Sentient Life—Jonathan Dolhenty

The Philosophy of Man
A brief introduction to rational psychology
Adapted from various sources and edited
by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

Part Three: Sentient Life

A sentient being is a living body which has all the perfections and operations of a plant and, in addition, has the essentially different and superior powers of knowing and of acting on knowledge. A sentient being is an animal body. We call a living animal body simply an animal. This philosophical use of animal differs from the scientific use. For we make no distinction of animals on the score of their structure; we do not distinguish philosophically among birds, insects, reptiles, and so on. All of these are animals as well as the larger beasts that are commonly called so in ordinary speech. Indeed, man himself is an animal, although he is also more than an animal, and is essentially other and greater than that which is animal merely. An animal is a living body with sentiency. From the amoeba to the elephant, this definition holds true. (Note: the fact that sometimes it is difficult to tell whether some microscopic unicellular organisms belong in the plant or animal category has no bearing here; it simply points out the limitations of human instruments to make an accurate and proper distinction.)

A sentient body has powers of knowing, that is, of knowing in the lowest order of knowledge. A sentient body has sentiency or powers of sense. Sentiency is a knowing-power exercised through the body or part of the body. If a special part of the body serves for a special kind of knowing (as the eye, the ear, the nose) this part is called a sensory or a sense-organ.

A sentient body has not only the power of knowing by means of a sense or of senses; it has the power to act on knowledge. That is, it has the power to tend towards the attaining of what is senses as desirable or good, and away from what is sensed as undesirable or bad. This power is called appetition, or appetency, or simply appetite. And, in most animals, this power of appetency is followed by local movement. Animals that can move from place to place have the power of locomotion.

Hence, the vital powers of an animal are, in addition to the nutritive power, the growing power, the reproductive power, these three: the sensing-power, the appetizing-power, and, usually, the power of local movement. By these powers the animal exercises the vital operations of:

  • Nutrition,
  • Growth,
  • Vital Generation,
  • Sensation,
  • Appetition, and
  • Locomotion.

We defined a plant as a living body which lacks sentiency. We may define an animal as a living body with sentiency which lacks intellect or understanding. For no mere animal is intellectual, rational, or intelligent. We speak of “intelligent” animals in a metaphorical way; we mean that the animals are alert, that they use their marvelous sensing-powers in a striking way. But no animal that is not more than animal (as man is) has intelligence. We shall recognize the truth of this assertion when we come to study the intellect in man. Here it will suffice to notice these facts:

  • No activity of non-human animals is incapable of full explanation on the basis of sentiency alone;
  • Any instance of real intelligence in animals is instantly regarded, even by lovers of animals, as an amusing thing, a joke;
  • If animals had intelligence they would have “propositional” language, literature, and art;
  • If animals were intelligent they would understand, and grasp universal meanings and make definitions;
  • If animals were intelligent they would change and improve their mode of action, show signs of true learning, and set up means of intellectual instruction.

The inner sense of what is desirable, whether to attain or to perform, is called instinct. It is this sense, more than any of the other senses, that manifests itself in the activities which lead the unthinking to speak of “intelligent animals.” Now there are vast and essential differences between instinct and intelligence or intellect. Instinct is organic; it depends on a sensory or organ (which is a part of the brain); intellect is inorganic or spiritual (nonmaterial). Instinctive knowledge is antecedent to experience; intellectual knowledge is acquired and presupposes experience. Instinct is fixed, not inventive; intellect is endlessly working out new things. Instinct is very limited; intellect is of seemingly boundless capacity. Instinct is changeless; intellect applies its knowledge in a multitude of ways.

The soul or life-principle of an animal is the animal’s substantial form. That is, it is the substantial reality which joins with prime matter to constitute the animal as an existing body of the essential or specific kind that it is. It is a material principle, since it depends for existence and function upon the organism, the body, which it sets in being and activates. It is a principle educed from the potentiality of matter and is accidentally generated as the animal entire comes into being; it is reduced to the potentiality of matter when the animal is corrupted or dies, and thus it is accidentally corrupted.

Some animals have an organism that may be divided, and each part will endure as a complete organism. This is less common among animals than among plants, and in what we call the higher animals (those that appear to have all the senses with which man is equipped) this multiplication by partition or fission is not verified at all. For animals in the main are of much more complex and delicately balanced structure than plants are. The normal mode of reproduction among animals is by direct birth or by birth in egg-form which undergoes subsequent development until the full animal nature of the species is realized. Of the lower animals among which multiplication by fission or partition is a fact, the life-principle is, as in plants, actually one but potentially multiple. For a worm, for example, that may be divided carefully in such a way that each part will live as a complete worm, is, to begin with, one worm; its life is one life. Thus it is actually one, and its soul or life-principle is actually one. But, inasmuch as it can be divided into two worms, it is potentially multiple, and so is its life-principle.

The senses or sentient knowing-powers which may be found in animals are classified as external and internal. All animals have at least one exterior or external sense, and this is the sense generally called touch. This is the basic sense. It is indeed the bridge over which the sensing of all the other sense must pass. For a thing is not seen unless the eye come into contact or touch with its image; a thing is not smelled unless the air carry its minute particles and bring these into contact with the olfactory nerve; a thing is not heard unless sound-waves are carried to touch upon the auditory nerve. And since the interior or internal senses depend for their findings upon the preliminary activity of the exterior senses, it may truly be said that the sense of touch is basic to all sensing. A living body that gives no evidence of having the sense of touch (which may be loosely described as a sense of resistance, temperature, stimulus, irritation) is not an animal-body, but a plant-body.

The higher animals, and man, have five exterior senses and four interior senses. The exterior senses are: touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. (Under the head of touch we include the sense of resistance, the sense of temperature, the muscular sense, the sense of pleasure, the sense of pain.) The interior senses are: sense-consciousness, imagination, sense-memory, and the estimative sense. Each of these will be discussed in brief detail in the study of sentiency in man.

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The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.