When one of my human friends comes through the front door, I like to greet them with a ritual.
Basically, the ritual involves walking in-between and all the way through the human’s legs three or four times, stopping to have my back patted on the way, and wagging my tail to tell them I’m pleased to see them. I do much the same first thing in the morning, when they come into my kitchen to make coffee.
Does performing a ritual mean I’m religious, or at least doing religion when I do this?
Perhaps an observer would say ‘no’, since there’s no evidence of belief in God here (I have no intention of telling you whether I actually believe in God).
But I think this presupposes religion is a certain kind of thing – and this is a presupposition that emerged from a very particular Protestant Christian, early modern, and colonial, context. Because of the Protestant reaction against Catholic ritual, interiority (an individual’s relationship to God) got prioritised over the more communal and practical aspects of Christianity. Because of the early modern nation states, Christian religion was relegated to the private sphere – allowed primarily as a sort of holy hobby – so that being Protestant or Catholic wouldn’t get in the way of political affiliations and relationships. And because of colonialism, this privatised, individualised and belief-centred view of Christianity was imposed on other examples of what looked like similar kinds of thing – in other words, on to other religions. And so, religions became associated with things to do with what an individual believes – someone belongs to religion x if they believe a certain set of things, usually though not always about supernatural entities.
The problem with this is that not all religions seem to be this kind of thing at all. Buddhism is often cited as example of a religion without belief in God (Buddhists are regarded as religious as they have other beliefs instead). But many religions seem to be much more about practices than beliefs. Judaism is one example of a religion that’s more like this. I’ve recently read a book by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg about his dog, where he discusses another human-and-dog ritual – one that involves a game of hide and seek and hunting for bits of food. As Rabbi Wittenberg relates, his dog Mitzpah:
‘knows when it’s Passover, the festival towards which, in accordance with the biblical injunction to eat no leavened foods, we rigorously remove all bread, biscuits, cereals, pasta and flour-based products from the house. He especially enjoys the ritual of ‘searching for the leaven’, the ancient custom of checking that the house is truly free of all proscribed products. The practice is to search the home by the light of a candle at dusk on the night before Passover for any remaining undiscovered crusts and crumbs. To ensure that the activity is taken seriously, a small bit of bread is consumed in each room prior to the search. In our family, the women generally do the hiding and the men the looking; Mitzpah, who counts among the latter, offers his team a considerable advantage since he frequently sniffs out the hidden pieces well before his humans find them.’
I like the sound of that ritual – and I want to know why doing a ritual like that should count less in terms of making one religious than having a particular set of beliefs.
The idea that non-human animals might be religious has support among some human scholars. For example, James Harrrod gives a ‘non-anthropocentric, trans-species definition of religion’, arguing that chimps experience and express things we would define as religion and spirituality if we saw them among humans – for example, celebratory actions indicative of awe, wonder or fascination when seeing sunsets, waterfalls or fires, and announcements of births and deaths.
Awe and wonder are not the only contenders for a definition of religion that would include non-human animals. As Volker Sommer points out, some groups of chimps eat ants but not termites, while other groups of chimps eat termites and not ants. Both have equal nutritional value – so why don’t both groups eat both? Perhaps eating ants (or termites) for each group is just ‘something that isn’t done here’, a bit like a food taboo in a human society. Might something like a food taboo be what it means to be religious, or to do religion?
I’ve really enjoyed talking to the human Religious Studies scholar Graham Harvey about these things, and some of the really good ideas here are his. You can find out more about them here.
I also loved Rabbi Wittenberg’s stories about his dogs, which you can find in his book Things my dog has taught me about being a better human (2017).
Sometimes, being a good-looking dog, humans say of me ‘he’s handsome’. Then they realise that I’m female, apologise, and say I’m ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’ instead.
These conversations seem to me to be examples of the human confusion between sex (having certain biological characteristics, such as being male or female) and gender (character traits that get associated with sex, such as being handsome, pretty, demure, ladylike, boisterous or brave). Gender is different to sex: it’s socially constructed rather than ‘carving nature at the joints’, and different societies might end up with different expectations to do with gender.
