Robert Grillo, Free
The Cartesian "enlightenment" worldview of humans and nonhumans remains entrenched in modern society, and yet few people understand its origins and even fewer think to challenge it.
René Descartes, the first philosopher to emphasize the use of reason to develop the natural sciences, argued that reason was the all-important attribute that differentiated humankind from other animals. Yet ironically he seemed to completely abandon reason in statements such as this one: “I believe, also, that we should eat as the brutes do, without having learned how, if we had no power of thought at all; and it is said that those who walk in their sleep sometimes swim across rivers, where, had they been awake, they would have been drowned.” (from his letter to the Marquis of Newcastle)
Another important distinguishing factor that Descartes thought proved human supremacy was the presence of language. He flatly denied the existence of any use of language among animals, who he called “brutes.” Again, Descartes’ faulty reasoning failed him miserably: he irrationally concluded that simply because humans could not understand the numerous and complex vocalizations and other forms of nonverbal communication of various animal species, they had no language at all.
It is the height of irony that the father of modern philosophy and one of the early champions of rational thought should have been such a colossal failure in understanding nonhuman animals. What a testament to how desperately we have sought throughout history to justify our own supremacy over other beings — often in the absence of empirical evidence — and then erroneously use this claim of superiority to justify doing to these other beings whatever we want.
The Cartesian’ “enlightenment” worldview of humans and nonhumans remains entrenched in modern society, and yet few people understand its origins and even fewer think to challenge it.