A note on the text 7

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titreA note on the text 7
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2. From other minds to animal bodies

We talk of man being the rational animal; and the traditional intellectualist philosophy has always made a great point of treating brutes as wholly irrational creatures. Nevertheless, it is by no means easy to decide just what is meant by reason, or how the peculiar thinking process called reasoning differs from other thought-sequences which may lead to similar results.298
The definition of man as the ‘rational animal’, which William James alludes to in the quotation above, depends on an understanding of reason bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, but which developed - from its classical roots - during the course of the seventeenth century and especially after Descartes,299 into a new sense of the independence of human reason from ‘nature’.300 Broadly speaking, the belief in the capacity of focused deliberation to guide human knowledge grew into a conviction that such knowledge could guide behaviour and action towards what had rationally and correctly been determined as appropriate, right and good. Animals, as creatures whose stories do not seem to include facing moral dilemmas and inner conflicts - indeed who might not be possible subjects of stories at all - must stand outside the realm of what essentially constitutes humans.301 True as this might seem, it also is the case that human reason is often powerless in the face of what looks like instinct, and that rational deliberation often falls short of representing reality. It is on this assumption that the question arises of what picture of the human mind would be required for an ontological gap between humans and beasts to be intrinsic to defining its very constitution. This chapter presents an account of arguments pertaining to this question.
We have seen the Cartesian Cordemoy make a radical distinction between sign and sound, positing it as the equivalent and proof of the distinction between mind and body. In a passage entitled ‘Que le mensonge est opposé à la veritable Eloquence’,302 he suggested that lying was akin to breaking the intimate bond between thought and sign, between emotion and its expression,303 and thus to breaking our bond with God,304 who gave us the capacity to think and speak our thoughts. One can see why he valued the fantasy of soundless, wordless communication over ordinary, physical voice: a sign could be divorced from its signifier and thus end up ‘resembling animal cries, reducing the human voice to the voice of beasts’, as one commentator recently put it, which would be a ‘kind of sin against the humanity of voice, as opposed to that of language’.305 Beasts emitted mere cries, and their cries did not signify anything that humans could determine as bearing moral value. By denying animals any existence as moral creatures, one emphasized the need to define humans precisely in terms of their moral nature. But to do that was also to show up the limitations of reason - at the root of the need for moral deliberation in the first place - while at the same time relying entirely on the use of purely mental, ‘clear and distinct ideas’ in a world partly invisible to mere senses. Theories of passions which depended on the expulsion of reason from the body - on a claim that our reasoning faculty could not be material - thus perpetuated the dualist thesis by exposing our animal-like emotionality as a dangerous weakness in us,306 although its power was what enabled a talented orator to manipulate his audience.

This was an Aristotelian topos,307 analysed by Descartes in his Passions of the Soul.308 Malebranche, who, as mentioned in the previous chapter, developed the occasionalist picture of mind-body interaction already emerging in Cordemoy, could thus write that ‘the thoughts we have which depend on the body are all false, and all the more dangerous to our soul for being more useful to our body’.309 Here, ‘thoughts’ which depended on the body - sensations, desires, dreams - were not the products of reason; what is more, they could bypass rational deliberation altogether. They could be expressed verbally, but were not truthful: they did not correspond to the truths which we were able - by our very nature, and in virtue of the possession of language - to identify, perceive or discover. They might as well be lies, and as such, they were, indeed, dangerous to our soul. Central to the assumption that animals did not make verbal sense in the way that we did and, by the same token, could not make elaborate sense of their lives and sense-experiences in the way that we did, was a notion that some form of purposefulness must be an intrinsic feature of any definition of human life, and that purposefulness must entail the search for - and adherence to - some form of truth.

To define human life - and to ascribe to it its correct, true finality - amounted to some extent to identifying its origins. That God created the world and its creatures was important, but was not enough for theorists of souls. Movement mattered too, since it was one crucial manifestation of life. Animals somehow had become endowed with the capacity for autonomous bodily movement, which included the emission of vocal sound. But the manner in which this capacity had been ‘instilled’ into creatures, or into the atomic particles that composed them, remained unknown.310 To understand the origin of goal-oriented action was to enquire into the role, range and function of what lay behind it, whether it was will, impulse, instinct or deliberation. Language, as a willed action, and as a tool for exploring nature, also involved movement. For Hobbes, the existence of language implied the activity of volition: God spoke to Adam in a supernatural way before Adam had tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and so human language was born thanks to Adam’s will for it exist.311 On a voluntarist view such as this, animal expression and communication did not constitute language. Animals, however, seemed to have been endowed with some sort of will: it remained to be determined what sort of will. As we shall see in the next chapter, a physician like Pierre Chanet felt entitled to identify animal will with instinct.312 He did so in a tract which part of a series he exchanged in the 1640s with his ideological adversary Marin Cureau de la Chambre (1596-1669), an acquaintance of Gassendi, once a protégé of Richelieu and, later, a founding member of the Académie des Sciences, created in 1666.313 He was also a reputed physician to the king, who in this instance wanted to assert, following the tradition of so-called ‘theriophily’314 derived from Plutarch and taken up most notoriously by Montaigne and Charron, that animals were in fact endowed with reason.

