Some notes on animal cognition

Aquinas—unlike some others of his time, before his time, and even after his time—did not always underestimate the potency of non-human animals’ estimative capacity by reducing it to “instinct”: that is, to an inborn, unchanging, “pre-programmed” routine of how to deal with environmental factors.  As we know now, in an endeavor accelerated by the investigative researches of evolutionary theory in the 18th and 19th centuries, courtesy of idioscopic studies and empirical observations of animal behavior, this is an illusion: while animals may appear “instinctively” to know how to operate in certain situations, this too we have discovered to be a learned behavior—a behavior learned and passed on genetically, rather than in the individual life of the particular animal.  Moreover, animal behavior does adjust to new and different situations through estimative procedures that are more complex than a merely-instinctually-grounded basis for judging positive, negative, or neutral; their capacities for making these judgments do indeed develop over the course of the individual life of the particular animal.

Aquinas recognized this to at least some extent, distinguishing three levels of intelligence in animals (note the terminological issue concerning “phantasia” below; also that this is a very rough translation hastily done – 1271/72: Sententia Metaphysicae, lib.1, lec.1, n.10-13):

English Latin
Where Aristotle says, “from the senses”, he goes on to posit a diversity of cognition which is found in non-human animals: and he mentions three grades of cognition in such animals.  For there are some which, although they have senses, nevertheless do not have memory, which is made from the senses.  For memory follows the phantasia,* which is a movement by a second act of sensation, as is related in De Anima book II.  In certain animals, phantasia does not follow from the senses, and thus in those animals there cannot be memory: and animals of this kind are imperfect animals, which are immobile with regard to place, such as shellfish.  Since animals are provisioned with sensitive cognition to the necessities of life and to proper operation, those animals ought to have memory which are moved to objects distant by a progressing motion: for unless within them remained through memory a preconceived intention, from which they are induced to move, they would not be able to continue to pursue their intended ends.  But for immobile animals it suffices to their proper operations, accepting what is present to the senses, since they are not moved to distant objects; and therefore these animals have a certain indeterminate motion by confused imagination alone, as is said in De Anima book III.

From this, that certain animals have memory and certain others do not, it follows that some are prudent and others are not.  Since prudence provides for the future from the memory of the past (accordingly, Cicero in book II of the Rhetoric posits memory, intelligence, and providence as the parts of prudence), in those animals who lack memory, prudence cannot possibly be.  Those animals, which have memory, are able to have something of prudence.  Yet prudence is said to be in non-human animals and in humans in different ways.  For in humans there is prudence according to what from reason they deliberate what act it is right to do; whence in Nicomachean Ethics book VI, it is said that prudence is right reason concerning things to be done.  But judgment of things to be done is not from the deliberation of reason but rather from a certain instinct of nature that prudence is said to be in some animals.  Whence prudence in some animals of the nature of estimation concerning the fitting things to pursue and the harmful things to flee, as the lamb follows its mother and flees the wolf.

Among those animals which have memory, there are certain animals which do not have hearing, such as bees (or if there be any other such animals of this kind), although they may have prudence, nevertheless are not capable of receiving teaching, namely in the sense of being able through the instruction of another to be habituated to doing or avoiding something: for this sort of instruction is particularly received through hearing: whence it is said in the book De Sensu et Sensato, that hearing is the sense of learning… But those animals, which have memory and hearing, are able both to learn and to be prudent.

Therefore it is clear that there are three grades of cognition in animals.  The first grade is that, of which the members have neither hearing nor memory, which are neither teachable nor prudent.  The second grade is that, of which the members have memory, but not hearing, which are prudent but not teachable.  The third grade is that of which the members have both memory and hearing, and are prudent and teachable.  A fourth mode is not possible, name that there be some animal which has hearing and does not have memory.  For those senses, which apprehend their sensible through an exterior medium, among which is hearing, do not exist except in animals which are moved through a progressive motion, which are not able to exist without memory, as was said.

Deinde cum dicit ex sensibus ponit diversitatem cognitionis, quae est in brutis: et tangit etiam tres gradus cognitionis in huiusmodi animalibus. Quaedam enim sunt, quae licet sensum habeant, non tamen habent memoriam, quae ex sensu fit. Memoria enim sequitur phantasiam, quae est motus factus a sensu secundum actum, ut habetur in secundo de anima. In quibusdam vero animalibus ex sensu non fit phantasia, et sic in eis non potest esse memoria: et huiusmodi sunt animalia imperfecta, quae sunt immobilia secundum locum, ut conchilia. Cum enim animalibus cognitio sensitiva sit provisiva ad vitae necessitatem et ad propriam operationem, animalia illa memoriam habere debent, quae moventur ad distans motu progressivo: nisi enim apud ea remaneret per memoriam intentio praeconcepta, ex qua ad motum inducuntur, motum continuare non possent quousque finem intentum consequerentur. Animalibus vero immobilibus sufficit ad proprias operationes, praesentis sensibilis acceptio, cum ad distans non moveantur; et ideo sola imaginatione confusa habent aliquem motum indeterminatum, ut dicitur tertio de anima.

