Animal Imagination

We talking animals have a unique perspective on what it means to be sentient. For us, any nonverbal awareness is always already implicitly informed by our linguistic abilities. We don’t have to mentally say words to ourselves; language-based understanding unconsciously permeates our elementary perceptions of things.

Nonetheless we share nonlinguistic perception with all animals, and also share emotion and Aristotelian “imagination” with many of them. This kind of “imagination” is an organic production and experiencing of “images” that can play a role somewhat analogous to that of thought based on language in shaping responses to things. I won’t worry for now exactly what an “image” is. Animals clearly anticipate events and consequences that are not immediately present to sensation, based on some kind of experiential learning. This seems to be related to what some of the Latin scholastics tried to explain in terms “natural signification”.

The most obvious interpretation of this kind of imagination is by a kind of analogy with sensation. We and other animals remember sensations that are no longer present, and imaginatively anticipate sensations in advance. This seems to imply somehow imagining certain things to be true, but without any explicit discursive reasoning. What is truth for my puppy?

I think emotion may be a big part of the answer. Emotion is in part a kind of spontaneous valuation of things. Specialists in human social psychology have found that simple emotional valuations of different things are surprisingly good statistical predictors of what ways of combining them people will regard as realistic or unrealistic, or true or false. I’m inclined to speculate that many animals live mainly by this kind of emotionally based valuation and classification (see also Ethos, Hexis; Parts of the Soul; Reasonableness; Feeling; Emotional Intelligence; Aristotle on the Soul; Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited; Vibrant Matter).

Hermeneutic Biology?

Aristotle’s biological works are quite fascinating and lively. They contain abundant experiential reports, including some hearsay, intermixed with thoughtful reflection. Ultimately it is the reflective aspect that gives them their enduring value.

Sometimes, the content is surprising. For instance, book 1 of Parts of Animals is the place where he thoroughly criticizes the notion of classification by dichotomy. With concrete illustrations from the animal kingdom, he shows that commonly recognized kinds cannot be arrived at by successive dichotomous distinctions. Aristotelian distinction is n-ary rather than binary, pluralist rather than dualist.

Elsewhere (Metaphysics 982b) he famously said that philosophy begins in wonder. At Parts of Animals 645a, he added, “We therefore must not recoil with childish aversion from the examination of the humbler animals. Every realm of nature is marvelous: and as Heraclitus, when strangers who came to visit him found him warming himself at the furnace in the kitchen and hesitated to go in, is reported to have bidden them not to be afraid to enter, as even in that kitchen divinities were present, so we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful. Absence of haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in natures’s works in the highest degree, and the end for which those works are put together and produced is a form of the beautiful” (Complete Works, revised Oxford edition vol. 1, p. 1004; see also Natural Ends; Sentience).