On Seeing Like a Cat

Cats and dogs are the most familiar among the animal archetypes inhabiting the human imagination.  They are to popular modern culture what the fox and the hedgehog are to high culture, and what farm animals like cows and sheep were to agrarian cultures. They also differ from foxes, hedgehogs, sheep and cows in an important way: nearly all of us have directly interacted with real cats and dogs. So let me begin this meditation by introducing you to the new ribbonfarm mascot: the junkyard cat, Skeletor, and my real, live cat, Jackson. Here they are. And no, this isn’t an aww-my-cat-is-so-cute post. I hate those too.


The Truth about Cats and Dogs

I am a cat person, not in the sense of liking cats more (though I do), but actually being more catlike than doglike. Humans are more complex than either species; we are the products of the tension between our dog-like and cat-like instincts.  We do both sociability and individualism in more complicated ways than our two friends; call it hyper-dogginess plus hyper-cattiness. That is why reductively mapping yourself exclusively to one or the other is such a useful exercise. You develop  a more focused self-awareness about who you really are.

Our language is full of dog and cat references. Dogs populate our understanding of social dynamics: conflict, competition, dominance, slavery, mastery, belonging and otherness:

  • Finance is a dog-eat-dog world
  • He’s the alpha-dog/underdog around here
  • He’s a pit bull
  • Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka, na ghat ka (trans: “the washerman’s dog belongs neither at the riverbank, nor at the house;” i.e. a social misfit everywhere)
  • He follows her around like a dog
  • He looks at his boss with dog-like devotion

Cat references speak to individualism, play, opportunism, risk, comfort, mystery, luck and curiosity

  • A cat may look at a king
  • She curled up like a cat
  • A cat has nine lives
  • Managing this team is like herding cats
  • Look what the cat dragged in
  • It’s a cat-and-mouse game
  • Curiosity killed the cat

There is a dark side to each: viciousness and deliberate cruelty (dogs), coldness and lack of empathy (cats). We also like to use the idealized cat-dog polarity to illuminate our understanding of deep conflicts: they are going at it like cats and dogs. Curiously, though the domestic cat is a far less threatening animal than the domestic dog (wolf vs. tiger is a different story), we are able to develop contempt for certain dog-archetypes, but not for cat-archetypes. You can’t really insult someone in any culture by calling him/her a cat (to my knowledge). But there is fear associated with cats (witches, black cats for bad luck) in every culture. Much of this fear, I believe, arises from the cat’s clear indifference to our assumptions about our own species-superiority and intra-species status.

That point is clearly illustrated in the pair of opposites he looks at his boss with dog-like devotion/a cat may look at a king. The latter is my favorite cat-proverb. It gets to the heart of what is special about the cat as an archetype: being not oblivious, but indifferent to ascriptive authority and social status. You can wear fancy robes and a crown and be declared King by all the dogs, but a cat will still look quizzically at you, trying to assess whether the intrinsic you, as opposed to the socially situated, extrinsic you, is interesting. Like the child, the cat sees through the Emperor’s lack of clothes.

Our ability to impress and intimidate is mostly inherited from ascriptive social status rather than actual competence or power. Cats call our bluff, and scare us psychologically. Dogs validate what cats ignore. But it is this very act of validating the unreal that actually creates an economy of dog-power, expressed outside the dog society as the power of collective, coordinated action. Dogs create society by believing it exists.

In the Canine-Feline Mirror

We map ourselves to these two species by picking out, exaggerating and idealizing certain real cat and dog behaviors. In the process, we  reveal more about ourselves than either cats or dogs. Cats are loyal to places, dogs to people is an observation that is more true of people than either dogs or cats. Just substitute interest in the limited human sphere (the globalized world of gossipy, politicky, watercoolerized, historicized and CNNized human society; feebly ennobled as “humanism”) versus the entire universe (physical reality, quarks, ketchup, ideas, garbage, container ships, art, history, humans-drawn-to-scale). There are plenty of such dichotomous observations. A particularly perceptive one is this: dog-people think dogs are smarter than cats because they learn to obey commands and do tricks; cat-people think cats are smarter for the exact same reason. Substitute interest in degrees, medals, awards, brands and titles versus interest in snowflakes and Saturn’s rings. I don’t mean to be derisive here: medals and titles are only unreal to cats. Remember, dogs make them real by believing they are real. They lend substance to the ephemeral through belief.

