Pet Me While I Eat
by Chuck Rosenthal
The Cheese is a big, silver cat with vertical black stripes. He has leapt from our upper deck through the second story window and now sits on the sill. He looks across the room at me and says, “Meow. Meow-meow.” Most cats, in fact, do not say meow, but that’s one way in which the Cheese is unusual. He wants to eat, but he will not go downstairs to check the food bowls; I must accompany him.
I get up from my chair and he sprints down the stairwell, waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. When I get there we walk through the laundry room to the cat room, a small area between the sauna and shower where we keep the cat bowls on a three foot high bench, because if we don’t keep the cat food in the air, then dogs will eat it.
He jumps up on the bench. The cat bowls are full. If you own cats you might venture to say, loosely, as I do, that they like rituals. This is an important one. So I reach in the plastic cat food container, grab a bit of dry food and pretend to feed him, putting a little bit in each bowl as the Cheese purrs and arches his back, rubbing against my forearm. And though I wouldn’t hold to this beyond my own silly conjecture, I’ll point out that it’s evening and the Cheese comes now, when everybody, particularly the other cats, have settled into their evening patterns, because the Cheese prefers to eat without the other cats around him, though there are contextual exceptions.
But he’s not eating just yet. First I have to begin to pet him, then he’ll settle against my hand, arching into it and purring as he eats. Unlike dogs, who might even be surly or defensive while they devour their food, cats like to be petted while they eat. And often enough, at breakfast most often, I’ve got all of them in there, four or five or however many, purring and rubbing against my hands. There’s another cat food area in the kitchen where another cat, Romeo, often prefers to eat. Here in the cat room, if the faire is merely dry food, the Cheese will try to wait out the others and eat by himself with me, though if I’m opening a small can of moist food, as I do in the morning, he usually can’t wait because the others will eat it all, though sometimes he just gets poised off and leaves or doesn’t show up at all; some things, some times, are more important than food.
But let’s go back. It’s night time. I’ve petted the Cheese while he ate and gone back upstairs. Then, from the bottom of the stairs I hear a call. “Meow.” He’s not done. Well, I could say the hell with him. Surely, if he were hungry enough, he’d just go eat, but I like him and like petting him. I put my book down, get up and walk to the top of the stairway. There he is at the bottom, looking at me, “Meow-meow. Meow-meow-meow.”
Let’s take a moment and look at what’s going on here. The Cheese is meowing at the bottom of the stairs. He began by meowing up the stairway to someone he couldn’t see to ask for something that isn’t in front of him. Loosely, because I’ll have to talk about what it means to use the word know, I might say that the Cheese knew I was upstairs. More so, I’d venture that he isn’t even calling for food. He knows perfectly well that there is food in the bowls; we were just in there. Needless to say he knows, as well, where the food bowls are. He’s calling so I will come downstairs and then do something that is now not being done, pet him while he eats.
This behavior is more complicated than a simple gesture. For example, let’s say a new kitten, Italo, shows up. Likely, the other cats won’t. In the morning, when I’m dividing up that single can of wet food, the goal is greater than the risk of the Cheese getting miffed and batting them around, in fact, as I’ve said, it might be the Cheese who gets so pissed off that he leaves after a few bites and comes back later. At night, when their bellies are full, everybody is more likely to leave him alone or try to use the food bowls in the kitchen, unless Romeo is guarding them. There might be a pile of abstract behavior in all that, but for now let’s not try to read into it. It might simply be reduced to in-the-moment impulses ruled by how badly they want to eat versus how much do they want to avoid a fight.
But Italo, who is young, doesn’t seem to know or care if his presence pisses the Cheese off, and jumps up onto the cat bench. He might even butt his head into the same bowl the Cheese is using. The Cheese hisses and bats him on the head. Italo backs up and blinks. Though he’s much bigger than Italo and could knock him silly, the Cheese jumps down and leaves; runs up the stairs and jumps out the window. The young knucklehead Italo follows him.
In this behavior there is a simple exchange of gestures. Italo appears. The Cheese reacts. Someone might venture to translate the Cheese’s swat as saying, “Get out of here!” or “Leave me alone!” but those would be pretty liberal translations. The Cheese cannot say either of those things. He’s irritated; he swats. Yet even that is an interpretation, a translation, which very much changes the actual character of what happened in front of me, because I can say that’s what happened and the Cheese can’t. So does it mean something? Did The Cheese mean anything? Possibly, in the future, when Italo gets bigger, he might swat back and then the Cheese will swat back again. In fact, outside the house, the Cheese might very well get into a full fledged fight (I’d venture territorial) with a cat near his size. That’s a different behavior in a different context, so let’s not go there yet. For now, a swat is a swat, a behavior.
Way back in 1934 a social psychologist named George Herbert Mead wrote a book entitled Mind, Self, & Society. The prevailing behaviorist back then was a man named John B. Watson and he believed what all behaviorists yet believe, that all behavior, both animal and human, is determined by genetics and environment and if we knew all the factors we could predict any behavior. The paradigm was Pavlov and his dogs that learned to salivate at the ringing of a bell after being fed when a bell was rung. Science didn‘t need to speculate about the soul or mind, things we couldn’t observe or prove, because a person’s thoughts or intentions (let alone an animal’s) were irrelevant to the scientific study of their behavior.
