John Gray: 'What can we learn from cats? Don't live in an imagined future'

Tim Adams
·15-min read

What’s it like to be a cat? John Gray has spent a lifetime half-wondering. The philosopher – to his many fans the intellectual cat’s pyjamas, to his critics the least palatable of furballs – has had feline companions at home since he was a boy in South Shields. In adult life – he now lives in Bath with his wife Mieko, a dealer in Japanese antiquities – this has principally been two pairs of cats: “Two Burmese sisters, Sophie and Sarah, and two Birman brothers, Jamie and Julian.” The last of them, Julian, died earlier this year, aged 23. Gray, currently catless, is by no means a sentimental writer, but his new book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, is written in memory of their shared wisdom.

Other philosophers have been enthralled by cats over the years. There was Schrödinger and his box, of course. And Michel de Montaigne, who famously asked: “When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?” The rationalist René Descartes, Gray notes, once “hurled a cat out of the window in order to demonstrate the absence of conscious awareness in non-human animals; its terrified screams were mechanical reactions, he concluded.”

One impulse for this book was a conversation with a fellow philosopher, who assured Gray that he “had taught his cat to be vegan”. (Gray had only one question: “Did the cat ever go out?” It did.) When he informed another philosopher that he was writing about what we can learn from cats, that man replied: “But cats have no history.” “And,” Gray wondered, “is that necessarily a disadvantage?”

Elsewhere, Gray has written how Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed “if lions could talk we would not understand”, to which the zookeeper John Aspinall responded: “He hasn’t spent long enough with lions.” If cats could talk, I ask Gray, do you think we would understand?

“Well, the book is in some ways an experiment in that respect,” he says. “Of course, it’s not a scientific inquiry. But if you live with a cat very closely for a long time – and it takes a long time, because they’re slow to trust, slow to really enter into communication with you – then you can probably imagine how they might philosophise.”

Gray believes that humans turned to philosophy principally out of anxiety, looking for some tranquillity in a chaotic and frightening world, telling themselves stories that might provide the illusion of calm. Cats, he suggests, wouldn’t recognise that need because they naturally revert to equilibrium whenever they’re not hungry or threatened. If cats were to give advice, it would be for their own amusement.

Readers of Gray will recognise this book as a postscript or coda to Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, the 2002 bestseller in which he elegantly dismantled the history of western philosophy – with its illusory faith in our species living somehow “above” evolving life and outside the constraints of nature. That book aimed its fire particularly at the prevailing belief of our time: that of the inevitably steady forward progress of humankind brought about by liberal democracy. When the book came out, as George W Bush was demanding “regime change” in Iraq, it struck a particular nerve. In the two decades since, its argument that the advance of rational enlightened thought might not offer any kind of lasting protection against baser tribal instincts or environmental destruction or human folly has felt like prophecy.

Gray never bought the idea that his book was a handbook for despair. His subject was humility; his target any ideology that believed it possessed anything more than doubtful and piecemeal answers to vast and changing questions. The cat book is written in that spirit. If like me you read with a pencil to hand, you will be underlining constantly with a mix of purring enjoyment and frequent exclamation marks. “Consciousness has been overrated,” Gray will write, coolly. Or “the flaw in rationalism is the belief that human beings can live by applying a theory”. Or “human beings quickly lose their humanity but cats never stop being cats”. He concludes with a 10-point list of how cats might give their anxious, unhappy, self-conscious human companions hints “to live less awkwardly”. These range from “never try to persuade human beings to be reasonable”, to “do not look for meaning in your suffering” to “sleep for the joy of sleeping”.

Most of the things that happen to us are pure chance. We struggle with the idea that there is no hidden meaning to find

Does he see that 10-point plan, offered half in earnest (“as a cat would offer it”) as an answer to those people who criticised Straw Dogs for offering little in place of what it debunked?

“Yes, yes,” Gray says, in his engaged and friendly voice, that still carries a north-east inflection (he chose the theme of When the Boat Comes In as one of his desert island discs). “Many people didn’t like Straw Dogs. The criticism was that I swept the board of philosophy and left nothing standing. I should say that I got some wonderful responses from people who weren’t philosophers. For example, three over the years, from war correspondents who said that adapting to what they’d witnessed, the trauma, had been one of the great struggles of their lives. And somehow my book helped them.”

It helped them because it removed the pressure to make terrible and tragic things meaningful?