Cat-people, incidentally, can develop a pragmatic understanding of the value of dog-society things even if deep down they are puzzled by them.  You can get that degree and title while being ironic about it.  Of course, if you never break out and go cat-like at some point, you will be a de facto dog (check out the hilarious Onion piece a commenter on this blog pointed out a while back: Why can’t anyone tell I am wearing this suit ironically?).

But let’s get to the most interesting thing about cats, an observation that led to the title of this article. My copy of the The Encyclopedia of the Cat says:

It is not entirely frivolous to suggest that whereas pet dogs tend to regard themselves as humans and part of the human pack, the owner being the pack leader, cats regard the humans in the household as other cats. In many ways they behave towards people as they would towards other kittens in the nest, ‘grooming’ them, snuggling up with them, and communicating with them in the ways that they would use with other cats.

There is in fact an evolutionary theory that while humans deliberately domesticated wild dogs, cats self-domesticated by figuring out that hanging around humans led to safety and plenty.

I want to point out one implication of these two observations: cats aren’t unsociable. They just use lazy mental models for the species-society they find themselves in: projecting themselves onto every other being they relate to, rather than obsessing over distinctions. They only devote as much brain power to social thinking as is necessary to get what they want. The rest of their attention is free to look, with characteristic curiosity, at the rest of the universe.

To summarize, dog identities are largely socially constructed, in-species (actual or adopted, which is why the reverse-pet “raised by wolves” sort of story makes sense). Cat identities are universe-constructed. Which brings us to a quote from Kant (I think).

Personal History, Identity and Perception

It was Kant, I believe, who said, we see not what is, but who we are. We don’t start out this way, but as our world-views  form by accretion, each new layer is constructed out of new perceptions filtered and distorted by existing layers. As we mature, we get to the state Kant describes, where identity overwhelms perception altogether, and everything we see reinforces the inertia of who we are, sometimes leading to complete philosophical blindness. Neither cats, nor dogs can resist this inevitability, this brain-entropy, but our personalities drive us to seek different kinds of perceptions to fuel our identity-construction.

Dogs, and dog-like people end up with socially-constructed, largely extrinsic identities because that’s what they pay attention to as they mature: other individuals. People to be like, people to avoid being like. It is at once a homogenizing and stratifying kind of focus; it creates out of self-fulfilling beliefs an identity mountain capped by Ken and Barbie dolls, with foothills populated by hopeless, upward-gazing peripheral Others, who must either continue the climb or mutiny.

Cats and cat-like people though, simply aren’t autocentric/species-centeric (anthropomorphic, canino-morphic and felino-morphic). Wherever they are on the identity mountain believed into existence by dogs, they are looking outwards, not at the mountain itself.  They are driven to look at everything from quarks to black holes. In this broad engagement of reality, there isn’t a whole lot of room for detailed mental models of just one species. In fact, the ideal cat uses exactly one space-saving mental (and, to dogs, “wrong”) model: everyone is basically kinda like me. Appropriate, considering we are one species on one insignificant speck of dust circling an average star in a humdrum galaxy. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, remember, has a two-word entry for Earth: Mostly Harmless. This indiscriminate, non-autocentric curiosity is dangerous though: curiosity does kill the cat. Often, it is dogs that do the killing. We may be mostly harmless to Vogons and Zaphod Beeblebrox, but not to ourselves.

