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“Other minds than ours”: a controversial discussion on the limits and possibilities of comparative psychology in the light of C. Lloyd Morgan’s work

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Abstract

C. Lloyd Morgan is mostly known for Morgan’s canon (An introduction to comparative psychology, Walter Scott, Limited, London, 1894), still a popular and frequently quoted principle in comparative psychology and ethology. There has been a fair amount of debate on the canon’s interpretation, function, and value regarding the research on animal minds, usually referring to it as an isolated principle. In this paper we rather shed light on Morgan’s overall scientific program and his vision for comparative psychology. We argue that within his program Morgan identified crucial conceptual, ontological, and methodical issues, that are still fundamental to the current research on animal minds. This also highlights a new aspect of his role as one of the “founding fathers” of modern comparative psychology. In order to understand Morgan’s program, we briefly outline the historical context in which he began his work on a science of comparative psychology. We will then emphasize to what extent his taxonomy of psychological capacities, the development of his metaphysics for a comparative psychology, and his newly introduced interdisciplinary procedures justify Morgan’s distinctive approach to still rather sensitive issues. In doing so, we aim to provide a more comprehensive picture of Morgan’s methodological signature and we contend that a proper understanding of his canon can only be gained by taking it as part of this program. We finally understand his most renown considerations as part of his struggle to ascertain the limits and possibilities of the discipline he contributed to set up, and thus emphasize the need to keep the discussion going, notably on the accessibility of other minds than one’s own and on the limits of one’s research perspectives.

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Notes

  1. Morgan actually announced an earlier version of his canon at the International Congress of Experimental Psychology in 1892 (Morgan 1892a, p. 44).

  2. For a detailed historical overview of representations, see Newbury (1954) and Thomas (2001). For a detailed biographical-methodological overview, see Boakes (1984).

  3. Of the so far mentioned papers, notable exceptions are Boakes (1984), Burghardt (1997) and Thomas (1998, 2001), who briefly mention aspects of Morgan’s work.

  4. The demand for scientific reliability, i.e. establishing a terminology and methodology for researching animals, was at the same time also raised by physiologists Theodor Beer, Albrecht Bethe and Jakob von Uexküll. In their paper “Vorschläge zu einer objektiven Nomenklatur in der Physiologie des Nervensystems” (Proposals for an Objectifying Nomenclature in the Physiology of the Nervous System) from 1899, which received particular attention, they contended that comparative physiology as a science must abstain from any inferences by analogy as an “unscientific procedure” to avoid anthropomorphic results (Beer et al. 1899, p. 517). Interestingly, in a footnote to the following page, they claimed that an analogy between animals and machines instead of humans would have “scientific value” (ibid., p. 518).

  5. On the relation between Darwin and Romanes see e.g. Thorpe (1979), Galef (1996) and Schurig (2014).

  6. The report of a pet cat gives a good example for rather problematic observations: “Mrs. Hubbard tells me of a cat which she possessed, and which was in the habit of poaching young rabbits to ‘eat privately in the seclusion of a disused pigsty.’ One day this cat caught a small black rabbit, and instead of eating it, as she always did the brown ones, brought it into the house unhurt, and laid it at the feet of her mistress. ‘She clearly recognized the black rabbit as an unusual species, and apparently thought it right to show it to her mistress.’ Such was ‘not the only instance this cat showed of zoological discrimination’, for on another occasion, ‘having caught another unusual animal—a stoat—she also brought this alive into the house for the purpose of exhibiting it.’” (Romanes 1882, p. 414).

  7. Romanes and Morgan both use the term “ejective” in this context. The concept of an “eject” was originally introduced a few years earlier by W. K. Clifford to refer to the inferred existence of a mental state in another subject‘s mind (see Clifford 1879, pp. 72–78).

  8. E.g. Romanes’ reply to Morgan’s article on instinct (Morgan 1884a), criticizing Morgan’s claims (Romanes 1884a, p. 380).

  9. Morgan also includes what might be seen as a sub-class to instinctive actions, called habitual activities, “which require at first a good deal of practice, learning and attention, but eventually run off smoothly and without special attention, at times almost or quite unconsciously” (Morgan 1890, p. 431).

  10. For Romanes' taxonomy see e.g. Richards (1987), pp. 349–352.

  11. For an historical overview on psychophysical parallelism see e.g. Heidelberger (2000) and Wegener (2009).

  12. E.g. the American philosophy journal titled The Monist, established in 1890 to which Morgan also contributed articles, or the philosophical reflections by Gustav Theodor Fechner, Hermann von Helmholtz and Wilhelm Wundt during that period (see e.g. Boring 1957; Heidelberger 2004). Likewise, Romanes introduced his own concept of monism to tackle the mind–body problem but did not finished his theory before his death in 1894 (see Richards 1987, pp. 368–370).

  13. At no point did Morgan present the idea of mental phenomena being in any way reducible to physical phenomena. There is then little ground to characterize him as a mechanist, as for example Waters (1939) and Silverman (1997) do.

  14. From a philosophical point of view, his working through a list of monistic concepts known to him might appear rather humble and fragmental at best. An extensive and detailed reflection on Morgan’s concept of monism is still due in the contemporary discussions of his views. There are suggestions on possible philosophical influences on Morgan’s monistic concept, though (see Richards 1987, pp. 382–385). If those suggestions should be true, Morgan’s philosophical education would be stuck in a pre-Kantian era, influenced mainly by philosophers of the early modern period, especially George Berkeley.

