This is Just To Say (Cat plus Spinoza edition)

by John Holbo on January 9, 2010

I have been remiss in my posting duties! Ah well. Moving house (very nice, thank you.) Latest exciting event: the 8-year old brought home the class pet for the weekend. Class pets are not, I’ll wage, especially long-lived entities on average. Still, I can’t help feeling extremely guilty. Smallspice, our cat, is apparently an efficient disposer of turtles. We have not found the body. I suppose it could be an alien abuction. All evidence at the crime scene (there is surprisingly little) points to the cat. I have seen fit to pen a confession on her behalf. (No, I don’t think Photoshopping suspects into the crime scene constitutes evidence either. That’s not the point.)

In other news, I’m still preparing for my History of Modern Philosophy course and rereading Daniel Garber’s excellent Descartes Embodied: Reading Cartesian Philosophy through Cartesian Science [amazon]. I should distill stuff I’ve gotten from Garber (and others) into a post: four or five things going on in the background of Descartes’ Meditations that you can teach in about 20 minutes; that aren’t too hard to understand; that make reading this stuff easier.

But that’s not what I’ve got for you tonight. (Saturday nights are for jokes.) In his first chapter, “Does History Have A Future?” Garber makes some generally smart and correct (in my opinion) observations about the advantages and disadvantages of history of modern for life. He does so, in part, by picking on a remark by Jonathan Bennett in his (excellent) Spinoza book [amazon].

I do say that Spinoza’s total naturalistic program fails at both ends and in the middle; as though he undertook to build a sturdy mansion all out of wood, and achieved only a rickety shack using bricks, as well as wood. But his attempt was a work of genius; and a thorough, candid study of it can be wonderfully instructive. The failures have at least as much to teach as the successes, if one attends not only to where Spinoza fails but why.

Garber points out the (obvious, I think) ways in which this is actually pretty implausible as a view of the value of Spinoza, assuming the architectonic assessment is about right. Possibly out of respect for Bennett (which I heartily share) Garber does not really take note of just how damn hilarious the image is. It’s quite the inadvertently funniest philosophy I’ve read since that whole Lewd and Prude episode. My first thought was: Donald Barthelme really needed to write a short story about an earnest follower of an architect who is always trying to do one thing but then – out of sheer genius – perpetrating something far less, and different to the point of severe hazard. For which he is lavishly praised. Then it occurred to me: Terry Pratchett already did it. But “if it ain’t” Baruch “don’t fix it!” Spinoza may have been the first!

Possible dramatic developments along these lines: a PBS fixer-upper series, “This Old System”. Or a 1980’s Tom Hanks comedy, The Monad Pit. Discuss!

In praise of Jonathan Bennett: I am relying exclusively on his Early Modern Texts, for my primary text needs. And the more I look at what he’s done, simplifying and modernizing classic texts for student use, the more I like it. In particular, translating John Locke into English was a prodigious act of common sense, more than making up for any excesses committed in defense of Spinoza. (For a couple weeks there I was on the fence, thinking either you should make the kids read the original, extra commas, impertinent semicolons, elegantly plodding roundaboutness and funny old words and all; or you should just read a good secondary text account of what the original says. Then it occurred to me there really isn’t any reason why a middle ground isn’t best. Yes, it is. I’m now won over.) Early Modern Texts is a model of what so many overpriced textbooks are not. Good for Bennett!

{ 29 comments }

1

Ray Davis 01.09.10 at 7:15 pm

When I saw a title referencing WCW, Spinoza, and Cats, I was sure this was going to be a post about Zukofsky.

2

Jim Harrison 01.09.10 at 7:16 pm

Spinoza was, arguably, the most important philosopher of modern times–not the best, not the most important to other philosophers; but the man whose ideas had the greatest historical impact. Reading the bit from Bennett about him, I was reminded of umpteen passages reprinted in Jonathan Israel’s books on the Enlightenment. For a hundred years after the publication of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, not only every defender of orthodoxy but most of the moderate reformers took a turn at damning Spinoza with faint praise in a style reminiscent of Bennett’s paragraph. In fact, since Spinoza’s works were vigorously suppressed, many people influenced by him learned of his ideas through their ineffectual refutations. I assume that Bennett is not writing in a spirit of “know your enemy,” but I do think that the Spinozist philosophy remains virulent to this day–the year before he died at age 92, my father admitted to me that he had been a Spinozist since he read the Ethics at UCLA. It was like he was confessing to having been a secret red.

