We See Ourselves in Cats

I finished this chapter in the upcoming ebook, “50 Facts About Domestic Cats,” today. Hope you like it.

You might have heard how people see companion animals as “little me’s.” The makers of pet food and other products certainly have. Advertising for their multi-billion-dollar industry appeals to our anthropomorphism with everything from human-style pet dinners to animal clothes and jewelry.

This certainly has worked out well for domestic cats, whose round faces, expressive eyes, and size make them adorable substitutions for a human baby–up to a point.


Said point. (Source)

Today cats are more numerous than their African wildcat ancestor and thrive on every continent except Antarctica.

What you might not know is that philosophers also use cats to illustrate difficult points they want to make. So do people who tell reality-based tall tales.

Just try to imagine a dog in these three examples without losing the whole effect.


Jorbasa Fotografie, CC BY-ND 2.0

Descartes, a cat, and the window

One legend has it that, while living in Leiden, Descartes threw a cat out of a . . . window to demonstrate its lack of emotion and sensation . . . and I have seen the window in question for it is still pointed out by the managers of an hotel located directly opposite the house from which it is separated by a canal.

— A. C. Grayling, Descartes biographer

There is no evidence that this incident really happened, but the tale is more than just another tourist story because of the philosopher it involves.

René Descartes lived during the 1600s, but his writings are still widely read by scientists and mathematicians today. In philosophy, Descartes was the one who said Cogito ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am.”

This is where the cat comes in.

Descartes held that both animals and human beings are “machines”–their bodies have an internal mechanical structure. That’s obvious to us now, but back then it was a radical idea.

In a time when Biblical teaching explained everything, René Descartes shifted the entire world focus from God to man when he said “I think, therefore I am.”

Okay, he didn’t singlehandedly bring about the Enlightenment, but he was one of its major contributors. Yet we would call his views on animals inhumane.

He did believe that animals have feelings (so there was no need to prove it with an airborne, window-bound cat), but for Descartes, animals don’t think. How could they? They respond reflexively to their environment and have no language to express abstract ideas.

In other words, Descartes came down on the inferential side of an ongoing debate on animal consciousness: it’s impossible to know what an animal is thinking, so we must go by their behavior, which does not include human-like activities like painting and writing.

The opposing view is perceptual: it is possible to perceive, for example, that an animal is happy or sad, frightened or angry, just by looking at it. Most of us are in this group, simply based on our own experiences with pets and other animals.

Cartesians have always been influential, in part because they accuse perceptualists of “the ‘sin’ of anthropomorphism”–the modern debate gets this intense!

Their view of animals as nonthinking beings is why animal testing is allowed. It is also why US veterinarians didn’t use anesthesia or pain relievers during surgery until the late 1980s.

Perceptualism only began to gain ground after Charles Darwin’s work established that people and animals do have many things in common. This new way of looking at animal consciousness sparked the 19th century animal welfare movement. It’s also why animal testing is limited and vets treat their patients more humanely today.

Along the way, it hasn’t hurt that people who favor the perceptualist viewpoint have a meme to protest–Mr. Cogito Ergo Sum himself throwing a helpless kitty out the window just to prove himself right!

That mythical Dutch house cat was much luckier than a hapless Japanese cat that two Buddhist monks reportedly coveted back in the 1200s.


Enjoy this image. Things are about to get gruesome. (tinyfroglet, CC BY 2.0)

Zen Koan

14. Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two

Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the cat and told the monks: “If any of you say a good word, you can save the cat.”

No one answered. So Nansen boldly cut the cat in two pieces.

That evening Joshu returned and Nansen told him about this. Joshu removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out.

Nansen said: “If you had been there, you could have saved the cat.”

Mumon’s comment: Why did Joshu put his sandals on his head? If anyone answers this question, he will understand exactly how Nansen enforced the edict. If not, he should watch his own head.

Had Joshu been there,
He would have enforced the edict oppositely.
Joshu snatches the sword
And Nansen begs for his life.

It doesn’t have to make sense–it’s a Zen koan.

These teaching aids are used to both test a student’s progress and shake up the mind to develop insight.

All Buddhist monks refrain from killing animals and they preach lovingkindness to all living beings. That’s why this particular koan has so shocked Westerners that some have devoted much thought to it. (Hit “refresh” if that link doesn’t load correctly at first.)

It’s hard to say what this ancient fable means to a student. There are overtones of King Solomon cutting a baby in half (anthropomorphism again!), but Nansen doesn’t address ownership of the cat’s remains. And what is Joshu trying to say?

Zen is difficult. But this koan wouldn’t be the same at all with a sacrificial dog.


Not Mark Twain. (Source)


A cat in the Devil’s Dictionary

CAT, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.

— Ambrose Bierce, in “The Devil’s Dictionary

If you ever have followed politics online, you’ve seen satire used for protest. That is exactly what this 19th-century American writer is doing here.

Ambrose Bierce enjoyed undermining Victorian hypocrisy and did so with such wit that even his targets applauded him.

“Automaton” is a Cartesian way to describe animals. As well, animal welfare was a growing political movement on both sides of the Atlantic when “Bitter” Bierce defined a cat.

This rapier-thrust straight into the heart of the matter was very different from how Bierce defined a dog.

DOG, n. A kind of additional or subsidiary Deity designed to catch the overflow and surplus of the world’s worship. This Divine Being in some of his smaller and silkier incarnations takes, in the affection of Woman, the place to which there is no human male aspirant. The Dog is a survival—an anachronism. He toils not, neither does he spin, yet Solomon in all his glory never lay upon a door-mat all day long, sun-soaked and fly-fed and fat, while his master worked for the means wherewith to purchase the idle wag of the Solomonic tail, seasoned with a look of tolerant recognition.

Today, clearly, cats have mastered this level, too.

Besides being our “babies,” cats are always solidly grounded in the moment, perhaps more so than any other domestic animal. However, they also have something–wildness, perhaps–that grabs our attention even as it sets our imagination spinning off into some surprisingly abstract planes.

Featured image: Daga Roszkowska, at Pixabay, public domain.

Sources: The above links, plus:

Cottingham, J. 1978. ‘A Brute to the Brutes?’: Descartes’ Treatment of Animals. Philosophy. 53(206), 551-559.

Serpell, J. A. 2002. Anthropomorphism and Anthropomorphic Selection—Beyond the” Cute Response”. Society and Animals. 10(4): 437-454.

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