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Human beings are self-interpreting animals.

Blade-of-Truth
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5/5/2014 6:37:33 PM
Posted: 2 years ago
Self-interpreting animals and the uniqueness of human beings: an analysis on Charles Taylor"s thesis on Self-Interpreting Animals.

By: Blade-of-Truth

This is originally a 14 pg. paper, double-spaced. I will not include the bibliography unless asked.

I will now begin posting...
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Blade-of-Truth
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5/5/2014 6:40:22 PM
Posted: 2 years ago
Since the publication of Human Agency and Language (1985) Charles Taylor"s thesis that humans are "self-interpreting animals" has left lasting impressions in the field of contemporary philosophy. While Taylor recognizes humans are animals ("self-interpreting animals"), the aim of this paper is to analyze and reveal the reasoning as to why humans are an exception to this (self-interpretation) when other animals have their own means of communicating between one another, and understanding each other"s roles in their community. In order to accomplish this, I will first briefly introduce the history and understanding of the conception of self. I will then briefly expand on our common understanding of intelligence and the barriers that can either hinder or assist humans when determining the self-interpreting capabilities of lesser animals. Finally, I will attempt to bridge the gap between Taylor"s restrictions in the conception of the self-interpreting animal and how or if it can be applied to animals of a lesser order.

Before analyzing the implications of Taylor"s thesis of self-interpreting animals, it is imperative that we first outline what Taylor meant by "self-interpreting animal" and understand how the term is applied directly to humans rather than any other animal and why that is. In an essay titled, "Self, Narrative, and Self-Constitution: Revisiting Taylor"s "Self-Interpreting Animals"" Kenneth Baynes states that Taylor proposes an account of the self that he describes as "expressivist," or that the self is made up of self-interpretations, and these interpretations are "not something that can be understood "absolutely"" (Baynes, 442). There are four main elements to Taylor"s claim according to Baynes: First, a "constitutive" thesis which states that individual selves are constituted by their self-interpretations (442). Second, a "narrativity" thesis which states that we constitute ourselves by constructing narratives about who we are and what we most value or care about (443). The third element is that our self-interpretation can sometimes be mistaken, which is also known as "Evaluative Realism" (443). Lastly, that according to Taylor, the process of interpretation is social and depends on how we are shaped by others outside of ourselves, how we interact with them, and how they interpret us. This is also known as the Dialogical process (443).

When attempting to understand the barriers that seemingly separate humans from other animals in terms of the ability to self-interpret, there are several key terms and elements that provide further basis for expansion than just the four elements that Baynes points out in his essay. An important element to consider is Taylor"s influence by the Hermeneutic tradition, specifically from influencers like Heidegger and Gadamer in the sense that "self-interpreting animals" follow a specific interpretive method. One that includes examining external objects outside of ourselves, the decipherment of meanings we associate with such things and how that reflects our own self (Ramborg).

Understanding this influence raises the importance of defining and understanding the roles of key terms that are relevant to this topic such as community, communication, language, instinct, tradition and awareness because only by understanding the interpretations and meanings that can be derived by such terms can we begin to paint a picture that is in accordance with Taylor"s own school of thought or philosophical alignment when creating this thesis. All of the terms listed above require examination in this attempt to understand the barriers separating humans from other animals in terms of "self-interpreting" because although the terms are somewhat similar at face value or seemingly similar (ex: instincts/tradition, language/communication), the difference is how we interpret these terms and how these interpretations create the barriers that are currently in place under Taylors thesis.

With it being understood that we are beings who are (in part) constituted by our own self-interpretation, it comes naturally that the communication we use in doing so plays a role in how we constitute our self-interpretation. For Taylor, humans are understood to have two types of communication for constituting that which shapes our self or plays a role in our method of self-interpretation: Expressive and Designative communication (Taylor, 42). Although both perform a role, Taylor proposes that it is the former that allows for self-interpretation. When using designative language for example, I might see an external object like a red chair, and just by describing that as "red" or a "chair" I am using designative language. But another form also exists, that which is made possible by expressive language, an example would be that "the red chair is my grandmother"s favorite". It"s not that I am just stating the object I am seeing as a "red chair", but I am also placing value or attaching meaning to that chair that would have otherwise not been seen or understood had I used designative language alone (Jones, 157).

