlessly chases the outcasts but is finally murdered by the poacher, in revenge. In the final stand-off, the ranger, accompanied by the dog, happens to meet the poacher. The dog recognizes its original master and is now torn apart between the two men, who start a shooting. Suddenly, the dog turns to the poacher, shifting loyalty. Disturbed by this action, the poacher misfires and is killed by the ranger. The ranger is mad for anger about the dog, calls it a deserter, and casts it away. For weeks, the dog roams the locality for food and starves almost to death. One day, the ranger suddenly changes his mind, having always struggled with his emotional attachment to the dog. He decides to take it back, but when he leaves his building, the dog lies dead in front of the entrance: The dog had also decided to return but did not dare to enter.
The story excels in the description of the emotional dynamic between dog and ranger, for example, when the dog is torn between the two masters, and when it signals its guilt after the poacher was shot, feeling no longer legitimized to return to the ranger. One cannot simple describe this as a projection of emotions on the dog, because the dog has agency, and obviously even feels the moral dilemma of competing loyalties, as manifest in the signals of its body movements, the gaze of the eye and so on. When ranger and dog look into each other’s eyes, with the poacher dead, an intensive exchange of emotions happens, which the writer puts in imaginary words.
I think that this story clearly demonstrates one fundamental mistake in the debate over animal emotions: this is that emotions must be ‘inner states’ that are expressed outwardly. LeDoux new view hardens this view: If you cannot verbally express an emotion, you have none. This mono-directional view of emotions blocks the insight that emotions are complex external states of interaction, and only scaffolded or mediated by inner states. In the story, man and animal are in interlocked emotional states, and these are visible in their interlocking actions. That one side is not able to talk, does not matter at all.
One way to grasp this analytically is the dynamical systems view in social neuroscience. The dog has emotions because it has the capacity to be a constituent agent in the dynamical system that is built by the dyad with the ranger. This does not mean that the ranger projects his emotions on the animal, but that they jointly create the emotional system in their interaction.
Of course, this includes the internalization of systems dynamics via internal representations. But there is no compelling reason that this is human language only, any other kind of symbolic representation can work: If you are a dog, you may have an internal representation of your tail in your brain, and the tail plays an important role in communicating with humans. In the emotional system co-created by the human and the animal, the two sides employ different symbolic media, but the emotions may be qualitatively the same or match as responses to each other.