“When I play with my cat,” wrote French philosopher and essayist, Michel de Montaigne, “Who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.*”
That statement encompasses two very distinct paths of contemplation.
First is one of animal sentience. The recognition that animals are conscious, that they are sentient creatures, with feelings and intelligence, not simply biological machines, is fairly new. Most of our modern awareness of animal intelligence and consciousness comes only in the last century (although the debate was opened in Darwin’s time). The 17th-century philosopher, Rene Descartes, believed animals were machines that acted out of reflex only (or not… what he meant by his statements is a hotly debated issue, it appears – although the Cartesian view is still cited to justify use of animals in research).
Montaigne, writing almost 200 years before Descartes, recognizes that cats can play. Amuse themselves, have fun – just like people can. That strikes me as a considerable leap in understanding: play is the act of an intelligent, self-aware being, not an automata. Montaigne knew that cats were conscious.
The second thread is that of our own consciousness and what it can know of itself and the external world. Montaigne’s comment is remarkably akin to Chuang Tzu’s famous butterfly dream from the third century BCE:
Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou. Between Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is what is meant by the transformation of things.**
Who is the awakened, who is the dreamer in Montaigne’s statement? Is the cat or the writer the active player? Or are they actually cooperating in the act, a shared reality that neither holds independently without the other?
Sara Bakewell, writing in The Guardian, explains it:
One of Montaigne’s favourite hobbies was imagining the world from different perspectives…. At home, he extended his perspective-leaping to other species. “When I play with my cat”, he wrote, “who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” He borrowed her point of view in relation to him just as readily as he occupied his own in relation to her. And, as he watched his dog twitching in sleep, he imagined the dog creating a disembodied hare to chase in its dreams – “a hare without fur or bones”, just as real in the dog’s mind as Montaigne’s own images of Paris or Rome were when he dreamed about those cities. The dog had its inner world, as Montaigne did, furnished with things that interested him.
These were all extraordinary thoughts in Montaigne’s own time, and they remain so today. They imply an acceptance that other animals are very much like us, combined with an ability to wonder how differently they might grasp what they perceive.
Montaigne isn’t merely projecting himself into his cat. The question has greater reach: how does any of us really know what reality is? Is there even an objective reality outside our subjective viewpoint? Is there some objective reality that is separate from the observer or are effect and observer inseparable (the Schrodinger’s cat theorem…). And of course it leads back to Descartes and thus to the TED video posted at the top of this page.
What, after all, is reality and can we discover it? Timothy Leary philosophized about what he called the “reality tunnel” of subjective perspective:
The theory states that, with a subconscious set of mental filters formed from his or her beliefs and experiences, every individual interprets the same world differently, hence “Truth is in the eye of the beholder”.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” wrote Anais Nin, in her novel, The Seduction of the Minotaur, 1961
Can we really know what another person is thinking or feeling – let alone what a cat is thinking? We don’t even know for sure if another person sees the came colours or hears the same sounds as we do. And we assume there is some objective, measurable reality about such physical phenomena. So how can we know thoughts?
Montaigne, of course could not get into the mind of his cat any more than we can get into the mind of Montaigne. It was a rhetorical question, really, meant as an observation, or perhaps the starting point of a discourse on the subjective nature of reality. Unfortunately, he left that line alone and never followed through in a later essay to explore the thought further.