Paradoxically, this leads cat-people, through the Kantian dynamic, to develop identities with vastly more diversity than dog-people. It is quite logical though: random-sampling a broader universe of available perceptions must inevitably lead to path-dependent divergence, while imitative-selective-sampling of a subset of the universe must lead to some convergence. By looking inward at species-level interpersonal differences, dog-people become more alike. By caricaturing themselves and everybody else to indistinguishable stick-figure levels, cats become more individualized and unique. The more self-aware among the cats realize that who I am and what I see are two aspects of the same reality: the sum total of their experiences. Their identities are at once intrinsic and universal.

That’s why the title of the article is Seeing Like a Cat. We see not what is, but who we are. Cats become unique by feeding on a unique history of perceptions. And that makes their perspectives unique. To see the world like a cat is to see it from a unique angle. Equally, it is the inability to see it from the collective perspective of dogs.

If you are a lucky cat, your unique cat perspective has value in dog society. That brings us to Darwin.

Dogs, Cats and Darwin

To intellectualize something as colloquial as the cat-dog discourse might seem like a pointless exercise to some. And yes, as the hilariously mischievous parody of solemn analysis, Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics demonstrates, it is easy to get carried away.

Yet I think there is something here as fundamental as the fox/hedgehog argument. As I said when I started, we have both cat-like and dog-like tendencies within us, and the two are not compatible. Both sorts of personalities are necessary for the world to function, but you can really only be like one or the other, and the course is set in childhood, long before we are mature enough to consciously choose.

Where does this dichotomy come from though? Darwin, I think.

When we think in Darwinist terms, we usually pay the most attention to the natural selection and survival of the fittest bits, which dog-belief societies replicate as artificial selection and social competition. But there’s the other side of Darwin: variation. It is variation and natural selection. Variation is the effect of being influenced by randomness. Without it, there is no selection.

Cats create the variation, and mostly die for their efforts. The successful (mostly by accident) cats spawn dog societies.  That’s why, at the very top of the identity pyramids constructed by dog-beliefs, even above the prototypical Barbie/Ken abstractions, you will find cats. Cats who didn’t climb the mountain, but under whom the mountain grew. Those unsociable messed-up-perspective neurotics who are as puzzled by their position as the dogs who actually want it.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. So, it’s raining cats and dogs of posts at ribbonfarm!

    Well I can cat-egorically assert that you have dog-gedly trapped us into your cat-dog metaphor. A couple of other interesting animal metaphors:


    My favorite quote from Hugh MacLeod: The price of being a sheep is boredom. The price of being a wolf is loneliness. Choose one or the other with great care.

    The old proverb advises us to beware of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I believe a useful tactic to adopt in some situations is to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Or a cat pretending to be dog.


    When The Economist characterized the newly liberalizing Indian economy in the early 1990s as a “caged tiger”, it caught the world’s imagination and remained an oft-quoted metaphor for over a decade. A more frequent term used about the Indian economy is moving/lumbering/dancing elephant.

    Susan Blackmore animatedly gives a 5-minute summary of Darwin’s Origin of Species in her TED talk video (warning: addictive site with brilliant stuff for dilettante thinkers) and talks of her meme machine and teme theory. Fascinating stuff though commenters seem to find faults.

    Ultimately one has to discover and nurture one’s cat instincts while keeping a subsistence-level dog-persona (exceptions would be the game changers who often pay a heavy price in their lifetime).

    There also seem to be cow-people, bull-people, snake-people and porcupine-people and…

    • Not sure if it matters but my opinion on your take of the Hugh MacLeod quote is incorrect:

      The quote – “The price of being a sheep is boredom. The price of being a wolf is loneliness. Choose one or the other with great care”

      Your take – “The old proverb advises us to beware of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I believe a useful tactic to adopt in some situations is to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Or a cat pretending to be dog”

      My take – I think it has nothing to do with that at all. Hugh is saying that if you want to be part of the masses, your individuality will never be expressed, and you will never innovate. To be a wolf on the other hand, means society will not accept you. You’re on your own.