“Exactly. I would say that a lot of torment in our lives comes from that pressure for finding meaning. Unless you adopt a transcendental faith which imagines a wholly other world where meaning is secure from any accident, most of the things that happen to us are pure chance. We struggle with the idea that there is no hidden meaning to find. We can’t become cats in that sense – we probably will need to always have the disposition to tell ourselves stories about our lives – but I would suggest a library of short stories is better than a novel.”

In these three-tiered times our original plan for this interview was to meet and sit outside a cafe in Bath – Gray, 72, is wary of inside – but the forecast suggested we’d have got soaked, so we have retreated, catlike, indoors, and to Zoom. In some ways, I suggest, Gray’s is the perfect book for the estranging oddness of the pandemic. How has he coped?

“I’ve tried to emulate what I recall of my wonderful cat Julian,” he says. “Which is, not to live in an imagined future. We simply don’t know how this is going to develop. And of course, the political response in most places, and certainly here, has been shambolic. But that inability to come up with a clear response reflects, I think, something deep: that even the most well-developed systems of knowledge always leave an enormous amount of uncertainty.”

Alarm bells must have gone off for Gray when Dominic Cummings started promoting the powers of “super-forecasting”, while the government appeared unable to predict what was likely to happen the following day?

“Yes, they did. I think “super-forecasting” is possible only in a very few limited fields. Hardly anyone has forecasted the biggest events in my lifetime. And, more importantly, most of the really big events were not considered even to be within the range of reasonable possibilities. I remember back in the early 2000s, asking various economists and bigwigs if there could be a global banking crisis and the idea was universally dismissed. Only one even said: ‘I don’t think so, but you never know.’”

If we are hopeless at imagining the future, we are, I suggest, brilliant at recasting the suddenly weird present to make it seem normal?

HS2 was always a mistake, says Gray, but now ‘huge numbers are never going to travel for work again’. Photograph: Maureen McLean/REX/Shutterstock

“That has happened, although I think it’s partly on the assumption that many people still have that there will be a ‘normal’ to go back to. I don’t think that’s at all plausible. I think some of the changes that have occurred in the course of this six months might usually take six years or 60 years. Some of these may prove benign in a rich country, which Britain still is, but not so much for the more marginal populations in Brazil or India, say.”

Take HS2, Gray suggests. “Always a mistake for cost and environmental reasons, but now it’s surreal, because huge numbers are never going to travel for work again, not in the way that they did. There is kind of a lag built into politics – in which adapting to a radically changed circumstance is easier to do in practice for individuals than for governments.” Cats, he says, returning to our theme, don’t have stories to which they get deeply attached. “Of course, you may say that’s because they haven’t got the intellectual capacity, but I think it’s just as likely they’re not interested.”

That lack of interest in holding on to particular stories has led Gray over the years to some curious places politically. He grew up in a strong old Labour house on Tyneside, where his father worked on the docks as a carpenter and his mother kept the home. Witnessing that close community being broken up in the 1960s – Victorian streets bulldozed, and residents moved into brutal “utopian” housing schemes built under the criminal Labour council leader T Dan Smith – gave Gray a lasting distrust of all grandiose projects selling the idea of progress.

He has formed the belief since then that “politics is a succession of temporary and partial remedies for permanent and recurring human evil”. His two central intellectual friendships were with the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin, whose family had fled Soviet Russia, and with the novelist JG Ballard, who spent his childhood in a Japanese prison facility. Both helped to convince Gray that any political movement that believed it possessed a monopoly of wisdom, had gulags or concentration camps priced in. (In his most famous provocation, aping Jonathan Swift, Gray wrote a satirical “modest proposal” that called for the urgent reintroduction of torture to protect human rights in western democracies; Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition quickly followed.)

Gray has consistently voted flexibly, for what he sees as the lesser of two political evils at any political moment. “Had I been around, I would have strongly supported the Attlee government in 1945,” he says, but by the 1970s, he believed that postwar Labour settlement had become unwieldy and corrupt. Setting himself against most of the university academy, he supported Thatcher as a necessary corrective in British political history. “But then it turned into another ‘universal project’, certainly by 1989. And I would say I started jumping off in about 1987.” He was in favour of New Labour for a while, before abandoning the idea of that project for the same reasons.

In the last election he voted Conservative, persuaded in part, he says, by that need to get Brexit done, and laughing now at the delusional hypocrisy of “democrats”, who wanted a second referendum “without the option that people had voted for the first time even on the paper!” That was never going to end well, in his eyes – and neither too was the European Union itself, with its grand schemes and projects.

