The Imagination of Animals: Rilke, Kafka, and the Philosophy and Literature of Embodied Cognition

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The conceptual history of imagination is complex, but it has been by and large defined as distinctly human. Yet questions about animal imagination arise not only in modern scientific studies of animals, but also in contemporary investigations into the animal substrate of human cognition. Imagined animal perspectives also feature in literary treatments of animals in the modernist tradition, serving as thought experiments about, and expressions of empathy for, animals. Literary writers may venture to imagine the very difference or incomprehensibility of animals; to undermine the human-animal distinction through perceptual or emotional empathy; or to establish, through ironic juxtaposition, a critique of the possibilities and limits of human forms of experience. In the wake of Nietzsche, for whom animal life figures in critical contrast to modern humans, animals are especially prominent in German literary modernism. The most significant animal imaginings are by Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka. A main aim of this essay is to show how the imagination of animals in their works sheds light upon problems of cognition and human self-understanding, as well as upon our kinship to animals which recent research shows is undoubtedly far closer than heretofore supposed.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Animal Inside
Subtitle of host publicationEssays at the Intersection of Philosophical Anthropology and Animal Studies
EditorsGeoffrey Dierckxsens, Rudmer Bijlsma, Michael Begun, Thomas Kiefer
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2016


  • animals, literature, Rilke, Kafka, animality, imagination, Cognition, cognition, Imagination, Animals, Animality, Literature, Modernism, modernism