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From The Ark Number 195 - Winter 2003

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The Philosopher’s Dog
by Raymond Gaita
 Australia: The Text Publishing Company, 2002; London: Routledge, 2003, 214 pps, h/b ISBN 0415309077, £14.99

The dust cover discloses the nature of the contents - a picture of a dog, plus a quotation from JM Coetzee: ‘A book to give the kind of person who asks what philosophy is for.’ You can be seduced by the stories and anecdotes of animals known and loved by Gaita, into thinking the book an easy read – then blam! you’re in the middle of a full-blown philosophical meditation on such subjects as doubt and knowledge, story-telling and science, the nature of nature and meaning, and many more. These passages you have to go over, if you’re like me, at least a couple of times before they can be grasped.

But it is worth the effort to enjoy the company of a man like Gaita – a deeply humane man, as well as one of learning: Professor of Moral Philosophy at Kings College, London and of Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University. Through him we meet Jack the cockatoo, Orlaff and Gypsy, two beloved dogs, and Tosca the cat, as well as his father Romulus and wife Yael. I particularly warm to daughter Katie, aged four or five when, while watching a nature programme with her father which featured naked, ugly baby desert rodents, he commented on their awfulness. ‘With little hesitation, she replied that they were also God’s creatures.’ He was ‘humbled by her response, ashamed, in fact, that such simple words could show up the grossness of my attitude. I could think of no words better and at the same time so simple this wonderful acceptance of all living creatures.’

Gaita draws from, and admires, the work of JM Coetzee (see review of Coetzee’s book in The Ark no. 188, p.51) and Hannah Arendt, and engages with the philosophers Descartes, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard – but presumes no prior knowledge on the part of the reader. The book is a curious mix – scholarly, but without foot- or end-notes, autobiographical, but not systematically so, and focusing largely on animals with sympathy but no sentimentality. The questions Gaita asks are those which all who have been privileged with pets tend to ask: of what is the dog thinking when she is staring out at the horizon? Can animals experience guilt? Why do we treat sick and dead pets with more care and respect than we do with other animals, yet less than we do with family members? How can we respond to insects? Are we at the centre of the universe? Some of the answers he works out at one point he revisits later – with different conclusions. They are less ‘answers to problems’ so much as suggestions of how to think more intelligently about the questions.

Gaita considers that our reaction to the killing of people is bound to be of a different intensity from that to the killing of animals. That is why comparisons between the abattoir and the Holocaust can be offensive. ‘One [however] need not be susceptible to such extravagant comparisons in order fully to acknowledge that our cruelty to animals is abominable and to hope that future generations will find it so. One hopes that they will be incredulous that we could be so cruel, and that practices that are now current and unexceptionable will then be crimes.’

Love and respect are what we should apply to others – whether animal or human – not ‘rights’. The concept of rights falls short of the supernatural virtue of justice, which, as Gaita quotes Simone Weil, ‘"consists of behaving exactly as though there were equality when one is the stronger in an unequal relationship" … If the spirit of renunciation expressed in those fine remarks were to extend to our relations to animals and to nature, would we need a concept of rights in order to set limits to human arrogance?’

Deborah Jones

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