Gender and sex get closely related in most human societies. Human languages are often gendered – so for example in German ‘cat’ is feminine, whereas ‘dog’ is masculine – one of the reasons people often assume I’m a boy. Within some languages some words are not ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ but ‘neutral’, neither one nor the other. People refer to me as having been ‘neutered’, which actually means that I’m female but can’t have puppies. And so, I am female (sex) yet gendered as both feminine (‘pretty’) and also ‘neuter’ – a strange place to be.
I’ve been thinking about whether dogs have gender, outside of human interaction. I don’t think we do – we’re just dogs, some of whom are male and some of whom are female, which leads to differences in our behaviour – but only as far as these relate to our different reproductive systems. That said, it’s possible we do get affected, in our behaviour, by the gendered expectations of our humans. Gender is like that: even though it’s socially constructed, it’s not as easy to get away from or opt out of as one might think. And, although dogs and humans are different species, we share our lives in complex ways. Furthermore, if we dogs do have gender expectations, we might not notice that we do. It’s the sort of thing that can get embedded in our cultures and become part of our day-to-day lives, in such a way that it’s difficult to see it from the inside.
One of the human philosophers I like best on these issues is Iris Marion Young, who wrote a paper about humans called ‘Throwing Like a Girl’. What I love about it, apart from it being about throwing balls (I love throwing and catching my favourite ball), is that Young makes some previously-invisible gender expectations visible, and shows some of the ways they affect us. In ‘Throwing Like a Girl’, she talks about an earlier writer, Straus, who had argued for intrinsic character differences between boys and girls by observing that five year old boys and girls he studied have different throwing styles. While the boys would make use of all the space they had available, stretch sideways and backwards, use their entire bodies, and so throw the ball with force, the girls would remain immobile apart from their arms, make no use of the space available to them, and so release the ball without force, speed or accurate aim. Straus thought this couldn’t be a biological difference because the children were pre-pubescent, and so couldn’t be affected by the presence of things like breasts in the way that they threw. So he thought they must be character differences instead. What’s more, he thought the character differences were intrinsic (a ‘mysterious feminine essence’) rather than taught or acquired, again because of the children’s young age. So, Straus wanted to identify sexual characteristics (being male or female) with gender characteristics (throwing the ball in a ‘boyish’ or ‘more ladylike’ way).
You might think that Young would take issue with Straus’ claim that the boys and girls have different throwing styles, but she doesn’t – she agrees with him. But she disagrees with Straus about the reason why – she wants to pull sex and gender apart, and say that these differences are acquired as a result of social expectations about feminine comportment and motility. In other words, about being expected to move one’s body in a ‘ladylike’ way, and the sense that the world is not as fully one’s own to make use of the surrounding space. Drawing on Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Young says that these and other differences are due to the sense of bodily possibilities our society imposes on us.
I could tell you much more about Iris Marion Young’s article, but I’m being called for a game of ball, so I’ll just leave a link to it here.
There’s no such thing as an individual, just a pack member and her bones. So claimed a famous dog in the recent past.
Both my house and my workplace have four storeys. I think this is rather a lot – in particular, it means that in my house there’s two empty storeys between where the humans sleep and where I do. I much prefer it when we all bundle onto a sofa together. And I think they do too, even if they do claim they get trampled on from time to time.
Unlike dogs, humans often have a curious habit of seeing being separate and self-reliant as a really good thing, even when it’s not even necessary. It’s seen as a sign of strength to be self-sufficient and independent, and competitiveness is seen as a character strength. On the other hand, being reliant on others is sometimes seen as a sign of weakness – often something to be tolerated in others but not really allowed in oneself. Calling someone 'needy' is an insult, and one that is usually applied to females, who get the worst of these kinds of things. Humans often also construe people in a way that assumes this separateness is how people are – so for example they will speak of humans as ‘individuals’ – so that people aspire to self-sufficiency, without even thinking about it.
Actually, not all humans think separateness is a good thing, and the idea hasn't even always been popular. The word ‘idiot’ comes from the Greek word ‘idios’ which means ‘self’ or ‘belonging to the private world’. So somewhere along the line some people must have recognised that being a self-sufficient individual, or trying to be, is not really that a great a virtue.
