Crispin sartwell: humans are animals. get over it.

by Daniel A. Kaufman


On the latest episode of Sophia, Daniel Kaufman and Crispin Sartwell talk about Crispin’s article for the New York Times, “Humans are Animals: Let’s Get Over It” (2/23/2021).

Topics include: Humanism and its roots; Racism; Hume’s Naturalism; and Normativity.

0:00​ Crispin and Dan catch up after a hiatus 7:50​ Crispin gives some background on his latest NYT article, “Humans are Animals: Let’s Get Over It” 11:15​ The main thesis of “Humans are Animals”: Philosophy’s excessive investment in the humans/animals distinction since Antiquity. 20:20​ Dan raises the question of Hume’s naturalism and its impact on Crispin’s thesis. 30:30​ The Question of Humanism / Is a Materialist Humanism Possible? 36:40​ Humanism and Racism 41:45​ Etiology of the Human/Animal Distinction 1:00:25​ The Human and the Normative.

Some Relevant Links

Dan’s essays on Bernard Williams and Cora Diamond

Dan and Crispin’s Discussion of Descartes, Western Philosophy, and Racism


  1. Dan, did you ever read “the historical and contemporary prosecution and punishment of animals”, a great paper by Jen Girgen?

    The distinction between humans and animals hasn’t always been so clear-cut. In the middle ages people assumed animals had enough agency to be tried like humans. They even got a lawyer to defend them. I don’t have the paper at hand, but if I remember correctly, there was one case when a man copulated with an ass. The man was executed (I think) but the ass was spared, because the villages gave testimony that it was an upright being that had never put a hoof wrong – a victim, in other words.

    I wonder what Crispin Sartwell thinks about that. Humans are animals, OK. But where does that leave the animals? In court?

    1. Animals were also thought to be automatons incapable of literal “pain”. You can imagine the horrors this belief led to, especially in the arena of entertainment.

    2. These are indeed some interesting cases. I would imagine it was mostly a way to deal with the actions of someone else’s animal. Today if a dog kills a child we will likely have it put down. But there will be some process to determine which dog did it. If it is the case of a dog non-fatally biting someone we may even wonder if the person bit “had it coming” because for example they were attacking the dog or the dogs owner.

      In a crude way you could say the dog is on trial. I could imagine if people were not literate and often would work with animals they may think in these terms and there would be no reason to try to sort it out.

      I would imagine most of the times when the animals killed someone they were found guilty. I imagine the bugs eating grain were usually found guilty or at least ordered to leave. But it is no surprise that in beastiality cases the animal was not found guilty.

      In other words these cases seemed more of a means to end grudges about whether Jone’s pig that killed Smith’s child should die. And yes they found the pig should die.

      The insect/vermin cases seem more amusing (and may not have been intended to be taken seriously) but may have also been an attempt of the church to definitively and seemingly fairly deal with arguments as to whether we have a right to kill them. That such a process may have been considered necessary at all is pretty interesting.

  2. The link you’ve inserted in notes/description to Crispins NYT opinion article is bad news in my opinion.
    It’s linking to a site instead of the site, and my experience was that visiting that site resulted in lots of intrusive content that was scam like at best and security and privacy attacking at worst.
    Pretty sure I cleared that up on my PC, but I’ve got some techy net background, and you’ve probably got a bunch of viewers that will be left wondering what’s up now with my device.

  3. BTW,,, really enjoy this discussion.
    Started following you from early days of Blogging Heads TV.
    Sad to see exit from that platform, but happy to find content here!

    1. Have you subscribed to our YouTube channel and/or podcasts (at the major platforms)? We put all our dialogue there first!

