The Philosopher and the Wolf
Rowlands (Mark)
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Review in TLS1 On-Line (31 December 2008)

  1. One day, the eye of the philosopher Mark Rowlands was caught by an advertisement in his local newspaper, the Tuscaloosa News: “Wolf cubs for sale, 96 per cent”. Rowlands was eyeballing the father of those cubs just an hour later, the wolf’s yellow eyes on a level with his own, the beast’s enormous paws propping it up against a stable door. This encounter had the opposite effect to that which it would have on most human beings, who fear wolves with a primordial terror. Rowlands purchased one of the cubs and his life changed. Within hours, Brenin had savaged his furniture and destroyed the air conditioning.
  2. When Brenin was alive, he was the centre of Rowlands’s life; each day the creature had to be exercised, fed and settled before the philosopher could embark on anything else. The demand the wolf made on him reminds Rowlands of the myth about St Francis and a wolf that terrorized a village. St Francis made a deal with the wolf, whereby the creature would cease his hostilities if the villagers promised to feed him regularly. The arrangement worked, and firm arrangements are what you need to make with wolves if the relationship is to flourish. Now that Brenin is dead, the philosopher still thinks of his “brother wolf” every day. He misses the relationship that was one of the most formative in his life, and confesses to worrying about Brenin’s bones, now that they lie buried in a lonely spot in the South of France.
  3. In his professional life, Rowlands is known for the idea that consciousness is embedded in the world around us as much as within us. For example, our intelligence stems in part from our ability to use language, and language itself exists apart from any one of us. Brenin, he decides, has “mechanical intelligence”: the wolf lives in a mechanical world, solving problems like opening doors in a flash. This differs from dogs who, he argues, have “magical intelligence”: a dog lives in a magical world, in which it deals with doors by looking at them and waiting for its owner to do the opening, though in ways that are entirely mysterious to the dog itself. Rowlands’s thoughts on “externalism”, as his view of the connection between mind and world is called, developed in part because of his relationship with Brenin: “I think there are certain thoughts that can emerge only in the space between a wolf and a man”.
  4. Other fascinating speculations are concerned with human intelligence. It is rational and moral – for all that we can be irrational and amoral, and profoundly affected by emotions. That would suggest that there is a rational and moral world external to us. Inasmuch as that is embedded in language, it might be argued that we create that rationality and morality, on the grounds that we are the makers of the language we speak. An alternative view, though, is that language is a mirror of a deeper reality: might rationality and morality exist externally to and independently of us too? Rowlands, for one, is open to this possibility. That said, wolfish or “canine” traits almost invariably come off better than human or “simian” traits, in Rowlands’s view – at least in this book. This misanthropic thread is partly a reflection of the discontent Rowlands felt about himself over the period the book covers, about which he is painfully honest, notably when he muses on the failed human relationships in his life and his tendency to drink too much.
  5. Rowlands needn’t have been so negative about his conspecifics2. Apart from anything else, studies of bonobos, conducted by Frans de Waal among others, have revealed astonishing capacities for kindness and empathy among higher primates. Taken as a whole, though, Rowlands’s memoir is life-affirming, engrossing, thoughtful and moving. The subtitle is “Lessons from the wild on love, death and happiness”, and I found the lessons on consciousness, animals and knowledge as engaging as the main current of the memoir. The Philosopher and the Wolf could become a philosophical cult classic.
    Mark Vernon

Amazon Reviews
  1. 'The Philosopher and the Wolf has been one of the most intense reading experiences of my life. There is hardly a sentence in the book that did not engage me, stop me, make me think. It is a profound and beautiful book'
    → Jeffrey Masson
  2. 'Mark Rowlands has given us that rarest of things - a book that takes the reader beyond the human world, while exploring the deepest human emotions. This moving account of the life he lived with an adopted wolf will be recognised as a seminal work of philosophy that forces us to re-evaluate our view of the human animal3'
    John Gray
  3. 'An absolute stunner of a book. Impossible not to be moved by the painfully personal narrative and the depth of reflection. Just enthralling and unputdownable.'
    Professor Andrew Linzey4, Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics
  4. 'The Philosopher and the Wolf is a wonderful book. It's rare that a professor lets his hair down and weaves sentiment, heart, and love into deeper and supposedly more objective academic issues. Mark Rowlands does just this and I will be sharing his book widely.'
    Marc Bekoff, author of Animals Matter

In-Page Footnotes ("Rowlands (Mark) - The Philosopher and the Wolf")

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: Footnote 4:
Book Comment
  • Granta Books (3 Nov 2008). Hardback: On loan to Debbie
  • Purchased a second copy; a tatty, ex library, paperback. Granta Books, 2009

"Rowlands (Mark) - The Clearing"

