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What Makes Human Beings Unique?

Hans Lenk on symbols, interpretation and the nature of thought.

“He who understands the apes achieves more for metaphysics than Locke.”
Charles Darwin

Already in antiquity Poseidonius stressed the idea that ‘man’ is by nature indispensably dependent on culture. Poseidonius was probably the first author to use the expression ‘second nature’, as a central concept of his anthropology, for his doctrine of the origin of culture. Much later Johann Herder used the same concept for his thesis of humans as characterized by deficiencies and incompletenesses which necessitate the development of language and culture. Helmuth Plessner further developed the idea of our cultural second nature in his more modern philosophical anthropology. According to Plessner, humans fundamentally need to distance themselves from themselves: we have to plan and ‘lead’ our lives, not just ‘be in the moment’ (see Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch, 1928, p319). So to him, the ‘homelessness’ and ‘excentricity’ of humanity [‘locating itself besides its own centre’] is what leads to cultural development. Plessner calls man “the apostate, defector of nature, the troublemaker, attention-seeker, achieving being, ” with all the consequences of this, including a “tendency for self-aggrandizement in terms of the power instinct.” (p320). One major consequence is culture.

Arnold Gehlen took up the thesis of the deficient being from Herder as well as the thesis of the cultural second nature of humanity, developing this insight within the philosophical framework of his doctrine of institutions (Gehlen interpreted the function and central nature of institutions as constituting, constructing and mediating norms, values, etc: creating artificial world-structures). Gehlen says: “exactly at that locus, where for an animal the ‘environment’ [‘Umwelt’] figures, for man stands the cultural world [‘Kulturwelt’], ie, the sector of nature overwhelmed by him and creatively altered by him to become supportive of life.” (Der Mensch, 1962, p38). For Gehlen, our ‘primary’ hidden real nature stands behind our knowable, accessible second nature shaped by cultural visions of the world – what he calls ‘world representations’ or ‘world versions’.

Symbolic Humans

Yet all cultural means of representation are symbolic. Only by symbolic representation may we constitute, structure and grasp our world versions. Procedures for checking, evaluating, controlling and planning action in an anticipation of the future (for example) are also necessarily represented through symbols operating according to culturally-specified rules. Thus the cultural world is a world shaped by symbols. Our second nature necessarily exists in a symbolic universe. This universe is spanned by what Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) called the ‘symbol net’.

Cassirer himself cited the semiotics (sign theory) of Peirce, Morris and S. K. Langer. According to this theory, all symbols are not merely substitutes for objects (this is a traditional interpretation of Peirce ’s triadic sign theory), but are also a “vehicle for the grasping of objects” (S.K. Langer, Philosophy In A New Key, 1942). The idea here is that symbols enable us to grasp and interpret a thing or situation beyond a mere physical reaction to external stimuli. It is the ‘concept’, and not the things referred to, that the symbols together directly ‘mean’. Thus in his second nature, man is mentally reacting to his symbols.

Cassirer uses these ideas as the foundation for a complete symbol-oriented philosophical system, characterizing humans as the only beings with a “symbolic imagination and intelligence.” (Essay on Man, 1944, p33). Because of this, he says, “instead of defining man as an animal rationale, we should define him as an animal symbolicum” (p26). Cassirer’s theory is that a complex system of symbols is what renders all rational thinking, reflection and culture possible. Characteristic aspects of symbol use in Cassirer’s ‘symbolic theory’ are universality, multisidedness, variability, validity and applicability, among others. The dependence of the fundamental capacities of the human mind on its ability to use symbols is intriguingly analyzed by Cassirer in his main work The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923).

