The author of Straw Dogs, famous for his provocative critiques of scientific hubris and the delusions of progress and humanism, turns his attention to cats―and what they reveal about humans' torturous relationship to the world and to themselves.
... engaging ... a good example of writing what you know ... the notion that there are distinctively human characteristics that somehow elevate us above all other animals is a pervasive and tenacious one. In Feline Philosophy, Gray attacks this idea with originality and dexterity, through the medium of the cat ... He brings to life what he sees as the essential nature, or soul, of the cat, through an examination of the lives of individual cats – fictional, historical and mythological ... I do wonder, however, whether the idea of self-awareness is really at the heart of the issues with which Gray grapples and, if it is, whether it is not a symptom of something deeper. I am pretty sure that Gray’s cats are self-aware. I’m almost as sure that Gray believes they are self-aware, too. A form of self-awareness goes hand in hand with having any conscious experience ... it does make one wonder how Gray’s arguments might have differed had his choice of companion animal been a more social creature. I wonder, too, how much of the exceptional work Gray has produced in the preceding decades has been entangled with his choice of animal companion. Rereading Gray in this light, we might find not only an engaging subversion of contemporary mores and unquestioned sacred cows, but also a portal into another world and another way of being, alien to us yet comprehensible to those with sufficient familiarity – 30 years of familiarity in Gray’s case – with its denizens ... engaging, amusing, perceptive and untimely, in the most admirable Nietzschean sense. This is a history of human thought and civilisation as it might have been written by a feline philosopher – if cats had ever discovered a need for philosophy.
Feline Philosophy shares a core with those previous books, but its advice is offered with a lighter touch than the very serious, Cassandra-like pronouncements he usually favors. This time he makes reference to essays by Mary Gaitskill, Pascal and Montaigne, among others, and reflects on some cat-centric fiction by Patricia Highsmith and Colette. His literary treatments are appropriately fleet-footed; he hops from text to text, never alighting on any one for very long ... Gray has written so brilliantly about the perils of anthropomorphism in his other books that it’s surprising to see the rank anthropomorphism he deploys in this one — only instead of projecting human qualities onto cats, he projects the qualities he wants humans to have.
Predictably, this new account of what cats can teach us about how to live corresponds closely with what the philosopher John Gray has been teaching us about how to live for the past few decades. Although his previous works contain occasional hints about what he considers to be the good life, this is his most direct pounce at the subject. If, like me, you consider him to be one of the most important thinkers alive, you will be eager to know what he has to say (although you can probably guess at the book’s thrust) ... The book is full of anecdotes about various loveable and impressive cats, but they are most compelling to the reader (well, this reader) as symbols of a life lived without illusions. And you know Gray: whenever he sees someone clinging to an illusion he goes and stamps on their fingers ... In our pious age his attack on the cheap solace of moral convictions is invigorating ... It’s a mark of the book’s subtlety that you’re not quite sure how seriously to take him.