On interpretation


Yona Friedman



I believe that each animal species interprets the experience we call the “world” in its own way. I base this hypothesis on the observation I have made of dogs, the only other species I have known well enough as the human species.

In order to be able to define human interpretation, l have first tried to refer to what seems to me to be characteristic of a dog’s interpretation of universe, although I cannot be absolutely sure.

It seems to me that dogs do not “see.” What I mean by that is they do not pay attention to separated, individual “things.” Their sight is holistic, images of a group of “things” at a given moment. These images contain everything that fits in a fixed and immobile “setting” which lasts a split second. As visual experience consists of a sequence of a non-determined length of images, their attention is absorbed by each change between two consecutive “settings,” two movements. But the change they perceive is not the movement of any random thing, but it is the movement of the whole “setting”. The whole universe changes, not just some parts of it.

Dogs seem to consider the whole universe as the “reservoir” of their means of survival. They take what they need from this reservoir at the moment they need it and do not care about what is left. Thus other dogs or any other living being wishing to take from the reservoir remain free to do so. Dogs do not accumulate reserves.

The fact that they do not collect goods prevents them from understanding the abstract idea of “property” and consequently, they do not understand the “barter system.” If they leave something for others, they do not ask to be “paid” for it.

Beyond any doubt, a hierarchy of domination between dogs exists. The leader of the pack has preference over others to food or to court a female. “Canine society” is patriarchal.

But, very importantly, canine society never tries to have slaves; it never forces some dogs to do the jobs which the others consider hard. A leader of a pack does not have servants.

Dogs seem to possess a developed sense of chronology. They notice that some events are followed by others with a seemingly exact certitude. But they do not seem to attribute the course of events to a causal chain. Dogs do not have “metaphysics”.

My last remark about dogs has to do with the way they communicate.

Communication between dogs does not seem to need abstract symbols, phonetics or anything else. I think that the only components of canine communication are emotions, expressed by gestures and individual onomatopoeia, and that it does not imply a common code shared by all dogs. This communication between dogs is not useful to collective information.

Though dogs do not possess a language which carries information, they do know the “signals.” The “signal” is not a symbol. All animals are attentive to signals, especially the larger felines.

I do not intend for this short introduction to a dog’s interpretation of the world to be a scientific dissertation. It will only be the unifying theme, the reference guide in order to try to characterise the interpretation of the world that is unique to the human species.

Let’s try to continue this unifying theme.

We see a whole of distinct and individual things and we are less aware of the whole itself. Our sight, or rather our interpretation of what we see, is not holistic. To see, we “extract” individual elements of the general context. To extract them we follow a general rule, an abstraction rule.

This general rule is the result of our invention of the concept “one.” “One” is the property of every thing we see “separately.” “One” is the property of each thing which has a “name.”

The “name” is the justification of all our abstractions. Our use of articulated language is based on the process which consists in abstracting elements from an image of the universe and giving them a “name.” Then, we go further and invent a “name” changing a property into an abstract “non-entity." For example, the property “aware” becomes the abstract “non-entity” “awareness” among other examples.

By changing properties in abstract non-entities, we have created not only our metaphysics and our religions, but also our languages, our sciences and our rules of behaviour.

One of these rules, perhaps the most important rule, is that of the “barter system,” a concept that is unknown to dogs. The difference or similarity in value between two different things is fundamental for the human interpretation of the world. One thing can be substituted with another.

The idea of the barter system leads to the idea of the property. Something I do not use and which I save can be exchanged for something else which is saved by someone else. To make an exchange, a scale of values is necessary.

Value or equivalence leads to calculation. Arithmetic is built at the base of operations with the help of the concept “one.”

Our science is dominated by the fundamental concept of exchange. The concept of the principles of conservation in physics or mathematical operations are impregnated with the axiom of equivalence, substitution and the construction of non-entities. “Things” can be changed into other things but a “global sum,” which always remains the same, exists.

But the exchange concept, and the property concept, also has other consequences which do not exist in dogs’ lives, slavery for instance. To force other human beings to do what we refuse to do ourselves, threatening them, luring them with something they desire, even considering that they belong to us.

Tyranny and modern science have the same roots, the idea of a barter system.

Another product of the idea of equivalence which we have already mentioned is articulated language. To substitute things with “names,” to manipulate the “names” instead of the things, is also a kind of exchange.

To use names in order to build a communication technique seems strictly human. A dog’s “language” transmits emotions, whereas human language is operational. When I say something to somebody, I think I know how he is going to react.

A “name” is an abstraction. On the contrary, an emotion is a state of fact. We communicate using abstractions and dogs communicate expressing their frames of mind.

