Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Philosophy of Cats and the Cats of Philosophy

My cat tells me all the time, "Do not listen to Wittgenstein..."

From Aeon Magazine - If a Cat Could Talk by David Wood:
Painting by Thomas de Leu (Franco-Flemish pain...
Stop reading this, read Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne, in An Apology for Raymond Sebond (1580)captured this uncertainty eloquently. ‘When I play with my cat,’ he mused, ‘how do I know that she is not playing with me rather than I with her?’ So often cats disturb us even as they enchant us. We stroke them, and they purr. We feel intimately connected to these creatures that seem to have abandoned themselves totally to the pleasures of the moment. Cats seem to have learnt enough of our ways to blend in. And yet, they never assimilate entirely. In a trice, in response to some invisible (to the human mind, at least) cue, they will leap off our lap and re-enter their own space, chasing a shadow. Lewis Carroll’s image of the smile on the face of the Cheshire cat, which remains even after the cat has vanished, nicely evokes such floating strangeness. Cats are beacons of the uncanny, shadows of something ‘other’ on the domestic scene.
The longer I have been with Stella (pictured above)—and I say "been with" to hint at where I'm going with this, insofar as it seems patently absurd to suggest that one "has" much less "owns" a cat—the more it has become obvious to me why cats have long been considered mystical and worthy of worship.

Stella meows, I assume she is hungry, I give her food, she sniffs it, seems unimpressed, returns to meowing.  I beg, plead, pretend to eat, anything to save me the humiliation of realizing I have wasted 79¢ at the supermarket on a can of cat food.  She leaves, triumphant and yet dissatisfied.  I leave, defeated and yet hopeful.  For when I am in another room, close enough that she knows I'm watching but far enough that she knows I can't take credit, she will eat.  She will then let out an unfathomable bellow, perhaps a lament that her meal was from a can rather than a hunt, and then slink off to pee immediately in front of her litter box.

Derrida and Logos
Wood points out that Foucault named his cat Insanity, and Derrida named his Logos, names which he takes to signify how "to experience the animal looking back at us challenges the confidence of our own gaze—we lose our unquestioned privilege in the universe."  When I go to sleep at night Stella is staring back at me.  When I wake up in the morning Stella is staring back at me.  Did she ever turn away?  Rationally I know that she must have—for how else could so much from the bedside table have ended up on the floor?—and yet at a deeper level I know that her stare persists regardless of her physical location or mine.  I am more interested in finding out what she's thinking than what any human thinks, including myself.  Dave Chappelle is likely right that to become Aquaman would mean not conversing with the undersea world so much as discovering how little they have to say.  Yet Stella always appears to be thinking, pondering, working out moves in her head, such that I know were I gain the power to converse with her, I would be the one to bore her.  So in other words, our relationship would remain unchanged.

Cats supposedly have nine lives.  I am desperate that this is true, but I am unsure if this desperation is for Stella's sake or my own.  Humans have invented many words for boredom—"anoy," "sloth," "spleen," "ennui," "Langweile"—and yet cats appear to know an existential depth to boredom that neither Sisyphus nor Heidegger could grasp.  Were cats to live nine lives it surely would have to be out of karmic retribution for some devilishness in their past.  Stella appears to both enjoy life more than I am capable of and to be world-weary to a degree that even my nihilism finds staggering.

It is certainly not the case that all philosophers live with cats, nor that all who live with cats philosophize.  But it is certainly the case that cats make us all more philosophical, and for that we should be forever thankful both for their peccadilloes and their willingness to put up with ours.

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