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).

Aristotle on the Soul

“Since we consider knowledge to be something beautiful and honored, and one sort more so than another either on account of its precision or because it is about better and more wondrous things, on both accounts we should with good reason rank the inquiry about the soul among the primary studies. And it seems that acquaintance with it contributes greatly toward all truth and especially the truth about nature, since the soul is in some way the governing source of living things” (On the Soul I.1, Sachs trans., p. 47).

“But altogether in every way the soul is one of the most difficult things to get any assurance about” (ibid).

“But first, perhaps, it is necessary to decide in which general class it is, and what it is — I mean whether it is an independent thing and a this, or a quality or quantity or some other one of the distinct ways of attributing being to anything, and further whether it whether it belongs among things having being in potency or is rather some sort of being-at-work-staying-itself; for this makes no small difference. And one must also examine whether it is divisible or without parts, and whether all soul is of the same kind, or, if it is not of the same kind, whether souls differ as forms of one general class, or in their general classes. For those who now speak and inquire about the soul seem to consider only the human soul, but one must be on the lookout so that it does not escape notice whether there is one articulation of soul, just as of living thing, or a different one for each, as for horse, dog, human being, and god, while a living thing in general is either nothing at all or a later concern — as would similarly be in question if any other common name were applied.”

“Again, if there are not many souls but parts of one soul, one must consider whether one ought to inquire first about the soul as a whole or about the parts. But it is difficult even to distinguish, among these, which sorts are by nature different from one another, and whether one ought first to inquire about the parts or about the work they do: the thinking or the intellect, the sensing or the sense, and so on in the other cases. But if the work the parts do comes first, one might next be at a loss whether one ought to inquire about the objects of these, such as the thing sensed before the sense, and the thing thought before the intellect. But not only does it seem that knowing what something is would be useful for studying the causes of the things that follow from its thinghood (just as in mathematics, it is useful to know what straight and curved are and what a line and a plane are, for learning how many right angles the angles of a triangle are equal to), but it seems too, on the contrary, that those properties that follow contribute in great part to knowing what the thing is, for it is when we are able to give an account of what is evident about the properties, either all or most of them, that we will be able to speak most aptly about the thinghood of the thing. For in every demonstration the starting point is what something is, so it is clear that those definitions that do not lead to knowing the properties, nor even making them easy to guess at, are formulated in a merely logical way and are all empty.”

“And there is also an impasse about the attributes of the soul, whether all of them belong in common to it and to the thing that has the soul, or any of them belong to the soul alone. It is necessary to take this up, though it is not easy, but it does seem that with most of its attributes, the soul neither does anything nor has anything done to it without the body, as with being angry, being confident, desiring, and every sort of sensing, though thinking seems most of all to belong to the soul by itself; but if this is also some sort of imagination, it would not be possible for even this to be without the body. Now if any of the kinds of work the soul does or any of the things that happen to it happen to it alone, it would be possible for the soul to be separated; but if nothing belongs to it alone, it could not be separate, but in the same way that many things are properties of the straight line as straight, such as touching a sphere at a point, still no separated straight line will touch a bronze sphere in that way, since it is inseparable, if it is always with some sort of body.”

“But all the attributes of the soul seem also to be with a body — spiritedness, gentleness, fear, pity, boldness, and also joy, as well as loving and hating — for together with these the body undergoes something. This is revealed when strong and obvious experiences do not lead to the soul’s being provoked or frightened, while sometimes it is moved by small and obscure ones, when the body is in an excited state and bears itself in the way it does when it is angry. And this makes it still more clear: for when nothing frightening is happening there arise among the feelings of the soul those of one who is frightened. But if this is so, it is evident that the attributes of the soul have materiality in the very statements of them, so that their definitions would be of this sort: being angry is a certain motion of such-and-such a body or part or faculty, moved by this for the sake of that. So already on this account the study concerning the soul belongs to the one who studies nature, either all soul or at least this sort of soul.”

“But the one who studies nature and the logician would define each attribute of the soul differently, for instance what anger is. The one would say it is a craving for revenge, or some such thing, while the other would say it is a boiling of the blood and a heat around the heart. Of these, the one gives an account of the material, the other of the form and meaning. For the one is the articulation of the thing, but this has to be in a certain sort of material if it is to be at all. In the same way, while the meaning of a house is of this sort, a shelter that protects from damage by wind, rain, and the sun’s heat, another person will say that it is stones, bricks, and lumber, and yet another will say that the form is in these latter things for the sake of those former ones.”

“Which of these is the one who studies nature? Is it the one concerned with the material who ignores the meaning or the one concerned with the meaning alone? Or is it rather the one who is concerned with what arises out of both? Or is there not just one sort of person concerned with the attributes of material that are not separate nor even treated as separate, but the one who studies nature is concerned with all the work done by and things done to a certain kind of body or material” (pp. 48-51).

