Discourse on the Method is a philosophical as well as an autobiographical dissertation that was published in 1637 by a great philosopher, René Descartes. The work is considered as among the greatest in the history of contemporary philosophy, and critical to the advancement of natural sciences. Descartes addresses the issue of skepticism in this work, an issue that had been researched by earlier philosophers. The book is structured in six critical sections, which tackle varied concepts. The fifth part is entitled Physics, the heart, and the soul of man and animals, and it talks much of human beings as being superior to other animals despite there being numerous similarities between the two. He cites reasoning and language as the key elements distinguishing people from other animals. This paper provides an analysis of how Descartes portrays animals through the contentions that he lays down in the fifth part of the book.
Descartes’s depiction of animals in his work is mainly done in comparison to a man. He tries to create an understanding of animals by highlighting the differences that exist between them and human beings. One of the significant portrayals of animals is as organisms that lack language. Descartes argues that unlike man, animals do not have a language that could aid communication. He views animals as lacking the ability to make themselves understood. Descartes notes that even if animals like parrots and the magpies have the ability to form human words, they can’t still be considered as having language. This is because the two types of animals do not show any proof that they actually understand what the words mean. “magpies and parrots can utter words as we do yet can’t speak as we do (Descartes 22). ” That explanation implies that their construction of word from mimicking does not qualify them as having a language. The necessity of language is to communicate a particular message to others, and mere word that does not make sense to the source cannot be thus considered as language. He compares the two animals to man to affirm his point. Descartes adds that even the deaf and dumb individuals who lack the speech organs, just like the animals are able to communicate. They “develop their own signs,” which they use to pass a message to other human beings around them. (Descartes 22) .This feature makes them different from the parrots and magpies since they can pass a message. He discredited the view that animals could be having their language different from that of humans by stating that if they did, they could make themselves comprehended to us, as well as fellow animals” they could make themselves understood by us (Descartes 23).”
Descartes views the lack of proper language by animals as proof that they cannot reason. He believes that animals lack the ability to reason, unlike humans. He asserts that even the most perfect animal species cannot compare to the dumbest kid. Descartes notes that some animals have proficient skills in some areas than humans, but this can not be used as an indication of them having a mind to reason or being better than people. If they indeed had a soul, “they would have better minds than any of us and would out-perform” people all things (Descartes 23). Descartes also argues that if they had a mind, notes that reason is responsible for the organization of words in a manner that can be understood. This implies that reason is necessary for one to be able to talk. The fact that animals can neither organize terms nor talk thus shows their lack of reasoning. Descartes considers the complex relationship between the body and the soul, concluding that the soul must possess a life beyond the body. “The soul must be more closely united with the body” (Descartes 23). The assertion further implies that it doesn’t necessarily die when the body does. He regards human’s soul as immortal since he cannot conceive of a way through which the soul could perish. “we are naturally led to think that it is immortal (Descartes 23)”
To wrap it up, Descartes, in his fifth section, relays a significant account regarding his perception of animals. He begins by noting that animals have many organs that resemble those of human beings. Descartes, however, contends that animals are different from human beings. He cites two main features about animals that makes them different from man, and which represent his perception about animals. He states that the lack of language and reasoning ability. The two features are relatively interconnected, with reasoning being viewed as responsible for the effective use of language and talking. The fact that they have no language and cannot talk affirms their lack of reasoning. According to Descartes, t is also the critical factor that differentiates them from human beings despite having similar organs. He also uses the above explanations as the basis/ proof that human beings have a “rational soul.” He further contends that the humans entail a rational soul of human beings, unlike the animals, one that is arguably immortal.
Descartes, René. Discourse on method and meditations on first philosophy. Hackett Publishing, 1999.
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