Protesters calling for a second referendum on Brexit
Protesters calling for a second referendum on Brexit, something John Gray saw as a delusional hypocrisy. Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP via Getty Images

“I was interviewed in the early 90s, by a Polish newspaper,” Gray says. “They asked, ‘What do you think will come after the new [Thatcherite] right that had emerged after the fall of communism in eastern Europe?’ And I said, ‘Probably the old right’. The idea of a Europe-wide economic space was from day one a very capitalist project. And given that communism had imploded, where was the backlash against the European Union going to come from? It would have to come from the right – and that is what has happened.”

Gray predicted the election victory of Trump in 2016 for something like the same reasons – “the feeling of abandonment, and disrespect in large parts of the working population” had to go somewhere – and suggests that even in the event of a Biden victory next month, those forces will not be silenced. Human beings, particularly in extremis, should never be expected to make rational choices. “As Bertrand Russell pointed out, the first world war, when it started, was welcomed largely as an interruption of boredom.”

Cats don’t appear to get bored, because in Gray’s terms it would never occur to them to struggle to be happy. Humans, on the other hand, “are self-divided creatures whose lives are mostly spent on displacement activity”. Much of this displacement activity is a product of that other disabling difference to their feline companions, the certain knowledge of death. Gray is, typically, both irreligious and anti-atheist, reserving genial contempt for the likes of Richard Dawkins, and their censorious belief “that religion can be simply erased”.

The point of the voice I have in books is to trigger a process of thought in some readers whose outcome is uncertain

Gray believes that our innate need to explain mortality and suffering with imagination and myth is far too fundamental. “I don’t have an idea of God or anything but I find the idea that you could wipe the slate clean of that impulse to be ridiculous. I once met in America a Christian fundamentalist, who told me in all seriousness that if young people were brought up in a completely chaste environment, they wouldn’t experience sexual urges until they got married.” He laughs loudly. “That’s exactly what Dawkins thinks about religion. Myth-making has been a part of every single human culture in history, why would we imagine that it is disappearing from our own?”

Gray writes with great amusement in this book and elsewhere of the stubborn gap between philosophers’ higher ideals and the more animal instincts of their lives, but he genially resists any autobiographical reading of his own life or thinking. He has a few catch-all defences to more personal questions – “I tend to think my life is not that interesting,” and so on. (To which one’s cynical instinct is to think: “The philosopher does not reflect much on his own life? Yeah, right.”) I ask him at one point if he thinks that being childless has had any bearing on his thinking, but he shuts down that line of inquiry, with his only vaguely curt reply in two hours of wide-ranging cat chat: “I tend not to talk about that aspect of my life.”

I wonder if he chose to live in Bath for the same reasons he suggests Schopenhauer chose to live in Frankfurt for the last decades of his life: “no floods, better cafes and good dentists”?

He laughs. “Well the dentists seem pretty good.” He came to Bath after leaving academic life – having been a professor of politics at Oxford, he was for a decade professor of European thought at the London School of Economics – to become “a freelance writer”. “I was looking for a walking city,” he says. “And I like the fact here that if you look up you can see trees.” The liberation from academia has given him more liberty, he suggests, to write exactly as he pleases, cat-like.

“If you’re an academic, before you say anything at all, you have to give about 20 caveats,” he says. “And when I was a professional academic, I used to do that. But now I take a different view. I just say I’m just putting this out for you to consider. Don’t throw it away – or if you do at least give it to Oxfam.”

He loves the lightness of those writers who construct fabulous thought-experiments, Montaigne, Borges. “The English-speaking world associates aphorism with arrogance,” he says. “But I’m not sure other ways of writing are more likely to change minds. I don’t want followers. I don’t even expect many people to understand what I say. The whole point of the voice I have in the books is to trigger a process of thought in some readers whose outcome is uncertain.”

And what does he say to those critics who argue that his writing dwells on the reductive, brutish side of humanity, as opposed to its great collective achievements?

“If you think, as I do, that civilised life is like a spider’s web, easy to destroy, but hard to construct, then what I write is perhaps a caution, a warning. I’m anti-hubris.”

In the last sentence of Straw Dogs, Gray asked a question, almost plaintively: “Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” Has writing the current book helped him to understand what such a life of experience might look like?

“Cats live for the sensation of life, not for something they might achieve or not achieve,” he says. “If we attach ourselves too heavily to some overarching purpose we’re losing the joy of life. Leave all those ideologies and religions to one side and what’s left? What’s left is a sensation of life – which is a wonderful thing.”

  • Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life is published by Allen Lane on 29 October (£20). To order a copy, go to Delivery charges may apply