  15. 50 years later, Ernst Cassirer renewed this relation between fundamental presuppositions and empirical facts: “The interpretation of the experimental facts […] always depends on certain fundamental concepts which have to be clarified before the empirical material can bear its fruit.” (Cassirer 1944, p. 28) and “The facts of science always imply a theoretical, which means a symbolic, element” (ibid., p. 59).

  16. By pointing out the equal importance of both inductions, subjective and objective, in this regard the later Morgan can hardly be viewed as some kind of proto-behaviorist, as some scholars and historians did (e.g. Boring 1957; Marx and Hillix 1967; Silverman 1997).

  17. We agree with Fitzpatrick and Goodrich that those rather unimpaired experiments reflect Morgan’s scepticism towards standardized and artificial laboratory experiments. While, for Morgan, Romanes’ anecdotal facts were not adequate enough to attribute intelligence or reason to animals, the rigid experiments of behaviorism (Morgan particularly refers to Edward Thorndike’s cat experiments) were not adequate enough to deny such capacities (see Fitzpatrick and Goodrich 2017, p. 553). For Morgan, the artificial setting of an experiment would not allow for natural behavior to occur: “The conductions of his experiments were perhaps not the most conducive to the discovery of rationality in animals if it exist. [One] may say that to place a starving kitten in the cramped confinement of one of Mr. Thorndikes’s box-cages, would be more likely to make a cat swear than to lead it to act rationally.” (Morgan 1898, p. 249) “Natural behavior” of course being a rather unspecific term, since he explicitly included his dog’s domesticated behavior of fetching or retrieving.

  18. “Thus the growing process of intellectualization and rationalization does not imply a growing understanding of the conditions under which we live. It means something quite different. It is the knowledge or the conviction that if only wished for to understand them we could do so at any time. It means that in principle, then, we are not rules by mysterious, unpredictable forces, but that, on the contrary, we can in principle control everything by means of calculation. That in turn means the disenchantment of the world. […] [T]echnology and calculation achieve our ends. This is the primary meaning of the process of intellectualization.” (Weber 2004, pp. 12–13, emphasis in original).

  19. “In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes, if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development.” (Morgan 1903, p. 59).

  20. “In no instance should we interpret events in terms of concepts appropriate to a higher level of emergence if they can adequately be interpreted in terms of concepts appropriate to a lower level of emergence.” (Morgan 1925, p. 61).

  21. Some authors (e.g. Thomas 2001; Wild 2006; Starzak 2015) do discuss the revised edition’s phrasing. However, none of them takes the word “fairly” into account. They only discuss Morgan’s change of “higher and lower faculties” to lower and higher in a “scale of psychological evolution and development” which supports our representation of scientific monism as key to his program. In the 1925 version of the canon (see fn 18) “adequately” replaces “fairly”, but can be interpreted in the same way we discuss the term “fairly”.

  22. See phrasings used in several of the quoted passages, e.g. “as far as we can go”, “so far as it can be determined”, etc.

  23. Morgan explicitly ruled out this idea: “the simplicity of an explanation is no necessary criterion of its truth” (Morgan 1894, p. 54).

  24. Comparing this critique of the canon with Fitzpatrick’s illuminating collaboration with Goodrich in 2017, the latter outlines a more complex and comprehensive scenario which is—in our view—because the 2017 paper is appreciating the context of Morgan’s program.

  25. An example for a recent shift in such underlying assumptions is the following: up to the 1990 s the methodological approach of animal welfare research was based on the opinion that subjective experiences of animals could only be measured indirectly. More recently, Françoise Wemelsfelder claimed that a direct measurement via an animal’s expression is possible (see Wemelsfelder 2007).

  26. In the revised edition, Morgan even added a cautionary note to his canon to prevent a strict reductionist interpretation: “To this, however, it should be added, lest the range of the principle be misunderstood, that the canon by no means excludes the interpretation of a particular activity in terms of the higher processes, if we already have independent evidence of the occurrence of these higher processes in the animal under observation.” (Morgan 1903, p. 59).

  27. Even in his earlier considerations in the mid-1880 s he never doubted this, pointing out that he does “by no means deny the existence of animal mind, consciousness, feeling, emotion. I do nothing of this sort” (Morgan 1886, p. 185).

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Acknowledgements

This paper was written in the context of the International Biophilosophical School (University of Padua, 27–30 April 2015) as part of the “Integrative Biophilosophy” research project located at the University of Kassel. Funding by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) is gratefully acknowledged. We would like to thank Robert Meunier, Kristian Köchy and Francesca Michelini for their constructive criticism of the manuscript as well as to acknowledge the helpful comments of the participants of the “Philosophie der Tierforschung” colloquium (University of Kassel). Also, a sincere thank you to Tessa Marzotto for her diligent proofreading of this paper.

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Böhnert, M., Hilbert, C. “Other minds than ours”: a controversial discussion on the limits and possibilities of comparative psychology in the light of C. Lloyd Morgan’s work. HPLS 40, 44 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-018-0211-4

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