Wednesday, August 24, 2011

do cats live in worlds?

Towards the end of summer I started writing what I thought was going to be an article to submit to the journal of the Romanian Society for Phenomenology (yeah, no kidding) about phenomenology, bodies, and embodiment. It got weird on me. I now refer to this document as "the goofy paper."

As I was writing it, my appellation of the audience shifted, from the Romanian Society (and academic philosophers in general) to two specific people: my friends Dave and Randy. That made for a pointed shift in style, from the academic to the profane (take that, Mircea Eliade!), as well as in content. I ended up writing several paragraphs comparing human and cat perception and human and cat worlds, for instance.

Randy wrote a lovely and generous reply to the goofy paper, and I'm still trying to digest it. In particular, I'm having trouble swallowing his assertion that, whatever else fate has in store for the goofy paper, I should get rid of the cats. (Not exactly. He told me I should get rid of the analysis of cats provided by an interlocutor in the goofy paper who shall for now remain nameless.)

The point in question: If one were to ascribe "meaningful experience" to cats, would that be a mere projection, or analogical reasoning, or is there, in our encounter with cats, enough of a "pairing synthesis" (to use Husserl's Cartesian Meditations lingo) with cats to institute authentic intersubjective empathy for us to intuit the meaningfulness of cat experience? To take all that out of the language of academic philosophy, what it boils down to is this: do we recognize cats as living in meaningful worlds?

My overwhelming personal conviction, based on years of worship disinterested observation adoration worship living with cats, tells me the answer to that question is yes. But that's precisely the kind of answer phenomenology tells me to set aside, so I can't presume it.

Let me offer a for instance.

Arthur (a.k.a. Arthur, King of the Kittons, a.k.a. Arturo, a.k.a. Arthur Tyrone Kittois [his New Orleans name]) is frequently disconsolate. He wanders around the place meowing his fool head off, clawing guitars, grabbing stuff from tabletops, smacking picture frames, and in general doing everything that earns him negative attention. He will do this continuously for an hour - which is a long time for a domestic cat to engage in any activity other than sleep. To help him out, and to stop the racket and destruction, we'll do most anything - pet him, feed him, throw him hair clips to bat around (his favorite toy), pick him up and stick him on his brother, give him catnip. Sometimes, it doesn't seem to matter, he just gets into the mood to be upset.

Can I not intuit in this display that, however vaguely, Arthur is projecting a meaning in the world, projecting a little Arthur-world where absolutely nothing is right, a world that we describe by ascribing to Arthur the expression, "What the crap, man?!" What would be missing from this encounter with Arthur that I do have with other human animals, that tells me unequivocally that other human animals live in meaningful worlds? Is there something not present in my encounter with Arthur?

The only thing I can see is that Arthur doesn't speak. Be they as robustly expressive as they may, Arthur's caterwauls are not a language. Is lack of language a valid basis to deny a critter the status of being-in-the-world? Isn't it inexcusably humanistic, prejudicial, dogmatic, and speciesist for us humans to say that?

There's a subtle dimension to this, and that's what I really want to explore. It strikes me as silly to make this a dichotomy. Why should I say "either cats have worlds or they don't"? Couldn't cats have cat-worlds while humans have human-worlds? What's really interesting to me about this would be the points of intersection and overlap - where cats and humans are not merely occupying adjoining meaningful worlds, and not merely concurrently constituting meaning in the world, but actually co-constituting it.


Xina said...

I think that their world and their language (yes, I believe that they DO have a language) is so completely alien and incomprehensible to humans that we automatically assume that they have neither. For one thing, we forget that their perceptions of the world are completely different than ours - they don't see things the same as us, they don't hear the same as us, they don't even smell the same as us! So their behavior can easily be a reaction to factors that we, with our limited sensory organs, can't even perceive.

Doc Nagel said...

Maybe we do falsely deny certain kinds of thought and comprehension to non-human animals. The communication gap between us is impossible to cross on that level. But I think we can infer some things. Cat calls lack grammar, in particular a generative grammar, so from a linguistics point of view, we have to say that they don't have language.

The philosophical question in that is whether expressive, creative, grammatical, transitive linguistic performances are necessary to our living in a world. By transitive I mean that an utterance can be about a state of affairs, which means it can be abstract, hypothetical, denotative, etc. So, the notion of a meaningful world has to do with those kinds of acts, making posits about things - that's a fairly standard way philosophers think about meaning, I believe. I think the capacity to imagine, create, and engage in fantasy is part of it, too.

Perception is the starting point, but there's also expression, and that very special kind of expression in which we posit meanings, ideas, truths, causes and effects, states of affairs - all that stuff. My friend Randy was not willing to ascribe that kind of mental activity to cats. Like Xina, I'm less sure, but for slightly different reasons - because I think that to some limited and maybe vague way, cats do posit meanings and do imagine, and in a very crude way some of them seem to me also to hypothesize. (Arthur is not much of a scientist, but Alexander is Wile E. Coyote, Super-Genius.)

Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

I think that it's just like with people: they live in a constituted world more or less, depending on the individual, which is to say some do, and others just aren't paying any @#$%ing attention.

Doc Nagel said...


Hootie said...

I am simply a housewife with animals. My cat started to behave as yours did until I got him on Prozac- seriously. She is now a sweet loving cat, who only cries for food, water, litter change, or brushing.

Just a thought. Animals are very much like humans. :) For example, my dog, who has always been so gentle and kind for years (he is 11 years old), just recently started to change in behavior. After several tests, we realized that he had early stages of dementia and he is now taking Anipryl (same as humans). He is doing much better!

Doc Nagel said...

I don't think Arthur needs meds, other than the occasional binge of self-medication (i.e., catnip). I think he's just a crank.