John Gray, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Allen Lane), $24/£20
John Gray’s philosophy might at first glance appear to be quite concerned with animals. Straw Dogs, the book for which he is perhaps best known, had Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals as its sub-title. Yet it was, as with so many of his other works, largely a critique of humanism rather than an attempt to understand animals in themselves or to suggest that our relations with them could be constructively improved. Gray’s latest volume ostensibly turns to cats, but it ends up using them as a rather unreliable organising principle in another rehearsal of his existing preoccupations.
He commences with a discussion of the two early modern philosophers who are often seen as antitheses when it comes to their assessment of animals. Descartes’ denigration of animals—he considered them to be automata that cannot reason or feel—is legendary. In contrast, Montaigne is often seen as a potentially powerful resource for an alternative radical understanding of animality. His question “When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?” is well known and implies that animals can not only respond but can engage in complex communication with humans. Gray, however, isn’t particularly interested in how philosophers conceive of or relate to animals. For him, it’s mostly about us, not the animals. As the subtitle, “and the meaning of life” hints, the book is primarily about how humans think, or should think, about their own lives.
Cats, by and large, contribute little to the argument of the book and, with the exception of one much repeated point I will come to, mostly just provide occasional colour. For example, in the first chapter, the story of Mèo, a cat rescued in Vietnam by an American journalist, is recounted at length, but Gray draws no particular conclusions from it. Elsewhere, we are told that the lesson of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas is that one cannot relieve unhappiness; it is mentioned in passing that Johnson had a cat he was very fond of. The Egyptian reverence for cats forces Gray to give somewhat surprising attention to a civilisation that was obsessed with the afterlife and that we might have expected him to be particularly hostile towards. It is a very meandering and often slight itinerary.
The figure in the philosophical canon that Feline Philosophy draws on most extensively is Spinoza. In his universe everything is as it must be and humans pursue the good that their natures demand. Previous readers of Gray will not be surprised to discover that Taoism, a tradition he repeatedly resorts to as a corrective to humanism, is found to be superior for its claim that “the self regarding consciousness of humans is the chief obstacle to a good life.” What particularly interests him is its insistence that we must follow our natures, allowing him to argue that Taoist ethics recognises the way of the sage, but also “the tyrant and the assassin … some give life, others take it away.” Cut free from what Gray would see as the Western tradition’s “moralising,” he is thus able to indulge in quasi-Nietzschean talk about “the perennial charm of barbarism.” This may add a thrilling frisson for sated readers in rich and stable parts of the West but it is unlikely to go down so well in Syria or Yemen. Abandoning morality in favour of what he calls “ethics”, Gray understands the latter as “living from habit.” This ethics is said to be a rejection of “concern for others” and a recognition that “the good life means living for yourself with the nature you have been given.” It is further claimed that “whereas cats live by following their nature, humans live by suppressing theirs.” His “Spinozist-Taoist ethic” can then assert that “humans are like other animals. A good life is not shaped by human feelings. Their feelings are shaped by how well they have realised their nature.”
What Gray seeks to do then is disabuse humanists of any preconception that humans are unique. We are just another form of animal and the best that could happen would be for us to come to realise that. But what he understands by an animal seems to be largely an individual struggling for existence. Here I think we can see he has not entirely left behind the work on liberalism for which he made his name as a scholar. He might have abandoned the free market utopianism of his Hayek phase but we are still, for him, primarily self-seeking beings. He can, and does, criticise human rapaciousness and the damage we have done to the planet but “living by habit,” his version of ethics, does not offer a clear or obvious path beyond the current situation.
Reading Feline Philosophy, I started to imagine an alternative that could be outlined by looking to the likes of Heidegger, Levinas and Derrida. A point made repeatedly in Feline Philosophy is that it would apparently be more desirable to be a cat: “not having formed an image of themselves, cats do not need to divert themselves from the fact that they will some day cease to exist.” Gray repeatedly tells us that philosophy or religion is the result of an unfortunate human preoccupation with death: “the defining feature of the human animal: the fear of death that comes with self-awareness.” The happy and unreflective cat is a trope—the cat’s central function in the book—that is continually played against this. Gray would have us face up to our natures but, pace Heidegger, could it not be more convincingly argued that our lives actually are best understood in relation to our deaths? To affirm that we are beings whose existence is temporal is not necessarily, as Feline Philosophy seems to suggest, to live constantly in fear of death or to seek to exceed this by the projection of an afterlife.
Gray argues forcefully against “morality” as a system of known or established rules and affirms instead, as we have seen, “ethics” as a following of our supposedly individualistic animal natures. Levinas’s philosophy also commenced with a criticism of the former but quite differently argued that we live surrounded by others who make singular demands on us and to whom we must answer responsibly. There are some rare places where what Gray says does sound rather like this, as when he tells us: “someone who responds to the suffering of others by helping them displays compassion whether or not they have any idea of what they are doing.” However, by and large, Feline Philosophy follows Spinoza in having little time for pity and the idea of putting the other ahead of the self is seen as an unnatural delusion.
Levinas’s ethics were formative for Derrida’s philosophy but he was heavily critical of the extent to which this most anti-Cartesian of philosophers shared Descartes’s dismissive attitude to animals. Derrida challenged this as when he commences his The Animal That Therefore I Am, perhaps one of the most important philosophical works on animals of the last hundred years, by recounting being confronted by his cat. One way of understanding this scene is as a radicalisation and extension to animals of the Husserl’s insistence in the fifth Cartesian Meditation that the other’s perspective remains fundamentally inaccessible to me. Faced with animals, what we can know about them is that they suffer, which leads to the suggestion that compassion is central in humans’ relations to animals. This is also to say they make demands on us, that they call to us. We can respond, or not, but an ethical demand is made which we are challenged by. To the extent then that humans have entirely different capacities for both creating and ameliorating suffering, seeking to understand our ethical nature by reflection on cats is to risk misunderstanding what we are.
Gray ends with “Ten Feline Hints How to Live Well” presented very much tongue in cheek. Having argued that in principle we can’t know what cats think, we might imagine that, sly and cunning creatures that they are, if they were to write a book, no matter how bleak their outlook on the future of contemporary society, it would be wry, readable and out in perfect time for the Christmas market.