Ex hoc autem, quod quaedam animalia memoriam habent, et quaedam non habent, sequitur quod quaedam sunt prudentia et quaedam non. Cum enim prudentia ex praeteritorum memoria de futuris provideat (unde secundum Tullium in secundo rhetoricae, partes eius ponuntur memoria, intelligentia, et providentia), in illis animalibus prudentia esse non potest, qui memoria carent. Illa vero animalia, quae memoriam habent, aliquid prudentiae habere possunt. Dicitur autem prudentia aliter in brutis animalibus, et aliter hominibus inesse. In hominibus quidem est prudentia secundum quod ex ratione deliberant quid eos oporteat agere; unde dicitur sexto Ethicorum, quod prudentia est recta ratio agibilium. Iudicium autem de rebus agendis non ex rationis deliberatione, sed ex quodam naturae instinctu, prudentia in aliis animalibus dicitur. Unde prudentia in aliis animalibus est naturalis aestimatio de convenientibus prosequendis, et fugiendis nocivis, sicut agnus sequitur matrem et fugit lupum.

Inter ea vero, quae memoriam habent, quaedam habent auditum et quaedam non. Quaecumque autem auditum non habent, ut apes, vel si quod aliud huiusmodi animal est, licet prudentiam habere possint, non tamen sunt disciplinabilia, ut scilicet per alterius instructionem possint assuescere ad aliquid faciendum vel vitandum: huiusmodi enim instructio praecipue recipitur per auditum: unde dicitur in libro de sensu et sensato, quod auditus est sensus disciplinae…. Illa vero animalia, quae memoriam et auditum habent, et disciplinabilia et prudentia esse possunt.

Patet igitur tres esse gradus cognitionis in animalibus. Primus est eorum, quae nec auditum nec memoriam habent: unde nec disciplinabilia sunt, nec prudentia. Secundus est eorum quae habent memoriam, sed non auditum; unde sunt prudentia, et non disciplinabilia. Tertius est eorum, quae utrumque habent, et sunt prudentia et disciplinabilia. Quartus autem modus esse non potest, ut scilicet sit aliquod animal, quod habeat auditum, et non habeat memoriam. Sensus enim, qui per exterius medium suum sensibile apprehendunt, inter quos est auditus, non sunt nisi in animalibus quae moventur motu progressivo, quibus memoria deesse non potest, ut dictum est.

*The translation of phantasia presents a certain challenge, here.  Oftentimes, the term is used synonymous with the vis imaginativa; other times, with the generic sense of imaginatione which corresponds to the totality of interior sense or perceptual faculties.  Here, the use seems to map cleanly on to neither; for one, Aquinas states that some animals lack phantasia and yet are governed by an indeterminate imaginatione.  Moreover, the phantasia here is said to precede memory: which is certainly true in the sense that the operations of the vis imaginativa precede those of the vis memorativa, but that preceding is incidental rather than causative, which seems causation seems to be in Aquinas’ mind here.  Consequently, I interpret phantasia here to mean: the result of the operations of the vis aestimativa/cogitativa.

Aquinas, notably however, does still underestimate the potency of animal cognition: for while individual animals like bees seem not to learn in the course of their lives, they do learn as a species—much as a system-purpose final causation can drive a multitude without being the specific goal of any one individual—through the evolutionary alteration of genes over many generations.  Moreover, it is not clear that hearing is as necessary to learning as Aquinas thought: likely, this was a consequence of the technological paradigms of his time, in which the written word existed at such a premium that it was late-if-ever introduced to the education of most individuals.  As has been amply demonstrated in the past centuries, someone is capable of learning without hearing and even without sight.  This capacity for learning exists also in lesser animals which lack the sense of hearing, or what we would recognize as hearing—perhaps not in their individual brains, but somehow even in their genetic lineage.

This is not, however, to lessen the capacity of the species-specifically human cogitative faculty—far from it—which is vastly improved in its functionality by close association with the operations of the intellect.  We see this specifically with regard to evaluation in that benefit, harm, and neutrality are judged not only as pertaining to the immediate concerns of the evaluating animal but can extend to or even privilege concerns separate from the individual.  The cogitative faculty plays an explicit role in this process of practical evaluation as conjoined to the intellect, as the intellect provides the major premise and the cogitative provides the minor premise in the practical syllogism (c.1252/56: Super Sententia, lib.4, d.50, q.1, a.3, ad. s.c.3).  For a more detailed discussion of the cogitative faculty and its analogate in non-human animals, the estimative faculty, see Deely 1971: “Animal Intelligence and Concept-Formation” in The Thomist, 35:43-93.

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