A note on the text 7

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Indeed, to posit a reasoning faculty in animals led to the admission that theirs was ‘more perfect than ours’,510 which was proof enough of the falsity of the claim. Chanet, in brief, defended the Cartesian view that animals could do everything they were known to do without reason, although he did so while preserving the Aristotelian notion that nature’s creations were superior to what human reason could accomplish. His theory of knowledge acquisition was directly opposed to Cureau’s belief in the possibility of basing all arguments on the principle that what looked reasonable was bound to be reasonable.511 But Chanet’s treatise was less a discourse on the presence or absence of souls in beasts than an argument for the plausibility of ascribing intentionality to all things, regardless of their mental content, and thus for the need to dissociate intentionality from biology.

A decade or so later, the part-Gassendist, part-Cartesian atomist and physician Walter Charleton also responded to the Rorarius thesis that animals were rational beings. In his Immortality of the Soul,512 a dialogue between himself (as Athanasius) and John Evelyn (as Lucretius) set in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, he wrote that, just as through our intellect we could acquire knowledge of ‘Corporeals’, so our intellect was ‘above Corporeity’, since ‘it comprehends also the very reason and forme of an Organ’. Once the intellect reflected upon itself, it became its ‘own Object’ and began to

know it self to be an Intellect, or thinking and discerning Nature. If therefore we well consider these Reflex Acts of the Understanding; we can no longer doubt its being Immaterial. That the Intellect doth thus reflect upon it self, and discern its own knowledge, needs no other testimony but that of a mans own Experience; it being impossible for any person living not to know, that he knows what he knows.513
The nod to Descartes (referred to along with Kenelm Digby) was explicit.514 But this notion of self-reflection led the fictive participants to argue about the infamous corrolary that since souls of animals could not be immaterial, beasts must be deprived of such an intellect which reflected upon itself, and therefore of the ability to reason.515 For Charleton, as well as for Descartes and, later, for Locke, the possession of reason entailed the ability to ‘frame universals’:516

if we seriously reflect upon what we mean, when we say thus, Every man hath two hands; we shall soon perceive, that we therein expresse nothing, whereby one individual man is distinguished from another: though that very word Every, doth import that every single person is distinct from another; so that here is (as Sir K. Digby most wittily saith) Particularity it self expressed in Common. Now, this being impossible to be done, in any Corporeal representation whatsoever, it is a necessary consequence, that the Intellect, which hath this singular propriety of thus comprehending and expressing Universals, is it self Incorporeal.517

It followed that, since ‘there is nothing else in a Dog (for instance), but only the Memory of singulars’, we should not fear that our rational souls, in virtue of their being putatively identical to those of animals, are not ‘Incorporeall’ and immortal. There was no danger, thought Charleton, of ‘degrading’ the human soul ‘from the divine dignity of her nature, to an equality with the souls of Beasts, that are but certain dispositions of Matter’.518

One consequence of denying reason to animals was a sense, again, that this would impute injustice either to nature or to God.519 Both sides were engaged in a ‘cruel war’, in the words of Pardies,520 because the battle involved so many fundamental beliefs; and, certainly in Pardies’s description, it was one aspect of the painful process of absorbing the new philosophies, while rejecting the notion that ordinary sense-experience could be a guarantor of truth. To deny animals a soul on the basis that the functioning of their organism could be explained in mechanical terms gave power to mechanics and its physics, of course, but none to the notion of nature as a life-infused organism. It was easy to parody the beast-machine thesis: Pardies wrote that a wounded dog’s screams were not the manifestation of pain, but simply the noise made by a wounded dog, akin to that of a drum or a badly oiled cart.521 A dog jumping around at the sight of his long-absent master was not the manifestation of joy, either, but was simply the movement of a magnet towards the pole.522 And the flow of blood in arteries was no more a mark of life than a watch’s ticking.523 The presence of instinct in animals meant that the will played no role in their actions, just as corporeal reactions in humans were due to the disposition of our organs and took place without the participation of the will.524 Matter could not think, and animals were nothing but matter. It was perhaps a shame to massacre such marvellous machines; but, wrote Pardies, it was no more cruel to do so than it would be to rip apart a painting by Raphael.525 Pardies thus devoted the first half of his widely read pamphlet to demonstrating why it was possible to hold the view that animals possessed no form of knowledge. The second half was spent defending his own, somewhat vitalist view of nature,526 which accorded animals all the subtleties of sensorial knowledge and imagination - and thus of a sensitive soul - without any need of the spiritual knowledge only humans had, thus accepting their similarity to humans.527

