Transcript: 235. Juhana Toivanen on Animals in Medieval Philosophy

Medieval ideas about what animals do and do not have in common with humans, and how we should treat them.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Medieval philosophers, when they think about animals, are responding mostly to the Aristotelian tradition. And in the Aristotelian tradition, there's a pretty strong contrast between animal nature and human nature, even though humans are, of course, a kind of animal as well, which we'll get on to discussing. But what would be the traditional dividing line, according to Aristotelian philosophy, between humans and non-human animals?

Juhana Toivanen: Well, the basic idea that is at the bottom of medieval thinking is the Aristotelian distinction into three different kinds of souls. Vegetative, sensitive and rational. They give different kinds of powers to various kinds of beings. And simply put, human beings are those animals that are capable of doing rational operations like understanding universals, reasoning conclusions from premises, and also acting freely. We also have to remember that in the middle ages, the difference was also metaphysical. I mean, it's not only that we are capable of doing different things, but it's also that we have an immaterial, immortal soul. And that's always at the bottom of the medieval views.

Peter Adamson: So medieval philosophers would all agree that when an animal dies, it just dies and ceases to exist. Whereas when a human dies, he or she lives on. Well, despite that contrast: humans think - animals don't, humans live on after the death of the body - animals don't. But humans are still actually a kind of animal. I mean, the canonical definition of human is "a rational, mortal animal." So clearly there must be something we share with animals as well. So what are the kind of faculties then that we have in common with animals that licenses the Aristotelian tradition to define us as a kind of animal?

Juhana Toivanen: Basically, all the capacities and powers that animals have, humans have as well. So in the rational soul in the Aristotelian system that was accepted by medievals, all the powers of the lower types of souls belong to the higher kinds. So the rational gives all the abilities that animals have plus the intellectual abilities. So more concretely, medieval philosophers thought that human beings have the five familiar external senses. And on top of that, kind of some, a bunch of more complex psychological capacities that work in what they called in the 'internal senses.' Then of course, human beings have emotions, which we share with other animals. Then it's a kind of more complicated question whether these powers function in a similar way in human beings as they do in non-human animals.

Peter Adamson: So you mean we can see and a dog can see, but something different might be happening when we see them when a dog sees?

Juhana Toivanen: Yes, that's a possible way of thinking. And there are some medieval authors who explicitly say that human beings perceive in a different way just because we are also rational beings. But my impression is that not all think in this way. But there are some medieval authors who also think that at least some of the sensory processes are exactly the same in non-human animals and in us.

Peter Adamson: Okay, well, if we focus then on sensation for a moment, since that seems to be the most obvious thing that we share with non-human animals, do they pretty much understand by sensation the same thing that Aristotle understood by sensation? Or do we see development in theories of sensation in the medieval period?

Juhana Toivanen: In principle, they developed theories of perception in the Aristotelian framework. But they also inherited other elements. And one significant difference to some - obviously it was a big discussion in the Middle Ages, how perception actually takes place. And one of the biggest differences to Aristotelian theories that some authors defended was the idea that the mind is somehow active in perception. So that we have to pay attention to the external world in order to perceive it in the first place. So for instance, Peter Olivi argues strongly that without this kind of paying attention to the external world, we wouldn't perceive anything. And he bases his whole theory of perception on this kind of active involvement with the world.

Peter Adamson: So it's like you're conscious of what you're perceiving? Would that be an anachronistic way of saying it? I mean, there's maybe light coming into your eyes or images forming in your eyes. And then his idea is that you see because your soul is attending to what's happening in your eyes. Is that the idea?

Juhana Toivanen: I think it's even more radical actually. Okay, something is coming to your eyes, but that is not perception. Perception is when you direct your attention to an object. And he kind of seems to separate these two processes from each other.

Peter Adamson: Okay. And he would say that that's true of animals as well, even lower animals. Like when a chicken sees some corn on the ground, it's directing its attention to something in the same way that we do.

