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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Dogs

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.

René Descartes (1596-1650) infamously thought that animals were but machines, without thoughts, sensations, or feelings, and could for this reason be treated like inanimate objects. No wonder there are horror stories about the Frenchman dissecting his wife’s dog while it was still alive! However, this is merely a vicious rumour. For starters, Descartes never married. He also treated his pet dog Monsieur Grat (it translates as ‘Mister Scratch’) with affection. So he was anything but cruel, and he may even have been a dog lover. Likewise, the French poet Louis Racine (1639-1699) was also an enthusiastic advocate of the Cartesian beast-machine hypothesis and a devoted dog lover.

Diogenes the Cynic (404-323) was known as ‘the dog’: the Greek word Kynikós means ‘dog’. The philosopher lived in a pithos, which was a large ceramic storage jar (and not, as is often scandalously reported, a barrel). He found the four legged animal superior to us vainglorious humans, and he proudly proclaimed, “I fawn on those who give me anything, I bark at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.” So was he a dog? Certainly, if you follow the logic of Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677). The Dutchman went back to first principles, stating in his Ethics that “a dog [is] an animal that barks” (Proposition XVII).

Some philosophers certainly liked our four-legged friends. Madame de Staël (1766-1817) is said to have remarked: “The more I see of men, the more I like dogs.” Around that time, there was a lot of love for dogs among the philosophers. “A Dog… appear[s] friendly and sympathizing” remarked G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), another dog-person, in his Philosophy of History (p.231).

Whether Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was or was not a lover of our four legged friends is open to debate, but he did think about their inner lives, and pondered, “Why can a dog feel fear and not remorse?” He believed he had found the answer: “Because they can’t talk” (Zettel, p.91).

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was not a dog lover. The English philosopher opined that a man who had been bitten by a canine was infected by a ‘poison’, which would sooner or later “convert him into a Dog” (Leviathan, p.214). This is certainly an interesting theory. However, it is also, to my knowledge, not one that has been proven in anything like conventional medical textbooks – unless he was talking about rabies.

Let’s leave this matter alone and go back to something that dog owners care about, and give some practical advice. Nowadays, some people want dogs with a pedigree. We do not know if Aristotle (384-322 BCE) had a dog, but he certainly had more time for mongrels than for pure breeds: “Dogs that are born of a mixed breed between these two [sheep dogs and Molossians] are remarkable for courage and endurance of hard labour” (History of Animals, p.948). Maybe we can say that Aristotle was not dog matic about this matter?

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2023

Professor Matt Qvortrup is author of Great Minds on Small Things, out now.

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