For I will consider my cat Alice. (Not my cat; my daughter’s, though I pay her keep.) Alice is a servant of the living God duly and daily serving him.

Mostly she serves by pouncing on my bed at the first glance of the glory of God in the East, wreaths her body with elegant quickness until she finds a place to rest, purring all the while in loud thankfulness. Today, she served me as a handmaid of philosophy.

This morning, I was reading quietly, with Alice settled next to me. Outside it was raining, and there was a terrible Idaho wind. She perked at the wind, decided that it was harmless, and quieted.

Then I began to sing my daily Psalms, and she came alive. Our other cat, Gracie, typically runs to the door to be let out when I start singing. We’ve tested this, and she definitely dislikes my singing. Alice didn’t run away. Instead, she began rubbing her head against my hand, climbing up into my lap. She was responding to a human voice, to song.

Her reaction was not merely a response to sound. Other sounds were audible. It was not merely a response to a new sound, because she remained agitated as long as I was singing. It was perhaps a response to a sound coming from me, the sound of a human voice.

But was it perhaps a response to language per se ? Domesticated animals learn to respond to commands, and to discriminate among different commands. A trained dog can distinguish “Roll over” from “sit.”

All of which means that animals have more linguistic capacity than is often credited, and all of which needs to be figured into any understanding of human language. Might we, for example, say that “composition” or “creativity” rather than “understanding” is the distinctive human linguistic ability?

Because it’s clear that Alice, like Christopher Smart’s cat Jeoffry “can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.”

More on: Philosophy

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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