Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cats are people too

F.H. Bradley, the idealist philosopher, used to shoot cats (at night, in the grounds of Merton College, Oxford). Bradley was a dog man.

In a footnote in chapter XXVI of his magnum opus, Appearance and reality, in a section dealing with the human desire for life after death and the inconsistencies of the standard (Christian) view, he writes:

No one can have been so fortunate as never to have felt the grief of parting, or so inhuman as not to have longed for another meeting after death... One feels that a personal immortality would not be very personal, if it implied a mutilation of our affections. There are those too who would not sit down among the angels, till they had recovered their dog.

The only pet I've ever owned (apart from animals that were family responsibilities) was a cat, and I know the strange chemistry which sometimes links humans and animals of other species. I wouldn't want to make too much of it, but there was a kind of recognition there, a kind of bond, albeit tenuous and uncertain. Intimate may not be too strong a word.

A while ago, I saw on a lamppost a small, monochrome poster. Just a stylized cat's face and the sentence: Cats are people too. I have some sympathy with the people who bothered to design and print and paste up these posters, with their quirky and lighthearted campaign in defense of a currently very unpopular animal.

But I don't believe that animals have rights, or that we humans should be seen as more or less on a par with chimpanzees. The attempt by intellectuals and activists to raise the status and moral profile of animals has succeeded only in distorting reality and weakening moral thinking in general. By virtue of language and our relatively advanced brains we inhabit a vast new world from which all other animals are excluded.

The burdens of this world of human consciousness are such, however, that the pre-human world of our distant ancestors - of which we remain obscurely aware - can be seen as a kind of paradise from which we have been cast out. This may explain in part the mystique that animals have for many.

What animals see in us is an altogether more difficult question.


  1. Cats may be people, but to me they seem very impersonal.

    For instance, did your cat miss you when you were away? Was it pleased to see you when you came back? Or would any old food provider, door opener and head scratcher do?

    The best thing I know on cats is Christopher Smart's lovely poem, "For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey".

  2. Yes, an odd and wonderful poem.

    I like it that cats are self-contained and live in a wilder and stranger (to us) world than dogs. Any connections they make with us are all the more special on that account, I think.

  3. The thought occurred to me that someone should write a paper: "What is it like to be a cat?"

    Google and YouTube have the answer:

  4. Here's another view:

  5. Thomas Nagel - who is mentioned in the article you cite - has an anecdote about a spider in his book, The view from nowhere. Whatever it is like to be a spider, I would not want to have been that spider.