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J R Soc Med. 2005 August; 98(8): 383–384.
PMCID: PMC1181849

The Knowing Animal: a Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth

Reviewed by James Fox

Raymond Tallis
330 pp Price £19.99 ISBN 1-7486-1953-4 (p/b)
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

What is it to be human? Raymond Tallis's The Knowing Animal, the third instalment of his 'Handkind' trilogy, seeks an answer by setting up a counterpoint between what he sees as two distinct categories—animals that are merely sentient, and 'knowing' animals (us). What follows is an account of knowledge as a form of awareness unique to human beings, an attempt to 'liberate mankind from a religious self interpretation without passing straight into a stunted scientistic account', a new description of what we are and how we have come about.

For Tallis, the wellspring of knowledge, the dividing line between the world of sentient animals and knowing animals, is the existential intuition, confined to human beings, 'that I am [this]'. The origins of this intuition, bound to the capabilities of the opposable thumb (hence, handkind), are discussed in the first two books of the trilogy, but at its core lies the development of an awareness of the self as a thing (self-consciousness) with an ability to act upon and change the world around it (agency). With this awareness comes a sense of perspective, as we go beyond direct experience (for this is the sentience that all animals share) and become aware that 'I' am having an experience from a certain viewpoint (my own). From this awareness comes knowledge—the understanding 'that X is the case', a description of a fixed relationship between a knowing animal, or conscious subject, and an object or idea. As objects of knowledge suggest possibilities that lie beyond direct experience, abstract knowledge is born—for example, that 'if I do Y, X will be the case'. Using these terms Tallis builds a picture of what it is to know and the way in which, as he puts it, 'the creature that experiences its body as being both itself and not itself, and so discovers its toes in a way that no other animal discovers part of the organism it is, extends its enquiries in to infinite space and eventually discovers Alpha Centauri'. He then goes on to explore some of the implications of what it is to know in this way to be thus separated from the world of direct experience.

The Knowing Animal is driven by a sense of wonder at humanity. Whilst full-time philosophers are often interested in being clever, right, or important, Tallis (essentially a physician) is motivated by the defence of his subject—people. When I took this book to the philosophy group at my local pub they immediately began to mutter about logical inconsistencies and disrespectful treatment of their personal favourites; also, some of them even moaned about the cover. They reckoned that Tallis the 'amateur' would fare poorly under rigorous philosophical questioning by the group, after the standard dose of two pints of Tetley's; and it is true that certain arguments that might undermine his central thesis are left unexplored. But my friends were missing the point: on the subject of humanity Tallis is far from being an amateur. For he has spent a professional lifetime in medicine; and the insight or intuitive understanding that this has brought about enables him to reject the alternative explications of humanity offered, for example, by darwinists or marxists or the great religions. The critics do have some cause for complaint: The Knowing Animal is subtitled an 'inquiry into knowledge and truth' but it sometimes feels closer to a proof of something of which the author was already certain. Nonetheless, this work ought to become part of the humanist canon; with his swingeing attacks on both scientism and superstition, Tallis has proved himself a doughty spokesman for handkind.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press