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Does Aristotle Really Say That Bees Are Deaf?

Daniel J. Castellano (2003)

At least since the Renaissance, humanist scholars have attributed to Aristotle the erroneous assertion that bees are deaf, following the late Scholastic interpretation of the opening passage of the Metaphysics. On this point, the Greek text appears unequivocal, as bees are mentioned as an example of animals that “can not hear sounds” (μη δυναται των ψοφων ακουειν). Yet this reading creates serious difficulties in interpreting the passage as a whole, and is awkward to reconcile with Aristotle’s opening comments on the supremacy of sight. The Metaphysics opens with the famous assertion, “All men naturally desire knowledge.” As evidence of this claim, Aristotle cites our admiration of the senses, in particular the sense of sight, for that is the sense that “best helps us to know things” (μαλιστα ποιει γνωριζειν εμασ). By nature, animals have senses, and these either do or do not give birth to memory. Though Aristotle does not here specify that all animals have sense, it is a reasonable implication.[1] At any rate, among those who do have the faculty of sensation, only in some cases does the faculty of sensation engender the higher faculty of memory. Biology, with its continuous processes of cumulative growth, provides the model for Aristotle’s metaphysical dynamics. Just as an animal embryo progressively acquires vegetative, sensitive, and higher mental faculties, so do each of these faculties organically grow out of the lesser faculties. Man’s pursuit of knowledge can be realized only through building the rational faculty from lower faculties. This organic model recognizes that the faculties of the soul, though distinct, are in a continuum.[2] Memory is akin to sensation, except that it persists longer and can be recalled later. Modern neuroscience recognizes that the human mind’s notion of the temporal present is blurred by a fraction of a second, thereby melding the interface between sensation and short-term memory. This continuity between faculties does not abolish the distinction, as evidenced by the fact that some animals, though capable of sensation, lack memory, yet others possess it.

Higher cognitive functions are practically impossible without some form of memory, thus Aristotle observes that those animals that have memory are “more intelligent and capable of learning” (φρονιμωτερα και μαθητικωτερα) than those that do not. Through memory, an animal may develop its higher faculties of practical wisdom and learning. Following the same thread of exposition, Aristotle will now distinguish these faculties, to show how the lower (practical wisdom) may exist without the higher (learning). Here we arrive at the critical statement, which appears to assert that animals that cannot hear sounds have practical wisdom, but cannot learn.

φρονιμα μεν ανευ του μανθανειν οσα μη δυναται των ψοφων ακουειν (ηοιον μελιττα καν ει τι τοιουτον αλλο γενοσ ζωιων εστι), μανθανει δ οσα προσ τηι μνημηι και ταυτην εχει την αισθησιν.

A fairly literal rendering, though awkward in English, might read:

[They have] practical wisdom, yet without learning, so far as they are not able to hear sounds (such as a bee and any other, such as this, race of animals there be); [it] learns but insofar [as it is] with the memory and has this sense.

It appears contradictory with what was stated earlier about the supremacy of vision to now attribute a special character to the sense of sound in the facilitation of learning. Yet in Sense and Sensibility, Aristotle clarifies that while sight is more valuable for acquiring truth since it can discern many more things, hearing is eminently more useful for receiving instruction from others. These are generalizations, not rigid strictures, so while deaf creatures would not be altogether incapable of learning, they would be at a greater disadvantage than the blind. As evidence, in Sense and Sensibility, Aristotle appeals to common experience that blind men are frequently more intelligent than the deaf, owing to the latter’s inability to learn. Those other animals which appear capable of communication tend to do so through sounds.

The selection of bees as an example of a deaf animal is arbitrary, and unfortunate on two grounds. The first is that bees are not truly deaf, a fact that was almost certainly suspected by Aristotle. In the Historia Animalium, he observes that eyes are the only sensory organs discernible in insects, yet he does not on this account deny they possess other senses. “The mollusc, the crustacean, and the insect have all the senses: at all events, they have sight, smell, and taste.”[3] While favoring the opinion that all these animals have hearing, Aristotle allows that there is not evidence to confirm this in all cases. This suggests he was at least of the opinion that bees can hear, though he might have considered this unproven. He was aware that it was often difficult to determine whether animals possessed sight or hearing, as in the case of fish, which he discusses at length. In the Metaphysics, however, he is not concerned with asserting a certain biological truth, but only with providing an illustration. If not completely deaf, bees are at least unresponsive to most sounds, so they do not learn through hearing and are therefore a fitting example.

Of course, as we have noted, animals can learn even without the sense of hearing, and bees are able to communicate directions to each other by elaborate dances, as modern biologists have discovered, thereby making the bee an unfortunate choice of example after all. It is unfair to expect Aristotle to have predicted this finding, even though he was aware that other senses could facilitate learning, though generally not as effectively. Thus all the higher mammals and birds communicate primarily through sound.

