If cats are conscious but not self-conscious—that is, if they do not split experience in two and constitute an inner self which stands at one remove from all other perceptions—they show us how much we overestimate the importance of self-awareness and subjectivity. They are extraordinarily varied in personality and habits; Leo and Oliver are littermates and have never been apart. Yet their preferences are as different as their markings, and though both are very affectionate their ways of seeking attention and responding to it are so different that one might think they were of two different species. ZouZou, the cat in the picture, who died a year or so before Leo and Oliver were born, was obsessed with a toy fashioned of a plexiglass rod and a strip of tie-dyed fleece, and rather than come downstairs to eat she would sit next to it and wait for someone to move it. When we finally hid it she waited at its last visible location for days before returning to her usual feeding schedule. We all know people who exhibit similar personality traits, fears, and quasi-addictive behavior, which we try to resolve by encouraging them to recompose their autobiographical narratives, but we see many of the same traits and issues in animals who have no autobiographical narratives at all.

This is not to say that their awareness is without knowledge, or that their knowledge does not encompass limited forms of narrative explanation. Cats know their humans just as they know other cats and other animals, and they know, too, that humans can alter conditions of interest to them. They also know that we can do this if addressed. Cats have their own specialized technique for demanding change. They meow at us, which they do not do with other adult cats.

A cat left outside will often address a passing stranger, presumably because as a human she must know how to open doors. These addresses can even take the form of short conversations. ZouZou’s favorite perch was the bathroom window, from which she could watch and listen to bird. During the winter we had it closed, of course, and several times a week the following would play out:

ZouZou (walking into bathroom, looking at window, then us): MEOW.

Us: No, ZouZou. It’s too cold to open the window.

ZouZou: MEOW!!!

Us: Really, ZouZou. We can’t open the window. It’s winter.

ZouZou (turning aside and on her way out the door, muttering): meow meow meow….

It is unacceptable anthropomorphism to think that she understood what we were saying, but it is not inappropriate to assume that she knew that we could make the widow available, that she could communicate her desire that we do so, and that she understood, in this instance at least, that we were not going to accede to her request. It was a non-linguistic conversation but a conversation all the same: two parties responding to one another around a common topic.

What it also shows is that ZouZou treated us as agents. Because cats entertain no ideas about themselves they do not see themselves as such; they act, purely and directly, and their grounds for action are spread throughout their experience without being localized within any kind of subjectivity. Their realm of experience, though, is a structured one, and along with food, comfortable sitting places, and patches of light and warmth, it encompasses active agents—other cats, prey, predators, and of course humans. Cats have expectations about these agents, and for humans, in particular, they clearly have time-spanning expectations, chains of habitual or potential events that they can try to set in motion by a meow, a touch of the paw, a turn of the head, or a graceful rub along an ankle. Many animals, even some spiders, know what certain other animals will do, or may do, and that too is a rudimentary ascription of agency. They have no theory of mind, but they act in ways that presume that others have their own intentions.

If this is the case—and I think it is at least plausible—it has implications for human life and thought. For there is every reason to suppose that we share a similar and similarly structured pre-conscious life. As Fichte had argued, what we tear ourselves away from in constituting the sense of selfhood is a dense interweaving of intention and response. We cannot be aware of those processes, of course, because we cannot be conscious of anything outside the blinding but partial light of self-consciousness. What we know through embodied knowledge is simply given to us in action. But we know it all the same, and this explains, or rather dissolves, the perennial problem of other minds.

We are unshakably convinced that the people we encounter are self-conscious and free agents like ourselves, but nothing seems to justify that confidence. This problem vanishes, though, if our awareness of other minds is prior to our awareness of our own. We always already live in a world where others are agents, just as our cats do, and as we constitute ourselves as selves we figure our self-conscious individual agency on the embodied model of those around us, those who can alter the states of things and who have the freedom to act or not to act. We extend this pre-verbal understanding of others to the selves we form and shape. And because we do not generalize from us to them, but instead from them to us, we cannot doubt their freedom and agency without doubting our own. Fichte’s problematic theory of the “summons” hints at something similar: that we need other rational agents to show us that we are free.

Western philosophy and science have not ignored our commonalities with other beings, and what we share and where we diverge from them have been explained in a variety of ways. We have portrayed ourselves as brutes endowed with reason, or as emotional beings able to discipline our feelings through logic. Darwin saw self-conscious activity as supplementing the operation of our physical drives, allowing us to override urges to immediate gratification in the interests of social virtues. These days it is frequently argued that we act on cortical processes which overlay the reptilian limbic system that rules the lives of other creatures.

