The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

October 29, 2013

October 29, 1690

Martin Folkes (October 29, 1690 to June 28, 1754), was president of the English Royal Society, and thus a man of some substance in English science. Isaac Newton promoted him in his career, partly because of the mathematical genius Folkes demonstrated. Folkes was a member of a confident middle class-- his father had been a lawyer, and he chose to marry an actress. That was for the time a free-thinking choice, and Folkes in fact was an atheist. Hogarth painted his portrait. 

It was his office as President of the Royal Society that attracted a letter from Henry 
Baker, in 1743, a 218 page letter, that in fact was a book. Here is the title:
An Attempt Towards a Natural History of the Polype:: In a Letter to Martin Folkes, Esq; President of the Royal Society. Describing Their Different Species; the Places where to Seek and how to Find Them; Their Wonderful Production and Increase; the Form, Structure and Use of Their Several Parts; and the Manner They Catch Their Pray: with an Account of Their Diseases and Cures; of Their Amazing Reproduction After Being Cut in Pieces, (as First Discovered by Mr. Trembley, at the Hague;) of the Best Methods to Perform that Operation, and of the Time Required to Perfect the Several Parts After Being Divieded; and Also Full Directions how to Feed, Clean, Manage and Preserve Them at All Seasons of the Year. Likewise a Course of Real Experiments, Performed by Cutting These Creatures in Every Way that Can be Easily Contrived: Shewing the Daily Progress of Each Part Towards Becoming a Perfect Polype. The Whole Explained Every where by Great Numbers of Proper Figures, and Intermixt Throughout with Variety of Observations and Experiments.

Our interest though, besides the wonder of archaic prose, is a couple of cat references Baker mentions to Martin Folkes. Firstly he notes in an aside that cats even when in pain and wounded may demonstrate an appetite to eat. We hope that is some incidental observation, and there is no reason to think otherwise, except that a lack of sympathy toward animal subjects apparently began with the beginning of modern science.  Secondly  we have an example Baker uses in a brief aside on the wonder of the unknown, a glimpse of the excitement of discovery. Baker uses a description of magnetism as an example of the gap between a detailed description and the gaps that the mind has to fill in. Here are his words:

But daily Experience shews us these Effects of the Loadstone: they are plain and obvious to our Senses, and consequently proper Subjects for the Exercise of our Reason:...and must necessarily lead us to revere the unsearchable Wisdom of that almighty Being who has endowed them with such amazing Properties.—In our Examination thus far we stand justified both to Reason and Religion: but when we attempt beyond this, and pretend to discover and describe the Machinery whereby, and the Manner how these wonderful Effects are performed, which we neither have Senses to discern, nor Abilities to judge of, all is Darkness and Uncertainty, we plunge into an unfathomable Abyss without either Star or Compass to direct our Course, and are in the utmost Danger of Shipwrecking our Understanding.

Which of the many Hypotheses, contrived to account for these Changes....[are] to be regarded otherwise than...a Cobweb of the Brain ?—What do we really understand when we are told, that..."the magnetical Effluvia do not proceed "intrinsecally from the Stone, but are certain extrinsecal Particles, which approaching to the Stone and finding congruous "Pores and Inlets therein, are channel'd "through it, and having acquired a Motion "thereby, do continue their Current so far, "till being repulsed by the ambient Air, "they recoil again and return in a vortical "Motion, and so continue their Revolution "for ever through the Pores of the Magnet ?"....

I much question if we are not also greatly mistaken when we undertake to form a Judgment of the Sensations, Perceptions, Ideas and Understanding of other Creatures; since we have no Means of doing it but by the Standard of our own: which is, perhaps, as unfit for the Purpose as a Pair of Scales would be to measure the Height and Dimensions of a Building.

The Percussion of Light or Air, or the Contact of other material Bodies on Nerves disposed in different Parts about us, and indued with different Degrees of Sensibility, occasion all our Sensations and Perceptions. But the Sensations of the Nerves of the Eye are in ourselves so different from. those of the Nerves of the Ear, that if either of these Organs be wanting, the Ideas commonly taken in thereby cannot be supplied or made intelligible.

Therefore, as we are taught by Experience, that 'tis hardly possible to give a blind Man any just Ideas of a seeing Man's Sense of Colours, or a deaf Man of a hearing Man's Perception of Sounds, though they are Creatures of the fame common Nature and in every thing else alike, would it be more strange if we should be as little capable of understanding or judging of the Sensations and Perceptions of Animals in many Respects different from Mankind?

May there not be more Modes of Feeling than those five we call the Senses, which are bestowed on us for Our Information of what passes near us, and by pleasing or disagreeable Sensations warn us of what is profitable or prejudicial to us, and consequently what to chuse, and what avoid? May not other Creatures, whose Structure, Organs and Way of living bear no Resemblance to ours, (as Body may act on Body in various Manners) have Sensations also different from... ours...

This Supposition would account in some Sort for the Sagacity we may observe in every Species, (which can perhaps be solved no better Way) and give a clear Meaning to the Word Instinct, which is very confused at present: for it would then imply certain Impressions made on the Organs of Animals by Things about them, for their Information of what is hurtful or beneficial to them. Should this be the Case, every Kind of Animal must have Sensations distinct and different from those of every other Kind, and what cannot possibly be known or understood by them [that is,  these every other kind]: which Difference must be also as various as their Organs are. And if so, when we undertake to judge of the Actions, Abilities and Understanding of other Creatures, we are imitating the blind Man, who supposed that a Scarlet Colour is like the Sound of a Trumpet: and there may be more Truth than is commonly imagined in the Saying of Montaigne, when he was playing with his Cat, that it was not impossible he [the cat] might think him as great a Fool as he thought her.

Henry Baker reveals himself to be a man able to distinguish description and explanation. I wonder if Folkes got the point. This talent was soon to be lost from European scientific thought.  Yet the fact we can follow his arguments suggests that an apprehension of the balance between the known and unknown is not impossible to recover. 

Montaigne died in 1592. It is interesting that his cat story was well-known 150 years later. Now 400 years later we have forgotten the context of Montaigne's point, though not the cat story itself. Henry Baker can remind us, and that is why we quoted him at such length. 

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