Elizabeth Costello and Nagel, or What is it like to be a cat?

Elizabeth Costello, much to the annoyance of her analytical philosopher daughter-in-law, uses Thomas Nagel’s essay as a foil to her own argument that we can empathise with other creatures, that we are not prevented by our different conceptual equipment from getting under their skin; nor does the supposed superiority of human reason over other ways of being give us dominion over them, in a hierarchy of “sentience” borrowed from the Great Chain of Being, perhaps along the line taken by Peter Singer. This presumably misses Nagel’s point (his essay is currently heading my way on the banana boat). It also suggests a practical exercise in empathy: what do I know of the inner life of my cats (or you of your pet snake)? The word “inner” won’t quite do. I recently eradicated a termite infestation in my daughter’s room without any compunction at all, despite my admiration for the social insects and their capacity to organise themselves into something beyond the sum of those six-legged parts. That touches on another question in the philosophy of mind (is the mind an emergent property?), but that is merely to take the termite as a thought-provoking example, as Nagel perhaps does with bats. The fascination I experience lies on the contrary in the attempt to bridge the gap to the particularity of that milling community and its social atoms, even if epistemology dooms it from the start. A similar case is Mead‘s analysis of the Self in terms of what he thought could be deduced from observing dogs scrapping; it is important whether he is right and whether his speculations can be empirically justified in that or some other way.

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