Animal Consciousness

Animal Consciousness

Animal Consciousness

Animal Consciousness

Synopsis

Any intelligent debate on the ethical treatment of animals hinges on understanding their mental processes. The idea that consciousness in animals is beyond comprehension is usually traced to the 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes whose concept of animals as beast machines lacking consciousness influenced arguments for more than 200 years. But in reviewing Descartes' theory of mind, Daisie and Michael Radner demonstrate in Animal Consciousness that he did not hold the view so frequently attributed to him. In fact, they contend that Descartes distinguished two types of consciousness, which make it easier to discuss the conscious experiences of animals and to trace the debate into the post-Darwinian era.

Excerpt

In philosophy past and present, the prevailing attitude has been that any questions having to do with nonhuman animals are of decidedly secondary importance. Human nature poses one of the great problems of philosophy. By contrast, the problem of animal nature is a minor side issue, perhaps useful as an exercise in examining the limits of what it means to be human, but hardly worthy of extended treatment in its own right. Animals may be studied scientifically as part of the natural world, but their philosophical importance lies in what they lack. They are not just nonhuman, but less than human.

The time is long overdue for abandoning the anthropocentric approach to philosophy. Back in 1949 the Journal of Philosophy published an article entitled "The Messes Animals Make in Metaphysics." The author, B. A. G. Fuller, sketches some of the difficulties animals raise in various systems from the Stoics up to his own day. Animals have always threatened to make messes in philosophy. So long as animals are ignored, either as objects in the world or as perceivers, they will continue to make messes. As Fuller remarks at the end of his article, the animal issue illustrates "the treatment accorded by many a philosophy to inconvenient data, overlooked in the beginning, brazenly or with a blush, that turn up later to dispute and shock its pre-conceived notions. When the chickens come home to roost, it silently wrings their necks at the entrance to the coop, before they can get in and cackle" (Fuller 1949, 838).

Here we let the chickens cackle loud and clear. This book is about animals. We make no excuse that they are being studied in order to learn more about human nature. The zoocentric approach to philosophy is very fruitful. Certain issues in philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, even history of philosophy, take on new light when animals are given center stage.

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