Berliner Großstadt-FuchsFoto: © Simone Guski BERLIN. (hpd)

The soul is not felt by oneself alone – animals among us

Seele fühlt fühlt man nicht allein - Tiere unter uns

The animal philosopher Susanne Magdalena Karr about her book “Verbundenheit” [“Connectedness”]

By Simone Guski for "Humanistischer Pressedienst" (humanist press), hpd.

22. FEB 2016


Giving new theoretical background to the sensitivity for all living beings and taking a stand against the industrial creation of life, Susanne Magdalena Karr, a philosopher from Vienna, will release her book “Verbundenheit” [“Connectedness”] in December. The baroque philosophy of Leibniz and a reflection on shamanistic practices are being interwoven into an enthusiastic panorama. The author answers questions about her work.


hpd: What is the soul? A breath, a movement, an opportunity or a power, an ability to perceive or to communicate or act? You’re talking about all of these aspects in your book. And elsewhere you’re saying, the soul is the “process of occurring existential interrelations”. The soul of the world even is, according to your words, the connecting element, the “belonging of all living beings to the world”. Thus, something very abstract, not easy to grasp.

Susanne Magdalena Karr: The question of the soul has been tried to answer many times and is known to be a main topos of philosophy. I approach the topic of the soul as something that acts like a life spark, a dynamic that connects all living beings with each other.

The soul is not attached to the individuality of a person, but offers a supra-personal, supra-individual context, that ultimately is the basic condition for all forms of communication.

Everything is connected to everything, but from where do we take the certainty to speak about the whole as such? Even when we always should be affected by the whole.

It goes without saying that in order to speak about anything, one only does have his or her own experience of the world at hand. Yet, we can make other worlds accessible to us by turning to others and let us be affected by them and their experiences. “Becoming” part of someone else is an important term in that context. There’s no certainty, nothing like an “ultimate reality” that is opening up to us. We act from our place, but open up a broader horizon through communication, connectedness and ultimately a metaphorical change of being.

We experience the sensitivity for other beings as enrichment, as opportunity to change ourselves. But by being empathic, do we really learn more about the animal, the other being? Or is empathy not fairly egoistic when taking a closer look?


As all communication is an exchange between subjects that - even if only temporarily - become augmented in comparison to what they’ve been before meeting each other, the process can be described as an enrichment of oneself. At the same time, a part of one’s self is being passed on, communication of course is no one way street. Empathic communication is especially necessary when verbal exchange is not possible - such as with other species or small children. The immersion into the “sphere of the other” allows us to grasp or guess the state of the other being. Perhaps the concept of egoism has to be seen less strict in this context: better to know more than to be untouched, unaffected, unemotional or lonely.

The French anthropologist Philippe Descola says that at the beginning everything was culture, or in other words, a mythical understanding of the world. Nature, as we experience it today, only gradually becomes apparent. To give everything a soul or to look at everything ensouled, doesn’t this mean that we begin to culturalize nature again, making it more human?

I wouldn’t understand the described gesture of Descola as a return. It’s not about the “humanization”, but about a living nature, with a soul. Apart from that one could ask: didn’t Descola’s “culturalized nature” have a higher value for the ones interacting with it? A strong contrast to the concept of “nature” as a lifeless deposit of raw materials in service of humans and therefore mere material.

I would rather go by a concept of a “soulful” nature, as in the conception of Gaia, were the earth and its processes are being understood as a large living organism whose operations and connections are not as clear as some like to claim. Especially in the research of different species we see spectacular events happening again and again, not only in regards to behavior such as communication and so-called cultural techniques.

Your concept of soul owes much to the Monadology of Leibniz as you explicitly emphasize. The baroque philosopher creates a system in which every monad, every subject, every soul reflects the world from a different perspective. The soul being exactly this reflection. Critics such as Bertrand Russell had accused him that the soul would then only be a reflection of reflections - thus empty. Does this apply to your concept of soul as well? Leibniz adds the Aristotelian perspective to the picture - a soul as entelechy, as a realization of the possibilities of a concrete object. But does that go together? Or is it not more of a discontinuity, a pretty forced addition?

Contrary to the (mathematical) presentation of Bertrand Russell, I arrive at a substance by accumulating these reflections, not at an emptiness. Entelechy means that there’re substances to unfold. The subject is not “empty”. One’s own perspective stands thereby for one’s own spiritual experience of the world, for the feeling, for the specific perception. Every soul has a resonance space, and with every movement it sets the whole into vibration. That’s also how to understand the effectiveness of old shamanic practices.


Who are today’s heirs of the shamans? The artists? The ones who are burdened with the weight of the sufferings of the world, the depressed and the traumatised?

Difficult to say, many want it to be. Probably the ones who claim to be heirs of the shamans are the least likely ones to be. Unfortunately artists do that quite often. Although most of the times they’re the ones who are immersed in their own perceptions and emotions - and they believe this to be substantial enough and worth sharing. On the contrary, the shamanic practice is based on going beyond oneself, and not on self-portrayal. It’s possible that among the oppressed and depressed shamanic potential goes unnoticed. However, among this group the ability to express or share their experiences is often missing. Currently, the pathologization appears to be more acceptable in our society than to address the genesis of “deviances”. There’s definitely a direct relation between the many psychological problems and the handling of suffering and death, or better said its denial and repression, in our society.


What would you respond to Thomas Nagel when he says the question “how we could know what it feels to be a bat” is unanswerable?

I would agree with him. Eventually we can only try to get closer. And this is a worthwhile endeavor.

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