  4. Dan,

    When I first heard the name Crispin Sartwell, I was immediately impressed by the esoteric quality of the sound , the promise of Old World gravitas and classical no nonsense insight into the mind’s of men.
    The living personification of Plato’s – ideal form – of “Philosopher” automatically came to mind. The name that would unfailingly entice lay readers to anticipated wisdom and gain for themselves elite vicarious status by association, (have you read SARTWELL lately?) and as sure as the Sun rising in the East, lay the red carpet of the NY Times at his anointed feet. Dan Kaufman? … Not so much…
    Dan, it’s all branding. 🙂

      1. Ha! Once you retire and leave the sniveling ingrates behind, we can think of a more befitting and propitious nom de guerre.

  5. Humans are a unique species of animal. No problem: Aristotle knew that. Darwin agreed. All human societies distinguish humans from nonhumans, whatever value they placed on particular animal or plant species. CS seems to be motivated by the Critical Theory claim that Western inegalitarian social arrangements are an expression of a “mind-body” or “human-nature” distinction that is unique to “the West.” Critical Theory is very interesting, but that claim was the silliest thing it ever said.

  6. It is possible that this is what motivated Sartwell. I doubt it. I’m familiar enough with his work to know how influenced he is by Chinese Taoism (which he alludes to) and nothing like the “mind/body” or “human/nature” distinctions exist there. I suspect he was influenced more by that, and possibly Dewey on these points, than Critical Theory.

    I suspect this in part because Sartwell does say that he believes the emphasis on human reason is not all it is cracked up to be, and that is very much NOT a critical theory point but IS very much a threat of Chinese Taoism.

  7. I sympathize with Sartwell’s basic point that Western philosophers largely need to get off of their obsession with what makes humans different than animals. I also sympathize with him regarding the view that human reason is not all it’s cracked up to be. Humans in general aren’t nearly as good at it as the Western tradition has often depicted, reason (pace Johnson-Laird and Wason) in practice doesn’t generally look a shred like what philosphers like Aristotle and the logicians depicted, and reason seems historically to be capable of some pretty unflattering and whack shit.

    BUT on the other stuff, I tend to go with Dan. My thing is “So what? We are animals and do many of the same things other animals do. But we also do a lot of things we have no reason to think other animals are capable of. Yes, a cuttlefish just passed a test showing that it has some level of conscious self-control, and that took everyone by surprise. But most humans can pass that test and then some, and then some, and then some more. In fact, we regard it as a defect if a human CAN’T pass that test. So, yeah, humans are animals, but we’re a pretty damned unique animal. So are gazelles and starfish, of course – unique in a different way – but that doesn’t mean we are unique in another way.”

    The only thingn I’d add to what Sartwelll argued is that we are the animal who has argued and judged to OUR satisfaction – as we feel no need to gain the assent of other animals – that we are superior. And that is compatible with the idea that we really ARE superior, but it sure is convenient that the standard we have met of superiority is one WE erected and judged that we have met. We are the kid who thinks to his own and only his own satisfaction that we are special.

  8. A very good source here is Thomas Suddendorf’s The Gap: The Science of What Separates us from Other Animals, on the argument between the “romanticists” and the “killjoys.” Nice summary of lots of different material.

  9. Dan says it seems pretty much all civilizations in history are hierarchical/racist and used slaves. Crispin says well all civilization that we know of because they are the ones that build stuff are, but there may be others that don’t. He can’t name one but he assumes there is one. But even if there are a few if in fact these problems were caused by western civ and philosophy then you wouldn’t expect to see them in so many other civilizations right? This is a real problem for anyone that thinks western civilization/philosophy is to blame for these problems.

    Dan asked some really good questions. Whenever people say animals (or other animals because I agree people are animals) should not be treated so different than people I always wonder what they think we should do. Should we treat animals better or should we treat humans worse? Usually they say we should treat animals better. But consider the difference in how we treat a deer we hit with our car versus a human we might hit with our car. For one we may shoot it to put it out of its misery. For the other we call an ambulance and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to save its life.

    1. “Crispin says well all civilization that we know of because they are the ones that build stuff are, but there may be others that don’t. He can’t name one but he assumes there is one”

      He doesn’t need to. This is a pretty well established idea in anthropology and quite a few such tribes and groups have been named. Sartwell mentions one author who has done a LOT of this naming, James C. Scott, so I’m assuming he is familiar with at least some of the literature.