For Bayle, the question of whether it was legitimate or not to invoke reason in the case of animals seems to have been an open one. He did not accept the thesis expounded by Rorarius, who maintained ‘not only that beasts are reasonable animals, but also that they use reason better than man’.528 But nor did he seek to obfuscate the need to question seriously the fundamental premises of the beast-machine thesis. Cartesians, he wrote, were as annoyed as Aristotelians by Rorarius’s point of view: Cartesians, because they denied that beasts had a soul at all; Aristotelians, because they ascribed to beasts sensation, memory and passions, but not reason.529 It was a shame, Bayle thought, that Descartes’s opinion should be so hard to uphold, given that it encouraged true faith - one reason, he believed, why some people would not let go of it. As for the scholastics, who thought they could assign to beasts a sensitive soul without in some way blurring the difference between man and animal, they were simply wrong, because the examples they used, many of them from sources such as Pliny the Elder and Plutarch, ‘prove too much’:530 the phenomena of animal ingenuity they described could only be explained by reference to a rational soul, not a merely sensitive one. For example, it was difficult not to assume that a dog was using inferential reason when, upon throwing himself at a plate of food and being beaten up for it by his master, he thereafter restrained himself each time he saw his master wield a stick. If one could claim that what looked like the product of a rational soul was not exactly that, there was no need, as Bayle wrote, to believe that what looked like the product of the sensitive soul was actually what it looked like.531

Bayle attacked Descartes from the sceptic’s perspective, pointing out that although the exclusive allocation of thought to an unextended, immortal spiritual substance was useful to religion, since it guaranteed that all thinking beings were immortal (on the assumption that what is indivisible cannot perish), it nonetheless had to be discarded by the philosopher in search of a plausible account of animal motion, sensation and action.532 For if beasts were not automata, and were accorded a sensitive soul, then Cartesianism was of no use at all. What emerges out of Bayle’s dithering, slightly ironic account is principally his scepticism as to the possibility of determining the status of animal intelligence on the basis of observation. He held the belief that to posit the existence in beasts of free will did not say anything about the essence of substances (as La Forge had argued).533 Free will could, apparently, be associated with a sensitive soul.534 Certainly, once it had been suggested, as Descartes had done, that there was no metaphysical basis to Aristotelian psychology, and that the case for mechanism was strong enough to pulverise the old order, no unthinking, naturalistic account of reason could any longer hold sway. There was by now a mismatch between souls as they had been defined in the scholastic tradition and the functions which corresponded to them but had not yet been replaced nor redefined. In a way, no common-sense notion of animal behaviour and no belief in the rationality of animal minds could seem logically coherent if mechanism was accepted in any form. Nevetheless, Bayle’s scepticism as to the viability of engaging at all in the beast-machine debate was, in fact, partly informed by the same scepticism which had fuelled Descartes’s search for certainty in the first place.

