Humans are Not Rational Animals

Aristotle once said that human beings are ‘rational animals.’  However, like Jonathan Swift, I do not think this is precisely true, for we often act in ways that are totally irrational and a great deal of the thoughts that move across the inner landscape of our minds are utterly illogical.  Therefore, we are not inherently rational animals, but animals with a capacity for developing and exercising reason. We are, in short, potentially rational animals.

Some people say that “when I say humans are rational animals, I don’t mean that we actually are rational at every moment, but that we have the potential or power to be rational.”  To this comment, I reply that our everyday patterns of speaking in English make this way of talking somewhat misleading.  In most of our everyday speech, we use adjectives to denote actualities.  When we say “he is hungry,” we do not usually mean he has a potential for being hungry, but that he actually is hungry right now.   Thus, to say that “humans are rational animals” seems to imply that we are actually rational right now. This is often not the case. Therefore, I believe that the more accurate and less misleading in English to qualify our statement sand say that “humans are potentially rational animals.”

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