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Humans and Dumb Animals

Jane Forsey asks, what makes us so special?

At stake is the human self-image. How special are we? Can we continue to rest easy in our claims to, or unspoken assumptions of, a privileged position over the rest of the natural world? Or does reflection require us to give way and accept that human beings are continuous with nature – especially animals – and thus not really ‘special’ at all?

Some of the claims about human exceptionality throughout history have included: (a) we have souls and so share in the Divine (and animals do not); (b) we have free will and so can make choices (and animals cannot); and (c) we are rational (and animals are not). One of the ways this final point has been defended is through a consideration of language, not merely as evidence for thought and rationality but as a necessary requirement for the occurrence of thought altogether. Now, while the thesis ‘no language, no thought; and animals have no language’ has been subject to treatments of varying sophistication, a growing body of opposing evidence indicates that these arguments are not strong enough to maintain the existence of a deep chasm between human and animal capacities or natures. And this makes the human self-image insecure.

Descartes’ is an early example of what I will call ‘deep chasm’ arguments. In his Discourse on Method (1637) he uses language to distinguish between ‘men and beasts’. While ‘magpies and parrots can utter words as we do’, they cannot speak: these utterances are not the expressions of thought but a natural mechanism which works according to the ‘disposition of their organs’ as a clock works according to its construction. Descartes concludes not that animals have less reason than we do but that they have none at all and that while our bodies share with animals a place in the natural realm, our souls are ‘entirely independent’ of it. Thus we are different in kind, a different type of being altogether: exceptional because of our rationality.

In the 20th century, this type of deep chasm argument has been taken up by Donald Davidson, who agrees with Descartes’ position and denies that animals have thought at all. The only creatures to which we can ascribe beliefs, and thus thought, are speakers and interpreters of language. This claim stems from his holism: any belief is positioned in an interconnected web of other beliefs. For a dog to believe must have a concept of belief; it must understand the possibility of being mistaken, and be able to distinguish between true and false beliefs. But this concept requires being a language speaker and interpreter: belief, says Davidson, “as a private attitude is not intelligible except as an adjustment to the public norm provided by language.” Animals, which do not have language, do not have the concept of belief, and so do not have a network of beliefs, and so do not have any beliefs, or thought, at all.

Davidson’s talk about ‘dumb animals’ in his work begs the question in his favour: he begins with the assumption that animals have no language and then tries to make a link between language and thought to prove that animals are therefore not rational. But part of what is at issue in this kind of debate is whether animals have language in some form and not only whether they, lacking language, can be said to have thoughts. Davidson does not consider work done on animal language and cognition, yet a considerable body of experiments and empirical studies now exists which has given a strong degree of opposition to deep chasm arguments. This work falls into roughly three categories.

First, there have been experiments in interspecies communication: efforts to teach some animals like apes and parrots human languages, including sign language. The results are inconclusive and open to criticism: not only is there debate over whether animals do have any genuine linguistic capacity, the force of Davidson’s arguments leads us to ask, a) whether teaching an animal to talk is thus also teaching it to think, and b) whether claiming basic linguistic ability allows us to make analogous claims about basic rationality. Are apes with a little language also a little rational? For Davidson’s holism, thought appears to be an all-ornothing matter.

Second, studies of other species show that some have highly sophisticated systems of communication or species-specific languages. Interesting work here has been done on wildfowl food and alarm calls, and the symbolic behaviour of chimpanzees. This evidence suggests either that we must follow Davidson and attribute thought to them as well, or if we want to deny them rationality, we must consider that the connection between language and thought is not as direct or as strong as the deep-chasm arguments suppose.

Third, research in the fields of cognitive ethology and comparative psychology is beginning to reveal evidence of complex thinking in animals. The dominant view of these fields is that animal cognitive ability can be inferred from the observation of their behaviour, and not only or primarily linguistic behaviour. This work carries out in spirit an early argument against human exceptionality by David Hume (1711-1776), who claimed that “beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men.” He reasoned that since we ascribe mental states (like pain, or sorrow, or a belief that it is Tuesday) to human beings based on their behaviour, we should explain comparable behaviour by animals in the same way: if they behave intelligently, we should believe that they are intelligent. A problem for ethology is that, because cognition can only be inferred from behaviour, claims for it can never be conclusive but only more or less probable. While that may be true, the amount of evidence seems to be sufficient now to indicate that it is a good guess that at least some animals do think. So, unless confronted with a thoroughly convincing argument to the contrary, ethology seems justified in following Hume’s reasoning. Earlier theories which explained human and animal behaviour in different ways thus seem to contain a bias that stems from Descartes, and that ought to be rejected.