For Cassirer, any grasping and ‘objectification’ of things by the mind, even representations of nature, only happens through “constructive process(es)” dependent on “symbolic construction.” He even says that “all classification systems are artificial.” (Essay on Man, p209). Nature as such contains only individual, multifarious phenomena. We do not describe natural facts by summarizing or even conceiving these phenomena under concepts and general laws, but rather, create language- (symbol-) dependent facts. “Every system is a work of art – a result of conscious creative activity,” he says. Thus all theory work is also always creative, and is never simply ‘saying what is there’: “spontaneity and productivity is the very centre of all human activity. It is man’s highest power, and it designates at the same time the natural boundary of our human world. In language, in religion, in art, in science, man can do no more than to build up his own universe – a symbolic universe that enables him to understand and interpret, to articulate and organize, to synthe size and universalize his human experience.” (p220ff, my italics). So according to Cassirer, it is indeed the human being who is the symbolic being, the ‘animal symbolicum’. This symbolic being generates a symbolic universe into which it can project its thoughts, in which it can live (in a ‘secondary’ sense), and across which the net of symbols is extended.

Symbolic Apes

Cassirer attempted to substantiate his philosophical anthropology of the symbolic being through the then most up-to- date behavioural research with apes, especially with chimpanzees. Cassirer attributes to these primates the ability to use signs as ‘designators’, but not as having the capacity for symbolic interpretation, according to his principles of universality, functionality, variability and general language functions.

This conclusion was certainly plausible when Cassirer drew it in 1944, but it does not hold water nowadays. In the meantime our understanding of primates has become much more advanced. For instance, chimpanzees like Washoe and gorillas like Koko have been taught to communicate in American Sign Language; the latter with more than 1000 ‘words’, ‘concepts’ or ‘meaningful gestures’ (see Apes, Language and the Human Mind, 1998, by Savage-Rumbaugh et al). By using a quasi-symbolic assortment of signs and sentence parts, these apes were able to combine simple sentences of up to six words or so, or even add and subtract small numbers. There were generalizations, and self-reflective utterances – designation of the sign-talking chimpanzee as a subject her- or himself by a symbolic expression. Plastic chips, or symbolic notations on the display of a computer game were also used with chimpanzees and bonobos, in a combination game somewhat like Scrabble.

Rumbaugh and Savage-Rumbaugh also successfully experimented with the chimpanzees Austin and Sherman, as well as with the real primate genius, the bonobo Kanzi, and his sister Panbenisha. Washoe, Koko and Kanzi not only occasionally played the fool but also occasionally made a fool of the interviewer. For instance, Koko the gorilla communicated with American Sign Language the wrong answer ‘red’ concerning a white handkerchief, laughing and necking the experimenter Patterson. The latter was annoyed and wanted to give up. Koko then all of a sudden picked a tiny red thread from the handkerchief, and laughing, signalled triumphantly “Red, red, red!”

It is well-known that chimpanzees and bonobos can use and even produce tools, eg to put together bamboo sticks to get at bananas, as Koehler had already earlier shown in his famous primate experiments. But primates are also able to creatively apply tools to a situation type as well as to individual situations. That is, they are capable of using means of representation to transfer and in a sense generalize their applications to other situations, in a limited sense at least. They are also able to deliberately make a fool of somebody, as above, or betray or deceive partners and rivals (see eg F. De Waal, Peacemaking Among Primates, 1990). Chimpanzees and other apes have even developed elementary culture, establishing traditions of learned or discovered uses of tools. Famous is the macaque ‘girl’ Imo in Japan, who discovered that potatoes tasted better after they had been washed in salt water. Imo’s washing behaviour soon spread out over the whole colony of her group of macaques, and even to a neighboring one. Yet in contrast, whereas in Senegal wild chimpanzee groups used sticks and branches to dig for termites, groups of chimpanzees in Uganda did not culturally develop the utilization of this sophisticated tool, although they also had termite heaps. C. and H. Boesch (in Natural History 9, 1991) reported observing chimpanzee mothers carrying instruments, such as stones used to open nuts, for example. This nut-cracking technique was taught to the youngsters, who had to practice for quite a while to acquire the necessary skill to crack a hard nut. The mother, when migrating to another feeding place, occasionally hid her stone and carried it along, defending and/or reclaiming it even as some kind of private property. This must be local culture, as there was also a spreading of this tool-carrying. This means a certain limited generalization of symbolic functional meaning.