Ignoring the above caveat, we may treat bees as merely unresponsive to noise, if not utterly deaf. Their inability to make sense of sound makes it impossible for them to learn through sound, which is the point of the statement in the Metaphysics. It is striking that a precise thinker such as Aristotle neglects to use one of the dozens of words in Greek that mean “deaf” or “hard of hearing”, but instead chooses the more cumbersome expression “are not able to hear sounds”. Using the active voice, ακουειν can refer to the act of understanding or knowing, rather than the mere reception of sound waves. αισθησιν could then allude to the mental perception of sound, instead of the bodily function of hearing. Classical Greek does not make neat distinctions between physical sensation and neural processing of sensory stimuli, since in human experience these are not distinct phenomena. A human instantly assigns significance to what he perceives, so that raw perception and higher understanding are indistinguishable acts. The word αισθησιν at the end of our critical passage can be translated as “sense”, meaning one of the five bodily senses, or as “perception”, meaning knowledge or understanding. Thus the Greek notion of perception encompasses both bodily and mental faculties.[4] In his example of the bees, Aristotle is considering the faculty of hearing not in the sense of bodily perception, but as a type of mental perception, such as that connoted by the English word “listen”. His choice of hearing, rather than vision or touch, is arbitrary. The point is that a bodily sense such as hearing, even when coupled with memory and practical wisdom, is useless as a basis for learning if there is not a corresponding higher mental act in the comprehension of that sensory data.

We can now produce a slightly different English translation:

[They have] practical wisdom, yet [are] without learning, so far as they are not able to understand sounds (such as a bee and any other, such as this, race of animals there be); [it] learns but insofar [as it is] with the memory and has this perceptiveness.

John McMahon’s translation expresses this meaning even more forcefully by departing from a literal reading and instead writing, “unable to understand the sounds they hear”. He explicitly asserts that the hypothetical animals can hear sounds, in direct opposition to what most literal readings would give us. We remain consistent with classical Greek usage when we suggest that ακουειν here refers to a higher mental perception, not hearing in the lowest order.

I would hesitate to go to McMahon’s extreme, for by implicitly allowing that Aristotle’s stated hypothesis is that the animals in question can hear is to make the English text state the opposite of what the Greek suggests. Aristotle clearly indicates a deficiency in the sense of hearing, a faculty which, in Sense and Sensibility, he has assigned a primary role in developing the capacity of learning. As stated previously, it is through the memory that the senses may facilitate learning, yet the premise of this illustration is that the mere presence of memory and sensation is not sufficient for the capacity to learn. An additional condition is needed, which Aristotle illustrates in this example, though it gets lost in translation. My inelegant reading preserves words in their original order, reflecting the flow of thought. The first word is φρονιμα, or practical wisdom, so we are starting from the premise that the animals in question have practical wisdom. The faculty of practical wisdom can be a foundation for learning, and the example of the bees is intended to illustrate when this fails to be the case. Even if the existence of the sense of hearing were granted (as noted above, the text permits this interpretation), along with corresponding higher faculties of auditory memory and practical wisdom, this would be an insufficient basis for auditory learning if the animal does not attach any significance to the sounds. In other words, it does not understand what it hears, though we should hesitate to use the word ‘understanding’ since it can imply the faculty of conceptualization proper to a rational intellect. We speak now of a lower kind of understanding, which may be identified by the distinction between hearing and listening, where the former refers to raw sensory perception, while the latter includes an exertion of attention. Without this focus of attention, learning is impossible, a fact recognized by any teacher who knows it is his task to eliminate distractions in his pupils.

This interpretation is consistent with the natural hierarchy of faculties briefly developed in the opening passage of the Metaphysics, and is achieved merely by translating ακουειν as “listen” or “understand what they hear” instead of “hear”. Even a translation as extreme as McMahon’s is defensible; the important matter is that the substance of the opening argument of the Metaphysics is preserved. This is a hierarchy of mental faculties composed of an organic gradation from sensation to memory to practical wisdom to learning, before moving on to those faculties specific to man, who seeks truth. The exalted functions of intellect and will are outgrowths of lower functions and this dependence is evident when, as in the case of the deaf, an atrophied lower faculty stunts the development of a higher faculty. The use of biological metaphors is not merely a professional bias on the part of Aristotle, but is central to his conviction that biology is the key to explaining the metaphysical problems of motion and the unity of the cosmos. An organic continuum alone can solve the paradoxes of Parmenides and Zeno, but the explication of this truth must be deferred to another work.

Footnotes

[1] In fact, in his Historia Animalium, Aristotle affirms that an animal without sensation is impossible

[2] Many modern commentaries on Aristotle practically make him out to be a Platonist, but in his biological writings, the Philosopher confesses that biological types are invented by man only out of practical convenience. The only existences are the individuals, not the species or types. Even basic types such as “animal” or “life form” are constructs, and as evidence Aristotle mentions creatures which blur the line between plant and animal, living and non-living. Modern skepticism toward extreme essentialism is hardly original.

[3] Historia Animalium, ix, 8. To this list must be added touch, “common to all animals whatsoever”.

[4] Modern neuroscience tends to favor an integrated bodily and psychical experience, shying away from dualism. Although Cartesian or Platonic dualism may be refuted by science, there is no avoiding the fact being a body is qualitatively distinct from the act of thinking. Materialist theories of the mind mistake physical representations or media of thought for actual thought. As C.S. Sherrington observed, the mind-body problem has progressed no further than when Aristotle formulated it. The mind and body are two real, distinct principles, yet neither by itself has existence in a living intellectual animal. Only the composite has existence, not as two halves form a whole, but the psyche is the act of the body.


© 2003, 2010 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org

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