I've told you before about my favourite ball, which came with me from the rescue home. The other week something sad happened: I lost my favourite ball whilst I was out playing with my friend. Luckily, the humans bought me another ball, which is my new favourite ball. Here I am with it:
What I like doing most of all with my ball is play The Lola Game with my humans. I tug and pull on the ball, sometimes I make my "raaaa" noise; other times I drop the ball down the stairs and make a human fetch it for me, and then there are those occasions when we simply kick the ball around. Each move follows smoothly from the next; it makes sense to me and I wouldn't have it any other way. Even though I could never satisfactorily woof them at you, I'm quite sure I'm playing by the rules. In spite of that, I sometimes hear the humans complaining to each other that they don't get the rules of my game. "What does she want us to do?" one of them complains. "I have no idea", says the other.
Humans, it seems to me, are not in a good position to criticise me over the rules of my game. You get up to all sorts of things which involve following rules. The languages you use, lacking the noble simplicity of woofing, involve you in all kinds of grammatical and inferential rule-following. Then think about mathematics (I like mathematics: the humans use it to count out my food for the day). Suppose you're counting treats before taking a lurcher on a walk. '2, 4, 6, 8...' What comes next? I suppose you'll probably answer '10', thinking that you're applying the rule 'add 2'. But what would be different up until that point if you were following the rule 'add 2, unless the number to which you're adding it is eight, in which case multiply by a thousand?' How could an observer tell which rule you were following, so as to be able to state it explicity? You see, the things you get up to are no better off than the Lola game.
Of course, you know how to count. There is a certain human practice, adding, that helps you make sense of the world, and you all just get on with it. It's much the same with the Lola game. The human philosopher Wittgenstein raised the difficulty in the previous paragraph, not to make us sceptical about our ability to follow rules, but rather to bring us to realise that we neither need nor have available to us a certain kind of knowledge (a basis for our practices - like counting and the Lola Game - which transcends those practices themselves and the role they play in our lives).
Some human philosophers, like Kripke, have misunderstood this point. I think it's because humans worry too much. They should relax more, stop worrying, and play ball with me.
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.
I lie on a bed, trying out a new sleeping position. By my front left paw is my favourite toy: my aged, trusty ball. In fact, this is more than just a toy: it came with me from the rescue centre, and is also a companion and comfort in times of woe. It smells good.
Yet an itchy thought plays on my mind. Is my ball still a ball at all? It’s been punctured so many times that it’s now far from spherical. Maybe that’s ok: American footballs aren’t spherical, and they’re still balls. But, unlike an American football, my ball no longer bounces. Maybe that’s ok too: snooker and golf balls don’t bounce much but, again, we’re happy with them being balls. But while an American ball bounces and a golf ball is spherical, mine is neither of these things – in fact it lacks most of the things that other balls have.
I ask my friend Ludwig the lion what he thinks. ‘Well’, he says, ‘Maybe having a particular thing or set of things a ball needs to have to be a ball is the wrong way of looking at it. Take families: some people in a family have the family long nose, some the blue eyes, some the waggly ears, and some a mixture of those. Maybe no one person has all those features, and maybe not one of those features is shared by all of them – but they might have some overlapping features so we can say they have a “family resemblance”’.
Hm, I think, maybe. That explains why an American football and a golf ball are balls: one of them has the family ‘nose’ (being spherical) and one of them the ‘waggly ears’ (having a good bounce), while other kinds of ball might have both of those things. But what about my ball? It seems to share no ball ‘family resemblances’. So is it a ball at all?
I muse on the matter as I drift in and out of sleep, affectionately dreaming of my ‘ball’.
Mental walkies with Lola,