Persons as Animals: Understanding the Animal Bases of Agency, Perceptual Knowledge and Thought

Partners and collaborators

Chester Zoo

Chester Zoo chimp.

Postgraduate students

Lea Salje


This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, under its Fellowship (now Leadership Fellows) scheme. The project was begun in February 2015 and will run for 18 months, until July 2016. The Fellowship is held by Professor Helen Steward; Lea Salje is also working on the project as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. A collaboration with Chester Zoo is involved. The research done under the auspices of the scheme aims to consider three traditional philosophical problems from a perspective which highlights the continuities between human beings and animals, and seeks innovative solutions to those problems, aided by this unorthodox perspective. The research thus falls under three strands:

(i)    Free will and Agency;

(ii)    Perceptual Knowledge;

(iii)    Meaning, Concepts and Cognition.

In each of these areas, the project will seek to shed light on traditional philosophical issues by adopting an approach which emphasises the animality of human persons.

For further details of the project please contact Helen Steward at

Chester Zoo

Chester Zoo is an internationally-renowned conservation organisation, and is the most visited zoo in the UK. In 2014, It was voted as the best zoo in the UK, and the 6th best in the world by TripAdvisor.

Its new ‘Islands’ project is the biggest ever zoo development in Europe. It involves experimentation with the use of an immersive environment, where zoo visitors can wander amongst animals and plants distinctive of the south-east Asian islands whose wildlife it hopes to showcase.

The hope is that this non-traditional way of experiencing zoo animals might encourage ways of thinking which this project also hopes to foster – ways of thinking according to which the human species is regarded simply as one amongst many, part of the rich biodiversity of life on earth, rather than a species set apart from the others – unique though we undoubtedly are. The Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Professor Steward will work with the Zoo both to assess the effectiveness of, and to further, the aims of the Islands project in promoting this agenda. 


Human beings are animals. But what does this mean for our understanding of ourselves? What are the crucial capacities distinctive of animal life? – and how should the fact that these capacities are indeed the capacities of whole, integrated animals(rather than, e.g. of disembodied minds, or of brains) contribute to our understanding of them? Dualism and mechanism have vied, since the seventeenth century, for domination of our philosophical world view – but neither makes a proper place in its metaphysics for the integrated and essentially biological object that is a functioning animal. More broadly, it is of course widely acknowledged in contemporary culture that we have an animal nature, but our animality continues to be thought of either as something which is essentially relevant only for understanding basic ‘bodily’ desires, such as those for food, sex, etc. - or else through the lens of sociobiology, as something which might shed light on such things as relationships of dominance and subordination; sociability; mating behaviour; rituals, etc., but which is not thought of as essentially relevant for understanding the most distinctively human of our powers, such as language, rationality and free will.

This project aims to challenge these limited conceptions of the relevance of our animality to questions about our humanity. In recent years, research has emerged in a number of different areas which suggests that we will not properly understand a range of capacities traditionally thought of as ‘higher’, unless we see them as distinctively human versions of more widely shared animal capacities. This research promises to provide radical new approaches to some very traditional philosophical questions – amongst them, the free will problem, external world scepticism, and questions about meaning in the philosophy of mind and language. 


Persons as Animals: Understanding the Animal Bases of Agency, Perceptual Knowledge and Thought.
Weetwood Hall, Leeds, 6 - 7 July 2016

Morgan’s Canon: Animal Psychology in the 20th Century and Beyond: Oxford Philosophical Concepts: Animals Workshop.
Kings College, London, March 7 2015.

What is Determinism?’: Real Possibilities, Indeterminism and Free Will conference
University of Konstanz, 19 March 2015. 

Conceptions of Free Will: the Mental, the Mechanical and the Animal: Prof. Steward’s Inaugural Lecture
Nathan Bodington Chamber, University of Leeds, 16 April 2015.

Touching Experiences: The Ontology of Conscious Experience’ workshop
University of Leeds, 8 - 9 July 2015.

What is a Continuant?: Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association
University of Warwick, 10 -12 July 2015.

Joint Symposium
Bryn Mawr and Haverford College, 1 -2 October 2015.

Publications and outputs

Shaun Gallagher: (University of Memphis): Social Interactions in Non-Human and Human Animals

Traditional questions about social cognition in non-human animals (especially chimps) have focused on false belief tests and the question of whether chimpanzees can mindread.  At the same time some theorists have argued that our social relations make us uniquely human or constitute the uniquely human self. In measuring social relations on standards of intellectualist descriptions of mindreading and false beliefs, many researchers argue for a strict division between non-human and human animals.  Reconceptualizing social relations in terms of embodied and enactive intersubjective interactions, however, suggests continuity rather than division.

