A Cat Post That's Also A Political Post

Last night in a gathering I was mentioning the complexities of bringing a new cat into the household and spoke of the cats' "personalities." This led me to be berated by a boy grad student who said I was anthropomorphizing the cats, that they were nothing but automata, and that if their behavior appeared to differ one from another it was only that the dice in their heads had happened to land differently in the given moment.

I told him to go back home (I wish I'd said "to your spider hole") and read some more Descartes, who was the philosophical originator of the silly idea that non-human animals are nothing but automata (and various other silly ideas involving the pineal gland). Not only is it antiquated philosophy, it's bad biology. Like all mammals, cats have complex brains and a great deal of behavioral variety among individuals and the difference between that and "personality" is smaller than many of us would like to admit. Note that this isn't even a nature-nurture question; it's not about whether cats' behavior patterns are hardwired or not. It's about whether individual cats behave differently according to patterns that are not random.

Now, the reason this is a political post is that the lad was a student in the Social Thought department at the U of Chicago, which was also the home of Leo Strauss and his disciple Allan Bloom, forebear(s) of the neocon philosophy and thus of the current disaster in Iraq. I don't want to say that calling cats automata is the same as invading Iraq. But both seem consistent, I'd say, with a mindset in which empirical observation is discarded in favor of antiquated philosophical dogma.


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