Highlighting the importance of language for the way we think, the human philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein asked: ‘A dog can look forward to seeing his master. But can he look forward to seeing his master next Wednesday?’. My humans – who think I’m merely an ordinary dog – seem to spend a long time wondering what my mental life - my thoughts, emotions, and so on – are like. ‘What does it mean for Lola to ‘think’ rolling in fox poo will make her a better hunter?’, they ask in vexed tones. I also wonder: even if most dogs did speak a language, given that dogs’ lives are so different from humans’ lives, would anything dogs say make sense to their humans? Wittgenstein seems to have something similar in mind when he says, ‘If a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him’. Perhaps, in spite of our shared lives, the same is true in relation to humans and dogs.
Language is of course essential to narrative and to story-telling, and so telling a story from a dog’s perspective is particularly challenging. Can justice be done to the otherness of dogs in relation to humans through a story? Or should a dog’s mental life be translated into human thoughts and emotions, so that humans – whose imaginations are rather limited – can understand dogs’ lives by analogy to their own?
With these questions in mind, I greatly enjoyed reading a new novel by the human philosopher David Cooper - Street Dog: A Sri Lankan Story. Cooper adopts the latter, more analogical, approach, while drawing attention to specifically canine ways of experiencing the world – ‘the world was, above all else, a great lattice of smells’ – and while highlighting things of value and importance to dogs – food and security, but also companionship and affection, especially the companionship and affection of humans. This way of conveying a dog’s mental life is of course less demanding for the reader, and so allows other elements of the story to come through – life as a street dog in a Sri Lankan city; in remote countryside; in a monastery; in a domestic setting. I’ve never been to Sri Lanka and I’ve never been a street dog, but it seemed quite natural to imagine myself there and to understand the excitement and the dangers faced. I also liked Street Dog because in it we see the profound effects of human fear, neglect and cruelty – but also of human kindness, warmth and generosity – on dogs’ lives. Although I love reading philosophy, this is something stories can do in a way academic philosophy cannot – rather than telling us a fact (such as: ‘human kindness affects dogs’ lives profoundly’), stories instead show us the fact. Stories can do what academic philosophy often can’t because stories can show us that the effects of human kindness, or cruelty, or generosity, or whatever, are ‘like this’.
Street Dog is Cooper’s first novel, but he’s well qualified to write on the topic. He’s lived and spent time in Sri Lanka and continues to visit there, taking part in humanitarian projects. The story brings together a broad range of philosophical topics he’s written on, including humans’ relationships with non-human animals, ethics, and Buddhist aesthetics and attitudes to nature. And importantly, he’s known and lived with various dogs over the course of his life. As is characteristic of Cooper’s philosophical work, Street Dog is wise and humane. Being a great philosopher doesn’t necessarily make someone a great story-teller, but Cooper is adept at both. I found myself sad to reach the end of the story – but happy to learn that a sequel is afoot.
If you want to get your paws on a copy, you can find the Kindle edition here. Alternatively, if you don't mind paying for the postage from Sri Lanka, you can buy the paperback edition here.
Here’s a picture of me over Christmas, pondering the insurmountable gulf between dogs and their humans while looking down into the Yorkshire village of Staithes:
And here I am again, with some humans, examining Rievaulx Abbey and pondering the passing of time and the frailty of creaturely existence while the humans posed for a photo:
Later I was given a squeaky armadillo, and was less ponderous after that.
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.
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,