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Day 25: Ancient Medical Art and the Distinction Between Humans and Animals

In my book on Aristotle’s Politics, I argue that Aristotle’s definition of the human being as political on the basis of having logos, by which we organize pleasures and pains and determine what is beneficial and harmful, good and bad, just and unjust, functions to show that anyone making a claim to belong exemplifies their having of logos and thus belongs.  Interestingly, I think this view might actually lead to showing, contra Aristotle’s argument that logos distinguishes humans from animals, that animals too might make claims and thus belong.  I take Bruno Latour’s work on the politics of nature to show as much.

I’m currently working on a project on Aristotle’s biology, which has led me into some background research on ancient Greek medicine that has further complicated the question of how and whether we can use logos and phônê to distinguish humans from animals.  In Hippocrates’ WomenHelen King writes:

For medicine’s claim to be one of the technai separating humanity from the beast–particularly in view of stories of animals who can heal themselves or each other–it is significant that the voice is presented in early Greek anthropology as one of the defining characteristics of humanity.  Specifically, man has the faculty of speech (phônê) while the beasts do not.  However, phônê can also be used of animal cries; this leads Aristotle to argue that although some animals possess the power of speech, only man has logos, so that even animals with a phônê cannot produce an organized language.

The dog, the rooster and the snake were believed to be the guises in which Asclepius, the healing god, would visit supplicants in their sleep.  The snake is also associated with Hermes and with the healing communication that occurs within the body.  What’s remarkable about this passage is that phônê is what is restricted to human beings, and that Aristotle is thus acknowledging a capacity that might have been restricted to humans to animals.  King continues:

The combination of phônê and logos is essential to the ancient Greek concept of medicine, since the ability of the healer to diagnose correctly rests not merely on observing the patient, but also on questioning him or her and listening to what is reported…Only human beings can produce language; only they can extend the uses of that language by writing it down in symbols, so only they can have the medical technê.

The text that the holder of the medical technê reads, however, is the body.  And it is read through the senses of the body.  At Regimen I.23, the Hippocratic author explains that the knowledge comes from through the seven figures–vowels–that represent each sense.

All these things a man performs, both he who knows letters and he who knows them not.  Through seven figures come sensations for a man; there is hearing for sounds, tongue for pleasant or unpleasant, mouth for speech (dialektou – related to logos), body for touch, passages outwards and inwards for hot and cold breath.  Through these come knowledge or lack of it.

I don’t know what to make of the relationship between the senses and the vowels.  It could mean having the senses means one has some kind of relationship to letters, vowels, openings of sound made meaningful by the limits of consonants.  It could mean the senses produce the knowledge of the medical art, and thus opens the question of how animals might be capable of making judgments about what hurts and what heals.  The association of the senses with dialektou and thus logos would seem to open the possibility that senses offer a way forward toward distinguishing and judging, which animals could be capable of.  Strangely, instead of extending phônê to animals, the Hippocratic author would appear to be associating logos with the capacities that arise with the senses.

Update: Another relevant point but one that comes several hundred years after Aristotle so not as clearly relevant to him is that Plutarch in Moralia (992a, 973e) considered the beasts to be self-taught doctors and that teaching oneself required an even greater logos that learning from others.  (King 115).

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