Monday, July 13, 2009

Kelly Dean Jolley, Ahab & Sadie

Who is in the photo at right?

One of my pit bulls, Sadie, and me. She is a three-year old chocolate red nose. Her running mate, Ahab, a five-year old red black nose, is not in this picture.

I am Kelly Dean Jolley, the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Auburn University. I work in the theory of judgment (also called “philosophical logic”) and metaphilosophy (also called “the philosophy of philosophy). I write primarily on or under the influence of various philosophers: Wilfrid Sellars, Elizabeth Anscombe, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Gottlob Frege, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Søren Kierkegaard, Immanuel Kant and Plato.

As a change from writing philosophy, I also write some poetry. The shift in disciplines uncramps my hand.

What is the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

My usual one—morning coffee with the dogs in the backyard. We usually head out around dawn and they romp or nap or woolgather while I think or read, preparing for class or working on whatever I am writing. Pit bulls are excellent companions for thinking; they are themselves contemplatives.

What is brewing?

Pressed Sumatra, black, hot and thick.


This morning, toasted Cinnamon Raisin Bread and cream cheese. The dogs enjoyed a portion.

How did your dogs come to be united with you?

Like my previous pits, Ahab was a rescue dog. Alabama is lucky to have a fine pit bull rescue group, Turtlemoon Rescue, and I found him through them. He’d been bought for fighting. The people who bought him kept him as pits are often kept, at the end of a heavy logging chain in a deserted backyard. An elderly woman who lived next door pitied him. His only human companionship was a small boy who sometimes stopped by to throw rocks at him. The neighbor had a fenced backyard and asked if his owners would like to let him come into her yard so that he could run off-the-chain. They did so; one day, they brought him to her and then left town.

She kept him for a while, but when he got bigger, she began to worry that she could not control him, so she asked her daughter, a horsewoman and farmer, to take him. He was living with the daughter in North Alabama when I got him. She had done a lot to rehabilitate him. But she unfortunately believed the common demonizing of the breed: for instance, when I picked him up she warned me that pit bulls have double-jointed jaws so they can lock on a victim and chew the victim simultaneously. (A dog that can have his cake and eat it, too, I guess!)

Sadie I bought as a pup. She was the pitiful looking runt of a litter, so I was able to buy her for little money. I would normally never buy a pit bull, both because there are so many on death row in pounds; and, because so many (not all) breeders are actually enemies of the breed, who, in a conscience-less effort to sell their dogs, evilly contribute to the demonism.

Both dogs have grown into delightful adulthood. Ahab has overcome most of the deficits caused by his early months. Sadie plumped into a beautiful example of the breed.

How did your dogs get their names?

I have typically used a formula to name my male pits: find the name of an ancient tyrant that is also the name of a memorable character in literature, and give it to your dog: hence, ‘Ahab’ (and before him, ‘Nero’). My wife named Sadie. I wanted to give Sadie the name, ‘Jezebel’ (the tyrant Ahab’s wife). It tickled my black-humor bone that dogs were on the scene at each of Ahab and Jezebel’s gruesome deaths. But my wife thought this was just too much (she so often saves me from myself), and so she chose ‘Sadie’.

Physicists have Schrödinger’s cat. Do philosophers have a particular, famous dog?

I can’t think of a named dog that plays a role in philosophy. (Arthur Schopenhauer was famous for his daily walks with his poodle, Atma.) However, dogs do grace some important pages of philosophy in important ways. For example, Socrates argues (in the Second Book of "The Republic") that well-bred dogs are truly philosophical, effectually a model of the philosopher, of the lover of wisdom, since dogs love wisdom so well that they act always on distinction of knowledge from ignorance, welcoming the known and warding off the unknown (so as to safeguard the known). As Vicki Hearne, dog-trainer and philosopher puts it, commenting on Socrates’ comparison: Safeguarding the known and warding off the unknown has “always been philosophy’s traditional chastity and discipline.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher who most preoccupies me, also sometimes writes of dogs in memorable ways. In "Philosophical Investigations" he asks: “Why can’t a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest?” Later in the book he observes, “A child has much to learn before it can pretend. (A dog cannot be a hypocrite, but neither can he be sincere.)”

Interestingly, Hearne, in her book, "Bandit: Dossier of a Dangerous Dog," from which I took my earlier quotation, likens Wittgenstein himself to a pit bull. She characterizes him as sharing their deep gameness: “[Wittgenstein was] a pit bull of a person who grabbed hold of philosophy with all his heart and did not let go.”

I can’t mention Hearne without recommending her work, particularly "Bandit" and "Adam’s Task: Calling Animals By Name." The latter is, among other things, a brilliant book of philosophy, and it contains the greatest of all writing on pit bulls (outshining even James Thurber’s)—a chapter entitled “Lo! The American Pit Bull Terrier” (her chapter title is a pastiche of the title a Thurber essay on bloodhounds).

Do people ever say to you: “Pit bulls? I would have thought a philosopher wouldn’t have such a dog!”

No one has said this to me in so many words, but I have certainly had said to me words that implied such a thought. The thought, I think, is indicative of one of the deepest and often unrecognized sources of the demonizing of pit bulls—social, class, regional and racial prejudice. When a white, suburban, middle-class academic shows up to defend pit bulls, folks are stumped. I do not fit their “profile” of pit bull owners: I am not black, not red-necked, not urban, not rural, not poor, not uneducated. Folks seem to believe that this means I cannot own pit bulls, cannot advocate for them. You can almost hear their unspoken conviction: “Decent folks don’t own these dogs.”

Kelly Dean Jolley is the author of “The Concept 'Horse' Paradox and Wittgensteinian Conceptual Investigations: A Prolegomenon to Philosophical Investigations” and the forthcoming “Wittgenstein: Key Concepts” as well as numerous scholarly articles and book chapters.

He was featured in a September 2008 article in the “New York Times Magazine.”

Read his poem “Alabama Pits.”

--Marshal Zeringue