One of the areas of philosophy that interests me is philosophy of emotion. Because humans tend to be individualistic, human philosophers often look at an individual's’ emotions – what it’s like for one person to be in love, or feel angry, or be jealous. But some philosophy also looks at collective emotion. What’s the difference between an emotion when it’s felt by several people, rather than merely one person? And mightn’t this actually happen rather a lot? Perhaps the emotion feels different if it’s shared – for example, the feeling of grief may be different if it’s not just felt by one person, but shared by a couple, or close family members, or a close-knit community of friends. And that different feeling wouldn’t be just an ‘add-on’ to individual feelings of grief: it would make the grief totally different in the way it feels, through and through. This might be a kind of ‘off-loading’: in the context of grief, the mourners might share the work of grieving with trusted others.
I’ve been very influenced by the work of Joel Krueger on collective emotion (being a human, I’m not sure whether he shares my dislike of individualism). You can find out more about Joel’s philosophy here.
I’m a fan of collective emotion, and also of critiquing individualism (see my earlier post on the human Marx), at certain times - like when it comes to piling on to a sofa with lots of people to watch an emotional film together. All of that said, I’m quite an individualist when it comes to bones.
For Katie and Rachel
A few weeks ago, I was at the outdoor market in my home town, helping my humans buy some cheese. At one point, I managed to steal some cheese – and ran off down the street being chased by three humans! Thankfully they didn’t catch me in time.
Unfortunately there’s no photo, because my humans were too busy trying to catch me.
Later, I told them that I hadn’t eaten the cheese. Outrageously, they didn’t believe me! I’ve been reading a human philosopher called Miranda Fricker, and I think this might be an example of what she calls ‘testimonial injustice’. Testimonial injustice is when someone isn’t believed because of the ‘kind’ of person they are. So I wasn’t believed because I’m a dog, and, much more seriously, especially at various points in history and in certain places today a black person might not be believed by the police because they’re black, or (as biblical texts have often been interpreted as saying) a woman’s testimony might carry less weight than a man’s.
Fricker talks about another kind of injustice we often don’t think enough about too: hermeneutic injustice. If a woman is sexually harassed but the culture doesn’t have the concept of sexual harassment, then that’s a kind of hermeneutic injustice: the woman can’t explain why she’s feeling so upset or is so damaged by being ‘flirted’ with at work, and everyone just thinks she’s overreacting or puts it down to women being ‘highly strung’ or emotional.
You can read more about Fricker’s ideas here.
That’s a really bad case, but I think different species, such as dogs and humans, must experience hermeneutic injustices quite a lot of the time. Humans lack concepts relating to dog behaviour, and vice versa, so sometimes we think the other person is behaving badly when they’re not. A dog might be behaving like a perfect dog – in fact, they might be behaving in the best possible dog way by stealing and eating some food – but because humans lack understanding of canine ethics and what it means to flourish as a dog, they think the dog is being a ‘bad’.
Speaking of which, I did eat the cheese, but that’s not really the point.
Sometimes, when I do certain things, such as sit down and offer a human my paw, I get told I’m a ‘good dog’. And other times, when I do other things – like here, where I’m chewing a tasty slipper - I get told I’m a ‘bad dog’.
What do ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean? They get used in lots of different contexts: the weather’s good when it’s sunny and bad when it rains; an artist or an athlete or a novelist can be good if they paint or run or write things in a skilful way; an action may be called ‘good’ if it’s moral and ‘bad’ if it’s immoral or unethical instead.
Calling me ‘good’ when I give my paw but ‘bad’ when I eat a slipper seems to be an example of the ‘moral’ meaning of ‘good’ and ‘bad’: I’m being praised for one and blamed or told off for the other, which seems like a moral kind of thing. But what do people actually mean when they say someone is being (morally) good or (morally) bad? And what makes something morally good or morally bad?
My humans seem to call me ‘good’ when I do something they want me to, and ‘bad’ when I don’t. This made me attracted to what human philosophers call ‘expressivism’ – the idea that when we use moral language like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ we are only expressing our likes and dislikes. ‘Good’ means ‘hurray!’ and ‘bad’ means ‘boo!’, and that’s the end of the matter. That’s quite different from how other people think of moral language – for example, some people think that if we say ‘stealing bones is wrong’, we’re expressing a belief rather than a dislike, and that that belief might be just as true or false as ‘there’s a jam sandwich on the table’, even if it’s more difficult to tell whether it’s true or not, because we can’t just eat it to find out.
