Bonobo ( Pans paniscus )   Photo: Frans Lanting/Getty Images

Bonobo (Pans paniscus) Photo: Frans Lanting/Getty Images


In order to have students thinking in an unfamiliar frame about personal knowledge, I remind them that we are animals—“mind on the hoof.” This is a strange, discombobulating empirical fact, that for most of us, going about sophisticated lives―is hidden in plain sight. We are very smart, very social, very communicative primates, but primates nevertheless. Since we were born almost entirely helpless, we had a great deal to learn and we benefited from extensive parental care. Even minimal nurturing interactions, essential for mere survival as an infant, ensure that any given human individual has experienced formative learning in a specific linguistic, historical and social context and—only too literally­—has lived to tell the tale! 

Mind on the Hoof: serving the four Fs—Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing…..and reproduction!

Mind on the Hoof: serving the four Fs—Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing…..and reproduction!

Astonishing Predicament 

We live in the interim between the contingency of birth and the certainty of death. Randomly, we have been tossed into a specific period and place. We do not choose our particular geographic, historic, linguistic, cultural or socio-economic backdrop. 

By the time we develop enough cognitive awareness, to recognize any of this, the particularities of our own lives (manifest in a male or female body not of our choosing) are already well and truly underway. We have no conscious memories of our own beginnings and cannot start again. We are already here and cannot erase our formative experiences. There are no golden dawns and there is no single, foundational point for our accumulated knowledge. 

In short we find ourselves in medias res—already in the thick of the action!