Is man a rational animal?

Since Plato, the way to find what is essential to X is to start with some general or indistinct concept and add differences until one hits X. On this account, the essential must be conceptual.  So what if the thing most essential to man is some mode of relation to being? One of the first things that we figured out about being is that it is non-conceptual, or, if one wanted to call it conceptual, it is absolutely not one of the concepts used in the Platonic process of definition. So long as we are trading in concepts, being, or any relation to being is either worthless or given, and in either case forgettable. So the attempt to find what is essential to the person in this way would overlook what was most essential to him.

Go further: if “rational” is proportionate to “being”, then it is not obvious that it can serve as a specific difference. Powers are understood through their objects. In fact,  they are really just the object itself in one of its modes.

Set out a Porphyrian tree with “irrational” and “rational” as the last division. So we’ve reached the human person. But what is the lesson? Is it that man is a part of reality or that we locate anything in the context of the totality of things? Taken in the second way, the totality itself becomes our one essential partner in locating any nature. On this account, the whole tree becomes the specific difference of a man. This is a metaphor, since it is not the difference of some concept but of being. This is another way of separating man from all other things, since neither animals nor angels make such trees. The animal has no communion with being, the angel’s communion doesn’t require tree-making. Say it another way: some start the Porphryian tree with “being”. We know you can’t, for it admits of no differences. But the sense in doing so is that we must locate all things within that field, and so we essentially relate to the field of being. Our attempt to locate things moves by way of things (sc. concepts) that are never adequate to the field from which we essentially start, and so to attempt to define man through such concepts is essentially inadequate.


  1. JJ said,

    April 1, 2012 at 12:57 am

    Have we been reading Heidegger?

  2. April 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Certainly the attempt to define man through concepts is going to be inadequate, but there may be another sense of being at hand here. But it seems like you are trying to define “person” and not just “human”. The making of a Porphyrian tree, it is true, means that the human beings that make them generally are rational. But there is something about human beings with regard to “being conceptually” that is not expressible in those terms adequately.

    Spaemann says some good stuff with regard to personhood. Hopefully this helps.

    This is from my paper on him.

    “Third, and finally among the phenomena concerning persons (for the purposes of this paper; there are many more) we have the notion of transcendence. The person “gets beyond” that which is merely given in sensation in conceptual analysis and willing from that analysis. This fact discloses itself in intentional acts. Because they can conceptually abstract universals from particulars, and consider things according to theory and not only that which is immediately given in sensation, persons are capable of acting intentionally even with regard to ends which are, at the moment, beyond their capacity to achieve. This extends into the act of knowing and abstraction, which gradually enlarges the horizon of intentionality, a process by which one has philosophy, the “highest level of abstraction.” In philosophy, the person is capable of reaching to the most general notion that is “being”, in which is contained all intentional objects and into which the person can even subsume itself as one among many, as “a being.”

    Beyond this, though, is a second level of transcendence, leading to a further concept of being-in-itself. On one level, the first level of transcendence, we may reach to a conception of being which, however it may encompass everything we intend, is only on the level of the intended object. This is the sort of being the phenomenon has as a phenomenon; the being of an intentional object, according to this most general concept, is to be intentional and only intentional. On the second level of transcendence, where the person transcends not only the immediacy of the unreflective world of mere sensation, but also the realm of conceptual abstraction as such, one reaches the point where one not only recognizes that they themselves are a thing of the sort that they are (knowing, willing, etc.), but that there is some Other like them in being-in-itself and not merely as an intentional object; it is rather the condition of there being any intentional objects, because there must be some person existing-in-itself to intend them. This is the escape from solipsism in which one discovers the condition (the existence of the Other) by which the recognition of personhood is possible.”

    He says some stuff about being as “concept on the Porphyrian tree” vs. Being-in-itself:

    “There is a tendency in modern science to simulate life in order to understand its nature. But the only things that can be simulated are qualities and quantities. A qualitative identity can be either real or unreal. The indexical identity of the self cannot be simulated, for it is not available as the object of a theoretical intention. It is available only to recognition and to the faith that recognition implies. Only in this way can we refer with precision. ‘Objects’ are merely things that I ‘have’, and an object of intention exists only in relation to the ‘having’ of some subject. The centre of being [and here he uses the same term ‘Selbstsein’ as he uses to mean being-in-itself] that evokes our transcendence, the other person, stands to us in a relation of reciprocity. I am a part of her world, as she is a part of mine. I exist for her as she exists for me. On this reciprocal relation is founded the metaphysical realism that is decisive for persons. It is a necessary condition for intentionality, too, though not to be reduced to intentionality.”

    Then he says this about being-in-itself (Selbstsein):

    ““Being-in-itself”, by definition, is not an object of intention. It does not arise at the level of the intentional object. If, when I speak with my friend the next day, [Spaemann is using the example of a friend one has had a dream about] he assures me that he did not go for a walk with me, perhaps that, too, is only a dream, but I have absolutely no way of finding out, since no-one can know whether it is so but my friend. Being-in-itself implies that being is radically plural. There is no continuum that leads from what I know to what you know, from the pain I experience to the pain you experience. Everybody knows this. Everybody knows that there is someone else, ‘the other.’ I know I am the other person’s other person, yet am not exhaustively accounted by what the other knows of me. Nor is the way I appear to the other merely a modification of his state, something that I have brought about in him that can be neither false nor true as such. It is I who appear to him, I who am the measure of the adequacy of what he sees. The question whether he judges right or wrong when he says I am in pain is not settled by the coherence of his perceptions; it is settled solely by my pain, the pain I actually have. This is something we both know. Only I can finally confirm his judgement of my pain.”

    So there’s a lot of middle stuff there in the understanding of humanity and the understanding of “personhood”, which I think you are discussing more properly there. I think you and Spaemann come together remarkably; he says it is characteristic of a person that we relate differently to our own natures than other beings do.

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