Alan Watts on Empiricism

Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head’s effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together; they are all one cat.

– Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

10 thoughts on “Alan Watts on Empiricism

  1. The problem with this quote is twofold:

    1) All humans have once seen a cat for the first time, and yet easily came to the conclusion that head and tail are part of the same organism.

    2) One could only come to this conclusion if one had never seen ANY animal, or human or even oneself (in a mirror). Otherwise, you’d have to be extraordinarily stupid to consider the head and tail as separate events – all mammals have heads and body parts akin to tails, so the interspecific parallels are impossible to miss in even the dullest of wits.

  2. Yes, I get that. My point is that everything we experience is seen for the first time at some point…yet that doesn’t necessarily lead to incorrect conclusions. It’s a poor analogy, in my view.

  3. This is a danger of taking quotes out of context I guess. I read it as being about inferences based on (narrow) perceptions. The point is about the restricted nature of sense data rather than the novelty of a first encounter.

  4. Oh ok, I get you. Yes, I can see how it reads that way. I assumed the first encounter element was key.

  5. no problem, i can see how you read it now as well – sorry for my slightly patronising initial response – i shouldn’t communicate on the internet until i’ve had morning coffee…

  6. No worries. To be fair, I hardly opened the conversation with a bucket load of charm myself.

  7. I personally love this metaphor…I wanted to use it in a project I am working on, but wanted to double-check my memory of it…I am grateful to find your reference and concise explanation of it here. Thank you.

  8. Hey F, I’d recommend finding the book, or at least the whole chapter to read. I enjoy this quote because I’ve read The Book, but if you only read the quote you’re getting a piece of the puzzle.

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