Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Animal Cognition: An Aristotelean-Thomistic Perspective

Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Animal Cognition: An Aristotelean-Thomistic Perspective

Article excerpt

Philosophers from Plato and Aristotle until Kant and beyond have disagreed about many philosophical questions but all have agreed that humans are rational and animals are not. The distinction perhaps flows most clearly from Aristotle's definition of humans as rational animals, in which he noted that animals and humans share sensation, perception, and memory but not intellect. Aquinas and other philosopher-theologians of the middle ages agreed. Descartes took this distinction much further when he famously proclaimed the difference as one of two distinct substances, thus launching the mind-body dispute, still a topic of great concern today. Locke held for the distinction, as did Kant who concluded that animals cannot think about themselves and, therefore, are not rational. It should be noted that one well known modern philosopher, David Hume, dissented and declared that it was simply obvious to him that animals have reason (Hume, 1888/1965, p. 176), based on the fact that animals' actions were adapted to their needs. We might note here that it is not entirely clear that the meaning of "rationality" or "reason" or "intellect" held exactly the same meaning across the enormous span of time separating Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas from Locke, Kant, or Hume, particularly given Descartes' greatly changed idea of the rational as derived from an entirely separate substance; indeed, it is emphatically clear that "reason" in, for example, Hume's explanation of animal reason is not the same as rationality, reason, or intellect for Aristotle.

The shift away from this distinction began in the nineteenth century and, though often now attributed to the work of Darwin, who proclaimed that, "The difference in mind, between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is one of degree and not of kind" (Darwin, 1874, p. 143), the movement toward a belief in a single continuum including humans and other animals was already well established by the time of Darwin's Origin of Species. As described by Robinson (1981, pp. 361-363), the notion of the continuum had begun to be articulated in the Enlightenment attacks on Descartes, and the idea of progress had become very widely held, even by people who otherwise agreed on very little. This intellectual environment created a fertile ground for the birth of comparative psychologies. Indeed, Gall had already forcefully stated a biologically-based continuum 50 years before Darwin's Origin of Species (Robinson, 1981, p. 362). Interestingly, however, the belief in the continuum has taken very different forms over the last two centuries.

Darwin's contemporary, naturalist George Romanes (1882/1970), held there was a continuity of "the psychological" throughout the animal kingdom, which, in his view, included humans. In some ways (e.g., his focus on observable behavior, his insistence on continuity between human and non-human animals), Romanes sounds like a contemporary comparative psychologist. In other ways, however, Romanes is very different. Importantly, Romanes's continuum between human and non-human animals was constructed with the wholesale importation of (human) mentalistic conceptions applied to non-human animals; in fact, Romanes creates a very anthropomorphic version of the continuum. As Robinson (1981, p. 364) puts it, "Thus, Romanes concludes that ants practice slavery, that the termite queen summons an audience, and that the trap-door spider learns how to prevent illegal entries!"

In the twentieth century, this shift greatly intensified in the disciplines of biology, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. Psychology, during its lengthy period of behaviorism, tended to view animal behavior and learning as governed solely by the principles of learning and conditioning. Notice the continuum, in this period, is entirely reversed in "direction" compared to that of Romanes, just 50 or so years earlier. Now, under the behaviorist position, there is to be no anthropomorphic importation of human characteristics to the non-human animals. …

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