Critical Reception of “Can We Understand Animal Minds?”.

For responses to “Art or Bunk?” go here


Dr Paul Morris

A characteristic of contemporary writings on animal and human psychology is that they routinely fail to place the questions addressed in a historical and philosophical context. Furthermore, fundamental issues of ontology and epistemology are ignored. Most books on animal mind and behaviour contain the same material packaged in slightly different ways.

Thus the content of Can We Understand Animal Minds? (CWUAM) is in stark contrast to most books on animal behaviour. The book is unique to my knowledge in its focus and aims and is not a clone of other textbooks in the area. CWUAM explains to the reader the nature of the fundamental assumptions of contemporary theory in animal behaviour, and the scientific and philosophical origins of these assumptions. The explication of fundamental assumptions is particularly important in this field of enquiry, as many of the assumptions do not have a sound theoretical basis. The book is extremely scholarly demonstrating a really deep understanding of the relevant literatures. Any academic working in the area would gain huge benefit from reading the book, and it is extremely well regarded by many experts in the field.

However, I also want to emphasize the really important educational value of the book. It is rare to find a book that is both ground breaking and comprehensible to the non-expert. The prose is clear and concise with jargon kept to a minimum. I have used the text on a number of courses including straight psychology courses and applied animal behaviour management courses across a range of institutions. Students report that they find the ideas challenging but that they find the text engaging and comprehensible. Students demonstrate a consistent reluctance to engage with historical and philosophical issues and to find a book that tackles these issues in a scholarly yet comprehensible way is all too rare.

One theme that emerges from CWUAM is the consistency of a philosophically naive mind body dualism inherent in scientific approaches to the study of animal behaviour over the past 150 years. The authors of CWUAM explain clearly how apparent radical changes in the approach to animal behaviour from Romanes through Behaviorism to contemporary cognitivist models, are in fact intrinsically dualist. It is this dualism that makes the problem of other minds so intractable. At the end of the book, however, the authors do deal with the Gordian knot of mind body dualism not by a novel solution to the existing problem, but by a reformulation of the nature of the problem. The reformulation expressed in CWUAM, in my view, is at the cutting edge of developments within Psychology. The new Psychology draws on work in phenomenology and Ecological Psychology and has as its centre a challenge to the traditional dualisms of mind and body and organism and environment. I found CWUAM deeply impressive because it provided a logical and coherent account of the necessity of a reformulation of the problem of other minds from first principles, without any reliance on prior knowledge. This makes it comprehensible to people without a background in philosophy and the history of scientific approaches to animal behaviour.

CWUAM is an important book because it lays out so clearly the underlying ontology and epistemology of contemporary approaches to psychology, both animal and in fact human. It is worth repeating that this book is extremely rare in that it is both comprehensible to the lay reader but would also benefit anybody working even at the cutting edge of animal science.

Dr Paul Morris

Principal Lecturer



Dr Morris‘s research is focused on the ecological approach to psychology. Within this theoretical framework he has a diverse range of interests including secondary emotions in animals and infants, animal personality, inter species communication and the embodiment of emotions and intentions.



Dr Franscoise Wemelsfelder

Can We Understand Animal Minds? by Michael Bavidge and Ian Ground, published in 1994, is a book that was then, and still is, well ahead of its time. I think it is an important book, written with impressive richness, succinctness and clarity, presenting an approach to the study of animal experience that has both important theoretical and practical implications. Its main tenet, that indeed we can understand animal perspectives and experiences in a direct, meaningful way, goes against the mainstream conception of ‘mind’ as an invisible, ‘inner’ mental state that can be addressed only through inference by observing ‘outer’ mechanical physical processes. Bavidge and Ground identify the dualistic roots of this conception, and show that there is a perfectly coherent and logically defensible alternative, based (in their words) on our sensitivity to a world ‘shared’, full of meaning and communication. The spectre of anthropomorphism, bound to be raised by this approach, is discussed and dealt with by the authors with subtle, incisive epistemological argumentation.

A striking characteristic of this book is that it is written in a straightforward, common sense style easy to follow for both professionals and the interested lay person. What is in fact a very complex, multi-layered and often difficult subject matter, is laid out in appealing themes that step by step give the reader a sense of the larger picture and its philosophical landscape. The ease with which the argument flows is I think in important ways due to the narrative presence of the authors who do not shy away from taking position and judging the value of different strands of thought. They guide the reader through the labyrinth of confusions rife in this area of debate, in a humorous, never patronising tone. Summarising statements made at the end of chapters of sections are often bold, and will, for many scientists, be provocative and perhaps ‘unsubstantiated’. But this is misguided. In my view these statements are absolutely crucial and need to be made with force to counter the dogmas of mainstream mechanistic science. In fact, rather than ‘close down’ the debate, they open up hitherto unexplored areas of scientific investigation – something that should surely appeal to scientists rather than put them off.

In my own research work as an animal welfare scientist I have over the past 15 years or so explored some of the core propositions made in this book, and found them to be scientifically valid and fruitful. The ideas that led me to this research are highly convergent with those expressed in this book – indeed, coming across this book has enriched my thinking and provided a much-needed source of reference. Students of our animal welfare course looking for more in-depth reading also found it helpful and inspiring.

There are as yet very few texts that, in clear and accessible language, lay out the philosophical ground for the study of our world as experienced and expressive. In doing so this book is a trailblazer which has the potential to inspire and support philosophers and scientists for a long time to come. I think it deserves wider attention than it has received so far, and trust that as times change and become more tolerant of non-positivist thinking, this will happen.

Can We Understand Animal Minds? is, in sum, the sort of book that can contribute to significant, much-needed change in our thinking about the natural world.

Françoise Wemelsfelder

Animal Behaviour and Welfare Department

Sustainable Livestock Systems

Scottish Agricultural College

Edinburgh EH26 0PH, UK

Dr Wemelsfelder main research interest is the development of scientific approaches for the study of animals as whole sentient beings (i.e. as subjects rather than objects), bringing insights from philosophy of mind into the study of animal emotion.

In collaboration with colleagues from the Sustainable Livestock Systems Group, and other institutes she developed and validated a novel methodology for the study of subjective experience in animals, generally referred to as ‘Qualitative Behaviour Assessment’ (QBA). Current work focuses on the application of this method as a practical tool for on-farm welfare assessment. Research interests associated with this work are animal boredom and environmental enrichment.

In 2007 Dr Wemelsfelder was the recipient of the prestigious BSAS/RSPCA Award, presented for major contributions to animal welfare. The award was presented to Dr Wemelsfelder for her “outstanding contribution to the assessment of animal welfare through innovative research and development of Qualitative Behaviour Assessment methodology”.