The somewhat controversial evidence from all three areas has been enough to weaken the deep chasm position and undermine the human self-image as exceptional. Giving up human exceptionality, however, does not mean that we are not somehow ‘special’. A more modest approach is not to ask how we compare with the natural realm but to ask what the distinctive character is of human nature itself. We may indeed be continuous with nature but there is still something to be said about what it means to be human. And one of the considerations here again turns on language.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor develops a picture of human nature, claiming that we can only be understood as “beings who exist in, or are partly constituted by language.” His contention is that we are ‘self-interpreting animals’ or that interpretation is constitutive of what it means to be human. Our self-understandings and selfdescriptions are vital to this picture. We have aspirations, desires, goals and aversions – in short, things matter deeply to us. We make sense of ourselves and our lives by evaluating and choosing between these desires and goals. But Taylor argues that in this manner we also make sense of – define and redefine – what it means to be human. This is evident in our experiences and valuations of love, dignity, shame, moral goodness, evil and so on. When we praise honesty in others, or when we strive to achieve dignity in ourselves, we are at the same time showing that we think being honest or dignified is part of what we think it means to be a person, and to be a good person. How we live our lives and define ourselves is an activity of also constantly interpreting what it means to be a human being in the fullest sense of the term.

These evaluations and interpretations require language in two ways. First, Taylor says that “human life is both fact and meaningful expression.” This element of expression is not that of using terms which have some solid meaning in virtue of their reference to concrete objects in the world, but is that through which our ideas of ourselves are realized and made strong. Feelings which are inchoate or confused become determinate and disambiguated only through their expression in a certain vocabulary. What felt like love, for example, will not be clearly understood as admiration until it can be expressed as such or until we have access to this somewhat richer vocabulary. To say with Taylor that “language articulates our feelings” is to say that language defines them, gives them a form they would not have had if they had remained unexpressed.

But we are constituted by language in a second way as well. For Taylor, language is not a set of tools that can be used to marshal ideas which already somehow exist fully formed in our minds. Rather, he claims that language is ‘a web’ or ‘pattern of activity’ which defines a community of users and forms a ‘horizon’ in which they live. What is characteristically human is not the ability to use a language to individually evaluate our desires and realize some idea of ourselves. Taylor does not believe in the possibility of language being this kind of tool that one person can take up. Instead, what is characteristically human is that we understand and define ourselves through participation in dialogue with others in a linguistic community. This community pre-exists us as individuals – we are born into a world of language – and carries the meanings of the evaluative terms we use. Together, through language, we operate in a culture by virtue of which we can communicate with and understand both one another and the world around us.

So there are two ways in which language is essential to us – our being is interpretive, and our interpretations (a) require linguistic expression to be realized and (b) don’t occur alone but in a community that shares a language and set of understandings. Taylor’s approach here does not lead to a deep-chasm claim of exceptionality. He does not stress what differentiates us from the natural realm. While we are ‘self-interpreting’, we are still ‘animals’. What he does claim is that in order to understand us, the centrality of language and interpretation to our natures must be given proper attention. Yet still, it might be asserted that if ‘humanness’ involves articulating the value of such things as dignity or moral goodness, this is surely something animals cannot do and thus we must be exceptional. But Taylor does not argue in this way. He asks can baboons have dignity, for instance? And responds that, first, we cannot know for certain because our understanding of dignity is contingent upon our community’s understanding of the term, which baboons perforce do not share, and second that even if baboons have a sense of dignity it must be utterly different from our own because our sense of dignity is ‘shaped by our language’. That our values, beliefs and so on function in a web or network is not to suggest that only we have one, but simply to stress that the expressive and linguistic aspects of our being are the key to understanding human nature.

Taylor’s argument offers not only a way of understanding the importance of language to human nature, but also offers a direction for opposing Davidson’s line of thinking about exceptionality. To insist that beliefs operate in a network is not the same as insisting that they all operate in the same one. If a dog must have beliefs about trees and cats, must these include that trees grow, need water, and burn? Networks of belief occur along a floating scale. I, for example, can believe that the earth revolves around the sun without needing to have the same concomitant beliefs that astronomers and physicists have. And a dog can conceive, perhaps, of cat and tree with its own stock of concepts which, while interrelated, are very different from ours, just as my understanding of dignity may be very different from that of the ancient Greeks or modern Sudanese. To assert the interconnectedness of beliefs is not enough, on its own, to prove that animals cannot have them, just as an examination of the complexities of human language is not enough to make a case for human exceptionality.

Taylor’s picture of the distinctive character of human beings is one of our realization of ourselves through expression, an expression which requires language and a linguistic community. Language thus makes us special not because it separates us from the natural realm or proves our superiority over it, but because it is the vehicle through which and by which we define ourselves and realize our humanity. What does this do to the human self-image? Well, one of the consequences of holding ourselves to be exceptional is the claiming of attendant moral privilege. If we are truly different from the rest of nature, then our moral laws hold only for ourselves, and not for animals or the environment, for example. One of the positions of animal rights activists and environmentalists is that our scandalous treatment of animals is due to this mistaken self-image as superior to the rest of nature and thus of nature as simply a resource for our use. To accept instead that we are continuous with the natural realm, and part of it – to concede that we are not different in kind from animals – is also to call into question our past policies and behaviour and to make us, perhaps, accountable for our actions on a broader scale.

© Jane Forsey 1999

Jane Forsey is completing her dissertation at Queen’s University at Kingston (Canada).

René Descartes, Discourse on Method, Penguin, 1968
Donald Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, OUP, 1984
Donald Davidson, Actions and Events, OUP, 1985
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, OUP, 1967
Charles Taylor, Human Agency and Language, CUP, 1985

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