Tools To Make Tools

In Cameroon, Sugiyama even observed chimpanzees using tools to make tools – such as using a sharp cutting-stone on one end of a twig to make a point for boring with, and hammering the other end of the twig with a stone to form a kind of brush to retrieve the termites by putting it into the bored hole (Primates 26, 1981). Nineteen types of tool uses and six ways of making tools were recorded with chimps in Taï National Park, Ivory Coast. Recently, chimpanzees were observed to sharpen a sort of spear, or rather lance, with which they pierced young bushbabies and swiped them out of tree holes (Frankfurter Allgemeine, March 14, 2007). Therefore, primates do not only use tools, but they also have an idea of ‘the general function of tools’, even using tools to make tools. Thereby they falsify Franklin’s definition of man as the (only) tool-making animal.

Evidently, primates are able to generalize and also to differentiate learned tool use functions, discovering things which can be spread within the local colony or even neighboring groups. They can specify the meanings of symbols and gestures, establishing little local-cultural traditions. Thus, the utilization of both tools and symbols is not only characteristic of man, but is also found in primates. To be sure, primates in experimental situations are taught tools and symbols much more extensively than they spontaneously discover in the wild. But being an artificial situation, this is not so telling as the wild case.

Thus higher animals like primates use signs, which they can with respect to specified situations use in a symbolic way, even generalizing ideas in some (rather restricted) sense. Therefore, these creatures are within limits symbolic beings, at least capable of understanding sign combinations in a symbolic way and of using them more-or-less systematically to prompt reactions. This is especially true for the highest primates, such as chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos, as has been extensively substantiated and confirmed. Activities such as I have cited imply symbolic representations in these animals’ minds, this being necessary for them to grasp the ‘functional meaning’ of words or tools, including self-reference, reflexivity and (sign-)reciprocity, and for them to manipulate and even control behavior by symbols.

Some analyses of animal languages, such as the dolphin languages studied by Lilly, Pryor and Herman, or pair-wise individualized speech or singing-recognition patterns with birds, seem to substantiate the symbolic use of gestures and other signs with other species also (see eg Griffin, Animal Thinking, 1984). So Cassirer’s restriction of symbol-use and the capacity to establish and generalize as well as individualize symbolic articulations, representations and networks to humans, turns out to be too rash. This thesis must be modified.

Higher Minded

So higher animals like primates indeed do use signs and objects in a symbolic, ritual manner, and they may also in a limited sense make generalizations or transfer meanings and have some kind of inferential discrimination. (This applies especially to all the gestures, signs and activities which are not genetically fixed but culturally developed, so to speak.) Primates even seem to have a ‘theory of other minds’ concerning other primates (see Koko’s ‘red’ joke, for instance), and a certain self-knowing and self-observing ability too. But they certainly do not further analyze their symbols and their use. That is, they certainly do not symbolically understand their functioning symbols as objects for a further symbolic analysis working on a higher (‘meta-’) level.

Other animals do not analyze and symbolize their application of signs. Neither do they make the (meta-) symbols. This sort of symbol-creative knowledge, and knowledge of the rules of symbol use, is achieved through objects of a higher, meta-level symbolic representation. So it does seem to be a characteristic, unique trait of human beings that they are able to apply symbols at meta-levels – to designate and to interpret the use and function of symbols in a higher-level analysis.

A person is able to perform a sort of ‘symbolic ascent’: to abstract, to go to higher-levels; to ‘objectify’, ie symbolically and abstractly redesignate lower-level symbolizations through new, higher-level symbolization processes. This higher-level symbolization is also a kind of object representation – the objects in this case being the lower-level symbols and their meanings.She interprets these artificial ‘objects’, the symbols, on a meta-level.

