Animality, Reason, Freedom: On the Non Existence of Humans

Some of us, at any rate, have been told for millennia that we are the rational, mortal animal. Rational things are able to reason; mortal things, to die — or, more precisely, because death is not so much something that we do as it is something that happens to us, mortal things have the incapacity not to die;[1]I have in mind here Derrida’s comments on the “nonpower at the heart of power” in his Animal that Therefore I am. and animal things, most simply, are living things. That is, in a standard medieval usage, an “animal” can be any ensouled thing, as animal derives from the Latin anima, which means soul, and, more precisely, since souls are the difference between living and unliving things, an “animal” can be any living thing.

Standard schema of the soul divide it into three, each corresponding to different capacities exercised by the three classes of living things: the vegetative or nutritive soul, which grants the capacities to feed, grow, and reproduce; the sensitive soul, which grants the capacities for sensation and movement — and through that, a limited kind of self-awareness; and the rational soul, the one soul that can operate without any corporeal organ.[2]The basic tripartite schema condenses the model influentially laid out in Aristotle De Anima II.3; for a representative explanation of the Aristotle, itself channeled through Avicenna, see Aquinas, … Continue reading The souls are additive. Possession of the sensitive soul requires the existence of the nutritive one as well; and humans, gifted with the rational soul, must have the first two as well. Thus, technically speaking, plants likewise might be called “animals”; or, more commonly, humans might be called animals, like dogs or horses; or, surprisingly enough, we might be called “beasts,” as in these translations of Boethius’s “rationale animal atque mortale”: “beste raisonnable et mortel” (Simone de Freine and Jean de Meun), or Chaucer, whose translation of Boethius’s Latin relies on Jean de Meun’s: “resonable mortal beest.”[3]Elizabeth I’s translation marks a significant change from the medieval vocabulary and, with it, perhaps a change in conceptions of the categories of human and animal. She renders it … Continue reading In this taxonomy, stating that “humans are animals too” simply states something barely worth registering: that humans are also living things.

We are, still, living things with our own specific blend, unique to us: animal and mortal and rational. The three elements delimit the particularity of humans while indicating our commonalities with other living things. For the time being, however, I can find no way to harmonize these three elements. Collectively, they either suggest impossibilities or cancel each other out.[4]What follows is a preliminary exploration! I don’t have my copy of Aristotle’s Categories with me, nor Porphyry’s Isagoge, nor have I consulted the many medieval elaborations of … Continue reading

Please consider this Venn diagram: Mortal animals — that is, mortal ensouled things — are any living thing that can die. Mortal irrational animals are the subset of living things without the rational soul. Rational but immortal animals, whose existence the diagram implies, are an odd category, but not fundamentally impossible. Could they be angels? But if angelic souls are intellective — a term that indicates a form of knowing that is higher than reason — then the immortal, merely rational animal might be understood as an inadequate angel. Other, more likely options are available if we follow the logic of mainstream thought in the medieval Latin Church, which came to be known, later, as Roman Catholicism. The theology of this church held that people are psychosomatic unities, and held, too, that because bodies participate in either our good or bad deeds, they must participate in eternal reward or punishment. The immortal rational animal could be, then, that postmortem form of the rational soul, which is the human self temporarily separated from its body before the resurrection reunites soul and body; or it perhaps could be the immortal, rational animal that humans become in the resurrection, when their souls are reunited with a now perfected body, unburdened by mortality (and, in hell, essentially punished with immortality).

The third of the three nonhuman options, the nonanimal rational mortal being, seems simply impossible, because reason is enabled by the rational soul and is therefore an animal capacity. Positing the existing of a nonanimal mortal rational being is therefore like positing the existence of colorless red. A few, rare medieval thinkers, like Blaise of Parma, did hypothesize the existence of a fully material rational soul.[5]I write a bit about Blaise in this old blog post, later compacted into part of a paragraph in my How Not to Make a Human. Blaise nonetheless still assumed the spiritual character of reason. Even the heretical category of mortal reason requires animacy.

