In November, Professor Chuck Rosenthal published, “How the Animals Around You Think: The Semiotics of Animal Cognition.” Among Rosenthal’s previously published works are 11 novels, including the “Loop Trilogy,” and the memoir “Never Let Me Go.” Though Rosenthal has a degree in philosophy, as well as a Ph.D. in literature with an emphasis in theory, “How the Animals Around You Think” is his first philosophical book. As the title indicates, its subject is animal cognition. Rosenthal’s approach differs from others who have tackled the issue in that he has taken himself out of the usual arguments over whether or not animals are conscious. By looking at the issue through the lens of semiotics, or the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation, Rosenthal argues that many common animal behaviors indicate animals are recognizing and interpreting signs, and that they in turn exhibit signs for others to interpret. These signs always mean something – the implication being that animals can interpret and signal meaning. In contrast to his own views, Rosenthal believes most people who study animal cognition are “non-conceptualists,” or that they believe animals don’t make or use concepts.
“Simply put, non-conceptualists are people who think that animals don’t think. Often they are philosophers and linguists who believe people think only in language and only people think in language, i.e. use syntax, or behavioral scientists who do not believe that non-human animals can string together concepts that can be applied in varying circumstances. As well, there are religious thinkers that believe thought is an attribute of the soul or mind, and contend that animals possess neither. Another issue is whether or not animals have feelings and emotions and what those might be. A conceptualist would assert that they do, a non-conceptualist that they don’t,” says Rosenthal.
He continues, “‘In How the Animals Around You Think’ I use a specific theory of signs (Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotics) to analyze typical behavior in domestic animals and demonstrate their communication, problem solving, and emotions by means of icons: visual, olfactory, tactile, oral, and gustatory signs. I call it a conceptual as opposed to non-conceptual model of animal behavior.”
The typical animal behavior Rosenthal studies are ones exhibited by his pets, which include his cats, dogs, and horses. A prominent example Rosenthal uses in the book is how his cat, The Cheese,“meows from the bottom of the steps. He wants to eat, but he won’t go to the food bowl unless someone accompanies him because he wants to be stroked while he eats. The Cheese is meowing to someone he can’t see so they will come do something for him in a place he is not. If he weren’t capable of abstract thought, how could he do this? By any definition the ability to think of something that isn’t right in front of you is the ability to hold an abstraction, to think abstractly.”
In other words, by signaling about something that isn’t right in front of him, The Cheese must anticipate being stroked in the feeding room. That iconic representation is a sign for the thing he wants Rosenthal to do.
Rosenthal uses numerous other examples: dogs barking up trees at squirrels that may or not be there (and thus requiring a mental representation of the squirrel) and responding excitedly to offers to go for a walk, cats waiting for rats to crawl out of a drain pipe, etc., as evidence of abstract thinking in such every day, commonly observable behavior.
Even if you’re skeptical of how much our pets truly know or understand, Rosenthal’s work offers new ways to interpret animal behavior and provides strong evidence for the claim that complex and purposeful intention often drives it. At the very least, Rosenthal’s careful and thoughtful examination of animal action demonstrates how our non-human companions can help us pose difficult questions about the nature of our own thoughts, and how contact with animals enriches both our lives and theirs.
“How the Animals Around You Think” is published by What Books Press and can be found on Amazon as well as other online retailers.