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.
Although I'm a professor of dogic, I've not had much to say about it so far on this blog. This is partly because I've been busy helping the humans with their strike, and partly because I've been pre-occupied chasing squirrels.
Now that the leaves are returning to the trees, the squirrels are finding it easier to hide, so I have more time to think about my subject. Here I am being thoughtful:
I've been thinking about one of my favourite arguments:
But there's a problem. Imagine a sceptical cat came along (cats tend to be sceptical). The cat says to you "how do you know that it's time for your dinner?" I go through my argument using modus ponens. But the cat says, "fine: but how do you know that the conclusion is true if the premises are true?" I woof that modus ponens is valid. "But how do you know that?" I insist that if the premises are true the conclusion must be true, and that if this holds that form of argument is valid. This does hold, so the form of argument is valid.
"Aha", says the cat, "you've used modus ponens to justify modus ponens: if the conclusion is true when the premises are the argument is valid; the conclusion is true when the premises are, so the argument is valid. But I wanted to know whether modus ponens is an OK form of argument to use, so your justification does nothing to persuade me."
Lewis Carroll, who wrote the Alice books, once told a story about a tortoise which is quite similar to mine about the cat. You can read it here. Myself, I don't think I can answer the cat, and I don't think that I need to. Using modus ponens to reason is just part of what it is to follow the rules for using the word 'if', accepting modus ponens goes hand in hand with understanding 'if'. And as I've said before, I don't think we need to provide a philosophical account of rule-following, for cats or for anything else.
One of my humans works as an equality and inclusion co-ordinator. She says that my blog is neither equal nor inclusive because I don't say much about non-humans. I think this is unfair. I say a lot about squirrels, ducks, and human philosophers. She says yes, but I talk about them, I don't allow them to speak for themselves. The male human is a bit of a lefty and says that I have a typical liberal colonialist attitude. I don't know what this is, but I don't think that I can eat it.
Anyway, they want me to put things right by hosting a guest post by some cats. Cats! This post is by Fritz and Erwin and has been sent across by Rachel.
We are Erwin and Fritz. We are a bonded feline pair, which is not quite the same as an entangled pair, but does mean that we’re not always sure where one of us ends and the other begins. Our humans reckon Erwin does most of the thinking, but it’s possible that they don’t understand how the connection between us works. Like one of our humans, we know a lot about quantum physics – in fact, we have two famous physicists named after us (Erwin and Fritz) – but that’s off topic for this blog.
Anyway, our physicist human doesn’t appreciate feline company while he works, so we spend more time with a theologian. We appreciate her company, and she seems to appreciate ours. She chases the things that she’s interested in (which appear to include footnotes, meanings and arguments); and we chase the things we’re interested in. There’s an old poem about this kind of feline-human working relationship, called ‘Pangur Ban’.
We like this poem because it points out something humans often seem to forget: that not every problem, or prey, matters equally to everybody. And it’s often interesting to ask why this particular problem (or prey) matters now, and to whom it matters.
It’s obvious to us that it’s really important to find, catch and destroy our toy mice. And real mice too, of course. Our humans seem to think our pursuit of toy mice (as well as moths, leaves, shadows, curtains, etc) is a silly game, and our pursuit of real mice is a very bad idea. But our theologian human also seems to think that some of the arguments other theologians pursue are like silly games (to be fair to her, she doesn’t say that much herself, because she gets tired of people making jokes about angels on pinheads) – and some are very bad ideas (you should hear her on the subject of premillennial dispensationalism, or dispensational premillenialism, whichever way round the pair goes).
Cats don’t find the variety of different human pursuits surprising, because we are creatures of habit and place. We suspect that habit and place – call it “context”, if you like – make a big difference to what problems matter to which humans. But humans tend not to notice this. Perhaps they should lift their heads from their own pursuits more often and take time to understand what other people, or even other species, are bothered about, and why. We cats stop and do this frequently – usually after the prey has got away, and while washing our faces.
We even have some thoughts about the “problem of evil”, which some humans are fond of pursuing, and which looks to us like a silly game. We’ve heard that at least one of Lola’s humans agrees with us.
Mental walkies with Lola,