Dialogue on what we know

A: Is there a difference between what a human being knows and what an animal knows?

B: No. How could there be? A human being is an animal.

A: Aren’t human beings defined by a cognitive power beyond what animals have?

B: Absolutely – but it doesn’t change what they know, only how they know it. The thing we know is the same thing any animal knows, but we don’ know it in the way that animals know it. There is a modal distinction between human and merely animal knowledge, and not a difference of what is known.

A: What does it mean to be modally different?

B: To be a different way. Ways are different by diversity with respect to some one end or some one beginning. If we say the ways to Paris and London are different, we are assuming a common starting point; if we say two ways are different, we tend to mean that they share a common goal, but are diverse in the order of their means. At any rate, it’s what I mean here. Human beings and animals tend to the same known object as a goal – a sensible thing. They differ in that the human being does not have to know it in the way that sense knows things while an animal must know it in this way.

A: What difference does this modal difference make?

B: A great deal of difference. For example, it’s what allows the human mind to know about God, the soul, and truths of metaphysics.

A: But these are all objects that animals can’t know! How can you say that there is no difference between what humans and animals know if one knows God and the other doesn’t?

B: Because God isn’t what is known. We know is the same thing an animal knows, but we can know it as a creature. It’s not that we see God and the creature in one glance, then relate the one to the other: God is simply what is known as other than creature as cause.God is not some new thing in consciousness, but a judgment about a relation common to all creatures to another.

A: But then you need a sense of cause that animals don’t have. I don’t see how you avoid the problem.

B: I’d say the same thing I just said since God just is the cause of the creature; if God need not be some new thing in consciousness beyond the creature, then the cause need not be some new thing in consciousness beyond the creature.It’s not that we need some account of cause that we know is transcendent, we know it is transcendent when we conclude to God being the cause.

A: This seems like wordplay. How can you say God is not included in what man knows?

B: Because if you speak like this you are not true to your own experience and it allows for a synthesis of Post-Kantian thought and a more classical metaphysics that argued for the cogency of theistic proofs. God just isn’t what you know, and if you had to back this up with arguments, there are hundreds in various philosophers. But if we distinguish between what we know and how we know it, we allow for a synthesis.


  1. RP said,

    May 24, 2011 at 1:26 am

    “But if we distinguish between what we know and how we know it, we allow for a synthesis.”

    Isn’t this distinction a difference between what an animal knows and what we know?

    • May 24, 2011 at 6:04 am

      The synthesis in that quotation is of different philosophical opinions on the knowability of things beyond sensation.

      • RP said,

        May 27, 2011 at 2:56 am

        Divine inspiration? Intuition? Self-evident principles? At least in divine inspiration it would be hard to say it’s something an animal could know. Does it count as a “what”?

  2. Joel Feil said,

    May 25, 2011 at 6:53 am

    Doesn’t this depend on how you are using the word “animal”?

    If by animal you simply mean the genus, then, of course, b/c what “animal” will know will be identical with what “rational animal” will know. But if “animal” is being used to mean “irrational animal,” as is frequently done in common speech, then, strictly speaking, no. Irrational animals don’t know anything at all.

    “but it doesn’t change what they know, only how they know it. The thing we know is the same thing any animal knows, but we don’ know it in the way that animals know it. ”

    Again, isn’t this inaccurate, strictly speaking? Animals don’t really know anything. They may have sense perception of the things we know, but I wouldn’t think one would say that they have knowledge as such. For our intellect knows form separated from matter, and obviously, whatever sort of estimative power animals have is not like this.

    While you obviously know all this and are speaking metaphorically, it seems to me that these considerations may raise problems for your thesis. I’m not sure if I follow your explanation about knowledge of cause not being distinct, but I’d say that most if not all of logic is something that animals don’t “know” (used however loosely and metaphorically as you like). I have knowledge that the Barbara syllogism is valid, and while this knowledge may have come from induction from physical experience, I now know it to be true independent of any individual physical experience, etc. This seems to me to be (now) a separate object of knowledge, and one that animals don’t “know.”

    In any event, a very interesting post.