Expressive language is what allows us to constitute self-interpretation (Taylor, 41). Taylor viewed language as being responsible for doing more than just reflecting reality, language also creates reality. If someone articulates himself through an expression or opinion of belief, then they are creating them self, and thus language is used not just for describing, reflecting, or placing value but also creating the self. An example of this would be if I said that I believed Christianity to be the one true religion. Declaring such things would mold who I was. It would shape me and help create the impression on both myself and the objects outside of me that I subscribe to such beliefs.

In a manner similar to declaring a belief, language also allows for the creation of communities. By being able to communicate meaningfully between exterior objects in a way that allows for mutual understanding, we are able to create structure, order, and a certain standard of life that might not have been possible at all if we didn"t have such a tool like language at our disposal. Humans have a long history of working together in communities that can be traced as far back as the beginning of recorded history itself (Smithsonian, Social Life). Some attribute this to a shared preference in eating spots or hunting zones, but instead of asking "why" this happened, a more relevant question is "how", which is answered by understanding that language was the tool that allowed for further development of groups, which eventually led to the creation of communities. By understanding that language has a role in not only creating meaning but also in shaping how we perceive ourselves, we can begin to see how a system of order came to form within communities, in terms of dominant males acting in leading positions or even the inception of who acted as hunters and who were the gatherers. By shaping who we were as individuals, we can then create roles that would work well with other roles that others have created for themselves. An example of this in an ancient community setting could have been a physically strong male declaring that he will take the lead on the next hunt. In doing this, he has used language to interpret himself acting in a certain role. If the other hunters agree that the strong male should take lead, then the now-dominant male has had his identity constituted through dialogue with other external objects in a meaningful way. In a likely similar manner, other positions that meshed well to create a system of order that worked for the community was most likely also accomplished by having their identities constituted through dialogue.
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Blade-of-Truth
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5/5/2014 6:43:19 PM
Posted: 2 years ago
Another important aspect of community would be the element of tradition. According to Merriam-Webster, tradition can be defined as a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time. Almost every culture in our world today follows or has traditions. An example of American traditions would be the celebrating of holidays such as Memorial Day or Halloween. A broader example would be the observation of holy days for religions that span across the globe like the Catholic tradition of Passover or even fasting. By practicing such traditions, we are placing value on things outside of our own self and by doing so are creating meaning for our own lives by taking part in something outside of our self that creates a sense of community with the other people participating.

When considering how Baynes" elements, as well as the additional key terms, reflect the unique properties that help shape Taylor"s thesis of "self-interpreting animals" there are some issues that arise from the thesis as well. For this paper, the issue that is being focused is whether humans are the only "self-interpreting animals" which is the case according to Taylor"s thesis. In fact, according to Taylor, it is because humans are "self-interpreting animals" that they are even human to begin with. The ability to "self-interpret" seems to separate humans from other animals in the sense that the ways in which human beings understand themselves forms a significant part of their identity (Abbey).

There are two main issues when placing barriers between human and non-human animals. First, there is the issue of never being able to perceive the world in any way other than our own. We can never know what another person thinks or feels. They can tell us and describe it to us " which would allow us to compare that description to our own experiences, but while we might have similar experiences which allow us to share what appears to be similar thoughts or feelings we will never know if they are the "exact" thoughts or "exact" feelings. Our body is our reference point with everything we perceive outside of our body as an expansive space that is separate from ourselves. So to claim that humans are the only "self-interpreting animals" is not necessarily something that can be fully known, due to the fact that we are unable to know what another being or object is thinking, feeling, or experiencing.

The second issue would be that not all animals are alike. By this, I mean that non-human animals have an incredibly large range of things like intelligence, habits, living environments and also range in a wide variety of species such as insects like bees and ants, to mammals like chimpanzees and elephants. To make such a generalization seems to deny animals the right to have a fair chance at being recognized as individual beings in their own unique ways that are meaningful to their lives. To say that a dolphin has the same intellectual capabilities as a cat wouldn"t be accurate, and by placing barriers between human and non-human animals due to certain abilities, while understandable, creates an unfair standard by which humans view non-human animals as all belonging to the same lesser order. It seems that a system of ranking or a hierarchy should be considered when attempting to understand the differences between human and non-human animals, because as I will show, there are several animals that seem to practice the same methods humans do when interpreting themselves and the world around them. The question in focus here is still whether humans are truly the only "self-interpreting animals"?

