How to Tell If Animals Can Understand Death

Erkenntnis 87 (1):117-136 (2019)
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Abstract

It is generally assumed that humans are the only animals who can possess a concept of death. However, the ubiquity of death in nature and the evolutionary advantages that would come with an understanding of death provide two prima facie reasons for doubting this assumption. In this paper, my intention is not to defend that animals of this or that nonhuman species possess a concept of death, but rather to examine how we could go about empirically determining whether animals can have a concept of death. In order to answer this question, I begin by sketching an account of concept possession that favours intensional classification rather than mere extensional discrimination. Further, I argue that the concept of death should be construed as neither binary nor universal. I then present a proposal for a set of minimal conditions that must be met to have a concept of death. I argue that having a minimal understanding of death entails first expecting a dead individual to be alive, and then grasping its non-functionality and irreversibility. Lastly, I lay out the sort of observational and experimental evidence that we should look for to determine whether animals have the capacity for a minimal comprehension of death.

Author's Profile

Susana Monsó
Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia

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