I’ve been wondering whether expressivism is true of all moral language though, and I’m not convinced it is. That’s partly because it makes sense with statements like ‘stealing bones is wrong’, but it doesn’t make sense with some other sentences, such as ‘it is true that stealing bones is wrong’ or ‘Murphy believes that stealing bones is wrong’ or ‘Is stealing bones wrong?’. So, if expressivists think humans who use moral language are being expressivists when they use it, that doesn’t make sense of the way humans speak at least some of the time. So I think I might be an expressivist in relation to being called a ‘good dog’ for sitting when told or a ‘bad dog’ for chewing a slipper – but I’m not convinced I want to be an expressivist about everything.
You can read more about expressivism and that sort of thing here.
I love my humans, but sometimes I get a bit annoyed that they have more things than me. Just now the male one was chopping tomatoes. He gave me one tomato, and all the others - there were more than I could count on my paws - are going to be eaten by the humans. Then look at when we go out for walks:
He has a nice warm coat, thick walking trousers and hiking boots, and I only have my little coat. He says that this is OK because I have fur and he doesn't, but I think that's just an excuse.
The thing that really gets me is this blog. I put in all the hard work, and the humans get the credit. They get lots of likes on their Facebook pages. The other day I heard them talking about something called 'impact', which sounds important. I don't think that it has anything to do with me getting more biscuits though.
Interestingly the human philosopher Marx thought not only do humans exploit dogs (actually he didn't say anything about that, although he did at one point say that in a better society "the beasts too will be free") but that in the current type of human society, called capitalism, humans exploit other humans. It is only by working that humans can add value to things. But by getting other people to work for them, and paying them less than the value of what they produce, a small number of humans can profit at the expense of others. You can find out about this here.
Most humans have to work for others. This means that they - probably you, reading this - are just like me, slaving away at this blog, only for the credit to go to my humans. It's a dog's life.
Here's me having just chased some ducks along the canal in Saltaire:
Looks fun, doesn’t it? Fun for me, anyway. I’m not so sure about the ducks: they swim away quacking, so maybe they don’t like it as much. Sometimes one of my humans worries about this. One day she mentioned this worry to another dog-walker, who said, ‘It’s not like it’s doing the ducks any real harm, it doesn’t physically hurt them’ and they both agreed. But I wonder if this is the wrong way of looking at things. Why doesn’t it ‘physically’ hurt the ducks if it makes them frightened? The fear involves (physical) adrenaline and causes them (physically) to fly away.
I think part of the problem here is that humans tend to separate everything into ‘mental’ and ‘physical’. The human philosopher Rene Descartes argued reality is actually like this. Although my humans say they don’t believe this, one of them has a shower gel bottle that says that it’s ‘good for your body and mind’, and the other one said of me ‘she has the body of an adult dog but the mind of a puppy’.
I’ve been thinking about how wrong-headed that separation between mind and body is. When I think about bones (which is supposedly ‘mental’), physical things happen in my brain. If I hurt my paw (which gets classed as ‘physical’), I definitely experience suffering or mental displeasure as part and parcel of the pain. So the mental and physical can’t be that separate.
I’ve recently been doing some research into what gets called ‘embodied cognition’, which is influenced by the human philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Among other things, it suggests that actually we develop the kind of intelligence we develop precisely because of the sorts of bodies we have. If I had opposable thumbs but couldn’t run very fast or smell very well, would I think more like you humans? I think it’s telling that our metaphors often seem to reflect our bodily engagement with the world – so people will often talk about ‘growing apart’ from a friend, or ‘getting side-tracked’ from a task.
You can read more about embodied cognition here.
I like humans but they are strange. One of the strange things humans do is take pictures of me. The male human does funny things with these photos using things called 'filters'. Sometimes this makes everything look black and white, like this:
I do not mind this, because I think that black and white are the best colours.
But thinking about this I started wondering: what if a very clever puppy grew up in a house where everything was black and white, like in the human photos? This puppy is so clever that it learns all the facts about other colours (for example red, the colour of one of my coats). It comes to know about light, and about how dogs' eyes receive light and how dogs' brains process the information they get from the eyes.
One day this very clever puppy is allowed out of the house. It is a lucky puppy because the first thing it sees is me walking down the street in my nice red coat. Remember that the puppy knows all the facts about the colour red, but this is the first time the puppy has seen the colour. I asked myself, does the puppy learn something new?
I enjoyed thinking about this, although I was annoyed when I learned that a human philosopher had stolen my idea.
Mental walkies with Lola,