Minding Animals: Living and Living Well. Aristotle’s Philosophy of Animal Minds.

Living and Living Well. Aristotle’s Philosophy of Animal Minds

Christiane Bailey

Minding Animals Conference, Utrech, Netherlands, July 2012

While the biological continuity from men to animals is largely accepted, their psychological continuity still poses major philosophical, scientific and ethical problems. We are willing to grant that animals live, but much more reluctant to accept that they live something. In other words, we admit that animals have a biological life, but not necessarily a psychological life, a biographical life.

This idea that one can have a body without also having a mind is a rather modern notion, part of our Cartesian legacy, foreign to Ancient Greeks. I will argue that a reappraisal of Aristotle’s philosophy of life can enrich contemporary debates on animal minds because many aspects of his conception of animal life challenge our traditional view of animals. I will focus on four biases or prejudices that are still common today:

  • (1) Animal behaviors as non-voluntary movements
  • (2) Animals as living in perceptual immediacy (the “here and now”)
  • (3) Animals as deprived of articulated and meaningful language
  • (4) Animals as being oriented toward mere survival

(1) Animal behaviors as non-voluntary movements
In the De Anima, Aristotle defines animal life with two capacities: perception (aisthesis) and mobility (kinesis). It is not life, “mere life”, which characterizes animals, but the fact that they perceive and move by themselves. Aristotle’s distinction between voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary movements highlights animal behaviors as genuine actions. We may lack words today to express what Aristotle meant by voluntary movement because “voluntary” implies something like choice. However, with the help of the practical syllogism, Aristotle showed that animals move by themselves, without any deliberation or prior decision. All that is needed to explain animal behaviors as actions or voluntary movements is some form of desire (orexis) and representation (phantasia). Strictly speaking, an adequate conception of animal life not only implies perception and mobility, but also some form of cognition, desire and representation.

(2) Animals as living in perceptual immediacy (the “here and now”)
Animals, however, are not bound to pure perception, many are also endowed with memory. An animal with memory does not live in the « here and now », it is not only open to what is given in perception, but also to what was and what will be. This temporal openness to past and future allows animals to learn and anticipate what’s coming. Those animals do not live in the instant, but in a world, a totality they own in a certain sense.

(3) Animals as deprived of articulated and meaningful language
Aristotle will also argue that animals, as social beings, communicate among themselves not only in the sense that they express their affective dispositions and emotions through cries of pain and pleasure, but they can intentionally communicate something to another (eg. the coming of a predator or the location of food).

(4) Animals as being oriented toward mere survival
The fact that Aristotle’s view of animal minds in his biological treatises is much richer and complex than his political and ethical writings suggest explain the strange ending of the De Anima where animals are said to have the capacity to smell, hear and see not only “for their being, but for their well-being [eu zen]” (DA, 435b19). For Aristotle, animal life has not for sole purpose to live, but to live well. Nonhuman animals (to alla zoia) not only seek to survive and reproduce, but also aim at living well. Animals are not only the puppets of instincts of survival and reproduction, but they care about what happens to them.








The Minding Animals Conference 2012 will take place from 4 to 6 July 2012 in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Please note that the conference starts with an opening reception, followed by a public lecture by Prof. John Coetzee on Tuesday evening, 3 July. The conference ends with a public lecture by Prof. Marc Bekoff, followed by the conference dinner on Friday 6 July in the evening.

Confirmed speakers include:

  • Prof. Colin Allen, Professor of Philosophy, specialized in Philosophy of Biology and Cognitive Science, in particular animal behaviour and cognition
  • Prof. Marc Bekoff, Emeritus Professor of Animal Behaviour, author of numerous books about animal capacities and the human-animal relationship
  • Prof. John Coetzee, Nobel Prize winning author
  • Prof. Julia Driver, Professor of Philosophy, exploring a Humean account of duties towards animals
  • Prof. Robert Garner, Professor of Political Theory, specialized in the political representation of non-human interests and animal rights
  • Prof. Dale Jamieson, Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy
  • Prof. Christine Korsgaard, Professor of Philosophy, developped a novel Kantian account of our duties towards animals
  • Prof. Will Kymlicka, Professor of Political Philosophy, recently co-authored a book on political philosophy and animal rights
  • Prof. James McGaugh, Research Professor of Neurobiology and Behaviour, author of ‘Memory and Emotion: The Making of Lasting Memories’
  • Raj Panjwani QC, practicising lawyer of the Supreme Court of India, specialised in animal protection.
  • Prof. Harriet Ritvo, Professor of Philosophy, specialised in the history of human-animal relationships
  • Dr. Jill Robinson, animal protectionis and founder of Animals Asia
  • Prof. Paul Schnabel, Professor of Sociology and director of the Dutch Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau
  • Prof. Peter Singer, Professor of Philosophy, developed a utilitarian approach to animal ethics

Conference Website: http://www.uu.nl/faculty/humanities/EN/congres/mindinganimals/Pages/default.aspx

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Coordonatrice du Centre de justice sociale de l'Université Concordia (Montréal) - Coordinator Social Justice Centre (Concordia University, Montreal)

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