If we look at the role that tradition plays when constituting our self-interpretation by interacting within a community, it seems that there are also non-human animals that practice a certain way of behaving " similar to humans " in specific cases like mourning and burying the recently deceased. In an article released by BBC News in June, 2004 titled "Kenya Elephant buries its victims" it was reported that an elephant was spotted burying a female elephant and her baby before disappearing behind the foliage. While this might seem fascinating, it is actually very common behavior for elephants to practice the tradition of burying the dead (BBC News). They do this by burying the dead elephant with leaves, dirt, and tree branches. They also mourn by weeping and making sounds as well as sometimes staying with the dead body for up to two days, a phenomenon that is also found with cows. This raises the question though; is this tradition or merely instinct?

According to Merriam-Webster, instinct can be defined as a way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is not learned: a natural desire or tendency that makes you want to act in a particular way. According to paleontologists Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin in "Origins Reconsidered: In Search Of What Makes Us Human" the Neanderthals occasionally buried their dead, and also argue that religion came to be when humans began the practice of doing more with a corpse than what was strictly necessary for disposal (Crabtree). It seems that instinct and tradition go hand in hand in the case of both human and non-human animals burying their dead. The practice most likely originally formed out of instinct due to emotional reasoning or value apparently placed on the deceased. From there, the fact that the act is continually practiced since ancient times would justify it being viewed as a tradition now-a-days.

What actually separates humans from non-human animals in regard to the practice of burying or mourning the dead would have to be the perceived meaning we attached to the tradition of burial and perhaps the wide range of variety in which we carry-out the tradition throughout differing human cultures vs. the seemingly similar and basic methods of burial done by non-human animals (meaning that even though elephants and other animals bury their dead, it is all the same method of using tree branches or other natural materials to simply cover the body). For instance, when we view a burial we might start thinking about how we ourselves will die one day, as in we have the ability to ponder on the manner in which we will die, an extremely complex thought process that involves abstract connections being made between our own experiences and range of possible ways we could die. The way in which our perception of the burial impacts our own interpretation of possible events to come seems to be unique to humans. So while both humans and animals share similar traditions of burying and mourning over deceased members of our communities, it is the meaning we attach and perceive from such traditions that remain as a barrier separating the "self-interpreting animal" i.e., human, from a non-human animal.

At this point, the element of awareness should be factored in. As humans capable of self-interpreting, we are aware of the separation that exists between ourselves and the rest of the perceived world or expanding space all around us. It is understandable to assume that most non-human animals are aware of the expanding space around them as well. An example would be two cats playing with one another. They are aware of the other cat that is separate from them and are interacting with this outside object in a manner that we could hypothetically consider as playing (for the sake of this example). A good term to focus on is "other" because we can see that cats are aware of other objects by simply observing them in their daily motions. They sniff random surroundings, chase light-beams, and react to certain sounds. Thus it is reasonable in the context of this example to say that humans and non-human animals both have a degree of awareness when it comes to interpreting exterior objects and shaping their lives according to that awareness.
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Blade-of-Truth
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5/5/2014 6:45:39 PM
Posted: 2 years ago
For the difference to appear, one needs to determine the degree of awareness that humans and non-human animals have. To go back to the tradition of burial, humans are aware that death is inevitable. Humans are aware of their own limitations in regards to death or our state of finiteness because of our ability to interpret meaningful information from outside sources that we can then use to shape our own understanding of this world from witnessing other people dying for instance. This is a major difference though between self-interpreting animals and animals that are not capable of such things. For example, there has yet to be a case of a cat killing itself due to an existential crisis. While this might be a humorous statement when taken at face value, the point it is conveying is extremely vital to understanding the difference in the perceived degrees of awareness that exist in humans who are self-interpreting beings, and non-human animals who are not.

Another interesting point related to self-awareness is raised when considering the ability of being able to recognize one"s self in a mirror, a feat that is not just unique to humans but also chimpanzees and dolphins. This is mainly demonstrated when a mark is placed on the body of a chimpanzee or dolphin who are then given access to a mirror and are recorded either giving attention to and even inspecting the mark on their body by utilizing the mirror (Dolphin Institute). While this is incredible in terms of helping to shape the way we perceive non-human animals, ultimately there are still observable differences in the degree of self-awareness. An example of this would be if a heavy-set woman goes in front of a mirror and immediately thinks of herself as fat because she is overweight, or perhaps it makes her realize that she needs to go to the tanning salon because she is getting pale. Considering there has yet to be any studies of chimpanzees or dolphins that have fallen into a depression from seeing themselves in a mirror or have based any value on themselves from recognizing their own image in a mirror, it seems evident that humans are the only animals capable of self-interpreting themselves in such a manner that they can influence and alter their self-perception by merely placing values on the way they appear to either themselves in a mirror, or to others in a social setting.

