The Cat Is Not On The Mat

(x-posted to The Valve)

The Valve’s John Holbo, in his most recent post on Jacques Derrida (to which I also referred in my previous post), added in the comments section a wonderful and amusing aside:

For example, the thought most reliably caused by utterances of ‘the cat is on the mat’ is ‘why do analytic philosophers always use that sentence as an example?’ All the same, the sentence does not REPRESENT this thought.

Let’s look again at the phrase “the cat is on the mat,” which, as Holbo observes, has become ubiquitous wherever philosophy tackles the problem of language.

I’m convinced that explaining why that cat is on that mat will help us explain why literary critics turn so frequently to the likes of Sigmund Freud and Derrida. After all, we need some alternative to the pejorative explanations – for example, the idea that English professors like Freud because they don’t understand science and neither did he.

(A note before I begin: John’s point about Derrida is abetted, but not determined, by his references to animals. I encourage you to read the post, and the comments that follow, and to respond. I will be doing so after I finish giving Of Grammatology a second look.)

To the literary critic, unless the fact that the cat is on the mat is contested, it is absolutely without interest. The statement, however, is quite interesting. To adopt the terms of John’s post, the concepts being represented, not the thing, is significant.


The cat emerges gradually. In John’s post, it begins here:

But it hardly follows that writing is nothing but representation of speech. If that were true, the only thing we could write about would be sounds. But obviously we can write about all sorts of things—dogs and cats, numbers, the sun. The list goes on.

Here cats, dogs, numbers, and the sun stand metonymically for the list of all nameable things. Numbers and the sun are fairly readable in terms of the philosophical tradition: both of them refer to Plato, and complement each other, since mathematics is the proof of anamnesis, and the sun is the analogy of the Good.

In the West, associating the act of naming with cats and dogs irresistibly summons this:

And the Lord God fashioned from the soil each beast of the field and each fowl of the heavens and brought each to the human to see what he would call it, and whatever the human called a living creature, that was its name. And the human called names to all the cattle and to the fowl of the heavens and to all the beasts on the field, but for the human no sustainer beside him was found. (Gen. 2:19-21, trans. Robert Alter)

In the wake of the Book of Genesis, animals in general, and most particularly domesticated animals, represent the nameable object par excellence, because they are the closest thing to human beings that lack the ability to reciprocate naming (a reciprocity closely linked here to the sustaining function of the woman). The ability to name an animal demonstrates both the dominion of human beings over the animal kingdom, and institutes an original divide between the namer and the named thing that guarantees the objective (i.e. non-conceptual, non-subjective) status of the animal.


John writes, “it really has nothing to do with the meaning of the written word ‘dog’ that it is associated with a certain sound. The word doesn’t mean any sort of sound. It means a kind of animal.” In response, one could subpoena any number of puns or pun-crazed authors, but let’s stick to “the cat is on the mat.”

It rhymes. The effect of the rhyme is at least threefold. First, the rhyme tends to blur the sounds together, creating an effect that (given enough repetitions) verges on babble. The phrase is repeated constantly, since philosophers like to try to work with each other’s examples and within established traditions, right down to borrowing each other’s simple phrases. Doubtless we use this particular phrase even more because it rhymes, and thus is easy to remember. Ironically, though, the effect of a tradition that bases its appeals to objective consensus on the repeated analysis of a six word mnemonic is an ever-decreasing objectivity wherein a clear declarative becomes a cacophony of sound.

Of course, a man of sound mind and firm will can clear out these cobwebs and examine an argument about “the cat is on the mat” on its merit. But he does so without being able to be sure that he is not doing so at the expense of clarity. He is choosing to ignore obvious signposts to a love of order and mastery, and he is buying into an unrealistic picture of tradition where repetition and conservation always produce clarity rather than mechanical dullness.

The rhyme also recalls primers and other books designed for children. It smacks of the schoolhouse, and the famous image of a student learning to spell (or ignorantly misspelling) “c-a-t.” So it arrogates for linguistic analysis the whole normalizing experience of first lessons (including their apparent self-evidence), through which the child enters into the intersubjective compacts of his society. Ironically, “the cat is on the mat” acquires some its strength through its reference to intersubjectivity, despite the overt reference to an objective world.

Finally, the cat is on the mat. In essence, this means that the cat is in a home, occupying its designated place, a place foregrounded by the small, delimited mat. It is a scene of order, of stasis, and of enclosure, and it anticipates the philosophical explanation of words as containers (mats) for real content (cats).


None of this is cause for contempt. I have no absolute objection to a love of comfort and order, and I’m not wracked by anxiety over the dividing line between human beings and animals. In fact, I don’t even mean to suggest that, to paraphrase Jacques Lacan’s Seminar XX, “the cat does not exist.”

However, if I’m going to agree to use a phrase, I want to know what it means. I don’t want to play a rigged game where a philosopher says, in effect, “let’s use a random yet clear declarative phrase,” and ends up proving that language has the properties of objectivity and order by analyzing “the cat is on the mat.” That particular phrase is hopelessly over-determined as ordered and objective by a discursive history to which both Freud and Derrida would have been acutely sensitive.

In response to the objection that (in a given philosophical text) the phrase specifically does not represent those things that, speculatively, it could mean in a larger context, I am bound to answer that it certainly does not represent a real cat either, at least not for me in my presently catless apartment. The statement ends up having to represent a whole (albeit vague) scene in which the objectivity of “the cat is on the mat” would be self-evident.

Two theses follow. First, anyone who has not felt sheer terror, along with a sense of invaded privacy and a reflexive fear of rabies, upon hearing the alternative phrase “a cat is on the mat,” will never be a philosopher.

Second, an altogether different phrase would incline towards highly different demonstrations. I will suggest such a phrase later on – for now, I must go. I have forgotten my umbrella.