    Hope this made some sense!

    • May 25, 2011 at 8:06 am

      I’m writing in dialogue form because I have no thesis. This isn’t a disguised treatise – it’s real dialectic. I have sympathies with B but his position has some extreme elements.

      B holds that we can know everything in a thomistic metaphysics. On his account of how this happens, a metaphysical object arises from a certain mode of seeing a sensible things, as opposed to being some thing in addition to the sensible. The difference is important. B’s claim is that the objects of natural science and metaphysics differ by a modal distinction in one and the same thing known (the concrete sensible things known both to animals and man).

      Again, there is a difference between saying that men know x and y while animals only know x, (which is how A imagined the difference between men and animals, and seems to be how you see it too) and saying that both men and animals know only x, but men know it in a way that animals cannot (this is B’s idea).

      • thenyssan said,

        May 25, 2011 at 8:24 am

        How about this:

        Man and Beast both encounter Knowable-O. Clearly in this sense what is known is the same. One difference lies in the effect Knowable-O produces in the two respective knowers. A different kind of intelligible begins to exist in each knower.

        I’m not sure that’s the same as saying that the difference in Man-knowing and Beast-knowing is purely modal. Is the intelligible that begins to exist in the knower the object of knowledge–that thing on which all “cognitive gymnastics” operate? In which case there really is a difference in object and not just in mode.

      • Joel Feil said,

        May 25, 2011 at 9:15 am


        But I think what I am (clumsily) trying to say is somewhat different from what I understand A to be saying.

        How would B respond if I rephrased my point as follows: Logic is obviously a tool for knowing, but once one has some experience using this tool, one can then reflect upon that experience and make logic the object of knowledge. So then what started out being a mode of understanding ends up becoming the object of understanding. And this it seems to me the animals do not share (properly speaking), because even if we can loosely or imperfectly speak of the animal’s knowledge, we wouldn’t speak of the animals syllogism, let alone of the animal’s (reflective) knowledge of syllogism. (Something similar could be said about how one comes to know that one has an intellect.) How would B respond then?

        Your post is quite thought-provoking, and I’m not sure of the final answer in all of this, but, at the very least, it seems to me that this is distinct from A’s argument about our knowledge of God.

      • May 25, 2011 at 2:29 pm

        Good objection. What would he say?

        Perhaps B’s simplest response is that logic is only different from metaphysics in this: while metaph. has to actively and positively separate from the sensible (by way of causality, analogy, and one kind of negation) logic simply doesn’t consider or prescinds from the sensible. There is still a separation involved, but one that can be simply done by fiat, and without any argument. But separation is separation, and it presupposes some anchor in sensible things. And so the same way that we would account for metaphysics arising from a mode could be used for logic.

        More modestly, he could deal with the principle of logic, the universal, which strikes me not as a thing known but as a mode of knowing a thing, and to reflect on the universal is to do nothing other than to reflect on it as a mode. Our ability to reflect on the features that the universal has as a mode of knowing doesn’t obliterate the important division between a thing known and a mode of knowing.

        I see the argument clearly enough: if a mode can be known, it can be an object. At the very least, this is an secondary meaning of “object”. If one takes the mode of knowing as an object, then this can only be known after another, prior sense of “object” which is opposed to mode. We don’t discover a new object, we impose a new meaning on the term “object” which can only be known after a prior, more known meaning.

        Another objection from A would be that B seems to be in danger falling in light of St. Thomas’s account of “object” at the beginning of the De trinitate. It’s not clear to me that B has a coherent account of what counts as a “different object”, and whether his argument can stand in light of it.

  3. thenyssan said,

    May 25, 2011 at 7:14 am

    The ambiguous term isn’t animal; it’s “know.” Sense perception is a mode of knowledge and animals really have it. Restricting “know” to the rational is acceptably colloquial but it’s Cartesian rather than Thomistic. There are lots of places you could go in Thomas to see more about this: it seems to follow quickly and easily from the first disputed question on truth. The one I use in my class is ST I-II Q6 a2 (especially the resp).

%d bloggers like this: