Jonathan Skinner

Hypotheses, Hermeneutics and the Interpretation of Animal Behaviour

16 May 2017
Arts Tower, Lecture Theatre 7

We were thoroughly delighted to welcome Dr Simon P. James from the University of Durham.

The seminar is entitled ‘Hypotheses, Hermeneutics and the Interpretation of Animal Behaviour‘ and is took place in Lecture Theatre 7 in the Arts Tower, University of Sheffield.

Simon’s work engages with a wide range of issues in environmental philosophy, from Buddhist approaches to wildlife conservation to our moral relations with rock formations, and from the (so-called) problem of animal minds to the virtue ethical question of whether a good life must be a green life.


This talk is about scientists’ efforts to interpret the behaviour of nonhuman mammals (hereafter ‘animals’). My aim is to show that in many cases the aim of those efforts is not just to test hypotheses but also to develop what Weber called interpretative understanding (Verstehen).

To explain what it means to achieve Verstehen of animal behaviour, I appeal to the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer. I argue that our tendency to employ the techniques we typically use to interpret human behaviour in interpreting that of animals need not be a source of ‘false positive’ results such as anthropomorphism, but can sometimes qualify as what Gadamer calls a ‘legitimate prejudice’ – ie, one that enriches our understanding of the phenomenon in question, rather than one which we have an epistemic duty to purge.

For this reason, I contend, correctly interpreting animal behaviour sometimes requires the adaptation, rather than the abandonment, of the techniques we normally use to interpret the behaviour of our fellow humans. To support this claim, I appeal to research conducted by Tetsuro Matsuzawa’s team at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University. These results indicate that in at least some cases social cognition in nonhuman species is best understood when researchers do not try to integrate the animals they are studying into a human social environment, but try rather to adapt to the social environments of the animals. In the final part of the talk, I try to make it clear why, exactly, methods of this sort are hermeneutic rather than merely hypothetico-deductive in character.