So the human being is not only the sign-using symbolic being, inventing, fashioning and representing by symbols; but also the being who establishes and changes symbols as the objects of higher-level symbolization processes. But human beings are the only beings reflecting and projecting symbols about symbols, and also about symbolization processes. The human being is therefore not merely an animal symbolicum, but is uniquely the animal metasymbolicum: the being who not only interprets, but who also interprets its interpretations and interpretation processes, with the respective symbolizations and representations functioning as abstract ‘objects’; and the being who again and again can analyze these objects generated in the mind and a ttach meanings to them, etc. This creature called ‘human’ is the only being capable of creating and using symbols and meta-symbols as well as interpretations and meta-interpretations. She escapes the realm of ‘mere’ sign utilization and its symbolic functions by being super-interpreting – symbolically transcending these forms and uses in a reflexive manner (ie, by thinking about what she’s thinking, and not just thinking it). She is the being potentially able to transgress any levels of representation, accumulating ever-higher meta-levels. She varies, projects, reflects or rejects ‘meaning’, schematizing and structuring – in short, interpreting – the representations from the next-lower level. Therefore the human being is the being of meta-levels. To my mind, the human is the only being who may without restriction establish ever-higher meta-levels of symbols and signs to symbolize and refer to lower-level symbols (and on the bottom level to represent physical objects). Only men or women are able to ascend to higher symbolic levels in an unlimited way.

I certainly do not contend that this anthropological feature is the only feature unique to human beings. In the Eighties I tried to develop a practice-oriented philosophical anthropology of rather pluralistic provenance, based not on just one unique anthropological factor, but rather multi-factored and multi-functional, taking into consideration many empirical anthropological disciplines (see for example my Zwischen Wissenschaftstheorie und Sozialwissenschaft, 1986). Philosophical anthropology can no longer merely highlight one unique trait in a monolithic manner, any more than it can rely on human self-identification through a traditional understanding. Instead, it has to take into account many different functions of the so-called ‘second nature’ or ‘symbol world’, including higher- and lower-level symbolisation within the symbol net. But the capability to ascend to ever-higher levels of interpretation may nevertheless provide a unique demarcation of human beings from primates and other animals. We ’re also well-placed to demarcate human culture as a realm of metasymbols and metainterpretations. Again, this is not the only unique aspect of the constitution, development, and foundation of our ‘second nature’, ie, our culture. The meta-interpretative feature is to be sure central, essential and unique, but it is certainly not the only feature characteristic of human beings.

If we refer to the connecting of sets of symbols within one and the same level by the Latin ‘trans’, and to the ascending to higher levels of interpretation by ‘super’, we can call the human being the transinterpreting and superinterpreting being, or for short, the metasymbolic being. So we can talk of the human being as the animal metasymbolicum, as a sort of extension of Cassirer’s terminology. Or, one might include higher-level interpretations when talking simply of ‘the interpreting being’, and thus stay with Nietzsche’s terminology. But then one must explicitly add that the capacity for interpretation in humans is not restricted to one level of symbolization… To avoid misunderstanding, it seems to be better to talk of the superinterpreting being. Nietzsche and Cassirer certainly would have included the higher-level symbolic functioning of human thought in their approaches, I think.


Cassirer characterized ‘man’ (human beings) as the symbolic being, ‘animal symbolicum’. I criticized this categorization using (relatively) new research with wild and trained primates, with regard to their tool-using and establishing of local cultures, as well as with their utilization of symbolic gestures. The human being can no longer be uniquely characterized as the symbolic animal. Instead, we can be demarcated from primates and others by our capability to ascend to meta-levels of symbol interpretation, cognition and language. Thus, the human being is uniquely the metasymbolic being and the superinterpreting being.

© Prof Hans Lenk 2008

Hans Lenk is President of the International Institute of Philosophy, and a Professor at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Karlsruhe. His latest English books are Global Techno-Science and Responsibility (LIT, 2007) and Grasping Reality (World Scientific, 2003).

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