“But since people define the soul most of all by two distinct things, by motion with respect to place and by thinking, understanding, and perceiving, while thinking and understanding seem as though they are some sort of perceiving (for in both of these ways the soul discriminates and recognizes something about being), and the ancients even say that understanding and perceiving are the same — as Empedocles has said ‘wisdom grows for humans as a result of what is present around them’, and elsewhere ‘from this a changed understanding is constantly becoming present to them’, and Homer’s ‘such is the mind’ means the same thing as these, for they all assume that thinking is something bodily like perceiving, and that perceiving and understanding are of like by like, as we described in the chapters at the beginning (and yet they ought to have spoken at the same time about making mistakes as well, for this is more native to living things and the soul goes on for more time in this condition, and thus it would necessarily follow either, as some say, that everything that appears is true, or that a mistake is contact with what is unlike, since that is opposite to recognizing like by like, though it seems that the same mistake, or the same knowledge, concerns opposite things) — nevertheless it is clear that perceiving and understanding are not the same thing, since all animals share in the former, but few in the latter.”

“And neither is thinking the same as perceiving, for in thinking there is what is right and what is not right” (III.3, pp. 132-133).

“About the part of the soul by which the soul knows and understands, whether it is a separate part, or not separate the way a magnitude is but in its meaning, one must consider what distinguishing characteristic it has, and how thinking ever comes about…. [I]ntellect has no nature at all other than this, that it is a potency. Therefore the aspect of the soul that is called intellect (and I mean by intellect that by which the soul thinks things through and conceives that something is the case) is not actively any of the things that are until it thinks. This is why it is not reasonable that it be mixed with the body…. And it is well said that the soul is a place of forms, except that this is not the whole soul but the thinking soul, and it is not the forms in its being-at-work-staying-itself, but in potency.”

“The absence of attributes is not alike in the perceptive and thinking potencies; this is clear in its application to the sense organs and to perception. For the sense is unable to perceive anything from an excessive perceptible thing, neither any sound from loud sounds, nor to see or smell anything from strong colors and odors, but when the intellect thinks something exceedingly intelligible it is not less able to think the lesser things but even more able, since the perceptive potency is not present without a body, but the potency to think is separate from the body. And when the intellect has come to be each intelligible thing, as the knower is said to do when he is a knower in the active sense (and this happens when he is able to put his knowing to work on its own), the intellect is even then in a sense those objects in potency, but not in the same way it was before it learned and discovered them, and it is then able to think itself” (III.4, pp. 138-140).

“And it is itself intelligible in the same way its intelligible objects are, for in the case of things without material what thinks and what is thought are the same thing, for contemplative knowing and what is known in that way are the same thing (and one must consider the reason why this sort of thinking is not always happening); but among things having material, each of them is potentially something intelligible, so that there is no intellect present in them (since intellect is a potency to be such things without their material), but there is present in them something intelligible” (p. 142).

“Knowledge, in its being-at-work, is the same as the thing it knows, and while knowledge in potency comes first in time in any one knower, in the whole of things it does not take precedence even in time. This does not mean that at one time it thinks but at another time it does not think, but when separated it is just exactly what it is, and this alone is deathless and everlasting (though we have no memory, because this sort of intellect is not acted upon, while the sort that is acted upon is destructible), and without this nothing thinks” (III.5, pp. 142-143).

Voluntary Action

Part 2 of Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature is devoted to voluntary action. For Ricoeur, our embodiment is the key to understanding how this works. Careful attention to the phenomena of our embodied existence refutes all dualism of mind and body. The intentionality of action is practical rather than representational. “Action is the criterion of [willing’s] authenticity…. it is not simply a question of subsequently carrying out our plans and programs, but of testing them continuously amid the vicissitudes of reality…. The genesis of our projects is only one moment in the union of soul and body” (pp. 201-202; emphasis in original).

A tacit action accompanies even the most indecisive willing. In the application of any kind of knowledge, it “has to be moved like my body” (p. 204). Will can only be fully understood in the context of effort, but effort in turn can only be understood against a background of spontaneity. Action always involves both a doing and a happening, a combination of active and passive aspects. The body is not the object of action, but its organ. An organ is not an external instrument, but a part of us.

The body as the organ of our action has both preformed skills that form the basis of reflexes and acquired habits, and involuntary movements associated with emotion. The bodily movements associated with emotion are inseparable from the emotion itself. Habit involves a kind of degeneration of voluntary action into automatism, but this very degeneration makes it more easily deployable. Ricoeur here speaks of an involuntary that sustains and serves voluntary action. Habit can help overcome the resistance of emotion, and emotion can help overcome the inertia of habit.

In effort, the body is moved through the mediation of the nonrepresentational “motor intentions” of desire and habit. Accordingly, voluntary movement should not be understood as essentially preceded by representation. Instead, the realization of intentions depends on the living being’s structural subordination of motor montages to intentions. There can be no willing without ability, and no ability without possible willing.

Both ability and a certain spontaneous “docility” of the body exhibited in simple gestures like raising my arm are prior to any experience of effort. There is also “a seeing and a knowing which the will does not produce” (p. 336). On the other hand, if all our acts are attributable to a same self, it is because they participate in a unity of effort. (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Consent?)


Kant preferred to treat respect for others as a kind of duty. He seems to have had severe doubts about empathy or sympathy as a kind of feeling, on the ground that all such feeling involves our empirical inclinations, rather than pure moral concern.

