Boyle, M. (2012): Essentially Rational Animals

PDF Link

  author = {Boyle, Matthew},
  title = {Essentially Rational Animals},
  booktitle = {Rethinking Epistemology},
  shorttitle = {Essentially Rational Animals},
  editor = {Abel, Günter and Conant, James},
  publisher = {Walter De Gruyter},
  address = {Berlin},
  pages = {395-427},
  year = {2012},
  file = {~/Library/Mobile Documents/iCloud~com~sonnysoftware~bot/Documents/be-library/boyle2012(old-copy)_Essentially_Rational_Animals.pdf.pdf; boyle2012_Essentially_Rational_Animals.pdf.pdf},
  doi = {},
  url = {},
  langid = {},
  abstract = {},
  keywords = {concepts; perception; animals; rationality; conceptualism; reason},


The Classical View

The Classical View:
the view of definition “found in Aristotle and in that strain of medieval Aristotelianism of which Thomas Aquinas is the greatest expositor” (399) according to which the predicates appearing in the definition attach to the kind being defined (rather than individual members of the kind) (403, 404, 408)

Three “key ideas” of the Classical View:

first, the idea that “rational animal” belongs to the specification of the essence of humankind; secondly, the idea that, more specifically, this phrase characterizes our form; and finally, the idea that “rational” designates a characteristic that differentiates the genus “animal.” (399)

The “crucial implication” of the Classical View:

rationality is not a particular power rational animals are equipped with, but their distinctive manner of having powers. … I will argue that it [i.e. Classical View] enables us to avoid the following choice, which many authors take to be mandatory: either offer an account of cognition and action that applies uniformly to both rational and nonrational animals, or else deny that nonrational animals can literally be said to cognize and act. Furthermore, I will suggest that appreciating this idea puts us in a position to answer the common charge that conceiving of our minds as essentially rational involves a hyper-intellectualized or hyperidealized view of how our minds operate. (399-400)

Differentia as Transformative of Genus

Boyle argues that the specific difference that sets one species from another “transforms” what it is to be a member of the genus of which both are species. He bases this primarily on this passage from Aristotle’s Metaphysics

By genus I mean that one identical thing which is predicated of both and is differentiated in no merely accidental way… For not only must the common nature attach to the different things, e.g. not only must both be animals, but this very animality must also be different for each… For I give the name of ‘difference in the genus’ to an otherness which makes the genus itself other. (Metaphysics X. 8, 1057b38–1058a7., quoted in [@boyle2012, 409])

Rationality as Form

“rational” specifies the sort of frame that undergirds any concrete description of what it is to be a human being. For /it does not specify a particular characteristic that we exhibit but our distinctive manner of having characteristics/. This, I believe, is the significance of saying that “rational” characterizes the form of human being. [@boyle2012, 410]

The key claim here is that rationality “does not specify a particular characteristic that we exhibit but our distinctive manner of having characteristics.”

Against the Transformative Conception (as Interpretation of Kant)

The argument is pretty straightforward. According to the Classical View (CV) being a rational animal means that acts of sensibility are not, in rational beings, essentially the same as they are in non-rational beings. Acts of sensibility are had in a rational way rather than in a non-rational way. I take this to be a straightforward commitment of Boyle’s view.

Could Kant endorse CV? In my view, no. This is because of the way Kant understands sensible acts as the outcome of our receptivity as opposed to our spontaneity. On Kant’s view any act of a substance is due to an exercise of its causal powers. So in one sense nothing merely “happens” to a substance—any property it has (anything that “inheres” in the substance) depends on an act of that very substance.

But Kant wants to distinguish between things that “happen” to a substance and things the substance “does” in a way which conforms to a distinction between passivity and activity. His explanation of the passive/active distinction thus hinges on his basic dichotomy between receptive powers of a substance and spontaneous powers of substance.

A receptive power is one whose actualization is ultimately grounded in something whose existence and nature is itself independent of that power. The clear example here is that of a sense modality. An actualization of one’s visual capacity is ultimately due to something whose existence and nature is entirely independent of that capacity or its exercise (and so on for all the other possible sense modalities).

A spontaneous power is one whose actualization is ultimately grounded in something whose existence and nature is not independent of the power so exercised. For example, what makes the mental transition from holding true the premises of an argument to holding true their conclusion a case of inference is that the rational agent recognize the support relation between premises and conclusion. Hence the nature of the ground of the inferential act itself appeals to the rational capacity of which it is an instance. TODO: Fix this!

If that distinction is correct then we need only one further premise to reject Boyle’s position. This is the premise that all and only rational acts are spontaneous. If that is right, and given the above distinction, then it would be contradictory to claim that acts of sensibility are rational, or have the form of rationality, since this would be to claim that they are both receptive and spontaneous, which is a contradiction.

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