As we saw in the Presentation to this section, the Cartesian picture of the mind-body relation and Descartes’s ‘nearly surgical split’315 between soul and matter necessitated complicated adjustments and redefinitions of scholastic categories to make room for something like an animal’s will.316 The Aristotelian conception of a ‘chain of being’, and the tripartite division of the soul which assigned a specific role to each soul in a hierarchical order, had by definition included the animal world. As with the notion, discussed above in Chapter 1, of an originally transparent, Adamic language, which inventors of universal languages tried to reconfigure, it set up as a conceptual reference a world - preserved after the Fall and after Babel - in which there was no gap between man and nature, and so one in which emotions were fully translatable into the body’s motions. In such a world, animals could be represented as allegories for human passions: here, as a modern commentator has put it, the ‘signs of the passions of beasts resemble the signs of human passions, and this resemblance serves in turn to reinforce the principle of the human being as a microcosm’; animals became ‘cyphers, insignificant in themselves, yet useful for humans at every level’.317

Such references to animals served to throw light on what was animal-like in humans and in human bodily language, rather than to show up how we differed from them. Attention to the existence and expressivity of passions in both humans and non-humans cohered with the assertion of a transparency of signs, based on the unity of nature, and left little room for any fuss to be made over the opacity of minds that could not speak up.318 On what grounds, Montaigne had asked, should we assume that animals had less freedom of will than we did in activities which they, like us, engaged in? Similar effects must have similar causes, he thought; so why should we not assume that their cries of joy or pain were a form of language? We preferred to imagine ourselves belonging to the realm of angels than to accept where we really lived, here in the mud. Animals, at least, lacked the nefarious, vain imagination responsible for our presumption.319 How could we presume to know the internal workings of animals? ‘In virtue of what comparison between them and us can we be sure that they have as much stupidity [bêtise] as we think they do?’320 Surely, ‘we are neither above, nor below the rest: everything under the sky, says the wise man [Lucretius], obeys the same rules and the same fate’.321 If man alone among the animals had the prerogative of ‘freedom of imagination and unruliness of thoughts, which tell him what is, what is not, and what he wants, the false and the true’, this prerogative was ‘a costly privilege, and not one he can be proud of, for it is the main source of the ills he is beset with: sin, illness, irresolution, confusion, despair’.322 For Montaigne, we could learn something from observing ourselves in the act of disparaging our fellow creatures - that we must avoid painting a glorified picture of our ordinary, human condition. But his use of classical exempla proving animal sagacity did not amount to a theoretical stance, just as the exempla themselves did nothing to solve the paradoxes posed by imposing human categories on non-human creatures. In this context, it made sense to point out how exclusive language was to humans - as did opponents of the tradition represented by Montaigne and perpetuated by thinkers such as Cureau de la Chambre - in order to show what did set us apart, irrevocably, from animals and the natural order.

Questions of a philosophical kind, however, soon arose about the implications of assuming further, with Hobbes, that language was a necessary element for the creation of the commonwealth and for the construction of the ‘political animal’323 - an element whose ingredients were arbitrary, since, for Hobbes, words were to ideas what speech was to the operations of the mind.324 On Hobbes’s account, language was less an intrinsic feature of human nature such as God created it, than a necessity born of social existence. It was a tool created by human will but also an aspect of conscious, instrumental knowledge.325 We have seen, following Shapin and Schaffer, the problem such a view could pose for the Royal Society fellows who were endeavouring to lay the foundations of the experimental philosophy. Evidently, mere assent to linguistic rules (and Hobbes insisted on how easy it was to err because of linguistic confusion)326 could not ground empirical knowledge. This was similar to the way that the Cartesian version of the mechanistic physics, which developed along with the dualistic psychology, ensured a clearly defined, separate place for reason while leaving the sensitive soul in the lurch.