The resort to instinct as an explanatory category was, in this respect, ominous. If, as Chanet held, it was neither natural - in the sense that it was supplementary to the known order of causes in nature - nor miraculous, it could only be mechanical: it was intrinsic to the very organization of the organism performing the action; and, as he explained throughout the treatise, the very structure of the organs was a function of it. Chanet’s world of instinctive behaviour also relied on a sceptical postulate: ‘our Reason is anxious [inquiete], uncertain and variable’, he wrote, and the order in the world could only have been ‘established by a wisdom higher than ours’. There had to be ‘a Reason which presides over the world and which is higher than all Men’.535 Instinct thus served to explain what was unintelligible in the terms which were then available. Only the resort to a higher, divine reason saved those who wanted to deny animals a reasoning capacity from naturalism; but the vagueness of this concept of higher reason meant that it merely fulfilled a semantic role, one complicated, moreover, by the baggage which came along with it. The human capacity for ratiocination, reflection and so on was both fallible and causally bound to the fact that our perceptions were imperfect. We can see, then, how, just as language was at times best understood through its inherent limitations, the realm of humans might at times be perceived as less perfect than that of beasts - either because their instinct could be deployed without the encumbrance of human thought, or because their reason, which, as Cureau tended to believe,536 mastered perfectly the objects of their perceptions and, indeed, was more perfect than ours and even than that of angels.

Dilly’s case for instinct over reason in his tract on animal minds is interesting for what it tells us about the explanatory shortcut provided by mechanism. Instinct alone could be made to explain, for instance, why bees buried their dead outside the hive. Their action, he wrote, came

from the foul smell arising out of [the dead bodies], which drives the live bees to perform the movements necessary for that effect [of burying them outside], just as a greater or smaller amount of heat from the sun forces fruit to ripen early or late: for why should a watch ring its alarm at the time one wants if not because one has built it in that way? So there is no need, in the case of bees, to look for a cause which is different from the structure given them by the author of nature.537
It was possible to explain all actions performed by animals in terms of instinct, which for Dilly was identical to the mechanistic operation of animal spirits. So in man too, as he wrote, passions were ‘only emotions of the soul which it brings to itself, caused and perpetuated by the movement of animal spirits’.538 Pardies, in an analysis of the causes of action, and in the context of a critical examination of the nature of the Cartesian beasts’ non-voluntary movements,539 explained the difference (in Cartesian terms) between the phenomenon of fleeing from a snake and a child’s attraction to an apple.540 Involuntary movement occurred in the first case, he said, where one was acting according to instinct, being ‘acted, and pushed to a necessary determination according to the relation of the object to the disposition of the body’. In the second instance, however, one was acting ‘as a human being’ [c’est agir en homme], that is, moving ‘according to choice and through the determination of one’s will’.541 Not, he added, that thoughts and inclinations of the will were entirely absent from naturally instinctive actions; but in such cases they merely followed on from what had already been determined by the disposition of the body. This was the difference in us between ‘acting naturally by instinct, and humanly by will’. Thus, when actions prevented thoughts and the determination of the will, they were ‘animal or natural’; when the empire of the will ruled over the body’s actions, they were ‘human and voluntary’.542 But this was descriptive rather than demonstrative; and Pardies would make room further on for the unproblematic presence in beasts of sensible knowledge, as well as for the notion that no spiritual substance was necessary for them to be sentient and capable of acquiring knowledge in the same way that humans did.543
The examination of the nature of the beast-machine thesis and of the heuristic constraints which first led Descartes to formulate it cannot be separated from the wider philosophical issues surrounding the establishment of a plausible picture of ‘other minds’ - of animal souls, invisible to the gaze, and of the causality of physical, as opposed to mental, acts. If the debate about human free will, especially in its relation to mechanism and atomism, was rooted in an ongoing dialogue between man and God, nourished by theological precedent, the controversy over the nature of the will of animals translated the anxious need to determine the borders of the territory within which man stood alone in nature. Such discussions evolved in parallel with the enrichment of natural philosophy by data obtained through observation, although they depended less on an accumulation of empirical and anatomical knowledge, which had been ongoing since the Renaissance, than on changing notions about the status of such knowledge and on its limitations. They are thus central to the study of the role of discursive and scientific tools in providing definitions of the mind, where the mind is understood as the set of operations and modalities which enable living systems to know and act upon the world. In the following section, I shall focus at first on arguments about scepticism and teleology put forward by natural philosophers, physicians and theologians, before trying to establish what picture of reason and will emerged from these various theories of sense-perception.


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