A Comic Response
A few days ago my brother sent me an email with a link to the comic that appears below, asking, “What separates man from beasts? I want your take on this from a linguist’s point of view.” I had so much fun writing a response, I decided to share it here on Medium. It appears below the comic.
I am glad you asked me this question, because it is one I think about from time to time. But the question begs a larger one that logically comes first, namely, whether there is indeed a categorical difference between man and beast; or, to put it another way, whether the difference between man and beast is more like the difference between a fish and a bird, or between a fish and a rock. Or again: is the difference one of kind, or merely of degree? Or again: is there any reason to suppose, a priori, that there is some quality shared by all men (for with such a term is the question framed) that is categorically absent in beasts?
I think it is safe to say that, throughout the course of human history, the great majority of the people who have considered the question in something like this last formulation, and committed their thought to writing that has survived the ravages of time to come down to us, have assumed an affirmative as obvious or even self-evident, and have quickly moved on to the later question of what that quality is.
The answers provided by the philosophers in the comic at the head of this piece indicate that we should return to the logically prior question, whether there is a categorical difference between humans and animals, because only one of them, that of Descartes, would fail to exclude a significant number of human beings from the category human; and Descartes’ answer relies critically on a hypothetical concept, undefinable and unobservable. Descartes, in short, simply ducked the question.
One could, of course, provide a biological answer, pointing to the shared evolutionary lineage of human beings that is not also shared with other creatures, but this too would be ducking the question, because it is intended as a philosophical question — one that could be asked, and, in principle, answered, long before biological science had even begun to provide answers to any questions.