Epistemology of little dogs

In Geographical History of America, Gertrude Stein writes, in a rather melancholy moment of reflection, “I am I because my little dog knows me.” At first glance, this sounds a bit of trivial irony, that Stein herself relies on the responses of her dog to ascertain her sense of existence. But in fact this is a concrete aspect of a necessary part of the Pragmatist critique of notions of the “self.” It should be remembered that Stein had been a student of William James, and the basic idea is implicit in his psychology; but it was George Herbert Mead who constructed it into a robust social epistemology that also implies an ontologically of social determinism (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mead/). The idea is one of those that is simple to state, yet difficult to grasp. Basically, the sense of the self is formed, not from within, but as a focus of social learning, social expectation and social interaction. This is referred by Mead as the ‘me.’ The ‘self’ that we refer to as ‘I,’ for which we sense and assume all manner of agent-hood and agency, is actually an after thought, the product of reflection on our behavior. While it does act, it largely does so re-actively, to social and other stimulus. (However, Mead is a compatibilist in the ‘free-will/determinism’ debate, because he allows that much of what appears to be agency is so because it has an element of the unpredictable to it, which does seem to allow for moments of choice.)

“The ‘I’ is the response of the organism to the attitudes of the others; the ‘me’ is the organized set of attitudes of others which one himself assumes. The attitudes of the others constitute the organized ‘me,’ and then one reacts toward that as an ‘I.'” Mead, Mind Self and Society (http://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Mead/pubs2/mindself/Mead_1934_22.htm).

It should be noted that current neuroscience investigations seem to validate this theory of the ‘I’ as somehow catching up to the behavior of the organism (the notorious Libert experiment, for instance). However, the claim that the self begins as a social construct has some testability problems, since this would obviously require studies including the very young; and its hard to know how such studies could be constructed to to target specific events directly related to the question.

Yet it’s a durable model, because it explains how unthinking infants, wanting nothing more than mother’s milk, can grow up to be thoughtful adults in a community of shared values and experience.

To give us a better idea of the modeling of this theory:

“The play antedates the game. For in a game there is a regulated procedure, and rules. The child must not only take the role of the other, as he does in the play, but he must assume the various roles of all the participants in the game, and govern his action accordingly. If he plays first base, it is as the one to whom the ball will be thrown from the field or from the catcher. Their organized reactions to him he has imbedded in his own playing of the different positions, and this organized reaction becomes what I have called the “generalized other” that accompanies and controls his conduct. And it is this generalized other in his experience which provides him with a self.” Mead, The Philosophy of the Present (http://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Mead/pubs2/philpres/Mead_1932_sup5.html).

This is one reason why, in a much earlier post of mine on mind, I posited that objectivity is the epistemological fact of the human condition. Our language insists we are subjects, or have subjects, but we can only know this subjectivity reflexively. We are always looking at ourselves,and we are always seeing ourselves through others’ eyes.

Which brings us back to Gertrude Stein. James and Mead address the issue of the development of the ‘self’ through social interaction between humans. What Stein realized was that the issue implicates a relationship between the perceiving ‘self’ and any other being that such a self presumes to have consciousness. And it is just the nature of the human brain that it tends, not only to impute consciousness for any living organism, but to try to interpret such consciousness in anthropomorphic terms. So, “I am I because my little dog knows me.” In the first instance there is the dog, the eyes fixed on the human it needs to respond to; the human is aware that action must be taken in response to the dog’s expectation, the human becomes aware of the sense of agency, and – ‘I act towards this dog.’ ‘I pet it, I feed it, I play with it, I take it for a walk,’ etc., etc. Our pets have us well trained.

I currently am owned by a Lhaso Apso named by her previous owner Piper (but I always just call her ‘Dog,’ and she seems to have no problem with that). Lhaso Apso is the sacred breed of Tibet’s native religion – although probably used for herding, they became impossibly pampered by temple monks; and Piper seems to have inherited a predilection for pampering, she frequently gestures for it.

Lhaso Apsos are small, and in their competitive show presentation (which many dog owners hold as ideal, although such pretentious displays leave me cold), they have impossibly long straight hair.

However, I keep my dog’s hair short; the Lhaso Apso’s hair proves to be naturally wavy, and tending to knot, thus requiring considerably grooming. She’s sort of grey-green blond (I don’t know how else to describe her coloring), with short ears and snout, a slightly protruding lower jaw, round black eyes, and a tail that curves completely over itself. She is house trained, generally friendly, though she does have her moods. She likes to bark at passers-by, and keeps scratching on my leg to get me to let her out to chase cats. Although I have no love of cats, I have no hatred of them either, so refuse her this one pleasure. Otherwise, her every effort to get my attention meets with positive response. I know that my current life would be far less meaningful without her, although I’m not sure I can articulate why. Perhaps it’s just enough that, “I am I because my little dog knows me.”


3 thoughts on “Epistemology of little dogs

    • Thank you. Stein’s Geographical History of America is a difficult book, but wonderful for meditation on the complexity of matters we take to be simple. She has a way of spinning language upside down that ends up reading like the obvious common sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. My first association when I read the Stein-citation at the beginning of your article was “Esse est percipi”, but with a twist: unlike in Berkeley’s works, it is not the great god who is perceiving here but the little dog (note that “dog” is “god”, read from behind). 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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