3

Wrye 01.09.10 at 7:50 pm

I am much more in favor of gerbils as class pets, as they all look alike, and thus are easily replaced when they mysteriously vanish from their cage and a cat is in the vicinity. Turtles are a bit harder to do this trick with. Though you may want to try.

4

kid bitzer 01.09.10 at 8:48 pm

it is unlikely that your cat ingested any spinozan flat-worms by eating the turtle.

however, it is not at all unlikely that it ingested salmonella, this being fairly endemic in pet turtles.
http://www.cdc.gov/Features/TurtlesSalmonella/

so watch kitty’s health, and maybe go easy on the cat-human contact for a bit.

5

Phillip Hallam-Baker 01.09.10 at 9:01 pm

Shroedinger’s turtle?

The box has an additional partition containing a turtle. The mechanism is configured so that in the case the poison is not released, the cat gets to eat the turtle. So either the turtle or the cat is alive, but not both.

6

Matt 01.09.10 at 9:27 pm

I think that the cat should demand a jury of its peers:

http://icanhascheezburger.com/2010/01/08/funny-pictures-cat-jury-duty/

More seriously, how would you compare what Bennett has done w/ Locke, et. al., to what Curley did with Hobbes? I’m a huge fan of the latter, but haven’t really looked at the Bennett texts. (I do wish Curley had kept spelling “war” as “ware”, though, because I find it fun to try to say “war” with an extra “e” sound on the end.)

7

Kenny Easwaran 01.09.10 at 11:22 pm

I should distill stuff I’ve gotten from Garber (and others) into a post: four or five things going on in the background of Descartes’ Meditations that you can teach in about 20 minutes; that aren’t too hard to understand; that make reading this stuff easier.

Please do this some time soon! I’ll be having my students read some Descartes in a few weeks, and it’s probably the material I’m least familiar with for the first half of my course.

8

Fortuna 01.10.10 at 1:02 am

There should be an extra turtle around somewhere…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down

9

alex 01.10.10 at 8:16 am

Wow, I really hope none of the kids who might actually have liked the turtle see that.

10

bad Jim 01.10.10 at 8:58 am

Just thinking this through: there ought to be remains. Turtles have been around for hundreds of millions of years because they’re not that easy to kill. The shells are fairly indigestible, so if you can’t find a corpse you may have a fugitive.

My brother had a big python which disappeared for a few months and was eventually found behind the refrigerator, quite healthy. Reptiles, like any poikilotherm, can go a long time between meals.

11

Chris Grealy 01.10.10 at 7:38 pm

Who could possibly have foreseen that a vile nasty vicious predator would off a poor defenseless reptile?

12

Moby Hick 01.10.10 at 7:58 pm

so if you can’t find a corpse you may have a fugitive.

Or at the very least, a very unpleasant smell that you will have to locate and eliminate. Jim is right about the shell. The cat probably didn’t get that open, whether or not it killed the turtle.

13

AJ 01.10.10 at 8:14 pm

Sick of his life being ferried from schoolchild to schoolchild, the Turtle after years studying his box figured out how to open it.
However intelligent as turtles are, he waited until he was in a house with a ready made fall guy for his disappearance.
The Fall Guy being your Cat…..

Dont overlook the possibility either that the turtle may have been one of those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who can escape anything.

14

rea 01.10.10 at 8:35 pm

My brother had a big python which disappeared for a few months and was eventually found behind the refrigerator, quite healthy.

Similarly, our cat knocked the hamster cage off a shelf. The cage broke open, and the hamster’s fate was at first unknown, although the cat’s complacency did not suggest a happy ending.

Three months later, however, the hamster turned up, fat and happy, inside an extra large bag of dried catfood in the pantry.

15

marcel 01.10.10 at 9:12 pm

Matt @ 9:27PM wrote:

More seriously, how would you compare what Bennett has done w/ Locke, et. al., to what Curley did with Hobbes? I’m a huge fan of the latter, but haven’t really looked at the Bennett texts.

To many of us, I think, the following reads better, makes much more sense, and, as far as the one factual claim, is more generally accurate.

More seriously, how would you compare what Bennett has done w/ Locke, et. al., to what Calvin did with Hobbes? I’m a huge fan of the latter, but haven’t really looked at the Bennett texts.

16

John Holbo 01.11.10 at 1:12 am

‘Cat’ short for ‘Catullus’ is good. Good idea for a character who goes through most of the story with the nickname Cat – Cat Power, Cat Stevens. Then it turns out his parents named him Catullus.

As to turtles. I suspect that the cat grabbed it and took it outside to finish it off. In fact, I remember a moment in which the cat flashed by me out the door with uncharacteristic headlong haste Рpossibly a function of what the Germans call Shildkr̦tefressenschuld, and rightly so! So the lack of a corpse is not too surprising.