A last remark which is worthy of a detailed explanation is that if a language uses “names,” that implies that it also has “rules.”

A “rule” is always an “abbreviation.” It tells us how to do an operation. This operation, governed by its rule, can be repeated endlessly with the same rule.

The idea of “rules” is also a feature which determines our interpretation of the world. There are rules and the world obeys these rules. All our knowledge is based on this hypothesis.

The world in the interpretation of dogs is erratic. Anything can happen at any time. What happened yesterday will not necessarily happen tomorrow. Dogs have nothing but the present.

Maybe they are right...

Let’s try to sum things up. My objective was to define the main characteristics of the human species’ interpretation of the world in general and as a reference, I have used the corresponding characteristics of the interpretation of the world in dogs, an interpretation which is assumed by a human observer.

We, the human beings, live a in a world of abstractions which emerge from our direct experience. Dogs interpret the world more directly, by experience, and we do not know what their abstractions are.

We mentally build the world with elements which our intellect prefabricates, using the tools “names” and “rules.” For dogs, the world seems to be indivisible in space and time.

For us, the world is dominated by rules or by “masters of the rules.” We imitate this scheme and try to dominate the world.

For dogs, the world is erratic. There is no domination, there is no communication. There is only the expression of emotions.

For us, communication is the main tool for domination.

The way a dog interprets the world is completely egocentric. The only thing that counts is his perception and his emotions.

Human interpretation is only selfish. We can and we have to dominate the world.

Human interpretation is destructive but not that of dogs.

To finish with a feature that is common to both human and animal interpretation, I will mention the transformation of habits into rituals.

Indeed, dogs and human beings quickly get used to a regular schedule. Certain moments in a day correspond to precise events, to certain acts to perform. This regularity, this routine, represents a “ritual” which we must respect. This observation is useful to train domestic animals or militaries.

But the “ritual” is the “proto-model” of what we call “culture.” “Civilisation” mean “training” and “culture” means “style,” a silent automatism. “We behave one way or another” according to the situation (civilisation), “we understand one way or another,” an event that is already known or that may be surprising (culture).

Culture and civilisation thus starts before human beings, with the animals’ “rituals.” These rituals are those which later lead to the invention of symbols and this latter invention is the basis of codified communication. Here, the emergence of articulated language takes place.

So “culture” and “civilisation” are not unique to humans. They are in all of the superior vertebrates’ line of development. Development starts with the perception of a temporal regularity, of a periodicity which may be imposed by the observation of the alternation day and night.

It is important to notice that the primitive concept of regularity, of periodicity, is temporal and it is a non-abstract concept which all animals observe. On the other hand, a geometrical regularity of space only occurs with humans.

A geometrical world can be found in the most primitive tribes. It may come before language.

It is interesting to see that animals do not “know” the geometry discovered by primitive man. The next step of this development, the desire to break off geometrical regularity depends on modern man. The modern idea of “freedom” becomes manifest in the refusal of the rules whereas “animal freedom” is the freedom of an individual who accepts the rules and adapts himself to them in his own individual way.

Around fifty years ago, I wrote that “animals possess individual freedom that follows inviolable rules; men do not have individual freedom but their law system can be violated.”(L’architecture mobile)

1  An important feature of human interpretation is the aesthetic need, a parallel I do not observe with dogs. Although the emotional expression of dogs may represent a hidden sense of beauty.

This human aesthetic need is quite peculiar. It is based on a desire to improve the world, to complete it, to act on it. Human aesthetics is not contemplative but it arouses a will to create.

If a dog’s interpretation of the world is rather passive, accepting the world as it is, the human’s interpretation is one of deep dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction presses them to rectify it.

2  I must explain the word “interpretation” clearly. Our senses present “an image of the world” to us; our intellect creates this image. Our memory allows us to compare each image of a certain moment with those which precede it. Our behaviour is determined by this comparison. Thus the interpretation is defined by this perception, comparison and behaviour experience.

Interpretation is, first of all, an attitude of every living being but it can also be extended to every existing entity. Surely a dog interprets the world that his senses present to him but an electron also interprets the world in its “electron way”.

The extended meaning of the world “interpretation” therefore sums up the reaction of an entity facing the universe. The absence of reaction is also an interpretation.

Interpretation, in the meaning I give this word, must be individual. It is different from one individual to another. But, accepting a kind of superficiality, we can observe a more general form of interpretation which is a characteristic of every species, living or not.

I will call this type of interpretation specific to a definite species.



In: Pro Domo. By Yona Friedman. Actar. With thanks to Yona Friedman.