This article investigates the deep-rooted logical structures underlying our thinking about other animals with a particular focus on topics relevant for cognitive primate research. We begin with a philosophical propaedeutic that makes perspicuous how we are to differentiate ontological from epistemological considerations regarding primates, while also accounting for the many perplexities that will undoubtedly be encountered upon applying this difference to concrete phenomena. Following this, we give an account of what is to be understood by the assertion of a thesis of anthropological difference, identifying, inter alia, a property that fulfils the exclusivity, universality, and constitution criteria and demarcates the differentia specifica between humans and other animals. Also, we systematically develop how such theses can be formulated more moderately. Furthermore, we account for different theoretical frameworks, argumentative schemes, and sociological factors whose employment is associated with theses as such. This endeavor is carried out under the guise of anthropomorphism and anthropodenial. Doing so, we show that both are favored by the logic of cognitive primate research. Put briefly, concepts like cladistic parsimony and arguments by analogy favor anthropomorphism whereas concepts like traditional parsimony and Morgan’s canon favor anthropodenial. We close by framing these topics in the light of the self-other category mistake that lies in ascribing exclusive self-properties to some other. Lastly, we probe this category mistake for potency and scope of implications and find it to be central to and unavoidably ingrained in our thinking about other animals.
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That is the subfield of primate research that engages in questions regarding the cognitive abilities of primates (as opposed to ecological, neural, and other questions). The term cognitive here—as usual (e.g., Wild 2007; Andrews 2016)—is used loosely to refer to a diverse array of phenomena and abilities such as mental imagery, belief formation, decision making, perception, language abilities, etc., and, especially with regard to nonhuman animals, is concerned with the production of adaptive behaviour.
Philosophical Primatology is, of course, not only interested in primates. It examines primates in order to shed light on some of philosophy’s oldest and most central questions. Yet the broader framework, which imbues its contribution with meaning, might be called Philosophical Zoology: the philosophical investigation of living beings. Insofar as one expands investigations to machines, computers, programs, etc.—as, for example, is done in cybernetics—the broader framework would be a (sphere) ontology (cf. Hartmann 1944).
Whether the theoretical independence between knowability and scientific accessibility is reversible as well is, at least for my understanding, unclear. There are examples that might suffice to show such an independence, e.g., the “black magic” occurring in deep layers of convolutional neural networks employed in deep learning research, i.e., while such networks compute meaningful inputs and outputs, their intermediate level representations are not to be interpreted (this has to do with how (hyper-)parameters are tuned and the determination of type, succession, and number of neurons per layer) (cf. i.a., Karras et al. 2017). I am uncertain whether this suffices to show that there are scientific methods that do, at least in part, not imply epistemic accessibility. I am even more uncertain whether there is an analogue to be found within cognitive primate research.
There are several ways in which this can formally be achieved. One possibility pertains as to how human nature is fundamentally transformed in virtue of the exhibition of the category of spirit, according to which it would be impossible to truly understand even the lowest organic processes of humans without accounting for the specific way in which they are transformed by humans exhibiting spirit. For this and three other models of being human see Wunsch (2018).
For an instructive analysis of how our typology developed here connects with research on precursors for the examples of language and morals see Wendler (2019).
In other contexts this formulation has been charged with construing a false opposition or for inviting genus-species fallacies (e.g., Shapiro 2008). Though I tend to agree, the opposition human and nonhuman animals will prove helpful for illustrating the peculiar tension of interest.
It is worth noting here that definitions in this tradition presuppose that the genus proximum is already well defined. This implicates that in order to define what it is to be human, it already has to be known what it is to be an animal. This logic transfers further up the tree of Porphyrios, i.e., analogously presupposing essential knowledge of notions of life (as opposed to the anorganic) and of real being (as opposed to ideal being). Fully stated, a definition of humans for the example of the differentia specifica of rationality could look like this: “Humans are rational, animal, living, real beings.”
He would, by the way, also opt for the sense of a qualitative difference in the word “delineate” (Wild 2007, p. 9), which is equivalent to denying that a mere gradual difference, as posited in TADmdel, would suffice to make up a TAD.
Here, elaborating on the intricate differences between syntactic and ontological aspects of parsimony (or simplicity) would lead us astray (cf. for this, again, Baker 2016).
One also can raise the question of whether there is a tipping point for which the successive formulation of additional behavior rules turns out to be less parsimonious than the assumption of an additional basic theoretical construct.
Morgan uses the term “double inductive method” for these arguments. In footnote 14 we return to this issue under the term “arguments by analogy.”
Such discarding of MC is reminiscent of the different valences ascribed to tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness in the sociology of science discussed above.
It might be helpful to provide a little memory aid regarding the logical form of such arguments by analogy. Framed to match our interests it looks like this:
All humans exhibit some property F in virtue of X.
Nonhuman primates are similar to humans (in relevant aspects regarding property F).
Therefore, other nonhuman primates also exhibit X.
Here, the inference to the identity of X in two species is justified via the similarity in F. Such arguments often rest on a notion of similarity that might loosely be formulated like this: some other is similar to the self iff relevant properties are shared to an interesting degree. They can be employed against assertions of TAD and function by weakening the exclusivity claim regarding candidate properties, while leaving universality and constitution claims untouched.
Most of the time we will refer to different character states, traits, or abilities as properties, unless clarity concerns dictate otherwise.
Cladistic parsimony is meant to “measure” the degree to which SC can sensibly be applied. Even though these concepts are closely intermingled, i.e., dependent on each other, spelling out the predictions separately for our construed scenarios allows (sometimes surprisingly so) for a more differentiated account than the one of Sober (2005) allows for.
Note that whereas the previous scenario was occupied with character states in general, the present scenario is concerned with what causes behaviour, e.g., mechanisms.
This, I believe, Sober (2005) misses in his treatment of the problem.
Because the results yielded from examples like these obviously are relative to the information available of the compared species but also to which species are considered in the comparison in the first place, their utility always has to be evaluated with this as a respective frame of reference in mind. Also, while not impossible, I take such clear-cut examples to be a rather seldom occurrence.
Even more, one can always ask for the justification of considering exactly those animals. In our case, it would mostly be because of our interest in Philosophical Primatology.
Also, they fail to exhibit properties that are conditional of these properties, e.g., a complex nervous system.
For an in-depth analysis of how precursors relate to different variants of TAD and TADm both in theory-oriented general terms as well as for the application in a case study for vocal tract anatomy and neural control for proto-linguistic systems see Wendler (2019). Here, we will restrict ourselves to some preliminary remarks as to the relation of precursors and SOCMs.
The possible contention in this regard, lies not in disputing the unavoidability of metalinguistic projection—a futile endeavour—but rather in disputing whether there is an issue at hand in the first place. This is how appeals to heuristic anthropomorphism fit into this discussion.
Structurally, this amounts to a methodological analogy of a transcendental critique of the limits of the knowable.
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I thank PD Dr. Christian Tewes, Stefan Radev, my editor Deborah Klosky, and an anonymous reviewer for their insightful comments on this paper.
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Wendler, H. Philosophical Primatology: Reflections on Theses of Anthropological Difference, the Logic of Anthropomorphism and Anthropodenial, and the Self-other Category Mistake Within the Scope of Cognitive Primate Research. Biol Theory 15, 61–82 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-019-00337-3
- Anthropological difference
- Category mistake
- Logic of primate research
- Philosophical Primatology