Mead regarded himself as a scientist, too. He was, as well, a Darwinist and very influenced by a late 19th century American school of philosophy called Pragmatism. He didn’t want to talk about the mind or the soul either, not in any spiritual way, though at the time, the early 20th century, in terms of behavior, the battle lines were yet continually drawn between the trenches of behavior/determinism and mind/free will (in fact this battle was fought along these lines well into the late 20th century when the philosophical choice was between B.F. Skinner and Jean Paul Sartre). But Mead didn’t like the ontological paradigm of behavior determined strictly by genetics and stimulus-response.
Mead was willing to concede that animal behavior was very much determined by genetics and environment, but he didn’t like that kind of mechanical, determinist model of the world. (for now, let’s avoid quantum physics and discoherence, i.e. indeterminacy, in discussing animal and human behavior). He preferred an organic model. If Watson saw the world like a machine, a clock, then Mead preferred the metaphor of a plant. His approach to behavior was not simply “this causes this.” He saw behavior, plant, animal, and human, as a dialogue of attitudes and gestures that mutually conditioned each other, which, for him, explained the growth and spontaneity we see all around us.
This was not an argument for animal consciousness. Mead was on his way to explain the development of language, of symbolic consciousness, by means of what he called the significant symbol. Use of significant symbols distinguished the human animal from all the others and permitted us to become self conscious, to develop a self concept through reflective social interaction. For Mead, mind was the human mind, an emergent characteristic of our symbolic consciousness, that is, language, a language in a culture into which we are born. The self arises when that mind encounters other beings and reflects on oneself as a version of them. And this can only be done in a society of other symbolically conscious human selves. How did it happen? Of course, it evolved.
So, when humans interacted with their environment, they did it reflectively; unlike animals, they could separate themselves from a given stimulus; they could consider, contemplate, predict, decide using significant symbols, therefore their behavior couldn’t be reduced to the behavioral model. But where did this leave animal consciousness? Back where we started. Animals were organic machines, like sophisticated, mobile plants with adaptive central nervous systems, and that was the case whether you believed, like Watson, that humans were organic machines, too, or like 16th century philosopher Rene Descartes who invented the Mind-Body distinction, that humans had souls or minds with thoughts, intentions or free will and animals did not, or like Mead, that humans evolved into language-using, self conscious social beings.
But on his way to doing what he did, Mead had to compare animal behavior to human behavior and show the difference. This is where he came upon the concept of the conversation of gestures (a phrase borrowed from a psychologist named Wundt), which is what Italo and the Cheese just did up there on the cat shelf. Cheese swats Italo. Italo backs up or swats back. The swat is a gesture and we see this kind of thing throughout the animal world: rams fighting, birds doing a mating dance. It’s not that the Cheese didn’t intend to swat Italo, it’s that it’s impossible for the Cheese to be aware of his intentions. That would require symbolic consciousness or language and, according to Mead, among many others, animals simply don’t have it.
For Mead, if I were to threaten to swat you by raising my hand, I would be communicating to you that I might strike you and simultaneously I would be aware that you understood it. As well, I would be anticipating your response based on our mutual understanding of my threat. For a human, the raised hand is a symbol, an abstract sign from someone to someone about something. If I say “Let’s take a walk” to you, you can understand and visualize the two of us walking together and decide whether you want to or not. My dog, says Mead, simply jumps up excitedly in conditioned reflex; she does not consider, she does not decide. I’ll return to this, because this is a distinction that isn’t as simple or distinct as Mead might have it.
Of course, we’re all aware of the counter examples: dolphins who seem to name their children, the songs of gray whales and birds, seal catching education among the orcas, the signing capabilities of gorillas, chimps, and bonobos, as well as their apparent ability to recognize themselves in mirrors; it would seem that elephants have exhibited that ability, too. But so far, though it might seem apparent to some of us that these animals are exhibiting the ability to think abstractly, no one has theorized how they might do it. We don’t, or barely, understand dolphins, whales, or birds, and likely their songs are not languages, not symbolic communication with a syntax that can adapt or change according to different contexts. The interactions of primates in the wild can be explained, if you’re determined enough, as mere conversations of gestures. The signing skills of apes raised by humans do not really demonstrate language, but the ability to respond to and manipulate tactile-visual cues from and to their owners, a little more complex than your dog who grabs your sneakers when you say walk. But of course, it’s something in between, isn’t it? What is it?
Are we humans the only thinking, feeling beings on earth? Well, signing primates aside, and some of their vocabularies are impressive, it’s probably at least as difficult to teach an animal to talk to us as it would be for a dog to teach us how to smell. Let’s go back to the Cheese at the bottom of my stairs, apparently meowing to me, who he cannot see, to come down and do something for him in a place where he isn’t. By any definition, the ability to think of something that isn’t right in front of you is the ability to hold an abstraction, to think abstractly. Is the Cheese doing that? And if so, how does he do it?