As interesting as the problems here might be, they may simply stem from a bad visualization. Subcategorization rather than overlapping categories likely better suggests how medieval theologians and philosophers conceived of the human relationship to ensoulment and mortality, like so: But this chart fails too. While the Venn diagram implies the existence of impossibilities, this chart implies equally strange forms of existence, while providing no space for other, necessary kinds of being. That is, the largest circle, comprising all living things, suggests the existence of immortal, irrational living things: certain microorganisms in the Pacific Ocean may be 101.5 million years old, but even these things can still, perhaps, die. And putting reason only in the smallest circle leaves no room for immortal rational beings — no angels, perhaps, or no human presence in either heaven or hell, which is, generally speaking, a theological impossibility.

Abandoning the charts provides no satisfaction: the relationship between the three qualities of humanness sit uneasily with one another. To say that humans are animal, rational, and mortal is to speak in redundancies and contradictions. Reason, after all, is a subcategory of animality, not a separate item: it is only a kind of animation. We might say, then, that humans are the “rational mortal being” and declare ourselves finished. Yet reason cancels out the mortality, at least for the medieval Latin Church: we, the rational mortal creatures, are destined for eternity. Death is just a change of state. Even without that theological framework, theories of the rational soul still tend to assert its fundamentally immaterial character. Because the rational soul is the one kind of soul that permits nonmaterial cognition, it not only frees us from the simple cause and effect of material things, it also survives bodily mortality.[6]Anselm Oelze’s Animal Rationality: Later Medieval Theories 1250-1350 is a key, recent text for a set of fundamental beliefs about the rational soul. Being an immaterial thing, derived from an immaterial actor, God himself, the rational soul necessarily cannot die, because death is a condition suffered by things belonging to what philosophers called the world of generation and corruption. With all that in mind, there can be no elegant way to make sense of humans according to the traditional tripartite model. “Rational animal” is superfluous, while “rational mortal” barely survives any theological pressure.

Reason itself, however, possesses only the faintest form of existence, because — if we follow Boethius’s Consolation or ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan — it marks nothing but a hesitation between two possibilities: either a bestial descent into vice, or a divine elevation into virtue. Reason certainly enables what we typically think of when we speak of “rational action”: practical manipulations, for example, and various kinds of second-order thinking, exemplified most fundamentally by the shame inflicted on us by the Protoplasts‘ consumption of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But reason’s primary purposes are evaluative and selective: everything it can do stems from its capacity to assess and choose.[7]In fact, even to speak of “free choice” is to engage in a redundancy. Unless it comes, as it were, from nowhere, without the compulsions of cause and effect, no choice can ever be what Derrida … Continue reading What kind of thing is this thing that exists only to allow a choice? How can we conceive of such a thing? And is it even possible to speak of reason as an individual quality, let along as a human quality?

To the degree that reason marks that clearing where a true decision can happen, yes, it is human, because only humans have the capacity for choice.[8]Angels too, I suppose: I’ll come back to them later in this project. Everything else is already what it is and incapable of ever being anything else. Nonhuman animals will always be exactly what they are. God will always be what he is. Humans, however, are humans only while they are choosing, which is to say, we are only ourselves when we are on the way to being something else. A choice is something we pass through, and whatever choice we make, we cease to be ourselves. Choose badly, and you become a beast. Choose well, and, as Boethius says, you participate in divinity, or, as ibn Tufayl says, you move beyond the limitations of quotidian, practical reason.

In short, the rationalist tradition I have been exploring offers this: humans are the creatures without qualities. In Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, God tells that he can “determine your nature for yourself.”[9]trans Borghesi, Papio, and Riva, 116-117. This and the next citation are from J. Eugene Clay’s introduction to the anthology Beasts, Humans, and Transhumans in the Middle Ages and Renaissance … Continue reading John Scottus Eriugena’s Periphyseon says that “Man is an animal; man is not an animal….Man understands and reasons like an angels; he has sensation and governs his body like an animal.” Earlier still, the fourth-century On the Nature of Man by Nemesius of Emesa relies on Philo of Alexanderia’s first-century On the Creation of the World when it asserts “The Hebrews say that man came into existence in the beginning as neither incontestably mortal nor immortal, but at the boundary of each nature.”