These explanations acknowledge the continuing vitality of more “primitive” systems, but none can explain self-consciousness itself, because this is not a capacity but a framing of mental space, a withdrawal from experience that lets us look at it with the eyes of a stranger. In Fichte’s memorably strange language, positing is an act in which an eye is inserted. Self-consciousness does not arise though the introspective discovery of a rational mind or the operations of the cortex. It does not depend on or uncover a pre-existing gap between self and world. It makes that gap. We lay claim to a portion of a shared process as if it were our own. We forge ourselves into selves and thereby alienate ourselves from the rest of that process and even from our own bodies, over which our self-asserted mastery always ultimately fails.

Discursive knowledge depends on this self-making, but the price we pay is a perpetually reenacted Fall. We tear the skein of experience into two opposed entities, and the resulting tensions drive us to unify what we ourselves have torn in two.  One of Fichte’s most fruitful arguments was that all human activity strives to resolve this self-made and self-making split. Every organism acts to unite in different ways with food, with mates, and so on. The peculiar restlessness of humans runs deeper and has a wider scope; we want to heal the wound of Amfortas and return to Eden, through art and music, drunkenness and violence, the ecstasy of mutual love, revolution, social transformation, and philosophy and religion as well. Much good has come of these struggles. So has much evil.

There are time-honored techniques for opening human experience to what lies outside of and undergirds self-consciousness—asceticism, chanting, a derangement of the senses, long meditative practice. These claim to offer insight into or unification with a spiritual world, or at least the assurance that such a world exists, but what they really turn us towards is our shared embodied life, which is always flowing through and shaping us, which we ourselves are always shaping, which we can feel in the flesh but never bring forth into consciousness. For Tamils, the anthropologist Margaret Trawick has said, “the experience of life itself, the multiplicity of finite sensations given by the body, is the most general form assumed by the hidden, infinite sacred.” That ungraspable yet formative movement is Fichte’s noumenon, and it shines forth of its own the moment we stop thinking it into one shape or another.

Here is one technique: to critique and dispel the sense of living inside a head, and indeed the sense of being any “thing” whatsoever, which unconsciously echoes Fichte’s pedagogical technique of turning his students’ attention to “that which is thinking the wall:”[i]

When I look within, when I turn my attention 180 degrees from objects over there to where I am, I find that I am not a coloured, limited thing in the world, but rather a colourless, unchanging capacity for the world, exactly as described by Zen. Is this the much sought-after ‘void’ that is referred to by contemplative traditions across times and cultures?

Call it what you will—the void, bliss, or light—this is surely akin to the vivid presence in which egoless animals live and move.

They are still in the Eden from which we exiled ourselves, after all. Red in tooth and claw their lives can be, but cats, crows, cockroaches, and caracaras are nevertheless all prelapsarian. None of them has tasted of the tree of good and evil, none of them knows shame, and all have the purity of heart that comes from willing a single thing. The god of Genesis gave us dominion over them, to name them and rule them, but other traditions see them as sharing in the divine, even as gods themselves. This can seem bizarre to Western eyes, but it is not at all unreasonable. Animals live the embraided life of the whole, taken just as it comes. We see and can accomplish more, but their world is real in a way that ours can never be. As Aby Warburg was told in Hopi territory, “Men can only do in part what the animal is, totally.”[ii]

Religious doctrines all fail; they try to speak about what can only be betrayed by language and self-consciousness. Their practices, though, help us dance to the silent music of our interwoven lives, Hegel’s Bacchanalian revel in which no member is not drunken but which is at the same time “transparent and simple repose.”[iii] And cats “tread to all the measures” of that music. In their movement and rest alike they body forth the pure delight of being alive, unconcealed behind images and unshadowed by expectation or thought. Christopher Smart saw God’s light about his cat Jeoffry, “both wax and fire,” and we can see something akin to that, in a shared glance, “heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness,” or in a glimpse of their “mixture of gravity and waggery.” Smart may or may not have been mad, but he knew well and sanely that cats are “good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.”


[i]  Steffens, Henrik. The Story of my Career as a Student at Freiberg and Jena, and as Professor at Halle, Breslau and Berlin, tr. Gage (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1863), p. 39.

[ii]  Aby Warburg, Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians, trans. Michael P. Steinberg (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 19. I am not related to the translator.

[iii] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1977), p. 27, sec. 47.