Juhana Toivanen: Yes. Well, that's how I understand his theory. Because the other option is that he doesn't have a theory of perception that applies to animals at all. And that seems a rather counterintuitive view. Plus there are some internal reasons for his thinking to attribute this kind of activity of the soul even to non-human animals.

Peter Adamson: You mentioned just a minute ago that it's not only the five familiar external senses, sight, hearing, etc. That we share in common with animals, but that there are some higher internal senses that animals have that we also have. And these are senses that were first postulated by Avicenna, I guess, or maybe first systematized by Avicenna. And the medievals do take this on. So what do they do with this idea? Or maybe first explain what they are and then explain what they do with this idea.

Juhana Toivanen: Well, the basic idea is that animals apparently act in ways that cannot be explained completely by appealing only to perception. I mean, the famous example from Avicenna is the sheep which flees a wolf without having any experience of the dangerousness of the wolf. So the scientific explanation for this was that we have to postulate some kind of psychological powers into animals which explain this behavior.

Peter Adamson: Because the sheep can't just see dangerousness in the wolf, or hostility in the wolf, because that's not a visual feature of the wolf. The wolf can be seen to be gray, maybe, but not dangerous. And I guess probably there aren't too many sheep running around who have had intimate familiarity with the hostility of wolves, because they got eaten. So you're saying that when the sheep sees the wolf, it has some other faculty through which it perceives that the wolf is hostile.

Juhana Toivanen: Or somehow grasps the hostility of the wolf. There were different ways of explaining how this actually happens. But on top of that, obviously, being able to remember things, being able to learn things, being able to imagine things that are not present and more special ways of perceiving things. For instance, the Aristotelian common sensibles and stuff like that. So these were all kind of psychological functions that were explained by appealing to so-called internal senses, the common sense, estimation, imagination, memory, and sometimes some other senses.

Peter Adamson: That all sounds pretty familiar from Avicenna. Are they really just taking that over from him or did they change the theory in various ways? For one thing, probably, Olivi would say that we have to attend to the object of an internal sense, just like we have to attend to the object of an external sense. And that's not necessarily something we find in Avicenna.

Juhana Toivanen: Yeah, they took Avicenna's theory, they kind of liked it. They took it as a kind of very good scientific theory of animal psychology. But they obviously continued to discuss about the details of the theory. And in some respects they also developed the theory in some directions. And they also challenged many features of the theory. I mean, Olivi's prime example, because he actually argues that there's only one internal sense, namely the common sense. And then he goes on to explain how all the psychological functions can be done by the single common sense.

Peter Adamson: So it's like a one faculty fits all.

Juhana Toivanen: Kind of, yes. And I think one of his motivations is actually related to this paying attention idea. If there's one central power in the soul which pays attention, it's kind of easier to explain that that power is kind of centralizing power in the soul. And it pays attention either to the external world or to the memory or something else.

Peter Adamson: That's a remarkably exciting idea, I think, because it sounds a lot like a sort of Cartesian center of consciousness or something like that. And I think it's remarkable that would have emerged as a proposal that would cover both humans and non-human animals, even if he's presumably mostly interested in the human case. Or am I getting too excited about this?

Juhana Toivanen: No, I think you are getting as excited as you should.

Peter Adamson: OK. Well, I mean, from all that, it seems to follow that we in fact have a lot in common with animals, at least according to certain authors. It's not just that they have the five external senses, but they have these very high level cognitive powers. And the only thing they really lack is universal understanding. And actually, most humans lack universal understanding, too. And it seems to me that that should give the medievals a reason to treat animals benevolently. In fact, maybe even treat animals as well as you would treat any human who doesn't engage in scientific understanding. Or like, if I have a non-philosopher neighbor, then in a way the neighbor is in the same situation as a cow, right? Because the cow and the neighbor are engaging in all the same psychological activities. So do they actually draw that kind of ethical inference?

