To the Dogs

Dogs don't like me. At least, they don't like me when I see them in the street, dragging their owners down the sidewalk from hydrant to shrub, or padding lethargically with stiff joints and drooping eyes. Perhaps it's just a winter thing. The other night, as one particularly large canine strained against his leash with a frenzy of growling and drool, desiring nothing more than to conquer his owner's feeble grip and come barreling across he street at me, it occurred to me that my hat might be the problem.

It's a bomber hat, sort of: synthetic fur and tweed, probably a bit too big for me. When the earflaps are folded up, the tips protrude like furry black ears. I suppose this is a bit alarming to your average dog, it being more accustomed to the modest fleshy ears found on most upright walkers. Perhaps it gives me a bit of a doggish air.

This article is really amazing. Beyond my immediate reaction of finding some way to get a fox of my own (never pay for poultry again?) I was left thinking about the suggested two-way dynamic of domestication. There's seemingly something in the genes of a given species that disposes it to domestication by selection if put in the right proximity to humans. Not just any animal can be bread to be friendly, at least not without direct genetic intervention. This suggests that it is a bit of a distortion to see domestic animals as something "created," as the product of man's mastery over nature. You can't breed a pet zebra, and you can't breed snails to fly. The point being that the randomness of "evolution" is not an utter indeterminacy, as is often the way it is characterized. Instead it is the absence of a broader teleology, a structure that is particularly meaningful to us hairless bipeds.

On the topic of dogs, I of course cannot resist a pedantic indulgence in the musty business of the classics. The image of the philosophical dog is a familiar one, the simplistic stuff of introductory courses. It's appearance in the Republic tends to be dismissed as a mere rhetorical ploy, a useful opening to the discussion of philosophy. The dog, understood as a guard dog, is philosophic because it distinguishes friend from foe, it knows what's what. The objection is that the dog doesn't really know the way that a philosopher knows, that he has merely been trained and does not understand the content of good and bad. For this one needs a true rational capacity cultivated through education.

If we think about domestication in the context of philosophy there's another possible interpretation of this image. The dog knows good and bad intuitively. Education aside, the possibility of a philosopher who similarly intuits the Good, who just "gets it," isn't entirely precluded in Plato's account. It remains as an alternate possibility for wisdom, but an intensely problematic one. It cannot be measured or accounted for in material terms; it is political dynamite. Over this danger we plaster the edifice of dialectic and hypothesis, rational inquiry and stages of enlightenment.

As this structure seemingly crumbles, baring the fissures wrought by time, there's still the possibility that the dog might have his day.