the philosopher and the cat

[image from

Yesterday I spent an hour or so in a dissertation defense. That discussion has stayed with me, probably because the topic was dogs in Victorian fiction.  The theoretical contexts and the social history were new to me, but I haven’t paid a lot of attention to animal studies over the last few years. I was never that interested in these critics’ take on sentimentality, for example, but I will have to spend some more time thinking about this issue. And I have always had my own ideas about how children and animals coexist in the same household as part of a common community–it’s just that some members speak, and other do not.

One of the things I learned yesterday was the fact that late in life Jacques Derrida had published some writings about his cat–specifically, about Derrida’s (slightly abashed) embarrassment at being seen naked by his cat:

There is something wonderful about Derrida deploying his usual grave style to discuss “my pussycat,” but of course because it’s Derrida he must weave together his usual allusive genealogy of pussycats in literary and philosophical history, including the adorable pussycats of Montaigne and Lewis Carroll, while he conducts these lectures on the “autobiographical animal” at Cerisy.  There is some element of self-mockery here (I think), but also some sense of how Derrida characteristically philosophized from his own unease.

The term that has stayed with me longest from yesterday’s discussion–and I learned its provenance from looking it up in the Derrida afterwards–was silence. This silence is not just a matter of animals’ lack of speech, but our capacity to project intelligible feelings like pain or pleasure onto them.

We can step on slugs or dine on veal in perfect ignorance of what they felt at that moment, but every ethicist knows that our willingness to allow for non-human feelings is conditional and limited by our circumstances and our imaginations.  And the ethical value of the animal rights movement and its critique of anthropocentricism is perhaps to show us how our willingness to be moved by non-human pain extends to our awareness of human pain and suffering, too. (If this is not too anthropocentric a reason to register the feelings of animals)

When we think about how animals present an ethical challenge to us, whether domesticated or not, the challenge stems from the fact that they cannot tell us when we do them wrong, or how we have wronged them.  And yet the obligation remains for us to imagine their sufferings, and how we might prevent or mitigate them.

Sterne wrote about the poor ass of Lyons in Tristram Shandy (Vol. IV, xiii):

Now, [the ass] ’tis an animal (be in what hurry I may) I cannot bear to strike — there is a patient endurance of sufferings, wrote so unaffectedly in his looks and carriage, which pleads so mightily for him, that it always disarms me; and to that degree, that I do not like to speak unkindly to him: on the contrary, meet him where I will — whether in town or country — in cart or under panniers — whether in liberty or bondage — I have ever something civil to say to him on my part; and as one word begets another (if he has as little to do as I)— I generally fall into conversation with him; and surely never is my imagination so busy as in framing his responses from the etchings of his countenance — and where those carry me not deep enough — in flying from my own heart into his, and seeing what is natural for an ass to think — as well as a man, upon the occasion. In truth, it is the only creature of all the classes of beings below me, with whom I can do this: for parrots, jackdaws, &c.— I never exchange a word with them — nor with the apes, &c. for pretty near the same reason; they act by rote, as the others speak by it, and equally make me silent: nay my dog and my cat, though I value them both —(and for my dog he would speak if he could)— yet somehow or other, they neither of them possess the talents for conversation — I can make nothing of a discourse with them, beyond the proposition, the reply, and rejoinder, which terminated my father’s and my mother’s conversations, in his beds of justice — and those utter’d — there’s an end of the dialogue —

— But with an ass, I can commune for ever.


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