Homo Insipiens

by D.G. Boland (c) 1998

The philosophical definition of the human being (i.e. the species ‘homo’ or ‘man’) is classically given as rational animal (Latin – ‘animal rationale’), naming the logical genus first and the specific difference second).

Homo Insipiens

The more modern scientific classification is as ‘homo sapiens’, literally translated as ‘wise man’, but obviously not intended to be taken that way. The scientific process of specification follows the logical form (genus first, difference second) but the words or concepts involved are meant to be understood according to what we can know ‘scientifically’ about the object of study, i.e. according to externally observable features and characteristics. Thus, ‘homo’ is plainly to be taken as ‘man-like’ in structure and behavior and ‘sapiens’ is the best term the scientist can come up with to distinguish human behavior from other man-like creatures. Other distinguishing terms are ‘faber’ (Latin – maker or user of tools) and ‘loquens’ (Latin – talker or user of articulate language).

The problem for the scientist is that it is not possible to ‘observe’ (by sense observation) what it is that distinguishes man from other animals. The human being can be physically compared with other animals in all sorts of ways, none of which, however, mean much in the particular case. He (or she) can be built and even look like an ape, sing like a bird, swim like a fish, hoard like a beaver, live in community like an ant, or as a hermit like a crab, be fierce like a lion or timid like a rabbit, and so on. Indeed to the scientist the animal ‘man” is something of an enigma. Among the weakest physically of all animals he manages to terrorize the rest of the animal kingdom, and sometimes his own kind (without being the strongest in any physical or ‘observable’ way). By the criteria available to the scientist it is also hard to see why he should be placed at the summit of the evolutionary tree.

So the scientist has to resort to some idea of ‘intelligence‘, as a testable property, to explain the difference. Hence the differential ‘sapiens’, which in a general way can be taken for ‘knowing’ or ‘thinking’, as we speak of the intelligence of dogs or dolphins. Applied to other animals, however, intelligence does not seem to give one species any superiority over another, but rather to serve the practical needs of each. I do not know but I suppose that, applied to man, the term “sapiens” also carries the necessary implication that ‘he’ (or ‘it’, to be scientifically neutral) is the most intelligent of the animals.

There does indeed seem to be a sort of intelligent faculty in animals and this can be known & tested by observation & experimentation. Some animals, then, we can refer to with a real significance as intelligent or even wise. What is noteworthy about this faculty in all such animals, however, is its practical orientation and, moreover, its limitation to the very specific needs of the species of animal concerned.

But rather than helping the scientist in his efforts to classify or specify what it is that makes man distinctive from say, the dolphin, this characteristic of ‘intelligence’ or ‘wisdom’, as just pointed out, does not establish any differential, for other animals have it too. It may be suggested that man is the most intelligent (and hence termed ‘sapiens’, rather than ‘intelligens’), but that is not enough to constitute a specific difference (of kind), for it amounts to only a difference of degree. We do not for instance attempt to define the lion as the ‘fiercest’ of animals, or the cheetah as the ‘fastest’, the eagle as the one with the most acute eyesight, or the dog as the one with the most acute hearing. Intelligence, in the animal, is only another power of knowledge; admittedly not as obvious as the external senses, but no more specific than memory or the ability to dream (which some animals obviously have).

This may suit some who wish to argue that man is ‘just’ an animal, but it doesn’t resolve the problem of what sort of animal ‘it’ (i.e. the species) is. We can for scientific purposes tell the difference between finches and fishes, and between dogs and horses, but how do we tell scientifically the (otherwise obvious) difference between man and the chimpanzee? It can’t be the possession of (animal) intelligence for both have it, even if we suppose for the moment that man has more. So we are left with the scientists’ dilemma: if man evolved from something man-like, i.e. something like a chimpanzee, he (it) only developed in the line of intelligence (‘sapientia’), i.e. by acquiring more of the same; therefore he didn’t evolve (as a new species) at all.

The reduction of the notion of ‘intelligence’ (or ‘sapientia’) to the sense level thus destroys its utility as a specific differential. Indeed, there would be more force to an argument that what distinguishes man from other “intelligent” animals is his lack of this faculty, or his poor use of it. There would be more point, then, to describing man as ‘homo insipiens’ (foolish or fumbling man-like thing) rather than ‘homo sapiens’. For what distinguishes animal intelligence or prudence is its (relative) infallibility or sureness.                The animal sums up a situation in a flash and acts just as quickly, whereas in the same kind of context man is often slow to assess the significance of things happening around him and sometimes does not react in time.