If the sensitive soul’s mode of relation to reason, in the form of movement, perception, or emotion, could really be accounted for mechanistically and materially, according to the laws of physics and to the motion of particles, then both humans and animals were simply machines,327 or organisms that could be taken apart and anatomised.328 Descartes had understood passions as a kind of ‘internal sense’, on a par with ‘natural appetites’, which he thought could be identified as motions of the nerves. In some ways he did postulate a physically reductionist psychology, where passions were conceived to be fully explained by a physicalist account of emotional life. ‘Thus’, he wrote,

when we believe we are enjoying a good of some sort, the imagination of that enjoyment does not in itself contain the feeling of joy, but it operates in such a way that the animal spirits travel from the brain to the muscles to which these nerves are attached; so, just as it enables the dilation of the entrances to the heart, the imagination also enables these nerves to move in the way nature has established to bestow the feeling of joy.329
This materialistic account was expounded in the Passions de l’âme, as well as in L’homme, where it was one aspect of the thought-experiment - akin to the Turing Test330 - on which Descartes based his investigation of the human organism; Cordemoy, as we have seen, made use of it as well. The plausibility of doing so was, in Descartes, itself a function of the assimilation of an organism to a machine. A few pages after the passage cited above, Descartes stated clearly that: ‘I see no difference between the machines manufactured by artisans and the various bodies that nature alone creates’, and inversely, that ‘all the rules of mechanical things belong to physics, in such a way that artificial things are also natural’.331
This, then, was the backbone of what became known as the beast-machine thesis.332 If - to remain with Cartesian terminology - active, deliberative thought was what defined the human mind and delimited the boundaries of the res cogitans within the human machine; and if we experienced all emotions and sense-perceptions, which we shared with animals, as passions of the soul, suffered by our conscious selves;333 then the human realm really did stop at the bounds of what one might metaphorically take to be the pineal gland. Animals, therefore, could very well be automaton-like organisms; and the emotions they exhibited could be merely one aspect of the organism’s life - including that of the human organism. It was primarily in response to this thesis that speculations about the nature of animal souls became so heated by the end of the seventeenth century. The matter was ‘a central preoccupation of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European intellectuals’.334 But this, as we shall see, was not so much the expression of a sensitive concern for non-human beings as a cerebral mode of debating issues that often had nothing to do with animals at all. Scholastic concepts were being manipulated at a time when their authority was becoming increasingly questionable,335 and it was fashionable among many intellectuals to treat them as dispensable and old hat.336 With the demise of Aristotelian souls, there arose the problem of determining how the mechanisms of sense-perception, memory, imagination and will, which we seemed to share with animals, could form the basis for specifically human forms of intentional cognition and will, as well as for operations of the mind which could not be reduced to physical ones but which remained available to introspection. A typical formulation of the question posed to the post-Aristotelian definition of life subsumed hypothetical biological constructs under a theological a priori regarding the immortality of the soul.

Moreover, the need to integrate human psychology - in the sense of a map of the soul - within the new explanatory framework entailed the need to examine the ‘animal’, emotive, non-rational parts of man. The priest Antoine Dilly, for example, in a tract aimed at defending the Cartesian picture of beasts,337 argued that the enquiry into ‘the true [veritable] difference between the human soul and the animal soul’ was necessary for the ‘study of ourselves’, which was ‘the most important of all’, since ethics [la moralité],

with which we must concern ourselves for our whole lives, is based on nothing but this knowledge. For how can we regulate our passions without knowing them, if we have not beforehand enquired into the nature of our soul, into that of our body, and into the way in which the Author has preferred to unite these two substances, since the passions are merely the consequence of this union?338
In order to reconcile mechanistic and atomistic accounts of voluntary action with the notion of the independence of human will from nature, it became imperative to define the respective realms of biology and physiology, given that reason, in theological terms, had to be accepted as the defining characteristic of humans over and against other living creatures. But just as Cartesian accounts of language both depended on and reinforced dualism, accounts of voluntary action depended implicitly on a theory of mind which took as a given its irreducible nature and its independence from physiology. Meanwhile the practice of explaining passions and emotional behaviour - ordinary psychology - along physiological and medical lines continued to remain in vogue, both among the medical profession and in popular culture, insofar as such accounts, still Galenic in purview, retained their explanatory power. There was no room here for psychology in the sense of a scientific, causal account of human behaviour.339 Cartesian introspection, as we shall now see, was a handmaiden to epistemology; it did not have the role of yielding the kinds of observations obtained through self-analysis, whose practice and validity would later be taken for granted.340 The animal soul debate, certainly in France, was an instance of a sophisticated philosophical game, in which questions about the possible ways of defining the boundary between man and nature mattered rather more than determining the actual contours of that boundary. The intellectual speculations concerning the beast-machine thesis tended to serve, rather than to determine, the position thinkers took with regard to the status of animal souls themselves. Whatever conclusion they chose to uphold about the status of beasts, what was at stake here was the problematization of the biological nature of humans, not the nature of non-human creatures.

This was a conundrum which arose out of the possibility, afforded by sceptical traditions, of doubting our capacity to know the minds of creatures and the nature of objects which lay beyond the grasp and realm of intelligible language.
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