Juhana Toivanen: I think this is a very interesting question, although it must be admitted that it wasn't central for medievals. And again, a systematic study on this topic would be really welcome to the scholarship. But in general, I think medieval philosophers shared the rather widespread idea from antiquity that animals exist for the sake of human beings. And they found this obviously in the Bible, but also in Aristotle's politics, where Aristotle argues that plants exist for the sake of animals and animals exist for the sake of human beings. The basic point was for them that human beings are above the rest of the creation. So it is actually okay to use animals in order to sustain one's life. But occasionally they argue that there are some kind of limits to this use of animals. Namely, that you may use animals in order to sustain your life, but you may not use them more than is sufficient for sustaining your life. So otherwise you would be abusing animals. So this idea appears in medieval texts.

Peter Adamson: So you could maybe use them to do farm labor, but you couldn't beat them to death or something like that?

Juhana Toivanen: It might be that this is the idea behind the things. Philosophers are not so often not so kind of interested in the details of this idea.

Peter Adamson: Okay. So if I understand what you're saying, then the point here is that whatever ethical - whatever turns out to be ethically appropriate in our relationship to animals, it won't be a matter of what we share in common with them, which I think a lot of people would nowadays say is really decisive. Rather, it would be a matter of what their purpose here on Earth is. And the idea would be that God or nature put them on Earth to serve us. And so we should use them that way, but we shouldn't use them differently because that would violate the purpose for which they were intended.

Juhana Toivanen: Yeah, probably something like that.

Peter Adamson: Okay. I think though there's still maybe a problem lurking here because if humans are really only differentiated from animals in terms of their rationality, then aren't we going to have trouble saying something reasonable about humans who can't use rationality? I mean, what about people who have sustained head injuries, for example, and can't engage in intellectual understanding, even potentially anymore? Or what about people who just never get around to it because they're busy or they don't get to go to school or whatever? I mean, it seems A, like a remarkably elitist view of human nature, but B, in some ways even worse, it seems like they're going to have to define a lot of humans as actually not being human, but as being essentially like animals.

Juhana Toivanen: There are medieval philosophers who seem to suggest that the actual ability to use reason is actually a decisive factor in making us human beings. And the idea seems to be that those who are incapable of using reason, they are not human beings in the proper sense of the word. However, they also believe that even those people who are incapable of using their reason have the metaphysical building block, the rational soul. It doesn't disappear when you hit your head into a wall too hard. So in the kind of metaphysical sense, all human beings are human beings, and they are also different from other animals even when they can't use their reason. And there was a practical side to this discussion because medieval philosophers were interested in kind of practical questions such as whether we should baptize, let's say, people who are born with a severe handicap or something like that. And they always answered that yes, we should because they still have a rational soul and they are human beings. They are persons in that sense.

Peter Adamson: I see. So your membership in the species of humanity isn't really decided by what you in fact can do, but rather just by being a member of the species is already enough to prove that you have an immortal intellectual soul, even if no one ever sees you using it. And in fact, even if you never use it.

Juhana Toivanen: In principle, yes.

Peter Adamson: I wonder. I mean, in Aristotle, there there is some discussion of borderline cases - not between animals and humans, but between plants and animals. He talks about sea anemones or something like that where it's not clear whether they're animals or not because they don't move around. And it's not obvious whether they have any sensation or not. I mean, what you're talking about sounds like there might be borderline cases from a medieval point of view - maybe from our point of view, hopefully not - but borderline cases between animals and humans. And are they really worried about that? Or is it only me who's worried about that?

Juhana Toivanen: They were. They discussed about kind of fanciful creatures that they found from some stories from antiquity about various humanoid species that live somewhere far away. And a particular species that they discussed was pygmies. And the discussion centered actually on their ability to use reason. So some authors claimed, for instance, Albertus Magnus claimed that they are not human beings, even though they are capable of doing kind of astonishing things with their mind. Whereas some other authors actually argued that they are capable of doing rational things, that they are capable of thinking rationally. And that means that they actually are human beings, despite that they are small.

Peter Adamson: OK. And of course, they don't have any empirical evidence really about pygmies. So they're kind of guessing.

