Animals or Brutes?

du ventre inferieur, from Historia anatomicaAs I have been reading a number of anatomy texts from the seventeenth century, I have been struck by the ambiguity of the term “animal.”  Now, these texts are all in Latin (a few were translated into the vernacular, in this case French, but not many).  There is a clear distinction drawn between “animal” (the same in French), “homo” (or “homme”) and “brutus” (or “brute”).   The Swiss anatomist and naturalist Caspar Bauhin (1560-1624)  asserted in the dedication to his Theatrum anatomicum (1605) that man was “animal admirandum” and the proper subject for natural philosophy, much as Shakespeare at about the same time referred in Hamlet to man as “the paragon of Animals.”  The language of the Theatrum anatomicum displays frequent slippage from “human” to “animal,” repeating the phrase  “as it is in other animals” (quam fit in aliis animalibus),  where “animal” encompasses both animal and human.  Like other anatomists, he referred to animals alone as “brutes.”  His contemporary, the French anatomist André du Laurens (1558-1609), waxed eloquent in his Historia anatomica humani corporis (1593) about the wonderfulness of humans: “Quam mirabilis sit humani corporis dignitas & structura,” “what a miracle is the dignity and structure of the human body,” he said.  Only humans have hands, that most important of organs; and they have intelligence and souls.  Among the major structural differences he noted, though, apart from walking upright, were the number and position of the breasts and the existence of pubic hair.  I have to say I never thought of these as our major distinction from the beasts.  Although du Laurens is more careful than most to demarcate clearly the human from the animal, he too cannot help but refer to humans as “first among animals,” not as totally distinct from them.  This lack of demarcation continued throughout the seventeenth century.  Seventy years after Bauhin, the anatomist Guillaume Lamy (1644-1683) likewise referred to “l’homme ou les autres animaux” as interchangeable, and this assumption provided the basis of much of the interrogation into the nature of life in the seventeenth century.

The Latin word “animal” derived from the word “anima” which originally meant  simply air or breath – and thus signified life – but later took on additional meaning.  “Anima” could refer to the principle of life, or what distinguished life from death.  As well as the physical breath it came also to mean the ineffable soul.  It seems peculiar to our Cartesian-attuned ears that the word for “animal” should have “soul” at its base since the basis of Cartesian dualism was that animals did not have souls, in the sense that they could not know God.

The term “animal” in antiquity referred to all living things, including plants, since they too were thought to somehow possess the breath of life.  But it also referred specifically to what we would now call non-human animals.  Indeed Cicero used “animal” as an insult much as we might today.   “Brutus,” on the other hand, was an adjective in antiquity, not a noun as it later became.  Animals could be “bruti” – heavy, thick, dull – but so could humans.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “animal” in Old English and in Old French specifically excluded humans.  The 1694 Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, however, gave every possible meaning to the term.  As an adjective, it denoted the “sensitive soul.”  As a noun in Holy Scripture, it implied the sensual over the spiritual body.  But it also could simply mean a living body “which has sense and motion” (“du sentiment et du mouvement”).  Ordinarily, the dictionary entry went on, “animal” referred to a four-footed terrestrial animal, but it could refer to others kinds as well.  This would presumably include humans, who were also animated bodies with sense and motion.  But the final definition returned to Cicero’s insult.  An animal was “une personne stupide & sans esprit.”  Only at the end of the eighteenth century, however, do we find “animal” equated with “bête” or “brute.”

Because anatomists continued to use animals as human surrogates, this ambiguity of definition was certainly in their interests.  But I am fascinated by the ways in which language and practice in this case coincide.



5 thoughts on “Animals or Brutes?

  1. Very helpful post, Anita! Makes for some productive continuities as well as constrasts with the theory we’ve been reading together. In passing, let me note that Derrida takes very little account of these naturalist texts, which might modulate his argument some — at the same time, he is quite clear that the stakes in “The Animal That Therefore I Am” are specifically philosophical i.e. he is concerned with the status of “The Animal” in the history of philosophy, (too?) narrowly conceived.


  2. Pingback: Moral Cabals and Sensual Brute’s in the 17th Century « Naturae Simia

  3. Pingback: 43rd edition of The Giant’s Shoulders: People, Places, and Things | The Dispersal of Darwin

  4. This is fascinating, something I hadn’t thought about before. The question I’m still wondering is why the shift of the term animal happened in the 18th century. Can it just be because Latin (with it’s associations of simply animate beings) was being abandoned for vernaculars, which already excluded humans from the meaning of animal?


  5. Philosophically speaking, the human is generically an animal (because living) and specifically rationale (because endowed with intellect and will, i.e. a rational soul). “Other animals” is in keeping with that. I wonder if it’s true, as you suggest, that Cartesianism had some influence on the later use of “animal”. As for bruta, my impression in reading last Scholastic texts is that sometimes the term was used contrastively within the realm of the animate for what we might call “higher animals”, as opposed not only to plants but also to oysters and the like.


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