Kalamazoo 2024: Are Nonhuman Animals “Emotional”? Some Classical and Medieval Answers

This is my paper I had thought I was going to write for Session 134, “Theorizing Comparative Animalities,” at the 59th International Congress on Medieval Studies, in, as always, Kalamazoo. My apologies to the organizers for discovering that this idea wasn’t worth stretching to 20 minutes.

I had originally intended to write a paper on Aquinas’s response to the question of “Whether hope is in dumb animals?” (IaIIae q 40). Aquinas’s yes surprised me, as did his reasoning: “The internal passions of animals can be gathered from their outward movements: from which it is clear that hope is in dumb animals.” As he explains, a dog will chase only those birds it might be able to capture, not those it sees in the far distance: for Aquinas, that suffices as evidence of animal hope.

I was surprised because scholastic philosophy typically used ethology only to recognize, and then demote, nonhuman cognitive states by insisting that anything they did that looked “reasonable” was only an action of the sensitive soul. A typical example: a dog that, once beaten by a stick, comes to fear all sticks, has not, we’re told, developed an abstract conception of “stickiness,” because abstraction is something particular to rational cognition, which animals lack: therefore some other subrational form of cognition — like the estimative sense, which perceives the “intentions” of objects — needs to be concocted, to preserve the cognitive privileges of the rational soul. But not here: in the case of hope, Aquinas is content to make a call in the animals’ favor simply on the basis of observation. Why?

Because, as I learned, his taxonomy of emotion, perhaps developed from earlier work by Jean de la Rochelle, divided the passions from the affections: the latter are specific to rational beings, while the former can be experienced by animals too, beings animated only by a sensitive soul.[1] Many of the passions and affections bear the same name (eg, love, desire, and hope: IaIae, art 3), but their kind of existence varies. Aquinas wants the passions to be ontologically good and potentially morally neutral, while the affections, arising only where reason is, can be either vicious or virtuous, as can anything enacted through reason.

So, my surprise stems from what Aquinas didn’t do when he talked about hope. He refrained from doing the scholastic two-step. He doesn’t follow his observation about dogs and birds by immediately telling us that their apparent judgments or deliberation are only apparent. He did this because he wants the passions to be morally neutral, but the absence of the two-step says something, as well, about how its deployed elsewhere. It makes it look less inevitable.

That is, when a scholastic reframes animal behavior, as they so often do, as driven by lower, less complex cognitive processes than they seem to exercise, we have to recognize that they’re actively deciding to keep animals out. Nothing must be allowed to tread on their jealously guarded rational prerogatives. Aquinas’s countenance of irrational hope, based on his observation of animal behavior, is thus good evidence that what’s driving his classifications of animal cognition is not ethographic observation, but rather his commitment to the shared scholastic endeavor of preserving the human monopoly on reason. In effect, he is beginning with his desired conclusions, and the trick, for him, as for the scholastics in general, is how to arrange the existing facts to get there.

  1. Eg, Artur Andrzejuk, “The Problem of Affectiones in the Texts of Thomas Aquinas,” Rocznik Tomistyczny 1, no. 11 (2022): 181–92.