Source: Rowlands (Mark) - The Philosopher and the Wolf, Chapter 1

  1. These notes are very selective. Much of value receives no comment.
  2. Mark Rowlands says he had to bring his wolf with him to lectures. Well, I met him once – he took a seminar at Birkbeck, probably1 a ‘small group’ in my first year nearly 25 years ago. I don’t remember anything of what he said, other than that he’d had a recent bruising experience at some Oxford seminar. But I don’t remember there being a wolf in the corner. One can ignore the elephant in the room, and not notice someone in a gorilla suit, but I’d have spotted a wolf.
  3. Rowlands says we tell ourselves stories about what makes us different from other animals:
    1. According to some, this lies in our ability to create civilization, and so protect ourselves from nature, red in tooth and claw.
    2. Others point to the fact that we are the only creatures that can understand the difference between good and evil, and therefore are the only creatures truly capable of being good or evil.
    3. Some say we are unique because we have reason; we are rational animals alone in a world of irrational brutes.
    4. Others think it is our use of language that decisively separates us from dumb animals.
    5. Some say we are unique because we alone are capable of free will and action.
    6. Others think our uniqueness lies in the fact that we alone are capable of love.
    7. Some say that we alone are capable of understanding the nature and basis of true happiness.
    8. Others think we are unique because we alone can understand that we are going to die.
  4. He rejects the above:-
    1. I don’t believe any of these stories as accounts of a critical gulf between us and other creatures.
    2. Some of the things we think they can’t do, they can. And some of the things we think we can do, we can’t. As for the rest, well, it’s mostly a matter of degree rather than kind.
    3. Instead, our uniqueness lies simply in the fact that we tell these stories - and, what’s more, we can actually get ourselves to believe them. If I wanted a one-sentence definition of human beings, this would do: humans are the animals that believe the stories they tell about themselves. Humans are credulous animals.
  5. My reaction to Rowlands’s 8-point list is:-
    1. This is obviously true. No doubt social animals can do something similar, but to a much lesser degree, and there are obvious failures of civilization, and added risks of catastrophe arising from it. But we’re ‘working on it’. Non-human animals basically carry on as they were and cannot adapt quickly enough to environmental trauma, whatever its cause. Mostly, when we don’t it’s a matter of will rather than ability. We could eliminate extreme poverty but have collectively decided – mostly by default – that the poor will always be with us. Similarly, we could stop fighting one another, stop despoiling the environment, and so on. Also, there’s much more to civilization than protection against the risks of the natural world.
    2. This is a matter of degree. Social animals do understand when they’re doing wrong – that is, causing problems for their social structure. Discipline is maintained within packs and other social groups. Dogs develop a similar understanding with respect to humans, though they cannot understand why humans care about some things they don’t. I’ve no doubt there is altruism in the non-human animal world. Humans are clearly capable of understanding the costs of altruism better; and are also capable of greater evils.
    3. This is a matter of degree – and is a matter of degree amongst humans. It is silly to suggest that this matter of degree isn’t enormous. Obviously, non-human animals are rational to a degree – in finding ways to achieve their goals. But they won’t work out how to get to Mars.
    4. OK, animals do have ways of communicating with one another. Maybe some great apes can be taught sign language. But the importance of language in developing civilization shouldn’t be underestimated. Knowledge is accumulated from generation to generation – and shared between communities – through language.
    5. This is a difficult point. There’s much debate whether – in a deterministic or even in a quantum world – whether free will2 really exists. Both human and non-human animals have – within limits – freedom of action. All can often implement what they want to do. Whether anyone is free to will what they want is the point at issue. I don’t see this as the key point of demarcation.
    6. Love is multifaceted; maternal and probably erotic love is shared with higher animals. Most humans don’t display agape very often. C.S. Lewis had something to say on all this (see Wikipedia: The Four Loves).
    7. I’m not sure this is important, but I suspect humans are the only animals capable of going anywhere close to understanding ‘the nature and basis’ of anything, ‘true happiness’ amongst them. I imagine that what counts as ‘true happiness’ differs from individual to individual, though there are species-relative factors that lead to flourishing.
    8. This is Lynne Rudder Baker’s (almost) dividing-line between persons and non-persons. It is a well-known philosophical point that most humans, most of the time, consider themselves and their plans as though they were immortal (see Ivan Ilych3). I doubt non-human animals spend much time thinking about immortality, but I imagine they know they are about to die when the time comes though their focus – like ours – will still be on survival until the last second. I think some animals towards the end of their lives have had enough, refuse to eat, and ‘take themselves off’. Who can know what goes through their minds in such situations?
  6. As for his debunking of our real difference from the beasts … I have some sympathy for his first point, am in complete agreement with his second, as articulated above, but have no sympathy whatever for his third point.
  7. To be continued …

In-Page Footnotes ("Rowlands (Mark) - The Clearing")

Footnote 1:
  • I see from Mark Rowlands - CV that he was a visiting lecturer at Birkbeck in 2001.
  • Maybe he’d left the wolf in Cork, Ireland?

"Rowlands (Mark) - Brotherwolf"

Source: Rowlands (Mark) - The Philosopher and the Wolf, Chapter 2

"Rowlands (Mark) - Distinctly Uncivilised"

Source: Rowlands (Mark) - The Philosopher and the Wolf, Chapter 3

"Rowlands (Mark) - Beauty and the Beast"

Source: Rowlands (Mark) - The Philosopher and the Wolf, Chapter 4

"Rowlands (Mark) - The Deceiver"

Source: Rowlands (Mark) - The Philosopher and the Wolf, Chapter 5

"Rowlands (Mark) - The Pursuit of Happiness and Rabbits"

Source: Rowlands (Mark) - The Philosopher and the Wolf, Chapter 6

"Rowlands (Mark) - A Season in Hell"

Source: Rowlands (Mark) - The Philosopher and the Wolf, Chapter 7

"Rowlands (Mark) - Time's Arrow"

Source: Rowlands (Mark) - The Philosopher and the Wolf, Chapter 8

"Rowlands (Mark) - The Religion of the Wolf"

Source: Rowlands (Mark) - The Philosopher and the Wolf, Chapter 9

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
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  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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