Signs of Rationality: The Nature/Human Divide in Albert the Great

According to Albert the Great (1200-1280) – and to most of the European philosophical tradition, – the distinctive sign of the human being is its rationality. The rational soul, to put it in the terms of medieval philosophy, is the specific feature of human being; rational soul is what makes humans human. Albert brings this basic intuition to one of its most poignant formulations in his famous phrase homo inquantum homo solus est intellectus, The man insofar as man, is only the intellect.

Yet, it is Albert the Great again who seems to struggle defining the exact limit between rational and sensitive soul. The sensitive soul, distinctive of animals, is in many ways analogous to the rational soul in its functions. Higher faculties of sensitive soul like phantasy and estimation execute at the level of the particular what reason does for the universal. Moreover, the sensitive soul is indispensable for the functioning of the rational one. Thus, higher animals display traits in their behavior that put them close to humans. And yet, while struggling with the graduality of the natural order in which humans are the most perfect of animals, Albert still insists on the clear divide between the realm of animal and human.

In order to showcase this tension, I will focus on the case of pygmies. A distant tribe, similar to monkeys, they can talk, compose poetry, construct imperfect syllogisms and live in an imperfect political order; yet they are defined as an animal species because of their sensitive soul.

Did Albert reflect in some way these apparent contradictions in his theory, and if not, what are the underlying assumptions that made those contradictions invisible to him and to his successors? This is the methodological question that this presentation is going to address.