As a genius of construction man raises himself far above the bee in the following way: whereas the bee builds with wax that he gathers from nature, man builds with the far more delicate conceptual material which he first has to manufacture from himself…If I make up a definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare “look, a mammal,” I have indeed brought a truth to light in this way, but it is a truth of limited value…At bottom, what the investigator of such truths is seeking is only the metamorphosis of the world into man…He forgets that the original perceptual metaphors are metaphors and takes them to be the things themselves.
If one is to accept Nietzsche’s epistemological doubts as revelatory of a condition inherent and unique to humanity, then it becomes possible, by implication, to harbor a conception of mankind’s defining characteristic as a reification of the human intellect. It is tempting, therefore, to excuse those who wish to understand nonhuman animals through an analogous methodology. However, in permitting the continuity of such a detached view we move further away from the thing in itself and deeper into a solely metaphorical understanding.
Jonathan Bennett, in Rationality, immediately embraces this anthropomorphic methodology with his admission that he uses the term ‘rationality’ to mean “whatever it is that humans possess which marks them off, in respect of intellectual capacity, sharply and importantly from all other known species.” (5) Like many other philosophers seeking to draw clear and declarative distinctions between human and nonhuman animals, Bennett focuses on the role that language plays in cementing our position at the top of Frey’s antiquated ladder. He is careful not to make the ‘philosopher’s hunch’ a premise of his argument. It is my contention that his later support of just this hunch, that our language is one of a different and superior kind, is what ultimately reduces Bennett’s argumentation to yet another example of the human, all too human, desire for species individuality and exclusivity.
Throughout the course of his book, Bennett makes extensive usage of an elaborate series of metaphors, or heuristic fictions, in order to assign fictionalized versions of von Frisch’s honeybees with something approaching human rationality. In order to create what Bennett calls a good metaphor he posits four conditions drawn from an analogous relationship with human speech that he feels are necessary to constitute a language:
1. Any language must fall under rules relating what is said in it to facts about its subject matter.
2. If a number of creatures are said to have a common language, then there must be a behavioral basis for saying that they understand one another’s utterances in the language.
3. There must be a certain richness and complexity in the language, so that there is a very large, usually infinite, variety of things that may be said.
4. The expressions in the language should be symbolic rather than symptomatic: if a dance or an utterance can gather information about the world from the utterance, and the relation between the symbolic utterance and the fact it carries information about what is conventional.
Bennett proceeds through various hypotheses and machinations to endow his fictional bees with properties nearing, but not quite fulfilling the outline for the linguistic manifestation of rationality. As his attempts at making these bees our intellectual peers climb into the realm of the absurd it becomes obvious that no such bee ever has or could exist as anything other than a human conception. Bennett says nothing of the language of bees aside from making the clear assumption that their means of communication cannot be said to fulfill the requirements of human language. This unsatisfying conclusion belies a fault of the methodological assumption that we can understand an alien thing in itself within the limits of our natural anthropomorphic tendencies. Beneath this layer of epistemological uncertainty lies another mistake that affects Bennett’s work: that inclination that seeks to differentiate between one species and another according to one trait, or structural property, alone.
Mary Midgley, a British moral philosopher, works in her book Beast and Man toward an elucidation of the stock we have placed in our linguistic faculties and how this very investment is essentially overloaded. Midgley begins her argument by attacking the very philosopher’s hunch that Bennett makes use of in his book.
Structural properties, then, do not have to be exclusive or necessarily excellent. Nor do they have to be black-or-white, yes-or-no matters. And certainly no one of them is enough alone to define or explain a species. We commonly employ a cluster of them, whose arrangement as more or less essential can be altered from time to time for many reasons. And what is really characteristic is the shape of the whole cluster. (206)
According to Midgley, the absurdity of the quest for a single differentia works against the species attempting to prove such a difference even exists since it “obscures our truly characteristic richness and versatility.” (207) The Aristotelian definition of man as a primarily rational creature has given way over time to a slew of characteristics the species solipsist may make use of in their attempts at definition—conceptual thought, language, self-consciousness, temporality—are merely a few that have proved favorable amongst philosophers.
In his chapter on rationality and language, Bennett marks a distinction between memory and belief. To him, it is “only in language that it is possible to manifest a belief about the past without at the same time manifesting beliefs of a general kind, or by a single performance to manifest a general belief without at the same time manifesting beliefs about the past.” (89) This synthesis between belief and language gives rise to our elevated form of conceptual thought. However, in cordoning off the higher functions of such thought (belief) to the bees, Bennett neglects the fact that they do fulfill basic requirements of conceptual thinking, specifically, the ability to pass information about things absent. Midgley concedes that the limitation of the bees to this level of conceptualization in no way resembles human thought, though she does not ignore the importance of the bees’ specialized dance in their methods of organizing reality.
If language were really the only source of conceptual order, all animals except man would live in a totally disordered world. They could not be said to vary in intelligence, since they could not have the use of anything that could reasonably be called intelligence at all. As it is, however, they do vary in intelligence, and each species understands certain aspects of the world very well.
Bennett imposes linguistic characteristics of human rationality upon von Frisch’s honeybees in order to make them more comprehensible. The stories he fabricates to accomplish these ends neglects the actual bees in favor of creations that more closely resemble what we may find in our own human paradigm. It is unfair to deny nonhuman animals their own natural complexity because they cannot conform to abstract definitions that are devised in the first place entirely for use in a strictly human context. (216) Would a fish consider humans possessed of an ability to swim? Midgley’s position is that we should extend Kant’s consideration of the subject to “regard all animals as subjects of some kind, though with a life that varies greatly in its kind and degree of complexity.” (225) Our demand for exclusivity thereby limits our epistemological ability to break through the metaphors we have created to grasp knowledge of the animal in itself. Perhaps, then, what is fundamental would be a more holistic methodology that would allow us to garner some understanding of the entire creature. Bennett’s linguistic critique, therefore, is solid, but rests on an unfalsifiable foundation that defines itself into a position of truth.
“Having language” in the sense in which human beings have it is having a large and versatile tool kit. But kits containing some of the same tools are found in much less ambitious quarters. Or, to return to the image of the key—there is no question of keeping the chimps out of the castle. They and many other animals have always been inside, and only our conceit and prejudice have stopped us from seeing them. They are all over the ground floor, which is still a central area of our life as well as theirs. But there are many other floors to which they do not go and cannot, because they have never wanted to enough, and so have never developed their powers beyond a certain rudimentary point.