  2. I actually have a whole section of a chapter of my book devoted to archetypes, including a dictionary of animal archetypes based on literary references :). This post is partly based on ideas in that chapter. Of the ones you mention, I only include the elephant though. I do have the badger, water-rat, mole and toad, characters in Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows.”

    Another frequent commenter, Justin Pickard, pointed me to Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy which has a very neat concept of a fantasy universe where every individual has an animal “daemon” (a kinda witch-like familiar). While on Ted Talks, Elizabeth “eat-love-pray” Gilbert did one where she explored the “daemon” concept, but without reference to animal archetypes.

    So all in all, a very fertile area for heterodox psychology :). I am surprised nobody has yet written the definitive cat-people-dog-people book though.


  3. “But it is this very act of validating the unreal that actually creates an economy of dog-power, expressed outside the dog society as the power of collective, coordinated action. Dogs create society by believing it exists..”

    Nicely put. You tactfully didn’t mention the dog’s biggest invention – the all-seeing, all-knowing top Dog.

    Dog-nature is unfortunately the only solution I know to the scaling problem. We don’t like many of the inevitable consequences of scale, but much of my make-life-worth-living stuff could only arise in the high-population-density dog world. Cats don’t scale.

    And one of the biggest mistakes cat-wannabes (I’m thinking of you, Ayn Randians and neophyte Nietzchians) can make is to hold in contempt, demonize and underestimate the worth of dog-power.

    It’s all very well to moan about slave morality and second-handers. Without a civilization built on the backs of dogs, where would these cat-wannabes be? Warily circling each other trying to figure out where the other guy’s hidden the coconuts, I expect. I don’t know about man and Superman, but in a cat world, Batman would certainly have a tough time parking the Batmobile and finding it in one piece when he got back.

    Libertarians are cats who want to scale like dogs. Is such a thing even possible? I’m beginning to fear the answer is no. The dynamics of every nebula gravitate towards the one star model (accreting more and more power with time), with the denouement being a nova or a dwarfish decline. So much for Fukuyama, who strikes me as even more naive than Friedman.

    Yes, there is no Dog. Your “fair share” has nothing to do with mathematics and everything to do with what you can convince other dogs to not snatch from you. Good and evil and justice are not properties of an uncaring universe, but a fiat currency of the dog collective – as real and as unreal as the dollar bill in your hand. Some cats tend to get very excited and voluminously boring on this subject; smart cats merely take it in as another fascinating fact about the world and move on.

    This comment might even have had a point at one time, but I’ve lost it. Time for caffeine…

  4. @tubelite As usual, you are spotting gaps and taking the argument much further than I could :)

    Didn’t even occur to me to integrate the Top Dog argument, though of course, it makes perfect sense. And the thought on libertarians is a very precise skewer. Describes them to a T.

    As RG notes, the key is to be a cat in dog’s clothing.

    But I am not as pessimistic as you overall. I think, Fukuyama aside, that there IS a historicist trend towards more cat-like environments. Simply because technology is becoming an increasingly good buffer between people, so it is possible to add large-scale coordinated value without operating by dog value-systems. It has taken 1000s of programmers, for instance, to make Ruby on Rails a popular Web dev platform today. But an unsociable, cat-like recluse of a programmer can do more alone with RoR today in a week than a highly coordinated dog-team of 100 could achieve in a year 20 years ago.

    Similar dynamics are happening all over the place, and the trend goes pretty far back. After all, even the Top Dog argument gained maturity because the bandit rulers who took the anarchic state-of-nature world and turned it into a social-contract world, did so in order to control humans by-brain-for-brain instead of by-muscle-for-muscle. Persuasion by voice began replacing persuasion by club, allow the first glimmer of cat-hood to emerge.

    But cats will never completely be able to do without dogs, anymore than dogs without cats. Cats without dogs is anarchy and chaos. Dogs without cats is stasis and brittleness.

