Disregarding limit cases, we want to sketch what it is to be an animal in general. If we think exclusively in terms of its body, the essence of what it means to be an animal will elude us. To achieve an understanding of animal-being, we think through the animal’s body to its world. Although animals are obviously embodied creatures, their experience as sensate beings tends toward disembodiment, a captivation of the animal’s attention by its surroundings. To understand the essence of what it is to be an animal, we therefore have to think in terms of the disembodiment of this experience, that is, the approximation of incorporeality achieved by the senses. Thanks to its senses the animal’s being can roam beyond its flesh, even if it remains tethered to its body.
Why do I speak of disembodiment instead of perception? Animals know nothing of the senses, only of what the latter convey. This conveying goes both ways, not only carrying impressions of distant objects to the animal, but, more importantly, transporting the animal to what its senses are conveying. Perception implies incoming sense data, while the animal is proximately oriented in the very opposite direction, projected outwards as it inhabits its world. The idea of disembodied spirit, however mystical it may sound, is consistent with the imperative the animal has to be able to exist outside of its body. Its very survival depends on it. Sensing is a reaching out beyond the contours of the flesh. For instance, through its senses a predator can precede its body and reach its target before its body can.
The keener its senses and the more vivid what they convey, the more ecstatic the animal becomes. This does not mean that it becomes excessively happy, though it can mean that, as in the case of a dog sensing the approach of a beloved master. Here ecstatic means self-transcendent, outside of itself. It is not sufficient to conceive the animal simply as a body at a physical location. The spiritual location of the animal must also be taken into account. Where does its attention reside? Only as projected in this manner is the animal adequately conceived in the way in which it is in its environment. An inanimate thing such as a rock has no environment. An environment is the result of being ecstatic.
Inanimate things can only be in one place at once and even then only for sensate beings. By contrast, as I discussed in “Phenomenology of Space,” an animal is in at least two places at once, albeit in these places in different ways. The animal’s being here is simultaneously a means of being there, to the point where the there, not the here, is its primary dwelling place. Except in cases of a pronounced sensation such as pain, which would bring its attention squarely back to its body, an alert animal exists predominantly in terms of its over there. This projection of the animal’s being is merely heightened when its attention becomes absorbed by some such thing as predator, prey, or a potential mate.
In short, the flesh can be fully understood only if we recognize that the point of embodiment is to achieve a certain degree of disembodiment. An animal is matter striving toward disembodiment. In other words, the body is not an end in itself but a means of entering the world. The essence of animality is therefore a state of ekstasis. This Greek word means a standing outside oneself. We say, “He’s beside himself (with joy, grief, pain, etc.).” This expression isn’t just a figurative way of speaking, but reveals the essence of what it is to be a living creature. Conversely, what makes an insensate thing insensate is precisely the complete absence of ekstasis. An inanimate thing is unable to transcend its body. It cannot escape the limits of its shape, cannot be beside itself, whereas the animal exceeds its body’s contours, is there beyond itself. An animal is more than its form. It has entered the world.