Four Layers of Being Human

This is my own expansion of Aristotle’s classic “rational/talking animal” definition. In common with other animals, we have an organically grounded “imagination” that is a basis for consciousness and emotion. Then we have an acquired emotional disposition or character that corresponds to what Plato called the “middle part” of the soul. This is influenced by all the other layers. Third, our assimilation of language and culture and our more deliberately adopted values and commitments together constitute our ethos, as a kind of deeper essence of who we are. Finally, our vehicle for growth and change is our participation with others in the space of reasons.

Space of Reasons, Potential Intellect?

Having recently written a bit more about the “space of reasons”, it occurs to me that this makes a good model for the perplexing and commonly misunderstood notion of a “separate” potential intellect. I’ve suggested previously that the space of reasons belongs in the register of Aristotelian potentiality, and elsewhere argued that the controversial “separate” potential intellect was not supposed to be some cosmic mind pulling the strings of our minds, but rather more like a shared tool that we all use and help improve. This tentative identification brings things a bit more into focus.

Although scholastic discourse about separate intellect used metaphysical vocabulary, what was actually said by Averroes about separate potential intellect clearly places it inside of time, and in an intimate relation to all rational animals. It was said to function as a kind of thesaurus (literally, “treasury”) of universals abstracted from concrete forms in human imagination, but to be “nothing at all” apart from operations that result from human imagination. (See “This Human Understands”; “This Human”, Again; Averroes as Read by de Libera; Separate Substances?)

Imagination, Emotion, Opinion

In humans, the ethos associated with cultural, ethical, and spiritual life comes interwoven with what I have called “animal imagination”, tied to our organic being. The kind of imagination at issue here is not the modern, post-Romantic notion associated with artistic creativity, but part of the basic functioning of many animals. Aristotle associates it with what he calls the “common” sense, which again is not what we call common sense, but rather something fundamental to all perception, that also comes into play in the formation (what Kant would call synthesis) of perceptual wholes from the input of multiple senses. Aristotelian “imagination” involves activations of the common sense in the absence of inputs from external sense. It plays an essential role in memory and dreams. Like much in Aristotle, this is not really an explanatory theory, just an interpretive description of things we experience in ordinary life.

Aristotle is concerned to distinguish imagination from opinion, precisely because there is a close connection between the two. Much later, Spinoza essentially identified opinion with imagination. Aristotle emphasizes that opinion involves an additional element of belief that is not inherent to all imagination. He says there are animals that have imagination but no belief.

Opinion is closely related to Aristotelian practical judgment, although the latter classically refers to a deliberative process whose outcome is action rather than belief, whereas opinion is a kind of belief that is not knowledge. Opinion may be a result of past deliberation or reflection, but very often it is more or less spontaneous. I think Spinoza means to suggest that our less reflective opinions arise from a kind of imagination. Like practical judgment, imagination is concerned with particulars.

Spinoza especially brings out the connection of imagination with emotion. It seems to me these are strongly interdependent. Our emotions both shape our imaginings and are shaped by them. These are what mainly guide our initial responses to things, and we have this in common with other animals.

Even after we have more developed, reflective views of things, there is still an element of spontaneous imagination in any application of those views to new particulars.

Emotion is strongly connected with our apprehensions of value. Again, there are dependencies in both directions. Emotion is a source of many valuations, especially initial ones; but valuations also help shape emotion.

Being a rational animal is mainly a matter of potential. Degrees of actual reasonableness have to do mainly with our emotional constitution, not how much we know.

Kantian Respect

One of the fundamentals of Kantian ethics is a universal respect for people — not just those of whom we are fond, or those of whom we approve, or those who belong to a group with which we identify. This of course does not mean we should one-sidedly tolerate extremes of abuse. Respect for people is actually an Aristotelian mean. Like all ethical considerations, it requires a bit of thought in the application.

I used to worry about “metaphysical” or theological preconceptions about what it means to be a person. Even now, I would not base respect for people on a theological notion of substantial personhood, which carries too many presuppositions. Rather, I would start from the Aristotelian concept of rational or talking animals, understood as participating in Brandomian sapience.

I actually believe in respect for all beings, period — including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. At this level, respect just means a sort of general kindness. But Kant was right to note that there is a profound practical difference when it comes to our fellow talking animals. The fact that we can talk to each other and ask questions of one another makes our interaction with fellow rational animals unique. Even under a broad, somewhat non-Kantian notion of respect for all beings, the kinds of interaction that are possible among beings possessed of language are far richer, and entail more specific responsibilities. Kant himself chose to reserve the term “respect” for those more specific responsibilities.

Kantian respect for people has nothing to do with judgments of the competence or goodness of individuals. It is grounded in the sheer possibility of dialogue. (See also Recognition.)