Feeling is a mixed form that involves both emotional and rational elements. Although he did recognize the important ethical role of something like character formation — which would seem to necessarily involve a significant emotional component — Kant’s treatment of emotion often seems closer to the Stoic position that all “passion” must be something bad, than it does to the Aristotelian alternative that we should seek a healthy interweaving of reason and emotion.

I want to take a more optimistic, Aristotelian view of the place of emotion in a life of reason. Kant makes a valid point that inclination in general may lead us to deceive ourselves, but I think he went too far in distrusting anything toward which we feel inclined. We may be inclined to do what could independently be assessed as the right thing, and in such cases I think the inclination ought to be welcomed. (See also Kant’s Groundwork; Aristotle and Kant; Ethos, Hexis; Practical Judgment.)

Aristotelian Virtue

Aristotelian ethics is not just about cultivating virtue as a kind of good character. Although he does emphasize it a lot, ultimately character is just a means and a potentiality for actualization of the real goal of that part of living well that is under our power. The actualization itself comes from good practice (praxis), grounded in sound, well-rounded deliberation and choice. Aristotle also says the very best life is that of the philosopher. Not only is philosophy valuable in itself, but it also helps us deliberate.

The best deliberation and choice is supported by intellectual virtues, a concern for justice, and a spirit of friendship or love, but it would not even get off the ground without progress in the classic “moral” virtues, which are all said to pertain to our emotions or passions, and to how we are affected by pleasure and pain. Aristotle characterizes each of these emotional virtues as a kind of mean, or balanced emotional state.

Thus, courage is presented as a mean between rashness and cowardice. Temperance is a mean between self-indulgence and insensibility. Interestingly, justice and prudence are also included among emotional virtues, and subjected to a similar analysis. Other emotional virtues are presented as following the same pattern. Unlike the Stoics, neither Plato nor Aristotle advocated suppressing the emotions.

Passion, Balance

Plato and Aristotle would not have endorsed the Stoic idea that passion is simply a bad thing to be mastered and exterminated, and that the sage should therefore be completely unaffected. While excess is bad, the right kind of passion can be good, and passion in general can contribute to good. This is even more true for general emotion, and still more so for what I have called feeling. Rather than striving to eliminate passion altogether, it is better to let it be moderated through balanced perspective — seeing things from multiple angles, and stepping outside of one’s immediate reactions to take in a bigger picture. Balanced perspective is a relative thing associated with what I have called emotional reasonableness. It is a moving target; each new situation may present different challenges. (See also Dialogue; Obstacles to Synthesis.)

Parts of the Soul

For Aristotle, psyche or “soul” is an ordinary empirical concept. First and foremost, it names a set of functional characteristics and abilities that distinguish living from nonliving things. Associations with what we might call specifically mental functions are secondary to this. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good introduction.

When speaking of “parts” of the soul, Aristotle means distinguishable groups of functions. He explicitly leaves open the question whether they are actually separable from one another. Sometimes he seems to distinguish three main parts: one associated with the basic functions of nutrition and reproduction shared by all living things, including plants; one associated with desire and sensorimotor functions, shared by all animals; and one associated with reason and intellect. At other times, he makes finer distinctions.

Perhaps unexpectedly, reason (logos) and intellect (nous) for Aristotle seem to be more sharply distinguished from what we might call mental functions than mental functions are from biological ones. In contrast with, e.g., memory, which he says cannot exist independent of a living body, and in spite of the fact that he thinks thought contents build on sense perception, he explicitly says intellect has no bodily organ and comes from outside. The very closely connected concept of reason is mainly associated with language and the right kind of socialization. I think reason and intellect still get treated as part of the soul mainly because their presence reshapes the whole (See also Reasonableness; Feeling; Second Nature; Intelligence from Outside; Psyche, Subjectivity; Passive Synthesis, Active Sense.)

For animals, including rational animals, Aristotle located the seat of the soul in the heart. In his time, there was as yet no evidence to refute this traditional conception; understanding of the physiological role of the brain and nervous system only developed in later Greek medicine. But recall also that the psyche for Aristotle is at root more vital than mental. Even today, we still distinguish life by a literal heartbeat, and associate emotion figuratively with the heart.


We talking animals are like amphibians or dual citizens. We share basic sentience and emotion with many other biological species (at the very least least other mammals, and perhaps in some rudimentary sense all living things). We also participate in a larger, shared realm of language and reason that is open to all possessed of such. Reason and emotion interact in complex ways.

The fact that we participate in language and reason thus contributes in a major way to the overall constitution of our feeling. Just as practical reasonableness is deeply tied to our emotional state and constitution, we also tend to respond emotionally when we judge things to be reasonable or unreasonable.

Our feelings are in one sense wholly ours, but the words we speak to ourselves are not wholly our own, and they do also significantly influence our feelings, so in another sense, our feelings are not wholly ours, either. (Also, there is a passivity in feeling.) In terms of taking responsibility, such questions of “ownership” do not matter much — far more important is what we feel and think, and how well. (See also Intellectual Virtue, Love; Honesty, Kindness.)