More importantly it is also the fact that we are even confined to certain values or modes of thought when taking a step back and seeing what the possible ways we can interpret ourselves in mirrors, and why that is, which also reflects Taylor"s thesis in the sense that we shape ourselves according to our reality. What I mean by this is that perhaps in certain cultures being fat or over-weight is a negative thing whereas in other cultures or times it might not be a negative value, or in a past time how being pale skinned was highly valued in Europe due to the meaning attached to the working class in the fields being tan and royalty remaining work-free having pale, clean skin from not having to be in the sun all day (Timeline, Style). The fact that we even set such values on ourselves based on the current cultural norms and manners of thought is evidence enough that we are "self-interpreting animals" by the very act of interpreting ourselves via the standards of our current society while still having yet to see non-humans animals also apply a set a values from merely looking at themselves in a mirror. It seems they lack the element of being "strong evaluators".

For Taylor, this heightened sense of awareness that humans have as "self-interpreting animals" is what allowed us to continue to build upon our foundation of understanding which has, in turn, allowed for humans to continue developing a greater understanding of the world, ourselves, and how we interpret such things. A method of understanding the element of being "strong evaluators" would be by looking at how humans are not just weighers of preferences, which can be easily seen in non-human animals by observing the eating habits of those animals and noting their preferred food, i.e. " herbivores, carnivores, perhaps omnivores that prefer both berries and meat. We can see that other non-human animals have preferences as well in the example above, but I believe what Taylor was trying to impress on the reader was that "self-interpreting animals" can also make qualitative distinctions, meaning that although we might prefer a McDonald"s burger, for example, we would eat a salad instead because we are trying to lose weight. We attach a higher value to that which we prefer as evidenced by the certain choices we make throughout our daily lives, which while our actions can be attributed to that which we value as doing, we might be doing those things for several interloping reasons that out-weigh other reasons per say.

There is one more key element that still requires further expansion though if we are to fully flesh out the comparison and differences that place limitations on Taylor"s thesis, that of language. As shown previously, language plays a major role in self-interpreting. Language is what allows us to express meaning, information and values to one another and in turn shape ourselves and the way we interpret the outside world. Do non-human animals have the same capabilities to utilize language as well as "self-interpreting animals" do? It is evident by means of observation that non-human animals have methods for communicating amongst one another. While they seem to be as limited to communication generally to their own species as we are to ours, they seem to be able to communicate within their species by our modern standards of understanding animal communities. When looking at animals such as ants for instance, we can see that they have a system of order within their respective communities with the case of having a worker class, a soldier class, and a queen who has another class of ants that solely tend to her well-being (Singer). It is understood that they have a means of communication, which is vital for any "self-interpreting animal" but they seem to lack the language that "self-interpreting animals" such as humans utilize to create meaningful values of not only themselves, but the objects around them. For instance, they might recognize the queen due to the pheromones she releases, but they are not tapping their buddy on the shoulder and saying how attractive they think she is, at-least not at this point in our current understanding of them.

This leads me into the main issue with Taylor"s thesis, the fact that we can"t know with sureness if non-human animals are in fact "self-interpreting animals". Although we have made strides in recent centuries in regards to the amount of knowledge we have when it comes to understanding the world around us, we are still limited to our "space of reason" or "horizon of knowledge". What I mean by "space of reason" is that we are restricted to viewing this world from only our self-view. We perceive the world from our bodies, which act as a point of reference for us in this expansive space we were thrown into. Earlier, I pointed out how we do not have the ability to jump from perception to perception, meaning that we cannot truly ever know what the other object (in this case a person) is thinking or feeling. We can hear the description, and interpret that based off of our own experiences, but that is about as far as we can go in terms of reasoning with others or truly understanding what they are experiencing.
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Blade-of-Truth
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5/5/2014 6:47:59 PM
Posted: 2 years ago
"Horizon of knowledge" is different from "space of reason" in the sense that we can only imagine what we are capable of imagining. Everything we know, think, feel, or do is shaped by the world around us. A common example of this would be a Christian who declares that he can never know God"s true brilliance. This is a limitation set on us by our "horizon of knowledge" in the sense that he is admitting that knowing such things is beyond his limitations or horizon. It is not necessarily an issue of being restricted to our own perspective, like "space of reason", but rather the issue of being restricted by the expansive space around us in the sense of what we are and are not capable of understanding because of that space. I cannot perceive the brilliance of God because that brilliance is not something that I can interpret in the realm of either my-self or the exterior world of objects around me. Thus, both our "space of reason" and "horizon of knowledge" creates issues with Taylor"s thesis in this specific context of comparing the abilities of non-human animals to humans.