Naomi Eilan: (University of Warwick): On Being with Other Animals

The question I will be exploring is the following. What can we learn about ourselves as animals, and about similarities and differences between ourselves and other animals, by looking at our capacity for various forms of non-verbal communication with other animals? One underlying theoretical issue concerns the notion(s) of communication we should be appealing to when exploring such questions. In beginning to address it, comparisons will be drawn with the concepts we need to appeal to in explaining various forms of pre-verbal communication between human adults and infants. 

Ali Boyle (University of Cambridge): Mapping the Minds of Others

Mindreading, or theory of mind, is the capacity to attribute mental states to others, in order to predict, manipulate or explain behaviour. It has been suggested that infants and animals may be ‘minimal’ mindreaders, or have a ‘minimal’ theory of mind – because, whilst they seem to have some understanding of the minds of others, this understanding is limited by comparison with the ‘full-blown’ mindreading of adult humans. But what is it for a theory of mind to be minimal? One prominent answer to this question is that a minimal theory of mind differs in content from a full-blown theory: it employs simple concepts as surrogates for the complex concepts of common-sense psychology.  I present some problems for this approach, and argue for an alternative conception of minimal mindreading, according to which it differs from full-blown mindreading not in terms of representational richness, but in terms of representational format. Specifically, I argue that minimal mindreaders use a map-like format to represent the minds of others.

Denis Buehler (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México): Guidance of Visual Attention: Animal Origins of Human Agency

You act when you scrutinize a street scene by guiding your visual attention across the scene. When a bright flash captures your visual attention you do not act. Harry Frankfurt once said that explicating the difference between such guided, active and non-guided, passive episodes constitutes the deepest challenge in action theory.

Unsuccessful explications of guidance in the past relied on armchair reflection. I focus on psychological research on shifts of visual attention to explicate individuals’ guidance. I argue that

(i)   The primary realizer of an individual’s guidance of her visual attention shifts is her central executive system’s control of these shifts (if this individual has a psychology sufficiently similar to that of actual primates).

(ii)   Empirical psychology provides extensive evidence that actual primates have a central executive system that unifies, coordinates, and integrates psychological states and processes. In particular, this system realizes individuals’ goal-directed activities.

In the first part of my paper I scrutinize what empirical psychology tells us about different factors that influence shifts of visual attention. I argue that the only factor that plausibly does correlate with such active, guided shifts is the control that the central executive system exercises over the processing of concomitant sub-systems involved in shifting attention. The second part of my paper argues that central executive control deepens our understanding of individuals’ guidance. This fact makes central executive control a ‘primary’ realizer of guidance. My proposal deepens our understanding of guidance by providing a scientific precisification of the concept.

Rory Madden (University College, London): Animal Self-Awareness

I identify two ways in which it has been argued that the nature of self-awareness supports the view that we human persons are animals.   I raise problems for both of these arguments, and outline an alternative argument.

Filip Mattens (University of Leuven): Touchy Animals: From the Skin We’re in to Human Dexterity

Even though many philosophers throughout history have explicitly recognized that the sense of touch is somehow fundamental and even necessary to all sentient beings, philosophical descriptions of tactual perception are often characterized by an anthropocentric bias: what philosophers seem to expect from the sense of touch is usually human through and through because they select and conform their central illustrations to existing epistemological problems while neglecting that the tactual skills involved in such examples require human bodies. In this talk, I will start from the most basic features of the sense of touch, the ones common to all higher animals, briefly reconsider its evolutionary history, and invoke a number of examples from the animal kingdom. This will enable me to develop a more coherent picture of ‘the sense of touch’ and explain how our ability to feel sustains human dexterity. 

Andrew Moss (Chester Zoo): The Human Value of the Zoo: What do people get from being close to Zoo Animals?

There is clearly something about zoos that draws people to them. Recent studies suggest that over 700 million visits are made to zoos around the world each year. This is an incredible number. One would reasonably assume that one of the main drivers for people to visit zoos would be, simply, to see animals. In the last decades, zoos have reinvented themselves as organisations committed to the conservation of the world’s biodiversity. They attempt to do this using a combination of in-the-field conservation, conservation science and, arguably most important, conservation education in the zoo itself. Education at zoos aims to be so influential that not only visitor knowledge and attitudes are affected, but also their behaviours. Specifically, the uptake of pro-conservation behaviours such as recycling, wildlife gardening or ethical shopping decisions into visitors’ daily lives. But what are the impacts on visitors of a visit to the zoo? Are people educated? Do they change their behaviour? What, if anything, do people get from being close to zoo animals, and can it be beneficial to their long-term conservation? Here, I will discuss what empirical evidence there is to help us answer these questions, as well as the recent findings from a global study of zoo visitors. and can it benefit their long-term conservation? 

