Of human persons and animals
: Scholastic animalism and the metaphysics of human nature

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Background Discussion as to whether the essence of human nature is primarily a matter of biology or of psychology has been going on for over two thousand years. Greek thought was divided between views such as Aristotle’s, who saw a human being like you or me as a single living substance, an animal, and argued for persistence based on biological nature as a member of a species, and those of Plato, who identified a human being with his soul, trapped in his body, as two separable entities. Today, the debate continues between the animalists on one hand, for whom I am identical to my living body, and personalists on the other, who see each human being as a person, a self-conscious, rational entity. As such, animalists, such as van Inwagen and Olson, argue for a human being’s persistence in terms of his biological life, while personalists, most notably, Baker, Shoemaker and Parfit, in sympathy with Locke, require only the presence of mind. 
However, while these two positions do not look to be incompatible, the accounts are usually set up in such a way that the acceptance of one is the denial of the other. For most animalists, for example, ‘person’ is just a phase sortal term, and human beings cannot be persons essentially, given that personhood requires actually occurrent mental properties. This is anti-personalism. Likewise, most personalists tend to be anti-animalists. Some may allow that a human being could share a decomposition with an animal, but deny that he could be identical to one. In terms of persistence, if one imagines that the cerebrum of a human being A is removed and placed in the cerebrumless body of another human being, B, the animalist will identify the living but cerebrumless human animal with A, while the personalist would say that A has gone with his consciousness, and now resides in the body of B. Furthermore, the personalist will now want to say that human animal B is the same person, and therefore the same human being, as A, while, for the animalist, A is still the same human animal/human being that he was, but he is no longer a person. 
Nonetheless, neither view really seems to be satisfactory. In the case of animalism, our belief that we are essentially persons, and that therefore that the persistent vegetative state patient in the bed is still a person, is put under fire. On the other hand, for the personalist, a human being is divided into the two things: a human animal and a person, to the end that human being A has become human being B, despite the fact that his body, a living human animal, has not moved from its bed. 
It is very difficult to deny that among the members of the kingdom animalia, human beings are mentally superior in various ways. However, it is just as doubtful that non-human animals do not have brains capable of thought, and therefore that a person cannot be just the thinking part of a human animal, given that other animals have mental properties too. Alternatively, then, we might regard human beings as essentially both persons and animals, or ‘rational animals’, the preferred term of Aristotelianism. The holistic account sees each human being as a human person, according to its species, just as much as a human animal. There are various ways for which this might be argued, but the version I will defend here I have called scholastic animalism, a bio-psychological account of human nature attributed to St Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, the concept of a human being who is not a person is meaningless, and only a complete living body can be a complete living person, though there is the possibility of a lesser existence between bodily death and final resurrection, in accordance with biblical Scripture. 
Nonetheless, scholastic animalism, which may be defined as an account of human nature whereby the property of human personhood just is the property of human animality, can be made sense of without appeal to biblical principles, such as the afterlife and final resurrection, given that its main benefit is the sense it makes of questions regarding what kind of being I am now, and when did I first exist. Such matters relate to all kinds of moral questions concerning human rights, both in the womb and out, and so are more than matters of biology. Unlike most personalist theories, scholastic animalism affords each human being intrinsic value just for being human, having a high regard for the body as an essential part of a complete human nature. It is therefore in line with modern medicine, which also sees the mind and body as heavily interconnected.
Date of Award1 Sept 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorChristopher Hughes (Supervisor) & David Owens (Supervisor)

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