The Knowledge of Animals

I am increasingly startled by the confidence with which thinkers describe the thought process of animals. It appears that all one needs to know is what distinguishes humans from animals, then subtract that aspect in order to arrive at a model of the animal mind. Once we know what the animal mind is like, we can show how different it is from the human mind. Then concrete examples can be used: for instance, animals seldom get caught in tautologies — that is man’s unique privilege.

It does seem likely to me that there are qualitative degrees of intelligence, consciousness, or whatever you want to call it. I just do not see the reason for assuming that human beings stand absolutely alone on this side of whatever qualitative leap came last. Are we really willing to say that a dog’s mental life is closer to that of an ant than that of a human being? Is it possible that “lower” forms of life have in fact suffered from the short-circuit of self-consciousness without having the brain capacity to put it to the same range of uses as we do? Indeed, what if it isn’t even our brain capacity so much as the particular form of our bodies that enables us to make such exemplary use of consciousness? What if consciousness, as it were, “called for” the human body — flexible enough to be able to assume a variety of forms of life, weak enough to require both tools and social structures?

(I’m not proposing to answer these questions, of course.)

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19 Responses to “The Knowledge of Animals”

  1. Alex Says:

    Thats a very Wittgensteinian/Heideggerian answer seemingly – ‘in the beginning was the deed’. Action makes us conscious.

  2. Dominic Says:

    Whilst tripping the other day, I found out what it was like to be a bat. In a word: awesome!

  3. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I just had this conversation the other day. It makes up part of my Aquinas and Spinoza paper.

  4. Adam Says:

    Wow, I really am becoming a Neo-Smithian.

  5. Alex Says:

    We all are. Shit.

  6. BT Says:

    I agree, the differences between different species’ types of embodied consciousnesses is much more mysterious than we’d often like to think. (For example…see the elephant self-portrait footage; also Simon Conway Morris’ stuff on some level of self-conscious intelligence as a convergent property of evolution, etc. (parrots, dolphins, elephants, etc.) — he’s anti-creationist, anti-ID, but a bit like Bergson, arguing that a certain sense of teleology can still come about via contingent mechanisms, etc.)

  7. Craig Says:

    Anthony, I would like to read your paper on Spinoza and animality (I’ll be writing in a similar area later this summer).

  8. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    I’ll pass it along to when it is finished. It’s not really on animality as such, but that comes into play as I look at their respective philosophies and theologies of nature.

  9. Lloyd Mintern Says:

    Man doesn’t have to think his way out of being an animal; he has to think his way into a sympathetic identification with it. Essentially, man is absolutely different from nature. One would think theology students would have a handle on this . . . order of creation.

  10. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    What do you mean by essence? How is humanity “absolutely different from nature”? What do you mean by “order of creation” that hasn’t already been shown to be part of a myth to help humanity’s self-esteem? Have you read Lovejoy? Or, for that matter, Lovelock?

  11. Alex Says:

    The idea that ‘man is absolutely different from nature’ is somewhat glib. Although its a good soundbite, Christian theology has never really understood man as not part of nature, from the patristics onwards and certainly not as “absolutely different” from it, it is no where near as bold as this. Sure, they might insert that man as the summation of nature, but one of the key themes is attempting to understand the relationship between God and nature, or more accurately grace and nature – which for Aquinas appears to end up that a combination of the two, that grace completes, but does not erase nature, and this goes for man as well as the rest of creation (this is why Jesus is the perfect human, because he in fact is for Aquinas and others, the only “complete” human – this is part of Thomas’ version of the atonement). Man is but another thing attempting to move towards it ends in a teleologically ordered universe. It is only later developments that cause man to believe he is radically ‘above’ nature, instrumentally capable of manipulating it, and divorced from it, developments that in modernity have been largely revealed as bunk.

  12. Alex Says:

    PS. Naturally, in regard to the post, I am not claiming that these people had a good or just view of animals. Or claiming that their view of hierarchically ordered and teleologically orientated nature of which man is an element of and not radically divorced from is correct, just that the notion of nature (or one of the notions of nature) conceived in modernity is different from this, as man is radically above it. Just that there view of nature was not something Lloyd thinks it is.

  13. Lloyd Mintern Says:

    Did I say man was “above” nature? Recognizing a difference does not establish any priority. Most of the time man in fact worships nature and strives to be an animal. But he can’t do it. He is a stranger in nature. Difference is absolute, or it isn’t difference; you can wrangle with the fact, and rationalize the difference but it remains. Christianity isn’t so subtle, and Jesus is not a mediator, or the “perfect human”–for God’sake! (Except in some overwrought theology.)

  14. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    You’re still not making sense to me. This likely has to do with the way you are using words without explaining how you understand them and that your making strong assertions without explanation. What would it even mean to say that humanity, or man as you like to say, tries to be an animal but can’t? I’m also not exactly sure what you mean by saying man is a stranger in nature. Do you think non-human animals are at home in nature? If nature isn’t our home where or what is it? As to the absolute nature of difference, what do you mean by absolute? It seems perfectly conceivable to talk about the difference between humanity and non-human animals in terms of an absolute difference, but as you say, this implies no priority and it also implies that the absolute, as difference, matters very little. If you want to posit an absolute difference of the kind most people do you’re going to have the difficulty of figuring out where that difference lies, and you’ve yet to grace us with that particular information.

  15. Alex Says:

    Although I think Lloyd is wrong (or more accurately I don’t understand what he is saying), there is a certain Bataille style thing to the understanding that man is alienated from nature.

    In Theory of Religion man, because of partly his use of tools and ability to create object, split subject and object, and therefore make himself an object, is alienated from nature, but animals are in nature like immanently – “every animal is in the world like water in water.” Religion, like Lloyd says, is a search for lost intimacy with nature, which is why it tends traditionally to be frenzied, remove individuality and social roles into a crazy mix up. I think there is something to this.

  16. NotOften Says:

    Max Weber mentions the study of animals in Economy and Society (Ed. Roth and Wittich) page 15. For Weber, it is incredibly difficult for humans to understand animals because we cannot possibly relate to their subjective states. Human anger is very different than animal anger, we might presume. I guess this is what you were suggesting in your post, Adam. This difference is undecidable. We might be able to understand better the relationship between animals and humans, but not animals as such.

  17. Craig Says:

    Yes – it’s an interesting passage in E&S: I was re-reading it for one of my lectures on Weber a couple weeks ago. Quite interesting.

    APS – thanks!

  18. cantueso Says:

    Responses to “The Knowledge of Animals”
    Quote “Alex”:

    “Thats a very Wittgensteinian/Heideggerian answer seemingly – ‘in the beginning was the deed’. Action makes us conscious.”

    “In the beginning was the deed” was launched by Goethe. Faust sits in his study room trying to translate a Bible text and decides that the beginning can’t have been “a word”. So he tries other translations and ends up with “the deed”.

    I think that “Dominic” did the right thing by turning himself into a bat. We should all follow his example to see what it feels like to be a bat. That is true science : experiment-based.

    Make sure all conditions are reversible.

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