Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





John Greenwood

Committee Members

Philip Kitcher

Catherine Wilson

Peter Godfrey-Smith

Subject Categories

Philosophy | Philosophy of Mind


animal minds, human exceptionalism, human uniqueness, anthropocentrism, logical problem


Contemporary philosophers and scientists remain largely resistant to attributing humanlike capacities to non-human animals, particularly great apes, for reasons that are not based on compelling empirical or theoretical grounds. Mental faculties such as reason, agency, and theory of mind are widely seen as differing in kind from functionally analogous abilities in other extant species. This dissertation appraises the current state of the animal minds literature by means of a critical genealogy charting the development of skepticism about animal cognition throughout the history of philosophy. In doing so, this project addresses the sedimentation of epistemic, linguistic, ontological, and methodological impasses that continue to shape debates over human uniqueness and limit comparative discussions of human and animal cognition.

Since antiquity, discourse about animal minds has broadly followed two traditions, both of which are representative of positions in the recent philosophical and scientific literature. The dominant path has been to defend fundamental discontinuities between the human mind and the rest of the animal kingdom. I show how this tradition is bound up with common patterns of argumentation and evasive rhetoric that prejudge debates in comparative cognition in favor of discontinuity. Representative figures range from Aristotle, Descartes, and Wallace to modern primatologists such as Daniel Povinelli and Michael Tomasello. This tradition, I argue, is largely defined by the tenacity and adaptability of “exceptionalism claims,” i.e., claims evoking a cognitive hierarchy in the animal kingdom. It has also been historically preoccupied with so-called “logical problems” suggesting, for example, that decades of experimental research on mindreading in chimpanzees cannot provide evidence for this ability even in principle. Revealing this problem’s underlying ontological, epistemic, and procedural assumptions explains why this tradition repeatedly fails to solve the problems it poses for itself, e.g., does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?

In addition to this unhealthy skepticism, I show how the dominant tradition relies on a problematic form of rhetoric whereby animals are said to act “as if” possessing X (a presumably uniquely human faculty) but lack “genuine,” “true,” or “real” X, where X is defined at the highest level of human ability. This has long been, and remains, a common strategy used by discontinuity theorists in reaction to evidence of boundary-threatening abilities in animals. This rhetoric has tacitly encouraged antiquated “all or nothing” accounts of human mental faculties that have no place in the contemporary literature.

The critical genealogy this dissertation develops is dialectical. The claims of the dominant tradition are continuously challenged by voices from within a marginalized tradition that take seriously the possibility of cognitive explanations of animal behavior. In illuminating this alternative tradition, my project brings together thinkers as diverse as Plutarch, Lucretius, Montaigne, La Mettrie, Hume, Darwin, Margaret Washburn and Kristin Andrews, who articulate and defend naturalistic approaches to cognition that do not presuppose a cognitive hierarchy with human abilities situated at the top. This tradition has been particularly sensitive to anthropocentric double standards in denying mental capacities to animals, and is home to the original defenders of “minimal” accounts of rationality. This project selectively draws from this marginalized tradition to promote a healthy skepticism toward animal cognition, culminating in a chapter undercutting the force of modern discontinuity arguments regarding the socio-cognitive capacities of humans and chimpanzees.