  5. PuZZleDucK says

    I’m a slashdoter who started with The Office and I’m working my way back. Great food-for-thought stuff. Even as 100% dog I enjoyed this one, but I think you’ve been blinded by your cat nature…
    “You can’t really insult someone in any culture by calling him/her a cat”

    I’ve got to pull you up there:
    Catty – as in petty/aggressive (usually verbal).
    Pussy – weak.
    ‘FraidyCat/ScaredyCat – ok so I haven’t said it since i was about 10, but it’s still an insult.
    Claws out – aggressive

    Maybe not the best insults in the world, I’m just saying it’s possible.

    • But see, you had to use qualified or modified versions of the word ‘cat.’ Just calling someone a ‘cat’ is not an insult in any language that I know of. But an unvarnished ‘dog’ is, in many languages.

      But I am quibbling :) Overall cat-people are just as vulnerable to being insulted as dog-people.

      • Since we are anyway gently quibbling, there are unmodified uses of “cat” in negative to mildly insulting idioms:

        -damaging/embarrassing when “let out of the bag” (not applicable to a person–let me hasten to quibble on it myself)
        -fidgety when “dancing on hot bricks” or “on a hot tin roof”
        -deluded or unwilling to face reality when closing eyes
        -quarrelsome behavior fighting with a dog, especially the Kilkenny variety as suggested in this CATalog of catty idioms!

      • In spanish, in Latin America (Argentina, for instance) you can call someone a “GATO” “cat” to insult them in two ways:

        To a man, by a woman: Metrosexual
        To a woman, by anyone: Prostitute

        Just two cents, great theory!

  6. PuZZleDucK says

    “But I am quibbling”
    Hehehe, my original post was mostly quibble. But you’re right qualifications are needed, whereas dog alone is rarely a compliment.

  7. wow i dug your blog…its very true what you said and as for me, im a cat like person…its very cool and interesting!!!

  8. They both have a little something for everyone, but with the dogs, you’re more likely to step in it. Don’t forget Batman fell in love with Catwoman.

  9. I know I am late to the party for this thread, so this comment might not be read, but I just discovered your site today (I’m enjoying it immensely).

    While I am definitely a cat person, I thought of this expression referring to cats that is insulting, in the sense of inviting social disapproval, that I didn’t see mentioned: “catting around”.

  10. I have made observations of my own about cats and dogs. I considered the whole spectrum of feline species, and it struck me how the lion, at one end, has been seen as the archetype of « manness », whilst the female cat, at the other end, has been a model for « feminity »… It is interesting also to consider that female cats are communitarian — they feed the cubs of one another indistinctively —, whilst the male cats are extremely selfish, to the point of killing cubs that are not of their descent. Female farm-cats have been observed protecting and feeding the kittens — all of them, indistinctively —, and taking turns guarding them off the males…

    Dogs and wolves, now. Have you ever wondered how ‘dog’ is exactly ‘god’ backwards ? Now, what is ‘wolf’ backward ? Yes : flow. It’s as if there’s a cosmic joke smiling at us through that strange word pattern. Don’t we behave towards our gods as dogs behave towards us ?, trying to please us, worrying about being ‘correct’ or not, protecting, emulating and worshipping us ? Or, for that matter, barking at us and chasing us out if we are not the ‘right ones’… Wolves, those ‘free, wild dogs’ don’t submit so to external authority, but rather ‘go freely with the flow’, although they do, within their pack, have authority structures. But even then, some leave the pack, on their own. They are the ‘lone wolves’, and it’s the lone wolves who form fresh new packs. Again : freely, with the flow.

  11. A new crisscrossing just appeared to me. Whilst wolves are kindof feline in the most positive way, female felines are rather pack-minded, communitarian. Maybe the human male in crisis can find a soothing dénouement in changing its model from lion to wolf… ? Just thinking aloud…