Mind and body in early modern philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V043-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2016
Retrieved December 12, 2018, from

6. Animal minds

Many early modern debates about mind and body were about the nature of human minds and their relation to human bodies. There was also an important related debate about the nature of other animals’ minds (see Animal language and thought).

Again, Descartes provides an interesting starting point. For, while he holds that humans have reason, language and a soul, he thinks that other animals lack all those things (for more detail, see §1). Such an animal is a sort of biological machine or automaton. Moreover, if we combine this with Descartes’s view that sensation involves the immaterial soul (Descartes [1637] 1985), it turns out that other animals do not even have sensation.

This view was unsurprisingly not persuasive to all. Thus, for example, Spinoza argued that ‘we can by no means doubt that beasts have feelings’ (Spinoza [1677] 1988: III, prop. 57, scholium) – though he also thought that nothing about their having feelings should stop us ‘making use of them as we please and dealing with them as best suits us’ (Spinoza [1677] 1988: IV, prop. 37, scholium 1; see also Animals and ethics). Later Bayle, in his Dictionary, reported arguments on both sides of the debate in notes to the article ‘Rorarius’. The Cartesian view does appear to have a theological advantage in making a strong distinction between humans and other animals (Bayle [1696] 1991). If animals have immaterial souls, one must ask whether those souls are immortal, whether they could be subject to eternal punishment, and so on. All these difficulties are avoided by simply denying that non-human animals have souls in the first place. But, on the other side, Bayle praises the arguments of Gabriel Daniel (1649–1728) in his 1690 La voyage du monde de Descartes. Daniel, Bayle reports, claims that ‘the arguments of the Cartesians lead us to judge that other men are machines’ too (Bayle [1696] 1991: 231).

Later still, David Hume would argue that it is entirely obvious that Descartes is wrong about this issue. As he began his discussion, ‘Of the reason of animals’ (Treatise 1.3.16):

Next to the ridicule of denying an evident truth, is that of taking much pains to defend it; and no truth appears to me more evident, than that beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men. The arguments are in this case so obvious, that they never escape the most stupid and ignorant.

(Hume [1739] 2001:

Hume thought it would be ridiculous to deny that animals could think – or, indeed, to spend a long time arguing against Descartes here.

More generally, Hume argues that, where we see similar behaviour in humans and animals, we should think that there are similar internal causes. Many of the things done by humans and seemingly involving minds are also done by animals. Whatever their explanation is, it should be one that we can happily give in both cases: not something involving very complex cognition that we would only want to attribute to humans. As Hume puts the point:

The common defect of those systems, which philosophers have employ’d to account for the actions of the mind, is, that they suppose such a subtility and refinement of thought, as not only exceeds the capacity of mere animals, but even of children and the common people in our own species; who are notwithstanding susceptible of the same emotions and affections as persons of the most accomplish’d genius and understanding. Such a subtility is a clear proof of the falshood, as the contrary simplicity of the truth, of any system.

(Hume [1739] 2001:

Citing this article:
Duncan, Stewart. Animal minds. Mind and body in early modern philosophy, 2016, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V043-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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