At this point, the only statement that can be said with accuracy is that we are not yet sure, as a community of "self-interpreting animals" if we are really the only "self-interpreting animals" in this world. It is important to note though, that while Taylor"s thesis separates humans from non-human animals, it isn"t because we don"t know if animals are capable or not, but rather that we ourselves are only capable of knowing such things about ourselves. As I have shown above, at this point with our limitations of knowingness, it is impossible to know such things about other objects in the expansive space we find ourselves in. While this is a reasonable conclusion, it is also important to recognize that this claim does not mean that we are never capable of knowing such things. In fact, with every day that passes, we are creating new ways of perceiving the world and all that is encompassed within it.

At this point, the only statement that can be said with accuracy is that we are not yet sure, as a community of "self-interpreting animals" if we are really the only "self-interpreting animals" in this world. It is important to note though, that while Taylor"s thesis separates humans from non-human animals, it isn"t because we don"t know if animals are capable or not, but rather that we ourselves are only capable of knowing such things about ourselves. As I have shown above, at this point with our limitations of knowingness, it is impossible to know such things about other objects in the expansive space we find ourselves in. While this is a reasonable conclusion, it is also important to recognize that this claim does not mean that we are never capable of knowing such things. In fact, with every day that passes, we are creating new ways of perceiving the world and all that is encompassed within it.

** I've decided to include the Bibliography for referencing purposes **

Bibliography
(In order of Appearance)

"Taylor, Charles. "Self-Interpreting Animals." Human Agency and Language. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. N. pag. Print.
"Baynes, Kenneth (2010). Self, narrative and self-constitution: Revisiting Taylor's "self-interpreting animals". Philosophical Forum 41 (4):441-457.
"Ramberg, Bj"rn. "Hermeneutics." Stanford University. Stanford University, 09 Nov. 2005. Web. 04 May 2014. <http://plato.stanford.edu...;.
"Jones, William Thomas. "Ch. 5, Part I: Normative Language." The Sciences and the Humanities. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 1965. 150-60. Print.
""Social Life." Human Evolution by The Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program. Human Origins Initiative, n.d. Web. 05 May 2014. <http://humanorigins.si.edu...;.
"Abbey, Ruth. "Charles Taylor (Canadian Philosopher)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 05 May 2014. <http://www.britannica.com...;.
"BBC News. "Kenya Elephant Buries Its Victims." BBC News. BBC, 18 June 2004. Web. 05 May 2014. <http://news.bbc.co.uk...;.
"Crabtree, Vexen. "Approaching Death: Some Instincts of the Human Animal." Www.humantruth.info. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2014. <http://www.humantruth.info...;.
""The Dolphin Institute - Dolphin Research." The Dolphin Institute - Dolphin Research. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2014. http://www.dolphin-institute.org...
""A Timeline of Sexy Defined Through The Ages." StyleCaster. For Women, n.d. Web. 03 May 2014. <http://www.stylecaster.com...;.
"Singer, Emily. "Ants Build Complex Structures With a Few Simple Rules | Simons Foundation." Quanta Magazine. Simons Foundation, 9 Apr. 2014. Web. 05 May 2014. <http://www.simonsfoundation.org...;.
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Blade-of-Truth
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5/10/2014 1:45:11 AM
Posted: 2 years ago
Bump.
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Stephen_Hawkins
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5/10/2014 8:12:33 AM
Posted: 2 years ago
Link a document, rather than the entire thing, as it is hard to read on this site (but easier in pdf format for example)
Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach him how to be Gay, he'll positively influence the GDP.

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