Ibn Tufayl essentially agrees with all of the above. Humans might learn things from nonhuman animals, but they are, unlike them, destined for something beyond this mutable world. Most humans, being unphilosophical and dedicated to mutable things, “are no better than unreasoning animals” (164). But when they act properly, humans are creatures that follow three kinds of action:

those in which he would resemble an inarticulate animal, those in which he would resemble a celestial body, and those in which he would resemble the Necessarily Existent being. (142)

Notably, there is nothing in here that says, precisely, what it is that humans, in themselves, are supposed to do or be. Nonhuman animals are paradigmatically quadrupeds, and, as such, paradigmatically oriented towards the earth (giraffes aside!); the human animal, paradigmatically bipedal, is oriented towards the heavens. No creature, it seems, ever looks straight ahead. Humans, especially, are never human unless they are looking beyond themselves.

A last point:

If reason is oriented towards abstraction, universality, and completeness, oriented, that is, towards divinity, it is oriented, too, towards ineffability. It stretches beyond itself, into categories beyond which words and concepts are unable to follow. “Whenever tries to entrust [the mystical experience] to words or to the written page, its essence is distorted, and it slips into that other, purely theoretical branch of discourse” (Hayy ibn Yaqzan, 98). ibn Tufayl here opposes Reason to Mysticism, but since the former leads to the latter, Mysticism may be understood not as Reason’s opponent, but rather as its culmination. And if reason is oriented towards choice, its perfection finally leads us beyond choice. As he grows into a fully rational subject, Hayy ibn Yaqzan learns to do things, and he learns about things. But he finally passes beyond all that, reducing his scale of activity to as close to nothing as corporeally possible. He aims at his own disappearance. At the highest level of his efforts, he becomes “oblivious to self” (97). He does not become God — that would be heresy — but neither is he quite himself either (153).

In sum, reason is apophatic. Any positive effort to describe it falls short of what it actually is, which is the nature to have no nature, the character to have no character, the capacity to be without qualities. It is not a capacity of presence, but neither is it one of nonexistence. It is, rather, a form of existence that admits no positive descriptions.

To speak in this way of reason might sound odd to anyone familiar — even just glancingly familiar, as I likely am — with Derrida’s critiques of logocentrism. Jonathan Culler’s groundbreaking On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism offers this précis of what Derrida means by the term: “the orientation of philosophy toward an order of meaning–thought, truth, reason, logic, the Word–conceived as existing in itself, as foundation” (92). All these things, reason included, pretend to strive towards, hope for, or claim for themselves an authentic, originary presence. All of these things believe that the thing that comes first is the complete thing, and that all secondary, derivative categories need to be pared away to arrive at the thing that is that is really true. All hitherto existing metaphysics, per Derrida, has claimed for itself the mantle of presence.[10]See Of Grammatology: “We already have a foreboding that phonocentrism merges with the historical determination of the meaning of being in general as presence, with all the subdeterminations … Continue reading And any claim to positive identity always suffers from a “residue irreducible to the dominant force organizing the hierarchy” (Limited Inc, 21). To say that there is no outside the text is to say that everything is always derivative. All claims to presence are fraudulent.

If we associate Reason with agency, with control, and with a resistance to disorder, if we call Reason the great principle of keeping the mess at bay, then Reason precisely belongs to that chain of logocentric categories Culler lists. No wonder, as the logos of logocentrism means, among other things, Reason. Opposing Reason’s claim to order would be all forms of nonbinary thinking, or all insistences on process rather than stable formations. A classic case would be Levinas’s ethical elevation of saying (le dire) over the said (le dit). Here’s a sample explanation:

By the former Levinas understands the semantic content of an utterance or the giving of signs by a sender to an addressee, but also the different modalities by which a subject masters the world by assimilating it to the measure of consciousness (discourse, narration, history, manifestation, representation). Saying (le dire) refers to the way of signifying primarily that I am for the other, the expression of being-for-the-other that subjectivity “is” before [sic; being?] positioned as the source of signs or comprehension: subjectivity as exposition. While the said expresses a content, the saying is expression without content.[11]Gabriel Riera, “‘The Possibility of the Poetic Said’ in Otherwise than Being (Allusion, or Blanchot in Lévinas).” Diacritics 34.2 (2004): [14] pp. 14–36

Le dit encloses and le dire discloses. The former controls, and the latter offers. The former has qualities, and the latter is “expression without content.” As we typically understand it, Reason surely would be associated not with le dire but with le dit.

Yet Reason — in the tradition I have been exploring this semester — also ultimately tends towards no positive content. It tends towards self-annihilation, the jettisoning of all consciousness, of all “discourse, narration, history, manifestation, representation.” Reason ultimately aims at something beyond presence. In its relentless, unwavering demand for the loss of self-control, Reason swerves, in my mind, towards the erotic mysticism on offer from, say, Leo Bersani, or the self-shattering commitment to escaping bourgeois economies characteristic of, say, Georges Bataille.

