Descartes Animals Rethought Essay

Submitted By rcarrots
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Descartes’ animals Rethought

“They eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; They desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” ¹ Although these are not Descartes’ words, Malebranche embodies the Cartesian thinking on the consciousness, or lack thereof, of animals. They are considered solely cognitive vessels, just fancy machines that you can kick and punch around. Emotionless and thoughtless; automata. But I’m sure most people can see the flaws in this argument and disagree with Descartes and his reasoning. Can it really be suggested that animals do not contain any sort of consciousness or feelings? If it weren’t for animal rights laws and socially conceived proprieties, would we all just disregard the companions among us? Most likely not. It can be argued that most people believe that animals, or at least most animals, are actively conscious creatures. But what constitutes them as conscious? Descartes states “I think, therefore I am.” 2 Simply free and active thought constitutes consciousness. But with that definition comes the problem of other minds: how can we know that another person is an actively conscious person and not just a programed robot? The most straightforward ways of determining consciousness are through language and emotion. You can only deduce that if a person speaks and feel or portray emotion, it must be conscious. Therefore Descartes is Language and the superiority of humans was a popular topic beginning in Aristotelian times, and echoing throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Many famous thinkers throughout the eras argued the same argument as Descartes: "There is no true language
1. Nicholas Malebranche, Euvres Complètes, ed G. Rodis-Lewis (Paris: J. Vrin, 1958-70), II. P. 394
2. Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method (1635) among beastes," said Sir Kenelm Digby; "Language is unique to man.", concurred G. J. Vossius, And according to John Ray in The Wisdom of God (1691), speech was "a quality so peculiar to Man, that no Beast could ever attain to it." ³ However, such thinking is far too outdated, close-minded, and ultra-humanistic. Just because we do not understand the language they are seeking, does not mean we should disregard it as a language. I’m sure you do not speak any of the tribal African Khosian languages, but yet even though to most of the world it is but a bunch of incomprehensible clicks, it is still recognized as a language. Or Spanish, Italian, German, any language you do not speak, you do not understand yet you understand it is a form of communication just like your own is. How is a dog’s bark, bird’s chirp or wolf’s howl any different? When one dog or bird chirps, usually others will respond. The Cartesians might argue this as being instinct, letting the others know that you are there, or maybe as a warning. The animal lacks conscious thought, it is the robot reacting the way it was “programmed” to. This may be true that dogs bark at each other for warning or instinctual marking of territory, but that cannot be the only reason for the noises coming out of their mouths. We do not know for absolute certain that dogs, or any other animal, do actually have their own language, however there are more than enough arguments to deduce that fact. When I bring my dog to the dog park and he wants to play with another dog, he will run around it; poke it; bark at it; lower his front two legs in a playful stance and snap his jaw, anything he can to communicate hiw will to play with another dog. It may not be a conventional way of communication, but it does its job and demonstrates the conscious thought he makes to play. Not only do dogs communicate with
3. Richard Serjeantson, The Passions and Animal Language, Journal of a History of Ideas, Volume 62, Number 3 (University of Pennsylvania Press, July 2001) p. 425-444 each other, they also communicate with us. If you kick a dog, it yelps in pain; it is trying communicate to us…