Some thoughts on the sociology of animals

One of many likeable things about the renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne was his relationship with animals. In an intellectual context soon to be overcome with Cartesianism, with its mechanistic understanding of non-human animals, Montaigne exhibited an admirable degree of sensitivity to the consciousness of animals. As Sarah Bakewell ably summarises,

A dog, for Descartes, has no perspective, no true experience. It does not create a hare in its inner world and chase it across the fields. It can snuffle and twitch its paws all it likes; Descartes will never see anything but contracting muscles and firing nerves, triggered by equally mechanical operations in the brain.

Descartes cannot truly exchange a glance with an animal. Montaigne can, and does. In one famous passage, he mused: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” And he added in another version of the text: “We entertain each other with reciprocal monkey tricks. If I have my time to begin or to refuse, so has she hers.” He borrows his cat’s point of view in relation to him just as readily as he occupies his own in relation to her.

Montaigne’s little interaction with his cat is one of the most charming moments in the Essays, and an important one too. It captures his belief that all beings share a common world, but that each creature has its own way of perceiving this world.

How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. Pg 136-137. 

It is undoubtedly true that people anthromorphise animal relations. However the significance of this is often overlooked – what is it to impute human characteristics to animals? It’s obviously symbolic action, in so far as that one party (the human) ascribes meaning to the actions of another party (the animal). But is it symbolicinteraction? In other words, are animals ascribing meaning to humans as part of the same interactions through which humans are ascribing meaning to them? In the rest of this post I’ll talk about cats because, other than rodents, they’re the animals I’m most familiar with. In terms of the rodents I’ve owned, I think interactions between rats and humans are very interesting. Whereas I’m sceptical that the Roborovski hamsters I owned saw me as anything other than a feature of the physical environment. But though I’m talking about cats, this post is mainly an attempt to work out what I think about the sociology of animals. I’ll defend a view of social relations in a weak sense between human and non-human animals, based on trajectories of iterated interaction and the practical capacity to impute intentions on both sides. I’m not sure what I think about the possibility of social relations in a strong sense, which for me would entail the possibility of emergent relational goods (e.g. trust) to which both parties orientate themselves evaluatively. I think there are emergent goods, with trust being the most obvious one, but I don’t think that animals are capable of ‘strong evaluation’ in Taylor’s sense i.e. they care about things but they don’t care that they care (or even have any second-order awareness at all for that matter).

One way of gaining traction on this question is to consider what is assumed by the meanings ascribed to cats by humans. Almost 100% of respondents in one survey of cat owners reported a belief that their cats could feel curiosity, joy and fear (pg 155 ofCat Sense). Around 60%-80% believed their cats had a capacity for surprise, anger, anxiety and sadness. Around 40%-60% believed they had a capacity for jealousy, pride, empathy and grief. Much smaller numbers believed in a capacity for guilt, shame and embarrassment. I find the last one a surprise, given how axiomatic I’d always taken it to be that cats can experience embarrassment but, stepping back from my own reaction, it’s precisely this sense of obviousness (“of course cats get embarrassed! I can tell you about A and B and C which show this” etc) which I find interesting.

The emotional capacities we impute to cats entail certain assumptions about their psychological capacities. We might not explicate these entailments under normal circumstances but, I’d suggest, these sometimes inchoate ideas we have about cats nonetheless connect up into a more or less coherent picture. So for instance my sense of the self-evident capacity of cats to experience embarrassment goes hand-in-hand with my sense that they experience pride, with the former occurring under certain conditions (e.g. a cat falls off a fence while people are watching) precisely because of the cat’s capacity to experience pride under others (as a statement about my spontaneous opinions rather than the conclusion I’d come to if I really thought about it). I guess what I’m saying is that I’m interested in the theory of mind that cat owners impute to their pets, which I suspect is more multifaceted then many might assume.

So I think the tendency to anthromorphise animals needs to be seen in the context of a history of interaction within which such a theory of mind has emerged. This might be typological, in so far as that trajectories of interaction with many cats (or dogs, or rats, or whatever) jointly contribute to the development of a theory of mind which shapes a person’s future interaction with any such animal. But we can still talk meaningfully of social relations, at least in the weak sense, between human and non-human animals. I’m arguing that we can’t adequately understand the kinds of characteristics which humans impute to non-human animals without taking account of these relations, in the sense of histories of past interaction and expectations of future interaction. For instance my sense of cats as being able to feel embarrassed is tied up with a sense of cats as feeling pride, jointly contributing towards a picture of the psychological capacities of cats in which I’m invested because of my past relations with them (with my own pets, volunteering at a cat shelter, interacting with other people’s cats, funny memories I’m attached to etc).

Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that “contamination by epistemology” prevents some from entering into relations with animals “through which interpretative knowledge of their thoughts and  feelings can be gained, relationships expressed in responsive activity” (pg 17). I think he rather overstates the point precisely because he doesn’t take account of the investment of people in a certain view of the capacities of animals which has emerged from a history of interaction with them. But it’s an important point nonetheless that “knowing how to interpret” is a form of practical knowledge, through which we are able to move from reciprocal responses in interaction to a “set of recognitions of the intentions embodied in these responses and then a set of recognitions that each of the intentions includes the intention that it should be recognized by the other as the intention that it is” (pg 15). Or in other words (a) we learn to recognise why the other does something (b) we learn to recognise that some of the things the other does are done with the intention that we recognise why they’re doing it.

Is this as true of our relations with non-human animals as it is of our relations with other humans? I think it basically is. I’m not sure how else it’s possible to account for meaningful interaction with animals. The typical repudiation of such a view is to argue that such “meaningful interaction” is anthropomorphism masquerading as intersubjectivity. But I’ve tried to argue briefly in this post how a tendency towards anthropomorphism can be explained in terms of a genuine intersubjectivity within such relations, representing an investment in a certain way of viewing a particular animal which someone is drawn to precisely because of their history of meaningful interaction.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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  1. If you’re interested in the sociology of animals, check out the American Sociological Association’s section on Animals & Society:

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