Juhana Toivanen: That's the kind of my initial understanding of the discussion was that it's based on some kind of earlier sources that they don't actually have any connection. But there's one text, namely from Peter of Auvergne, who says that sometimes some people who come from faraway lands bring with them some samples of pygmies or something like that. OK, it's very difficult to say whether this was kind of, just again, a story or some real thing. But I mean, that's a kind of historical question, whether they had any connections to these kind of things. And I can't say that I know, but it's an interesting text, nevertheless.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, that is interesting. So one other question I have is how all of this looks on the moral side of the equation, because we've been talking about scientific understanding and grasping intelligibles. So it's all very theoretical. But I suppose that another contrast between animals and humans would be that humans can engage in moral life and they can achieve virtue. They can engage in political activity. And so would that be another way of distinguishing the humans from the animals in the way that the medieval authors want to?

Juhana Toivanen: I think we have to distinguish here. I mean, the moral side of the story is pretty clear. Human beings are different from other animals just because we are capable of acting morally or immorally. So animals are not free. They don't have a free will. So their actions are somehow determined by their nature or so on. When they see something desirable they immediately go for it. Human beings may reflect whether it would be right to grasp that desirable thing at this moment. And this makes us moral agents.

Peter Adamson: And that's connected to what you've been saying before, because free will is located in the rational soul, presumably, and its ability to reflect on whether we should go for things.

Juhana Toivanen: Exactly. Yes. But then the other side, the political side, I mean, that's kind of interesting because medieval philosophers had access to Aristotle's politics, where Aristotle argues that human beings are more political than other animals. And he really seems to indicate that there are other animal species that are political.

Peter Adamson: Like what?

Juhana Toivanen: Like bees and cranes and ants. Cranes are a nice example in my view. Because cranes are political. The idea, I mean, it's obvious that this is related to how we understand what being political means. The basic idea that we find from several medieval authors is that if a certain species - members of a certain species act together in order to achieve a common goal, then they are political animals. So it's very low level political nature in that sense. And the cranes are a nice example just because they are not political always. They are political only when they migrate. This is what Albertus Magnus says about them.

Peter Adamson: Because they cooperate to fly in formation?

Juhana Toivanen: Exactly. Yes. They even have a leader. And there are some medieval authors who say that cranes are political in a republican sense, because they change the leader every now and then.

Peter Adamson: So I guess Canadian geese are also political.

Juhana Toivanen: Probably, yeah. So as cranes and bees are political in this sense - it was rather strong idea in the Middle Ages that human beings are also political just because we are biological beings. We need other human beings in order to survive. They had this more rational or intellectual understanding of politics, namely the idea that we talk about justice and so on. And it seems to me - and this is a kind of research question that I'm working on at the moment - but it seems to me that at the later stages in the 14th century and so on, the biological conception of political is reduced so that the more rational understanding of being political is kind of given a more central role in discussions.

Peter Adamson: Okay, well, I think just looking back over everything you said it strikes me that there's a general question here, which is to what extent are they just sort of beholden to Aristotelian theory about animals, and they don't really care about information that comes their way regarding actual animals. Sort of like Aristotle himself, he says things about children that make you suspect that he's never spent more than a minute or two with an actual child. And I wonder whether we should accuse the medievals of ignoring information or evidence that's staring them in the face about animals - or whether you would be willing to credit them with a more nuanced and maybe in quotation marks "scientific" approach to animals.

Juhana Toivanen: Well, it's quite clear that they were not interested in the empirical stuff as we, for instance, are. So in a way, they were not searching for empirical evidence for their views and so on. But on the other hand, it seems to me that they were sensitive to the information that they got from from various places, for instance, they decided to talk about pygmies, because they thought there might be some kind of quasi-empirical material that needs to be accommodated with the theory. But on the other hand, also they were not willing to give up the kind of distinction between human beings and other animals that was based on the Aristotelian distinction. They might have discussed about the borderline cases and see how far this theory can be stretched in several ways. But to my knowledge they never rejected the theory on the basis of empirical evidence.

Peter Adamson: Okay, so they are nuanced, but only within the theory.

Juhana Toivanen: Yes. 


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