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The Philosopher's Cat

November 03, 1985|VICKI HEARNE

Jack is of the breed "American Silver Short-Haired Tabby." He belongs to Larry Wright, a philosopher, and would thus seem to be in an ancient tradition--the cat who beguiles the careworn thinker. M. Montaigne said that he was grateful to his cat for reminding him that a cat may play with a philosopher. That isn't exactly how Montaigne put it, but he talked along those lines.

Jack hasn't read Montaigne. In this he resembles a lot of cats, but in important ways he doesn't resemble them.

Jack is a pretty macho cat. If you are among those he favors, approaching your shirt collar along the back of the couch when you come to visit Wright and discuss the logic of truth-conditional inverted vague predicates (LOT-CIV), it doesn't mean that he wants a friendly rubdown but that he senses in you sufficient wit to think up something interesting for him to do. Sliding the vase softly across the coffee table for his delight? Sliding it noisily and clumsily for his condescending amusement? That sort of thing. But Jack isn't often condescending.

And he cares, a lot, about whether the household remains well-ordered. Jack's household consists not only of the philosopher, but of the philosopher's wife, Gerry, and his daughter, Emily, 7. Recently, mother and daughter went off to Ohio for a visit. (People do these things, unaccountably to cats.) In this event, something may have been disclosed about the true nature of cats. Whenever I have been at the Wrights' house, it has been Larry who is properly appreciative of Jack. Also, Jack is always responsive to Larry. Larry concluded from this that Jack respected his intelligence.

This turned out to be false, counter-factual, just plain wrong. Wright told me that during the absence of Jack's women, the cat yowled in a primal way up and down the hallway, swore vigorously and once even attempted entrance to the bedroom--a thing unimagined in the 11 years of Jack's life. Further, this cataclysmic absence of the women gave Wright occasion to find out what Jack thought of his general competence. On the first morning, Wright fed Jack for the first time in a decade. Jack's usual response to his food is to dig in. This time, however, he approached his dish suspiciously, stared meaningfully at Wright and then spat angrily before stalking away with his tail high.

Wright is a philosopher, so of course he meditated on this event, wondering What It All Meant. In the course of meditating, he recalled that Jack has declared Wright's study off-limits. He never enters that room, the one with the heavy-duty books lining the walls. Wright had supposed this was evidence of Jack's respect for him, and so he tried to console the cat for the absence of Gerry and Emily by inviting him into the study--offering, as he thought, special privileges. So he whistled to Jack in the way they have agreed on between them.

Jack did indeed climb the stairs, and Wright reports that a large, gray, tabby head poked cautiously into the room. Wright was at the time reading a massive tome. Jack looked at the books, and at Wright. His hair stood on end, and he backed down the stairs, warily keeping his eyes on the dangerous phenomenon of a philosopher at work.

Wright consulted Plato, Nietzsche and Montaigne, wanting to know whether Jack's behavior suggested respect for philosophers. He says now that as a result of his researches he has concluded that the fact that human beings do philosophy is evidence that they are, unlike cats, irrational, and may even lack a concept of self. And that when he asked Jack about this, Jack said that Wright was trying to do philosophy with him, and that the whole point of being a cat is that you don't descend to such nonsensical behavior.

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