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The Passions and Animal Language, 1540-1700

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 62, Number 3, July 2001
pp. 425-444 | 10.1353/jhi.2001.0029

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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.3 (2001) 425-444

"Do not think, kind and benevolent readers, that I am proposing a useless subject to you by choosing to discuss the language [loquela] of beasts. For this is nothing other than philosophy, which investigates the natures of animals." The Italian medical professor Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendente began his 1603 treatise On the language of beasts with this captatio benevolentiae with good cause. For early modern natural philosophers almost universally insisted that only humans were capable of language and speech. In this they followed, sometimes explicitly, their ancient authorities. "Man," Aristotle had said in the Politics, "is the only animal that has the gift of speech." "Men," wrote Cicero in the De inventione, "most excel the beasts in this, that they can speak." They were sentiments echoed throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. "There is no true language among beastes," said Sir Kenelm Digby. "Language" (loquela), concurred G. J. Vossius, "is unique to man." 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."

Language was a subject of absorbing interest to numerous early modern philosophers. They investigated its origin, its production, its signification, and its use. But behind almost all of these investigations lay one of the most profound suppositions in early modern anthropology: the uniqueness of the human capacity for language, and the brutishness of the brute beasts. Harsh judgments were passed on those who thought that animals might be able to speak. Lawyers held that belief in animal language was sufficient evidence of idiocy. According to Kenelm Digby it was only vanity, ignorance, and a specious desire for reputation that had led some authors to argue that animals used "compleate languages as Men haue to discourse with one another in." And the seventeenth-century English writer on the passions, Edward Reynolds, thought that only "melancholy men" believed "that Elephants and Birds, and other Creatures have a language whereby they discourse with one another."

Yet despite this pervasive assumption that humans spoke and animals did not, the question of animal language kept arising in early modern culture. Readers met speaking animals in beast fablesand on Lucianic voyages. There was a popular belief in early modern England that "in the olde tymes" animals could speak. Theodore Zwinger, Claude Duret, and G. J. Vossius all recorded many accounts of human communication with birds, with the ancient claim that Apollonius of Tyana could understand birdsong being particularly notorious. In the Old Testament Balaam's ass asks his owner what he has done to deserve being beaten. And St. Basil had even suggested that before the Fall Adam and Eve had been able to talk to the animals as well as to name them -- a suggestion that both Thomas Browne and Joseph Glanvill gave short shrift. But my purpose in this paper is not to follow speaking animals through early modern fables, popular beliefs, or even Biblical commentary. Instead, I propose to explore the serious investigations of zoosemiotics and animal communication that were undertaken by numerous philosophers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

For then as now, the question of animal language, broadly interpreted, was a serious one for the sciences. It was a question that was addressed across a wide range of disciplines, from logic to natural history. As such it was an important component of the many discussions of the nature of animal reason -- discussions that provided a means for skeptical moral philosophers to humble human pretensions to rationality and wisdom. Natural philosophers, too, undertook detailed inquiries into the question of animal expression, exploring issues of articulacy, anatomy, and function. Almost all early modern authors agreed that animals could not speak and did not possess language in the same way that humans did. But this still left a great deal of scope for considering the extent of their capacities for expression and communication.

This paper, then, discusses the various and sometimes sophisticated accounts of animal communication in early modern Europe. It was a time when questions of language had significant implications for anthropology, interpretation, and the investigation of nature, and the question of...



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