If A Lion Could Talk…: Knowing Animals, Knowing Ourselves

deadline for submissions: 
January 10, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Brandeis University

If A Lion Could Talk…: Knowing Animals, Knowing Ourselves

The 16th annual Brandeis Graduate Student Conference—“If A Lion Could Talk…: Knowing Animals, Knowing Ourselves”—will be held March 31, 2023.

“If a lion could talk, we wouldn’t be able to understand it,” Wittgenstein famously remarked. This conference will ask, why not? What would be required to understand a lion? What does it mean to ‘understand’ another? Is shared language necessary for understanding? What kind of understanding is possible in the absence of language? What kind of understanding do literary representations of animal subjectivity (of non-human consciousness) offer? Are they merely anthropomorphic projections?—the fantasy of illuminability belying an unbridgeable chasm? Or does imaginative work foster genuine insight?

Recent developments in animal studies, along with the work of certain philosophers—Cora Diamond, among others—have challenged empirical, purely biological accounts of animal behavior, arguing that the kind of knowledge we can gain from an objective, detached point of view is necessarily blinkered. “Human,” “animal,” “sentient,” etc. as categories of thought are fundamentally unstable, designating not so much independently existing kinds of beings as judgments—ethical stances we take. The decision to treat beings as non-human biases the kind of understanding we will tolerate coming to light.

How does literature promote or disrupt the fixity of these concepts? Why is the human world typically thought of as distinct from, or posing a threat to, the natural world? What do other disciplines in the humanities reveal about non-human consciousness?

Attacking the intuitive idea that we can truly know only our own—individual, human—subjectivity, J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello argues, “There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination…If I can think my way into the existence of a being who has never existed, then I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life.” 

Is the sympathetic imagination boundless? Can we know only what our own experience is like, though literature may provide vivid approximations of others’? What can grappling with animal subjectivity tell us about our own subjectivities?


Topics may include, but are not limited to: 

  • Literary interpretations of nonhuman subjectivity
  • The relation of human to nonhuman subjectivity
  • The role of literature in understanding consciousness
  • Explorations of the ‘literariness’ of consciousness—is consciousness  separable from language?
  • Interdisciplinary investigations of non-human consciousness and of human-animal (human-nonhuman) relations
  • Our ethical duties to the nonhuman world



For individual papers, you are invited to submit a 150-250 word abstract or proposal online to brandeisgradconference2023@gmail.com. Proposals must be submitted by January 10, 2023.

Please include your full name, affiliation, status (professor, graduate student, undergraduate, independent scholar, etc.), email, and phone number in your proposal email.