What this suggests, of course, is that we (including the scientists) are on the wrong track in looking for the specific difference of man in ‘intelligence‘, as it can be applied to other animals. If we are to understand what, if anything, distinguishes man, we will need to examine more closely the notion of ‘intelligence’ or ‘rationality‘ (and the related concepts of ‘wisdom‘ and ‘prudence‘). For they are not unambiguous terms. In order to do this it may help to first outline the complex of animal cognitive acts and see where ‘intelligence’ fits in.

The philosopher, starting from common sense differences, distinguishes the acts of the external senses from the internal. We need not delay on detailing the former: touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing, for intelligence is clearly not one of them. Of the internal senses acts one can identify a state of consciousness whereby the animal is seen to be awake rather than asleep; this we can also rule out as relevant for it is only a general awareness of what the particular senses are doing. But there are specific internal acts of knowledge that we can identify, such as memory and imagination. Now we feel that we are getting close to what we might call intelligent animal behaviour. Yet there is obviously something more involved when an animal is summing up a particular situation in which it finds itself and determining the appropriate response. It is not simply remembering the past or imagining something it has seen (which abstracts from past & present) but ‘assessing’ or judging a present situation say of danger.

It is this ability to judge or assess the concrete significance of the circumstances in which it finds itself that constitutes what the ancient and medieval philosophers called particular judgement or natural prudence, and what we know as (animal) intelligence. In other animals it is so quick to operate (because natural) that we sometimes call it ‘instinct‘. Humans, as animals, have the same ability but very poorly developed, like other purely animal ‘powers‘ – they are not our natural ‘strengths’ (precisely because they need to be put to the service of reason or intellect proper). Such intelligence, though obviously a very subtle and marvellous part of the complex of animal knowledge, does not transcend the order of sense knowledge, which is limited to the particular, to the here and now (and, with memory, to the there and then). It is tied to the physical and the material aspects of things, fully conditioned in all their individuality.

Such intelligence, then, functions in a way totally opposite to properly human intelligence. The latter transcends all the circumstances of things including those of time and place, and abstracts from the individual conditions in which things are found at the sense level. Thus it understands something as such or universal even before it understands it as this or that; I don’t for example know that you are a human being unless I first know what human means. As St. Thomas explains: we first sense the singular (particular), then (by intellectual abstraction) understand the universal and finally (by joining understanding to sense) understand the singular. So ‘natural’ is this process, of course, we are hardly aware of the distinctions, for it is not the faculties so much which are acting but me as an integral whole.

Now it is precisely because of this difference between animal knowledge (even at the highest level, of ‘intelligence‘) and properly human knowledge (as rational or intellectual) that the physical scientist cannot detect the difference, for he must perforce ‘verify‘ his understandings of things in terms of sense observations and experiments. That is to say when he treats of man in a purely empirical fashion, as say in experimental psychology, he is reduced to considering man as animal only (even if it is supposed a highly developed animal). But according to such a limited consideration man is rather the least ‘evolved’ of the animals, in nearly every respect, such as speed, sense of smell, etc and particularly in terms of animal intelligence, or ‘sapientia‘.

Why is it that, as an animal, man is so weak and insipient (homo insipiens)? St. Thomas explains again the reason – it is to make room, as it were, for his best feature, abstractive reason (science and art) and consequent (free) will. Even in the practical order his weakness of particular or spontaneous judgement is turned to his advantage by being able to be directed by his universal reason or deliberate judgement. It may not serve him so well at the animal level, but it accords perfectly with the virtue of prudence in the attainment of his rational and moral ends. St. Thomas draws an analogy with the human hand. The hand is not naturally adapted to any particular task, as the claw is for digging or climbing, but it is adaptable to all, under the direction of reason. It is therefore the perfect (conjoined) instrument of art. Of itself one might consider the hand to be virtually useless to an animal; but in man it is the most powerful of instruments; for it is the universal instrument which uses made particular instruments perfectly adapted by human reason (as art) to a particular task.

It is only possible then to define man philosophically, i.e. as a universal object, and this definition takes him (it) outside the order altogether of mere animality, and indeed of the merely natural. As Chesterton quipped, all other animals are ‘tamed’ (by their natural limitations); man is the truly untamed (‘wild’) animal. The same applies to intelligence as applied to animals and man. Human intelligence is the only one which ‘breaks out‘ of the routine of physical nature. This freedom carries with it, of course, responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions.

Man is rational (intelligent) but he has a choice; he can end up wise (sapiens) or unwise (insipiens).


Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

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