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Shouldn't man be defined by his essential properties instead of by his virtues? I find myself having to qualify after saying "man is the rational animal" with "rationality is not automatic".

asked Jul 03 '13 at 11:39

Humbug's gravatar image

Humbug
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edited Jul 04 '13 at 09:44

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦
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The main ambiguity in the expression, "rational animal," is whether or not "rational" implies that man is rational all the time, some of the time, or never, yet nevertheless qualifies as "man" (and to what degree). Indeed, the English language often admits of great subtleties and shades of meaning, which writers often exploit ingeniously to make their writings and utterances more interesting and "colorful" to contemplate. One generally needs to consider the full context in order to know which shade of meaning the author intends.

Describing man as "the animal with reason" suffers from the same abiguity as "rational animal." Does it mean that man actually uses reason? If so, does it mean he uses it all the time or just some of the time? And "with" is ambiguous, as well, until one visualizes what reason is and what "with reason" could possibly mean in concrete terms. (A creative writer might also use "with reason" to refer to having a reason for what one is doing, rather than referring specifically to reason as a human faculty.)

And what about when a person is sleeping? Is he still a "man," even though he is as close to being completely unconscious as a sleeping person can ever be? (Sleeping generally allows a person to be awakened by bumping or loud sounds or bright lights or perhaps strong odors if the odors don't poison him before he can awaken -- whereas one who is literally "knocked out" usually cannot be revived nearly so easily.)

The need to mention that "rationality is not automatic" reflects a real issue: does man have free will, and is it important? Merely changing one's definition of man to something like "animal having a rational capacity" or "animal having a rational faculty" won't avoid the need to discuss free will when discussing philosophical issues with others. And "rational animal" is a perfectly valid, far more concise and compact alternative to the more wordy formulation, "animal having a rational capacity."

Ayn Rand, too, recognized a need to emphasize that man isn't necessarily rational 100% of the time. Man, by his nature has the capacity to be irrational, by conscious choice. But the underlying capacity remains, and it is what most fundamentally distinguishes man from other animals. Here is how Ayn Rand expressed it in ITOE Chapter 5, "Definitions", excerpted in the topic of "Man" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon:

“Rational,” in this context, does not mean “acting invariably in accordance with reason”; it means “possessing the faculty of reason.” A full biological definition of man would include many subcategories of “animal,” but the general category and the ultimate definition remain the same.

Thus, when we hear Ayn Rand describe man as "the rational animal," we must remember the context of referring to man's capacity for rationality -- and of volition as an important issue in philosophical discussions, as well.

answered Jul 03 '13 at 22:31

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
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Asked: Jul 03 '13 at 11:39

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Last updated: Jul 04 '13 at 09:44