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In the study of scholastic philosophy, I'm struggling with this question for a while:

It seems like dogs do know what dogs are. Aquinas states that animals have perception, capable of complex cognition:

By definition, the living things that we call animals are those that have the power of perception. Aquinas accepts the conventional list of the five senses [..] Beyond these five external senses are the four internal senses that use the brain as their organ.[..] the common sense; imagination (or phantasia); the estimative (or cogitative) power; memory. [..] Aquinas thinks that a great deal of complex cognition occurs within the internal senses of the brain, but that those material powers are incapable of abstract thought. To be more precise, he thinks that material cognitive powers can represent things only as particulars, and that universal concepts can be formed only within the immaterial intellect.

My question is: How does scholastic philosophy deal with animal perception so that, for example, a dog that has been abused by human beings avoids any other human? And how is this compared with human intelectual capacities for apprehending universals?

I heard that animals live in a stimulity instead of a reality (according to Xavier Zubiri), but I would like to understand a little better how this would fit in the distinction between animal perception and human intellect.

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    I honestly do not think you will find much on that in scholastic (i.e. medieval) philosophy. The study of cognitive abilities of animals and more serious philosophy on that matter only started in the early 20th century.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 25, 2023 at 19:18
  • @PhilipKlöcking I struggle to think Aristotle or St. Thomae of Aquinas would not face this question since they divided the soul in animal/rational soul Feb 25, 2023 at 19:31
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    @hellofriends Well yeah, exactly: They simply presumed that all rational abilities are uniquely human by the grace of (the) god(s). Animals are beasts following their instincts.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 25, 2023 at 19:58
  • @PhilipKlöcking that is ok, but what are those instincts? A cat surely knows how to be a cat, but is it possible for it to act the way it does without knowing universals? Feb 25, 2023 at 22:34
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    As said, discussions of that are of the 20th century. Plessner's empirically informed philosophy of nature, Sellar's knowing-how vs. knowing-that....much of the empirical knowledge and conceptual toolbox needed to discuss that with philosophical rigour just wasn't available.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 26, 2023 at 7:55

2 Answers 2

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Your question seems to be more about animal psychology than philosophy. Dogs certainly understand quite abstract concepts. I can give you two examples. One dog I owned understood the command 'go round' to mean that they should run around whatever large feature was close by, perhaps a pond or a clump of bushes or a building etc. He also understood the command 'out' to mean that he should withdraw through an opening in a boundary of some sort- that could be a door in a building, an opening in a hedge, a gate in a fence, and so on. These commands would work even in novel surroundings, so he had not learned them just in relation to specific individual circumstances.

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  • how it that psychology and not metaphysics? Feb 21, 2023 at 12:12
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EDIT: This answer may get outdated after OP's edit, it was written for Within scholastics, how do animals apprehend universals, when compared to human beings?


From Soul and Body in Thomas Aquinas' SEP entry, it seems that, for him, animals don't aprehend universals at all, since they don't reason, just perceive:

For living things, their substantial form is their soul (anima). In saying this, Aquinas should not be understood to be ascribing some special sort of spirituality to plants and animals: he thinks they are material objects just as much as rocks and streams are. Rather, he is following the lead of Aristotle’s De anima in treating the soul as the first principle of life, whatever that may be. [..] The ongoing existence of living things also requires that they carry out distinctive operations: taking nourishment and reproducing, moving and perceiving (in the case of animals), and reasoning (in the human case).

Perception amounts to evidence from the senses and its byproducts:

By definition, the living things that we call animals are those that have the power of perception. Aquinas accepts the conventional list of the five senses [..] Beyond these five external senses are the four internal senses that use the brain as their organ.[..] the common sense; imagination (or phantasia); the estimative (or cogitative) power; memory.

The discovery of universals is a privilege of thought (italic and bold mine):

Aquinas thinks that a great deal of complex cognition occurs within the internal senses of the brain, but that those material powers are incapable of abstract thought. To be more precise, he thinks that material cognitive powers can represent things only as particulars, and that universal concepts can be formed only within the immaterial intellect. He writes, If the intellective soul were composed of form and matter, then the forms of things would be received in it as individuals; then it would cognize only singular things, as happens in the sensory capacities, which receive the forms of things in a corporeal organ. (ST 1a 75.5c)

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  • but the universals are on the level of perception. You don't reason what a tree is, you just look at it and know it Feb 26, 2023 at 18:50
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    @hellofriends No, you learned from others who already had been capable of reason that this is a tree, through reinforcement. For a short introduction, read this and this. A good essay on the topic is Kukla, R. (2000). Myth, Memory and Misrecognition in Sellars' "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind". Philosophical Studies, 101(2-3), 161-211.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 26, 2023 at 19:11
  • @PhilipKlöcking I will check your texts, but that is actually impossible: who teaches a baby what his mother looks like? Who after seeing their first tree, wouldn't recognize a second tree without any help? Feb 27, 2023 at 5:06

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