Matthew Ratcliffe (University of Vienna): Animal Certainty

In On Certainty, Wittgenstein refers to "something that lies beyond being justified or unjustified"; "something animal". In my talk, I will first distinguish animal certainty from other kinds of certainty that are addressed in the text. Then I will offer an account of what it consists of, according to which a habitual, bodily sense of confident anticipation is presupposed by the intelligibility of belief and other kinds of intentional state. In so doing, I will also consider certain kinds of disturbance that this ordinarily presupposed confidence is susceptible to.

Léa Salje (University of Leeds): Talking Our Way to Systematicity

Do we think in sentences? One reason to think that we do – and that many non-human animals do not –  is that we, and not they, are linguistic creatures. We can express our thoughts in natural language: a fully systematic system of representation in which there is no in-principle limitation on possible recombinations of constituent words into novel syntactically well-formed sentences. This status as complex language-users, an argument might go, requires our underlying thoughts to be likewise fully systematic. And insofar as we take full systematicity to be a sufficient condition on language-like systems, this secures the claim that our thoughts are language-like – that we do think in sentences, or at least in sentence-like structures. This threatens to open up a vast gap between what our thought is like, and what it is like for non-linguistic animals.

The argument just given relies on a key bridging principle to take us from the full systematicity of language to the full systematicity of thought. The aim of this talk is to explore a number of forms this bridging principle might take. This turns out to be harder than it seems. In other domains we are familiar with the idea that artificial representational systems of our own creation can have powers far exceeding our own – computational powers, for instance, or the capacity for information storage. In this talk I suggest that we should be tentative about crediting our own minds with the kind of representational omnipotence associated with full systematicity on the strength of the representational omnipotence of language.

Helen Steward (University of Leeds): Dis-contented Animals

What is ‘content’? And what is it for a mind to be such as to traffic in it? Computational models of cognition, Fregean conceptions of thought, truth-(and hence proposition-) focused ideas about meaning; and anti-foundationalist conceptions of epistemology, have all played their part in establishing the widespread idea that minds are intrinsically such as to be contentful. In this talk, I shall examine recent arguments put forward by Dan Hutto and Erik Myin for the claim that many indisputably mental capacities of animals, including many quite sophisticated human ones, can be fully understood without any invocation of the notion of content; and consider them in the context of the opposing view, recently forcefully argued for by Tyler Burge, that having a real psychology (as opposed to some other form of animal sensitivity) requires the possession of distinctively representational states.

Professor Helen Steward

Steward, H. (2014). Précis of A Metaphysics for Freedom and Responses to Randolph Clarke, John Bishop and Helen Beebee, Res Philosophica 91(3), 513-18 and 547-57.

Steward, H. (2013). Responses, Inquiry 56, 681-706. (This contains the author’s responses to the comments of eight authors on A Metaphysics for Freedom, to which a special issue of Inquiry was dedicated).

Steward, H. (2012). A Metaphysics for Freedom (Oxford: OUP) (available via Oxford Scholarship Online).

Steward, H. (2012). Actions as Processes, Philosophical Perspectives, 26 (1), 373-88.

Steward, H. (2009). ‘Animal Agency’, Inquiry 52, 217-31.

All papers can be read at

Andrew Moss (Chester Zoo)

Esson, M., & Moss, A. (2013). The risk of delivering disturbing messages to zoo family audiences. Journal of Environmental Education, 44(2), 79-96.

Moss, A., & Esson, M. (2013). The educational claims of zoos: Where do we go from here? Zoo Biology, 32(1), 13-18.

Moss, A., Jensen, E., & Gusset, M. (2014). Conservation: Zoo visits boost biodiversity literacy. Nature, 508(7495), 186.

Moss, A., Jensen, E., & Gusset, M. (2015). Evaluating the contribution of zoos and aquariums to Aichi Biodiversity Target 1. Conservation Biology, 29(2), 537-544.

Moss, A., Jensen, E., & Gusset, M. (2015). Probing the link between biodiversity-related knowledge and pro-conservation behaviour. Scientific Reports, Under review.

Related links

Listen to an interview with Helen Steward about her book, A Metaphysics for Freedom

Watch Helen Steward's Inaugural Lecture.

See an animated conversation between Helen Steward and Rita Marcolo here:

This animated conversation was created by Lucy Barker for the Instant Dissidence project A Dancer's Guide to the Galaxy. Supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, with additional support by Leeds Beckett University). 

Research groups at the University of Leeds who we are associated or share interests:

Centre for History and Philosophy of Science

Centre for Metaphysics and Mind

Chester Zoo

Islands Project