Claudia Hogg-Blake, a doctoral candidate in the University of Chicago’s Department of Philosophy, doesn’t buy the idea that humans can only love other humans. Her dissertation, “Loving Gracie: An Account of Human-Animal Love,” attempts to do justice to the experience of countless people (herself included) who have profound relationships with nonhuman animals. (She had also explored the topic in her the philosophy course “Loving Animals,” which she taught in spring 2020.)
A one-time candidate for European Parliament, Hogg-Blake discusses why she decided to pursue this area of research, the nature of our relationships with nonhuman animals, and her own bond with her dog Gracie.
What led you to study human relationships with animals?
In my second year of grad school I adopted my dog, Gracie, the first dog I’d had. I had lots of pets growing up—mostly rodents—so I was already into animals, but I was struck by how much I fell in love with her. I didn’t realize how strong it would be. Around the same time I was taking a course on the philosophy of love, and none of the philosophers we were reading were talking about this. I saw an area for research.
How do you approach your argument that humans can love dogs?
My main target is philosophers who argue that the only other beings that we can, properly speaking, love are what they call persons, which means beings that are capable of self-reflection—of assessing whether the reasons on which they act are good or bad, that sort of thing. That would rule out (as far as we’re aware) all nonhuman animals. It would also rule out infants and probably some cognitively disabled adults. So there’s clearly a problem with these views.
Ask any person who has a relationship with a dog and they’re going to say, “Obviously, I love my dog.” There is a whole load of New York Times bestsellers that are memoirs about people’s relationships with their dogs. We don’t want a philosophical view that will just deny the testimonial experiences of huge groups of people.
What are the implications of your view?
I’m not just arguing that we can love dogs. I’m asking what this demands of an account of love. By developing a new account of love that allows for the love of dogs, I want to show how it’s in fact a more plausible account of our love of other humans as well. It’s a kind of love we can have for what I call a somebody but not a something. You can care about a somebody for their own sake, and relationships with them are possible.
Is the love mutual?
What’s going on on my dog Gracie’s side: can we call that love? I want to say yes. The relationship has got to be emotionally laden on both sides. We should be aware of one another as living beings with intentions and emotions. I draw on the most recent scientific literature on dog cognition that shows they are capable of such things.
It doesn’t have to be totally symmetrical. When I’m away from Gracie, I often will think about how wonderful she is. I don’t think Gracie is out there thinking about how wonderful I am, but I also don’t think that matters so much.
So, dogs and humans love each other in different ways.
Yes. And it’s not just a deficient version of what we have with other humans. It’s different.
What is your dog like?
Gracie is a five-year-old whoodle, which is a wheaten terrier-poodle mix. She is wonderful. I adopted her when she was about six months old with my then-husband. She’s been with me through a separation and divorce, then into a new relationship, and now into a new marriage. She’s been my stable relationship through all of that.
We hang out together, play together, walk together, nap together. We sleep in the same bed. She really takes up a lot of space, both literally and metaphorically. My life is very much oriented around meeting her needs and making her happy. But there’s definitely give-and-take—she provides me with a lot of emotional support. I suffer from various mood disorders, and sometimes when I spiral with anxiety or depression she’s the only one who can really comfort me and bring me back to earth. She is such a profound source of joy.
You are also interested in another relationship involving emotional support: the relationship between therapist and client. How does this connect back to philosophy?
I believe that philosophy should be, in some way, continuous with the way we think about actual dilemmas and commitments in our real life. Originally, the question for ethics in ancient times was, how should one live?
I have a great therapist in Chicago, and she and I have wonderful conversations. It’s actually in therapy that I feel most highly tapped into my philosophical brain. It’s a real skill of a therapist to be able to do that, where the space is so safe and open. For me, it’s all about my anxiety and self-doubt. These barriers to clear thinking are internal, but they are also caused by external circumstances.
Your dissertation committee includes two women, Martha C. Nussbaum and Agnes Callard. Given that philosophy is still a heavily male field, are you able to find solidarity working with other women?
When I started hanging around more with women philosophers, I felt like I gained a sense of my ability to go forward with a project that feels like my own. One of my best experiences at the University was the class I took on love with Kyla Ebels-Duggan, a visiting professor from Northwestern. It was her and six women graduate students. It was just an amazing seminar, and it really boosted my confidence.
You got your bachelor’s degree at Oxford. Has the British style of philosophy instruction influenced your approach to teaching?
When I was an undergrad we had the tutorial system, which I really love. We would write a paper a week for a course. You could either submit it beforehand or you could read it aloud in the tutorial, and you’d have peer and professor feedback. In spring 2020 I taught a course, Loving Animals, and I had only two students in it, so it was quite similar to an Oxford tutorial. It was at the beginning of the pandemic, so it was online. We got to peer-review each other’s work and really got time to go through it.
In general, it’s quite different in Britain because we are graded on a month or two of final exams at the end of a three-year program. So I didn’t have a GPA, and I wasn’t graded on my papers. And that’s nice in some ways. It means you can experiment a lot and not worry about grades—although the last two months are obviously hell, so in that way it’s worse!
—This story was first published in Tableau, the magazine of the Division of the Humanities.