    2. Of course, I should add to that that you may be right that Sartwell is wrong to say that hierarchy and slavery are in some sense the fault of philosphy’s quet ot seperate the human from the animal. Of course, I’m not sure that’s Sartwell’s argument, as he does sort of equivocate. As best I can tell, he thinks that philosphy’s quest to distinguish Man from the brutes is not a necessary or sufficient condition for hierarchy and slavery, but certainly can help accelerate and excuse such practices.

      But to clarify, the anthropologists who point out that there exist tribes of folks who do not have such hierarchal organization are hunter-gatherer groups. What created the conditions that led to social hierarchy was not philosophy, but the invention of agricultural living.

  10. At a conference on the supernatural, one of the speakers asked, “Who here has ever seen a ghost?”
    Most of the hands go up.
    “And how many of you have had some form of interaction with a ghost?”
    About half the hands stay up.
    “Okay, now how many of you have had *physical* contact with a ghost?”
    Three hands stay up; there’s a slight murmur in the crowd.
    “Gosh, that’s pretty good. Okay, have any of you ever, uh…, been *intimate* with a ghost?”
    One hand stays up.
    The speaker blinks.
    “Gosh, sir, are you telling us that you’ve actually had *sexual* contact with a ghost?”
    The fellow suddenly blushes and says, “Oh, I’m sorry,… I thought you said goat!”

  11. Is there any possibility that there’s a relationship between thinking humans are special and thinking humans have rights? I think there is! Obviously, not every civilization that thought humans were special also developed the notion of individual rights, but how many civilizations developed the notion of individual rights without thinking humans were special?

  12. When you write “humans have rights” are you referring to *universal* human rights?

    If you look at the paper I mentioned in my first reaction, animals had rights too in the middle ages when they were prosecuted. They didn’t have the same rights as humans. You could eat cows, chickens and pigs, but not humans. But that situation wasn’t uncommon in the middle ages. It was merely the reflection of a belief in an existing “natural order”. The rights an privileges you had, were dependent on the group you belonged to. University students were tried by other courts than the burghers of city; different cities gave different right to its inhabitants; if you insulted an officer of the crown the punishment was more severe; etc. There was a natural order to be respected.

    But people had rights and used them. The man was the Head of the Household in the cities of the Duchy of Brabant, but if he touched the property of his wife without her assent, she could take him to court (and as far as we know, the court ruled in her favor).

    The point I want to make is that there’s no intrinsic contradiction between the belief in a natural order (some humans above other humans, humans above animals etc.) and having rights. Even the animals that were prosecuted by ecclesiastical courts had the right to be defended by a lawyer.

  13. My thought is that the distinction between humans and animals is central to philosophy, but philosophers have misconceived the distinction and over-simplified it by positing some kind of free-standing capacity for reason. So I’m sympathetic with Crispin’s arguments up to a point. “Free will” isn’t a physical process that you can point to, it is more a convenient assumption that goes a long way in helping us to understand ourselves. Obviously animals can make choices too, but the range and scale of choices is different because humans are able to use their imaginations to think of things to do that are not directly tied to immediate needs. If I could put the difference in a nutshell it would be this: humans cooperate to protect common resources that includes knowledge and cultural institutions. They do this by agreeing to rules, monitoring what others are doing, participating in enforcing the rules against rule-breakers and self-regulating their own behaviour. Following and enforcing normative rules is a way of protecting common resources. These common resources: the collective sharing of cultural institutions and technologies are protected by collective participation in normative systems. Without morality, common resources are depleted by free riders and outlaws and the basis for having human societies collapses. Monogamy, kinship, delayed maturation, ie., longer periods of helpless infancy, and childhood, longer period of neuroplasticity, alloparenting, larger brain size – are all human characteristics that indicate the importance of specialized human cooperation that transcends natural selection.

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