Does Reason’s trajectory mean that Reason, of all things, eludes the fraudulent philosophical claims of logocentrism? I’d have to say not — and I’d wager that Derrida would agree with me[12]See his comments on “Infinitist theologies” in Of Grammatology 71, quoted in note 10. — because Reason grounds its annihilating goal in the participation in divinity. If, for Bersani, what lies on the other side of the self is ecstatic erasure, that erasure is grounded in nothing other than its own activity. For ibn Tufayl, and his many affiliated thinkers, what lies beyond self is the Big Self of God Himself.

We have, then, annihilation and the absence of qualities on either side, in Reason or its enemies, with the only question being where and whether they resolve themselves.

References

References
1 I have in mind here Derrida’s comments on the “nonpower at the heart of power” in his Animal that Therefore I am.
2 The basic tripartite schema condenses the model influentially laid out in Aristotle De Anima II.3; for a representative explanation of the Aristotle, itself channeled through Avicenna, see Aquinas, Summa Theologica I q. 78 a. 1. Plato provides an earlier, different tripartite schema in his Republic 4.
3 Elizabeth I’s translation marks a significant change from the medieval vocabulary and, with it, perhaps a change in conceptions of the categories of human and animal. She renders it “reasonable creature & mortall,” swapping out animal for the less loaded, and more theological term “creature.” For claims about this vocabulary, Laurie Shannon, “The Eight Animals in Shakespeare; or, Before the Human.” PMLA 124.2 (2009): 472-479, expanded in her The Accommodated Animal.
4 What follows is a preliminary exploration! I don’t have my copy of Aristotle’s Categories with me, nor Porphyry’s Isagoge, nor have I consulted the many medieval elaborations of problems of categorization. I may be duplicating work done a thousand years ago or more, and raising objections that, likewise, have been long resolved. That problem can be fixed with further, necessary study.
5 I write a bit about Blaise in this old blog post, later compacted into part of a paragraph in my How Not to Make a Human.
6 Anselm Oelze’s Animal Rationality: Later Medieval Theories 1250-1350 is a key, recent text for a set of fundamental beliefs about the rational soul.
7 In fact, even to speak of “free choice” is to engage in a redundancy. Unless it comes, as it were, from nowhere, without the compulsions of cause and effect, no choice can ever be what Derrida calls a “response”: it can only be a reaction, and therefore not a true choice.
8 Angels too, I suppose: I’ll come back to them later in this project.
9 trans Borghesi, Papio, and Riva, 116-117. This and the next citation are from J. Eugene Clay’s introduction to the anthology Beasts, Humans, and Transhumans in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Brepols, 2020).
10 See Of Grammatology: “We already have a foreboding that phonocentrism merges with the historical determination of the meaning of being in general as presence, with all the subdeterminations which depend on this general form and which organize within it their system and their historical sequence (presence of the thing to the sight as eidos, presence as substance/essence/existence [ousia], temporal presence as point [stigmè] of the now or of the moment [nun], the self-presence of the cogito, consciousness, subjectivity, the co-presence of the other and of the self, intersubjectivity as the intentional phenomenon of the ego, and so forth). Logocentrism would thus support the determination of the being of the entity as presence.” (12); “All dualisms, all theories of the immortality of the soul or of the spirit, as well as all monisms, spiritualist or materialist, dialectical or vulgar, are the unique theme of a metaphysics whose entire history was compelled to strive toward the reduction of the trace. The subordination of the trace to the full presence summed up in the logos, the humbling of writing beneath a speech dreaming its plenitude, such are the gestures required by an onto-theology determining the archeological and eschatological meaning of being as presence, as parousia, as life without differance: another name for death, historical metonymy where God’s name holds death in check. That is why, if this movement begins its era in the form of Platonism, it ends in infinitist metaphysics” (71).
11 Gabriel Riera, “‘The Possibility of the Poetic Said’ in Otherwise than Being (Allusion, or Blanchot in Lévinas).” Diacritics 34.2 (2004): [14] pp. 14–36
12 See his comments on “Infinitist theologies” in Of Grammatology 71, quoted in note 10.
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