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Philosophers on Cats
by Matt Qvortrup
‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads, about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love. Tracks like George Harrison’s Taxman, written in response to a marginal tax-rate of 96 percent introduced by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the Sixties, are the exception.
Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.
French philosophers often disagreed on everything: existentialism, communism, structuralism, and so on. But on one thing they agreed: cats. Several of the most famous thinkers in France in the Twentieth Century were cat lovers. Or they certainly had cats – and often aptly named ones at that. Let’s take four examples. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) had a cat named Neant – which, of course, was a word from his dense treatise Being and Nothingness of 1943. Albert Camus (1913-1960) smoked too much – and perhaps this explains why he named his cat Cigarette. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) named his feline Insanity, which it had to be, for the author of Madness and Civilization (1961). And Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), when he wasn’t deconstructing everything, spent time with Logos, his cat. Maybe his famous critique of ‘logocentrism’ was subconsciously a way of telling himself that his cat ruled his life?
Other philosophical traditions were less feline-friendly, not least the Germans. “A black tom-cat, with its glowing eyes and its now gliding, now quick and darting movement, has been deemed the presence of a malignant being – a mysterious reserved spectre”, wrote G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831) in one of his most famous books, Philosophy of History (p.231). It can probably be concluded that the philosopher was not a cat person. German physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) is perhaps best known to the public for his (hypothetical) cat in a box, which according to quantum mechanics is both alive and dead simultaneously, until someone opens the box to look inside. But this thought experiment, posited to explore the problem of quantum superposition, is more alarming than people commonly remember. The experiment he proposed in the ‘Contemporary State of Quantum Mechanics’ (published as an article in 1935 in the journal Naturwissenschaften) required the cat to be locked inside a steel chamber with a flask of poison and a source of radioactive atoms whose random decay randomly determined whether the cat would live or die. This, frankly, does not sound like the work of a cat lover, but rather a cause for concern and a swift phone call to the Cat Protection League.
British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) did not think highly of our feline friends: “A cat’s movements in stalking a bird are hardly to be called an expression of intention”, she wrote dismissively, and went on in language reminiscent of René Descartes (1596-1650) that, “one might as well call a car’s stalling the expression of it being about to stop” (Intention, 5).
But back to the French. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was, by contrast, a confirmed cat lover. In his famous Essais he posed a question that is both a philosophical conundrum and an observation that will be instantly recognisable to any owner of a laconic feline: “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself more with me than I am with her?” (Essais, Chapter 12).
© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2023
Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.