I've been busy recently (there are so many good walks near where I live, and the smells are good at this time of year). But some, um, feline acquaintances of mine offered to write a post for my blog. So here it is.
Fritz: Today we’re going to discuss feline distinctiveness, by which we mean in particular, the distinction between cats and animals.
Erwin: Non-feline animals.
Fritz: If you insist.
Erwin: I think it’s important to keep reminding ourselves that we are animals too. We’re trying to challenge gatocentricism here.
Fritz: You are. I still think it’s important to hang on to a sense of the distinction between cats and – other animals, if you like. Otherwise centuries of feline thought and practice will cease to make sense.
Erwin: Well, I disagree. But I know that my questioning of the cat-animal boundary sometimes bothers you.
Fritz: You wash humans.
Erwin: I acknowledge humans as fellow creatures and I accord them the basic respect of washing. It’s become increasingly clear to me that all the special qualities we used to attribute to cats are present, in some way, in many other animals. I don’t think we can maintain that strong distinction any more. Take reposefulness, for example, which is traditionally seen as a feline distinctive, and which I know you’re particularly attached to.
Fritz: I am as it happens. It’s an important part of my spiritual life. And I do think repose is at the heart of what makes us feline. It’s a core characteristic of cats. As far as we know, cats in all geographical and cultural contexts attain repose. As kittens develop, we watch them grow into reposefulness. Cats are most truly feline when they are in repose.
Erwin: Well, some of that you might be able to find evidence for, and some of it’s mere assertion – I know you will say, common sense.
Fritz: Theology as well. In repose we are united with ‘the ineffable effable / effanineffable / deep and inscrutable singular NAME’.1 It’s very deep in feline tradition, you have to acknowledge that.
Erwin: But that doesn’t change the fact that we can see something like reposefulness in at least some other animals.
Fritz: Not in most animals. I mean, mice, birds, dogs…
Erwin: Well indeed, though to be fair the conditions under which cats observe them might have something to do with that. But humans. I’d argue that humans appear to experience reposefulness. For example when they sit in armchairs and look at books or screens. Some cats report quite impressive success in training humans to be reposeful, under certain conditions.
Fritz: But it’s secondary, derivative reposefulness. Nobody’s saying that feline distinctiveness means we are nothing like animals. But you can’t possibly argue that the human sitting in a chair staring at a screen is just the same as a reposeful cat.
Erwin: Now, this is the problem I always have with you feline-distinctiveness cats. False dichotomies. Straw cats, even. Of course I’m not saying that humans are just the same as cats. I’m saying that this dividing line between cats and other animals, in which you seem to have so much invested, is much fuzzier than you think. If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you wanted to keep that dividing line in place so that you could continue exploiting humans and other animals for your own ends. I mean, you mentioned kittens; now if you compare a well-domesticated adult human and a young kitten, can you reasonably claim that the kitten is more reposeful than the human? And yet presumably you would want to say that the kitten is truly feline…
Fritz: Well of course. The kitten has the inherent potential to become reposeful. It is naturally oriented to reposefulness. I really don’t think that argument’s going to work for you. But I admit I have my doubts about reposefulness as the key marker of feline distinctiveness. It doesn’t seem to me to say enough about our distinctive feline embodiment. I’m interested in some recent research…
Erwin: You’re keeping up with the research? You’re not as reposeful as I thought.
Fritz:…that focuses on cats’ distinctive embodied relationship with our environment – our in-place-ness, the way we instantaneously perceive and orient ourselves to a space. It’s even linked to something as basic, as obviously distinctively feline, as upsidedness2 – I mean I assume even you wouldn’t deny that upsidedness is a feline distinctive…
Erwin: I’m assuming you include large wild felines? Although I don’t think anyone has tried dropping a lion from a height of several metres.
Fritz: I’m happy to take “feline” broadly for this purpose, though I know that’s a matter for debate. Upsidedness, anyway – that’s an ordinary everyday physical characteristic of cats – but you could argue that it’s one of the features that shapes our distinctive way of knowing and relating to the world. We fall on our feet, so we are always already instantly oriented in our surroundings…and that is the root of our special feline in-place-ness that sets us apart from animals that habitually fall out of place.
Erwin: It’s an interesting idea. But I’m still worried about the underlying gatocentric assumptions of the whole project. Why are we, or why are you, so concerned about the feline distinctives? I mean, suppose that humans could have this discussion, they’d presumably be talking about human distinctives and how they made humans obviously special and how wonderful it was that humans had evolved them…
Fritz: Human distinctives like what?
Erwin: Like, I don’t know, opening packets of cat food. It doesn’t matter. My point is, all animals have evolved distinctive features that might be seen as perfections. Possibly even as reflections of the Ineffable Effable, if you want to put it that way. Why spend so much time thinking about the feline ones? Unless, as I said, our real aim is to justify continuing to exploit humans and other nonfeline animals.
Fritz: You do realise that you’re never going to persuade me to start washing humans? But I’ll go as far as to agree to put this dialogue on a dog’s philosophy blog. And you have to admit that that’s a big gesture.
Mental walkies with Lola,