Animals haunt the Western imagination, a haunting entailed by and sustained through our long-standing, but now crumbling, dualisms. Dualistic thought, pervading the ancient world of the West and continuing to this day, requires two intellectual moves: separation and hierarchy. The great eco-feminist philosopher Val Plumwood uses the term 'hyperseparation' to describe this kind of divide. Hyperseparation not only says that things are different, it says that the difference is oppositional and extreme. Thus, for example, where men are taken to be rational, women must be emotional; if men are active, women must be passive; if men are hard, women must be soft. The hyperseparated dualisms link up: if humans are rational, nature must be mindless; if humans are active, nature must be passive. If humans think and speak, animals must be dumb brutes. Mind is imagined to be over and above matter, cosmos or heaven is deemed to be over and above earth, eternity and certainty are valued over and above transience, mutability, and uncertainty, and so on. The hierarchy of superiority is also a hierarchy of control: culture over nature, mind over matter, and so on and on in the most familiar and oppressive fashion.
A major dualism is that between 'culture' and 'nature.' Culture refers to human beings, and nature refers to all the rest of the living world that is not human. Nature/culture is a divide between humans and the rest that sets the human over and above all else. Within this binary, the separation between humans and animals is crucial, since animals are those parts of nature closest to us in face, form, and function. Questions arise: If we are like them, do we lose our sense of having a unique origin and destiny? If we are not like them, are we isolated? If we do not belong with them, with whom do we belong? To whom are we accountable? Where are the boundaries of our ethics? Where are the boundaries of life, death, thought, experience, knowledge, empathy, concern, intelligence, communication, love? Who are we when we are with them, and then again, who are we without them?