Chapter 3 Structure and Key Questions

In: Animal Rationality
Anselm Oelze
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Later medieval theories of animal rationality were part of a larger discourse on (nonhuman) animals. It is important to understand this background before discussing these theories in more detail. Therefore, Part 1 provides some information on the role animals played in the Middle Ages, especially in medieval philosophy (Chapter 4). Briefly speaking, their philosophical role was to function as a sort of litmus test. This function derived from the common view of the metaphysical status of animals and, more precisely, from the usual and widely accepted distinction between the sensory souls they have and the intellectual souls of human beings. On the one hand, this psychological distinction drew a clear line between humans and other animals. Any kind of capacity found both in human and in nonhuman animals was easily identified as a capacity of the sensory (part of the) soul. To this belonged, for instance, simple perceptions but also memory (Chapter 5). By contrast, the cognition of universals or the formation of concepts, judging, and reasoning were usually taken to form the triad of intellectual operations (Chapter 6). On the other hand, this distinction was put to the test by the observation of comparatively complex, human-like behaviour in nonhuman animals. The question was: Could such behaviour be brought about by the powers of the sensory soul or must one ascribe intellectual powers to nonhuman animals? Accordingly, despite the seemingly clear boundary, there were obvious grey areas (Chapter 7). But how did authors of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries deal with these grey areas?

The main parts of this study will address this question by looking at the three main intellectual operations, namely, universal cognition and concept formation (Part 2), judging (Part 3), and reasoning (Part 4). Although it was commonly held that nonhuman animals cannot engage in any of these operations, several questions arose with respect to each of them. For instance, do sheep see wolves or grey, furry patches? Put differently, do they see something as something – for instance, as something dangerous – like we do by means of concepts or is their perception of the world entirely different from our way of seeing things? How do nonhuman animals (mentally) represent things? Do they only represent this or that particular thing or can they also form some general representations, such as of water, for example, when looking for a drink? Furthermore, are their reactions to the stimuli they perceive based on acts of judgment? Do sheep flee wolves because they judge that wolves are dangerous? And if they do, how is this compatible with the definition of judgments as propositions? In modern terms, shall we ascribe propositional attitudes to other animals? And shall we go even further and grant them the capacity to reason, too? For how else could we explain their capacity for problem solving? When we deal with novel situations we think or reason about what would be the best thing to do, so why should not other animals handle such situations in the same way? It is these and other questions that will be discussed in Parts 2 to 4, which look at different late medieval answers given to them.

Part 5 then turns to what medieval thinkers called ‘prudence’ (prudentia). Prudence is slightly different from capacities like judging or reasoning, at least insofar as it is not part of the triad of intellectual operations. However, it is often mentioned in connection with nonhuman animals’ cognitive capacities. In a way, one could say that prudence is (or was) the medieval analogue of our modern notion of animal intelligence because even those authors who clearly denied any kind of rational operations to other animals did not refrain from calling them prudent. But what does it mean to say that an animal is prudent or behaves prudently? According to the common definition which medieval authors adopted from ancient thinkers, acting prudently means to do something in the present by memory of past events and with foresight of future events. Many animals, such as ants, seem to do this when storing food for the winter months. But do they really have something like memory and foresight? And how do these compare to the human capacity to remember and plan? Are other animals as prudent as we are or shall we say that calling them ‘prudent’ is just metaphorical speech? Like in Parts 2 to 4, it will become clear that different answers were given to these questions.

The variety of answers is what then leads to Part 6. This final part will offer a closer comparison of later medieval and contemporary theories (Chapters 30 and 31) as well as an evaluation of the various explanatory strategies seen in Parts 2 to 5 (Chapters 32 and 33). The evaluation draws on a distinction that is often made in modern (animal) philosophy, namely, the distinction between differentialism and assimilationism. Usually, differentialists are taken to argue that there is a fundamental difference between us and other animals. Assimilationists, in contrast, are said to hold the view that this difference is only a matter of degree. In their opinion, we are much more similar to other animals than the differentialist perspectives leads us to believe. Now, prima facie, all medieval authors must be classified as differentialists because by denying the faculties of intellect and reason to nonhuman animals they obviously establish a fundamental or anthropological difference. Yet, if one classifies all medieval theories in this way, one risks losing sight of their variety. Hence, it is worth looking at what unites and what distinguishes the different theories of animal rationality. As it turns out, most, if not all late medieval authors agreed on a metaphysical differentialism. Nonetheless, they chose different strategies for dealing with this metaphysical premise and so they differed from a methodological point of view.

This is an important point also with regard to the comparison between medieval and modern theories of animal rationality because most modern scholars are inclined to see a sharp contrast between modern and medieval theories. Quite often, the latter are reduced to the denial of reason without asking what actually follows from this denial. Does this denial of rational powers or faculties automatically lead to the denial of rationality, that is, to the denial of rational processes or operations? Or did at least some medieval authors allow for what might be called ‘rationality without reason’? In other words, did they deny faculty rationality but ascribe process rationality to nonhuman animals? As will be shown, there are at least some authors who can be read in this way. But even for those who did not go into this direction, there is an important parallel in comparison to contemporary theories of animal rationality: they all struggled with the question of how to define the cognitive processes that underlie a certain behaviour. This question remains an issue in modern research. And so even if the present book is unlikely to advance contemporary theories of animal rationality, it will hopefully elucidate some of the fundamental philosophical problems that unite past and present theories.

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