Nowadays, there is a prevailing view that human knowledge is rooted in the biological needs of our animal ancestors. However, we must emphasize that such a biological rooted ‘knowledge’ has a specificity which, perhaps, was not sufficiently questioned until now: it is embodied knowledge.
An animal, to fear something, must first recognize it as dangerous or not. When the prey flees from an attacking predator, it knows that the latter does not want to cuddle it but to kill it. We do not know what the prey thinks, or if it thinks at all. But its behavior shows that there is a recognition present, similar to how we humans recognize something.
The biological root of our knowledge could mean something more interesting. We only must try to dissociate this pre-human knowledge from consciousness to understand it better. Pre-human knowledge can be knowledge even though consciousness is not present.
If we adopt a Platonic understanding of knowledge, in which recognition of something happens because that something is a copy of the ideal Forms, then we could surmise that animals, too, have some access to the ideal realm of Forms. Due to that access, they can recognize things in their surroundings as being what they are.
Plato, it is true, considered that only humans could have access to the realm of Ideas, in that the human soul had the opportunity of seeing the Ideas while it was following God’s entourage before its birth and descending into this material world. Therefore he explained knowledge as a form of recollection.
As we remember, Plato tried to prove his theory of knowledge as anamnesis in the case of the young slave of Meno who had no previous education or understanding of geometry and who, aided by Socrates, managed to prove some geometrical properties logically.
In this case, we could say that Meno owned a certain knowledge, but he was not aware of it. But is not an ignorant and unlearned person similar to animals, while acting adequately to the stimuli and being moved only by custom or impulses – i.e., not reflecting?
Schopenhauer once distinguished between knowledge as lived experience and knowledge as representation. According to this idea, you have knowledge as representation when you practice science and know about theories and mathematical facts.
However, when you know how to ride a bike, your knowledge is a lived experience rather than a representation because you know through your body and not through your mind. Animals’ knowledge is lived experience, while they lack any knowledge as representation.
It is true that while we, humans, act through our body, such acting is accompanied by consciousness: we know what we do and that we do it. However, something kindred should be acknowledged in the case of animals, too, since many of them are capable of noticing different stimuli while performing an action triggered by another stimulus.
For example, a lion, while running after its prey, can notice a car heading toward it, and therefore, it can avoid that car or even be scared by it and run away and thus abandon its chase. This means that lions have some general continuous awareness about their environment, which is not affected by the particular action they perform at a specific moment.
Therefore, we might surmise that before our human, conscious knowledge, there was an animalist form of knowledge as lived experience. This is not completely devoid of any form of awareness since animals know when and how to react appropriately to a stimulus. Usually, they do not overreact, unless if they do not grasp the stimulus correctly.
The fact that animals react to a stimulus implies that they recognize that stimulus. They do not recognize a unique stimulus, but, like us humans, they recognize types of stimuli. They recognize, for example, their peers or animals belonging to the same species. They also can distinguish between colors or between a tree and a stone. And so forth.
That means that living beings other than humans can recognize something without knowing that they recognize it since we must assume that they lack consciousness. In their recognition, they are led not by a mental process but rather by a sort of feeling, in the same way, we ‘know’ how to keep our balance once we have learned to ride a bike.
That maintaining of balance, although attended by consciousness, is not a ‘mental’ action. It is rather similar to an instinctive action because we feel how to remain there when we mount a bike. The same happens with the upright walk. This is so natural to us that we even forget that, like riding a bike, we learned it early in childhood.
However, upright walking and riding a bike are not something unique to us but are general actions performed by most people. From this point of view, they are universals or, in Platonic terms, they are ideal Forms. We speak of ‘upright walking’ and ‘riding a bike’ as if they were something autonomous, something independent of any individual performing them.
This is exactly what a universal is. Humanness, the color red, a living being, or the law of gravity are not something you can see or touch: they exist only embodied into individual existences, like concrete humans, a concrete red surface, this barking dog, or that falling book.
We are accustomed to thinking of them as separate realities because the objects in which they are embodied are separate from us. But the living experiences of upright walking and riding a bike are not less universals than humanness, redness, gravitation and so forth.
If we are to apply the Platonic theory to this case, we must say that our lived experience is also a form of recognition similar to the recognition of a green leaf as being green and not blue. In this case, we recognize the green color as embodied in the green leaf.
Similarly, when we ride a bike, we perform the appropriate action in that situation, and while performing it, we constantly separate that act from other activities that might disturb us.
Lived experience is a type of knowledge, that is to say, a manner in which a living being is aware through his body (and not through his mind!) of a universal (a feature embodied in many other similar concrete cases) and can distinguish it from another universal.
We must thus conclude that animals are also capable of knowledge despite the fact that they lack consciousness, and that knowledge is not something specific only to the human being but a universal feature. Somehow, all living beings can ride a bike!