Thursday, April 9, 2015

Albert and the Animals

In all of our readings there has been a tension between the seemingly human qualities and behaviors of many animals and the physical animality of humans.  The writers of the bestiaries acknowledge that humans are animals by definition (they have an animus, they are animate bodies), but distinguish them from the rest of the animals based on their rational soul and their creation in the image of God.  In the sixth tract of Book 8 of On Animals, Albert Magnus attempts to explain this distinction in light of the surprisingly human-like and seemingly intelligent behaviors that he attributes to many animals in his previous chapters.  I’m still trying to puzzle out exactly how he explains this distinction, so I apologize in advance for rambling.
            As I understand it, Albert’s distinction is twofold.  In the first place, only humans have reason and thus can speculate.  Secondly, though some other animals participate in the whole range of internal and external senses, the quality of these senses vary among species, and all are inferior to the humans’ sensory abilities.  It’s worth noting that while the first distinction is one of kind, the second is one of degree. 
Albert acknowledges that “it does not seem probable that those which participate in experimental knowledge,… the estimative power,… imagination, and sensation, do not also somehow participate in reason” (Book 8, tract 6, 227).  He obviously intends to refute this, but first sets out on a digression on the varying sensory powers of animals.
It’s odd to me that, after setting up the false thesis that animals must somehow participate in reason, Albert doesn’t immediately say why it’s untrue.  Instead, he explains that while some animals have all the internal and external senses that humans have, the animals’ senses are inferior. 
According to Albert, animals’ (and humans’) external and internal sensory abilities are determined by their physiology.  Foe example, and animal with “large, hard, watery eyes” will have inferior vision to one with “a clear eye and unified vision” (Book 8, Tract 6, 228).  This will then affect the quality of the image that reaches their internal senses, and their ability to react.  Thus the one with poor vision will be more easily deceived, according the Albert.  The same goes for internal physiology: for example, the hardness or softness of the brain affects the animal’s short- and long-term memory.  For Albert, there is a direct link between the physical body and the senses, but there is no analogous link between physiology and reason.
I recall that near the end of class, Professor Fulton Brown said something to suggest that, if there were another animal with perfect senses, they might be able to speculate.  Upon rereading this section, I have to disagree.  When Albert finally does return to the question of animals’ rationality, there doesn’t seem to be a causal link between their sensory powers and the ability to speculate (their lack of reason in independent of their imperfect senses).  He says that, “although some animals participate equally in the number of senses… they nevertheless do not participate in an equal way.  They participate in speculation and in the speculatives in no what whatever, since… this abstraction does not occur without reason and intellect” (Book 8, tract 6, 235).  This is the closest he comes to connecting the two, and there is no real connection.  Nonetheless, the fact that he structures his argument in this way makes it tempting to try to find some connection between the two.
If I were to try to find a justification for tying the two together, I would look back to the fundamental distinction between man and other animals: that Adam was created in the image of God.  Not only does this justify humans’ unique capacity for reason, it also creates a physiological distinction between humans and the other animals.  If humans are created in God’s image, this also explains why their eyes, ears, brains, etc. are physiologically different from those of other animals.  Humans and animals exist on a spectrum of sensory capabilities, but because their corporeal form is a reflection of the divine form, human physiology is distinctly superior.


1 comment:

  1. I think you are definitely onto something here, in the distinctions that Albert draws between the sensory powers and the power to speculate, but I would have liked to hear more about what Albert says about the relationship between soul and body, form and matter, to help substantiate the distinction. How, exactly, is it that being made in the image and likeness of God (i.e. with the kind of soul that human beings have) means that our sensory and intellectual faculties are different from those of the other animals? Albert is struggling to find a philosophical, not just a theological justification for the differences, and he does so through the Aristotelean idea of the soul's informing power. RLFB