We (Belle, to be precise) went to the pet store and bought a replacement yesterday. The kids were quite happy with it when I delivered it this morning (making no attempt to disguise the switcheroo). one turtle is apparently much like another.

As to Bennett/Curley, I don’t know the Curley and so cannot say.

As to the generally unsanitary nature of turtles. This is all true (apparently). And yet: I live on the first floor in the tropics and geckos have been running around on my ceilings and floors and counter surfaces for years. We clean them as best we can, of course. One more turtle, give or take, will not make things too much worse. (And cats in this area eat geckos fairly regularly, so I won’t worry too much about the cat.) If I worried as much about salmonella as I really ought to, I think I would just sit in the closet and quiver. In this climate.

That’s pretty awesome about the hamster. The snake is less surprising.

17

John Holbo 01.11.10 at 1:12 am

And I will try to have that post up, per Kenny’s request, by today.

18

Moby Hick 01.11.10 at 3:21 am

As to turtles. I suspect that the cat grabbed it and took it outside to finish it off.

I hadn’t thought of that. I keep forgetting that the whole world isn’t face-numbing cold right now.

19

arc 01.11.10 at 3:49 am

I think my favourite Spinoza commentator is the one that bagged contemporary analytic philosophy for being given over to ‘castrated empiricism’ in his preface.

Unfortunately I’ve got no idea who this was, or of what precisely he meant by it and google hasn’t informed me either. I don’t know what he said about Spinoza either (although my source claimed he was good).

It’s just a, um… ballsy thing to say.

20

nona mouse 01.11.10 at 6:11 am

I thought turtles were reasonably protected against predation? What is the point of all that shell if it doesn’t help you against a housecat?

One odd thing about turtles is that they often disappear, even if you don’t have a cat. Turtles get surprisingly far–or else end up under beds, couches, etc. People don’t think to watch them. I would hunt for the turtle before you give up on it.

21

John Holbo 01.12.10 at 5:31 am

Breaking news! Crystal the turtle showed up alive and well and living in the backyard! (I still suspect the cat of attempted mayhem and transporting a minor turtle across state lines, as it were. But at least now she is acquitted of murder. Probably due that good ol’ shell, yes.)

22

roac 01.12.10 at 3:38 pm

So does the school now have two turtles? Or will the cat be getting a further shot at Crystal?

23

John Holbo 01.13.10 at 1:12 am

I think the result is that we are going to get to keep the turtle that we bought to replace Crystal, who will be returning to school.

24

Substance McGravitas 01.13.10 at 1:22 am

Names? Turtullius? Substiturtle?

25

Bill Benzon 01.13.10 at 3:02 am

Phoenix the turtle?

26

roac 01.13.10 at 4:04 am

I just wanted to add that if the Germans have an equivalent of the Académie Française, and if they give an award for Best New Word of the Year, Schildkrötefressenschuld ought to be a mortal lock.

27

roac 01.13.10 at 4:09 am

Also there should be an award for Best Translation of William Carlos Williams into LOLCat, and John would win that one hands down also. (I just noticed. Sorry to be so slow.)

28

bad Jim 01.13.10 at 7:58 am

Since I earlier instanced my brother, who has since reminded me that the python was found under the sofa, not the fridge, and fatter than it had been, I should note that his new wife came with a large African tortoise, Huey, who is inclined to go walkabout at any opportunity. (One day I was cuddling my infant nephew when something I caught in the corner of my eye screamed “Dinosaurs!” when it was just the tortoise toddling over the threshold. Odd.)(And they did test him for staph; he was clean.)

As for names, I’d follow Carroll and call Crystal “A Kill-Ease”. As to its replacement:

Welcome! my bonie, sweet, wee dochter,
Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for,
And tho’ your comin’ I hae fought for,
Baith kirk and queir;
Yet, by my faith, ye’re no unwrought for,
That I shall swear!

That would be a Betty, a Betsy, a Lizzie, Eliza, Beth. How about Turtle Beta?

29

Tim Wilkinson 01.13.10 at 11:46 am

In other names: ‘Philip’, as in Enoch Arden, doesn’t quite work, since Crystal is to retake her rightful place – Bianca would be closer. The (supposed) sex would match too.

I think we may ask – has this tortoise anything to do with the grand themes of life?*

On the doppelganger theme, and with Streeb-Greebling still in the air from another thread, see also this splendid late-blooming chunk of (blasphemous) improv.

*UK pronunciation: tortus, or (at this point may as well exsploil fully) ‘taught us’.

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