They think, therefore they are

One of my favorite and most difficult courses in high school was AP Social Studies with Mr. Grasso. He introduced me to philosophy, and if not for his class, I’m not sure I would have gotten through the one philosophy course I took in college. Some of his teachings have even stayed with me after all these years, like Rene Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum“ – “I think, therefore I am.”

I came across Descartes again recently, in an unlikely place.  I was reading Patricia McConnell’s For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend. It turns out that Descartes, the French philosopher, mathematician, and writer regarded as the Father of Modern Philosophy, was a dog killer.  Descartes believed that dogs did not have the capacity to think, that they had no emotions and no feeling, even for pain.  McConnell writes:

[Descartes] illustrated this principle by nailing live dogs to barn walls and eviscerating them. While the dogs writhed and screamed, he told the crowd of onlookers that their struggles were merely automatic movements of the body – no more felt by the dog than a clock feels the movement of its hands.


McConnell points out that as recently as 1989, educated folks shared Descartes’ crazy ideas. One philosopher she cites argues that because dogs can’t feel anything “concern about them is unethical, because it takes time and money away from helping humans.”

Again: Wow.

I hope anyone who’s spent any time with a dog would see the outrageousness of all this. On a daily basis I see the wheels in Galen’s head spinning (though my husband will often point out that at times they spin quite slowly). Case in point:  A couple of weeks ago, I walked into our laundry room, which doubles as a mud room, and began lacing up my sneakers. Galen followed, and  upon seeing the sneakers started wagging her tail and smiling, as she presumed we were either going for a walk or heading to the backyard to play with her favorite purple ball. Unfortunately for her – and for me – my destination was the supermarket. When I told her so, her tail quit wagging and her expression turned from expectantly happy to sad, leaving me guilty and wondering, “Couldn’t I have chosen a different pair of shoes?”

Galen’s connecting a walk with my sneakers could have been more Pavlovian than intellectual, but the only explanation I have for why her tail wagging stopped and her face fell when I told her she wasn’t coming with me is that she understood.

Fortunately, anecdotes such as this – that point to an intellectual capacity in canines or a thought process of some kind – are starting to have the support of science and scientists who study human and canine brain structure and brain chemistry. It’s just too bad the science wasn’t there for Descartes. Then he could have extended his cogito to canines:  They think, therefore they are, and taken a dog or two as a pet rather than using them for sadistic experimentation.  


Galen, with her favorite ball. Despite others littering our yard, she will play with no other.

4 responses to “They think, therefore they are

  1. I love my dogs and both of them, even Cody, can understand what we’re saying. For example, if my mom opens the trunk they know they’re going for a ride. Or if Molson sees suitcases, he lies down on his bed with a disappointed look.

    • Those are great examples of dogs having some type of cognitive thought process, Olivia. For such a brilliant man, Descartes was certainly completely ignorant in his thinking about dogs. Thanks for posting!

  2. How can people think that dogs don’t feel. Dogs have facial expressions and body movements that tell us they do.
    Great picture of Galen with her purple ball.

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