- Animals: A History ed. by Peter Adamson, and G. Fay Edwards
Recent years have seen a proliferation of publications on the status of nonhuman animals in philosophy, some of them single-authored monographs and quite a few others taking the form of anthologies. Anthologies always present the reader with challenges, and in the case of this volume, the challenges are significant. While it is admirable that the editors have brought together essays on a variety of important thinkers and topics related to animals in the history of philosophy, the essays in this volume exhibit a conspicuous tendency to polemical (which is to say, exaggeratedly one-sided) readings of philosophers, as well as a tendency to ignore or pass over very quickly some extremely important work that has been done over the past generation. Perhaps the most troubling drawback to this volume is that some key issues are dealt with in passing by different essays, but never receive any sort of in-depth treatment that would serve the reader in further research.
The editors provide a brief introduction that covers a vast array of issues and questions in fairly short order. The volume would have benefited from an introduction that examined and provided more guidance to the reader on central issues, such as the sorts of intelligence that nonhuman animals possess if we assume that their cognitive abilities must consist in more than mere sensory awareness while not being as sophisticated as human rationality. This issue is broached in a number of the contributions, but it is never thoroughly discussed. Instead, it is typically resolved with a solution that oversimplifies the philosopher’s or historical tradition’s views. Aristotle, for example, is best known for having excluded nonhuman animals from political community with humans on the grounds that nonhuman animals [End Page 566] lack logos (reason/language). Less well-known, but discussed by Devin Henry, the author of the contribution on Aristotle, is the fact that Aristotle wrote many hundreds of pages in his zoological writings emphasizing the sophisticated cognitive abilities of nonhuman animals, not infrequently using terms such as phronêsis and synesis in characterizing nonhuman animal intelligence. Henry acknowledges these remarks in the zoological texts but dismisses them on the grounds that Aristotle notes in those texts that there is something analogous to human rationality in nonhuman animals. This dismissal is a bit too hasty; it militates too strongly against the ambivalence about animal intelligence exhibited in Aristotle’s writings, and it leaves unanswered the question of what form nonhuman animal intelligence can take if we see it as more than mechanistic but less than full-blown human rationality.
A similar one-sidedness is evident in the essay on Plutarch and Porphyry, where Fay Edwards argues strongly for the conclusion that these thinkers’ primary motivation was human welfare rather than any direct concern for nonhuman animals. The author’s argument rests on the idea that neither Plutarch nor Porphyry ascribes human rationality to nonhuman animals. While this is true, it begs the question of what the term ‘rationality’ meant for these thinkers as well as whether and to what extent they were open to the possibility that some nonhuman animals possess some sort of rationality. Porphyry opens Book 3 of On Abstinence with a very interesting discussion of the different forms of logos and the proposition that many nonhuman animals are capable of logos, even if not of logos that can be understood by human beings. Plutarch presents some extraordinarily thought-provoking anecdotes about nonhuman animal ingenuity, and while many of these might seem contrived at first blush, contemporary ethological research has made more and more of these anecdotes seem less far-fetched and worthy of serious reflection. The reader would have benefited from a discussion of some of these anecdotes; doing a lot more to show both sides of controversies such as this one would have put the reader in a position to make up her own mind about the thesis urged by the author of this essay.