What is the thomist account of ‘uniquely human’ traits?

Brandon gives a very good first critique of a recent article which speaks to “Six ‘uniquely’ human traits now found in animals”

I confess that I was rather puzzled on reading it; every single trait listed as a supposedly ‘uniquely human’ trait can be found attributed to non-human animals in some form by medieval and early modern Aristotelians — although, of course, they wouldn’t have had the range of accurate data in support of the attribution that we can have now. Was there ever really any scientific reason to think that any one of these was unique to human beings, or is it just that we were so deadened to the obvious (animals have emotions!) by Cartesianism and the like that we couldn’t see it for centuries? Or is it just that we have become so urban that none of us spend enough time working with animals and so lots of people really are so silly as to think that dogs, cats, horses, pigs, birds, etc., are ‘characterless’?

Some follow up points:

-St. Thomas and Aristotle divide propery human activity from non-human activity respectively by reason and instinct. This distinction is easy for us to misunderstand, for we tend to confuse instinct with the Cartesian account of instinct, which made allnon-rational activity totally mechanical. St. Thomas could never make such a claim about animal behavior- first of all because he had no experience of a machine that could serve as a model for such a claim, but most of all because it is beneath the ideas he had not only of living things, but even of merely natural inanimate things. In St. Thomas’s opinion, the sort of existence and order that one finds in a machine- no matter how noble and ingenious- is transcended even by a stone, and most certainly by a plant. Living beings (and all natural beings to a lesser extent) have a principle within them that preserves their existence in a way that no artifact can- an a famous example, Aristotle will quote Antiphon saying that if one plants a bed and it sprouted, it would grow a tree and not a bed. Our artifacts (like machines) provide us an indispensible likeness that serves as a point of departure to understand nature and life, but Descartes will take this likeness as proof of an identity between nature and art, while Arisotle and St. Thomas will also draw out the differences between nature and art. One of the most salient differences for the topic here is the way in which nature transcends any artifact, life transcends any mere nature, and animal life transcends what merely lives. The sphere of existence in which instinct arises, therefore, is separated by the double abyss that separates animals from mere “programmed machines”.

-The problem with the Cartesian view is only that he puts it forth as the only necessary account of life. Descartes’s analysis of life as a machine is necessary for an operable view of life. If we want to heal an animal (human or not, physically or mentally, and whether by prevention or cure!) we cannot go too far from the mechanical view of life. Aristotle and St. Thomas allowed for this sort of view, but they allowed for a multitude of different analyses as well. In a famous passage inDe Anima, Aristotle will describe the role of the one who studies life as having to account for both (what we would call) the ‘mechanical’ aspects of life and those that are less so: anger, says Aristotle, can be considered either  as a “boiling of blood around the heart” or “as a desire for revenge”. Clearly, if one was trying to develop drugs to treat anger, he would have to account for it in the same sort of way as the first account; if one were trying to deal with anger in a legal or moral way, they would have to account for anger more in the second way. Aristotle, however, says that the goal of the natural philosopher is to know life in both ways. This sort of distinction- which is takes as foundational in the study of life- provides a way in which we can see a deeper likeness between human and non-human animals than is afforded by the purely mechanical view. There are infact a multiude of different analyses that can divide behaviors, emotions, and even moral behavior in different ways. Certainly many of these analyses will show a likeness, if not an identity, between the behavior of human and non-human animals. If anger really was a boiling of blood around the heart, one could verify this every bit as much of a man as of a plucked chicken.

-When I read over the list of six traits, I couldn’t come up with a single example of one that was mentioned as distinctively human in St. Thomas or Aristotle. For them, man is defined properly by reason, and reason is most of all verified in speculative wisdom. None of the traits listed were even in the same genus as speculative thought, and I doubt it would cross anyone’s mind to test the hypothesis. Do we really need to ask whether non-human animals have developed systems of physics, speculative mathematics, and metaphysical wisdom? This clear absence of speculative thought (at least properly speaking) accounts for a certain unwillingness of thinkers like St. Thomas to attribute practical reason to animals as well (and thereby attributing it to instinct), for  sspeculative thought informs practical thought.

-Aristotle calls imagination- an interior sense power common to many species of animal- deliberative.  The critical refutation that the article has to make (at least if it wants to dethrone the Aristotelian-thomistic account of the difference between men and animals) is one denying the difference between reason and imagination, for if one is prepared to call imagination deliberative he opens up a whole universe of possible animal behaviors that will transcend anything like computer programming and which will, in fact, have an immense amount of overlap with the sorts of behaviors which feel like they are uniquely our own. The distinction between reason and imagination, however, rests on a mode of analysis that is not metrical and therefore not open to analysis by the scientific method. It rests on our experience of a universal term which transcends any object given by a sense power. Aristotle will describe the difference as between seeing flesh and seeing what flesh is (this role of the ‘what it is’ dovetails with the idea that reason is most of all speculative).



  1. Peter said,

    October 14, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Huh, this reminds me of that movie with Will Smith, I Robot (?). If I’m remembering correctly, it portrayed the distinguishing mark of man as “feelings”; which a robot managed to acquire. I have never been quite sure what we are supposed to take away from that.
    At any rate, that idea is probably a common belief today. I don’t know how often in past “commonsensical” generations people thought of reason as special in man — they probably had better things to do than think about it — but today people often seem set against it. There is a kind of fear of suggesting that man is unique, as if it were snobbish and uncouth to think you are in any meaningful way superior. Far from being an obvious thing, known by everyone, it has become something you avoid saying in public.
    Is it possible that this is yet another of the unnumbered examples of Political Correctness, pushed to a new extreme? For God’s sake: we wouldn’t want the animals to think that we think that they don’t think…right?
    Hmmmm… No. People just don’t want to seem scientifically un-hip or — God forbid! — resemble a Creationist. Ah, there’s the point of it:
    Scientists have spoken,
    Fear their scorn!

    In those rare moments when this topic comes up among relatives or friends, I have yet to hear one suggest that the difference of man is reason. If they’re religious they mumble something about a soul and leave it at that.
    Suggest that reason is the difference and they start talking about evolution, the “bee dance”, language and self-awareness experiments with dolphins, how smart their cat was, the size of a squid’s brain, and whatever they saw on the Science Channel last week. (“If only these evolutionarily-disadvantaged creatures had opposable thumbs! Doncha see!!??”)
    Such discussion usually bottom out when, after having toiled over every conceivable example of some animal doing something that men do, a desperate last-gasp attempt is made with a final point: what about aliens? “Boy, won’t your face be red when THEY show up!”

    On a slightly more serious note, I used to wonder if animals appreciated beauty. The easiest way to answer that question was to leave the cat in the house…only to find that it had singled out a nice spot on the $10,000 Persian rug on which it then pooped. A critic, perhaps?

  2. October 16, 2008 at 11:34 pm

    Ludwig von Mises argued that the word “instinct” is but a placeholder for something we don’t understand, because animal behavior can be studied neither by natural sciences nor by praxeology. The relevant passages are in Human Action, 27-28, “On the Serviceableness of Instincts.”

    He writes also: “Behaviorism proposes to study human behavior according to the methods developed by animal and infant psychology. It seeks to investigate reflexes and instincts, automatisms and unconscious reactions. But it has told us nothing about the reflexes that have built cathedrals, railroads, and fortresses, the instincts that have produced philosophies, poems, and legal systems, the automatisms that have resulted in the growth and decline of empires, the unconscious reactions that are splitting atoms.”

%d bloggers like this: