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The Cat-egorical Imperative
by EX Hume

It behooves philosophy to stay current with contemporary memes of expression. While the basics remain the same, as always they will, comprising language, logic, and analysis, we need to acknowledge the origins and ramifications of emerging technologies as they (re)order human thought.

Much ink has been spilt and ones and zeros rearranged in pursuit of exploring the effects of the Internet and its ancillary devices of access; therefore this paper seeks to go in the opposite direction and explain the origins of one form of expression via social media not by focusing on the technology itself but by focusing on the human capacities therein at play. In other words, we ask, how is it that we have come to express ourselves this way to begin with?

It would be easy to view online communication as basically synthetic, that is, as the result of the admixture of various existing communicative methods (writing, conversation) and networking (complex, computerized switching; fiber-optic cable; socializing), plus individual access devices (laptop computers, tablets, smart phones). But surely these are merely the objective and empirical aspects of this phenomenon. Our normal foci fail to explain the principles of the concepts that are determinative of the phenomenon itself. For this there must be an a priori set of determinative principles not present in the technologies as such.

Here we face an antimony: how to explain how the cognition of what to do on social media can exist with no determinative concept inherent in the media themselves. We might find the solution in the natural law; there must be an a priori set of concepts that allow us to interact with these media given their presentation. Therefore, how I move from the presentation of the synthetic, empirical object that is a laptop with an Internet connection to uploading a picture of a kitty cat contemplating his right to a cheezburger inheres neither in the object of the laptop nor in the conceptualization of the cat picture and still less in the cheezburger (which is rarely present to begin with, and that can therefore be thought of as, at last, the synthesis of the synthesis), but in the power(s) of mind determinative of the concept of the cat picture a priori.

"I Can Has Oleo," rumored to be swapped on ARPANet In other words, there could be no cat pictures on the Internet at all without the existence a priori of a cat picture qua cat picture (and, by simple deduction, without the a priori existence of a cheezburger as well). To be clear, this existence must be considered separate from the actual creation of any given cat picture (and, again, still less of a cheezburger) as an object. So how can the concept of an object of a cat picture be possible? There must be a mental power of cat pictures for cat pictures to be cognizable, the presence or absence of social media notwithstanding.

For this, we must rely on the categories for the principles that create the concepts to exist. That is, we can intuit the existence of cat pictures, and even observe them, but this observation, being synthetic, is no more than the mere play of the cats and their cheezburgers across mind (mimed on the screen itself, mimed by the newsfeed in which the cat pictures seem to appear), but we cannot view them as concepts as such and understand their existence a priori without an understanding of the power to do so.* This category must exist under what Kant called categories of relation, as it is not the ones nor the zeros that depict the cat-contemplating-his-relationship-with-a-cheezburger that create what the picture is, nor their methodology of existence (computer screen, newsfeed, etc.), but how we relate that existence to other existences and, thereby, to that communication that elicits that phenomenon. In other words, we understand and are able to conceptualize the cat contemplating his relationship with a cheezburger as we (re)cognize its meaning relative to human understanding (ie., it is “funny” or “cute,” or “so stupid it is hilarious”) rather than as an empirical object. For, recognized as an empirical object only, none of those qualities inherent to its value (humor, cuteness, stupidity, and so forth) are cognizable—only relationally (as a product of a category of relation) can these qualities inhere.

So as we cognize the significance of the cat and the cheezburger and the meaning of its contemplation, we (re)cognize the category that makes this concept possible, its a priori existence as relational and part of human understanding as such. This also, in its way, explains the appearance of the cat picture on social media, which is itself only possible (cognizable) as a matter of a relational category, thus resolving the antimony with which we began this exploration.

But here we confront a distinctly moral issue. For if cat pictures are products of a priori principles, and their existence is not merely a matter of natural law after all (ie. is not a product of nature merely), they must rest on the a priori principles of purposiveness; that is, they must be purposive in their appearance as empirical objects. At first, we might say that our understanding of a cat picture on the Internet (presence or absence of a cheezburger, at this point, again, notwithstanding) is merely a matter of pleasure or displeasure—either we like it or we do not. If that were the case, then cat pictures on the Internet would be (taste, for the moment, taken out of the picture) a matter of judgment, and therefore, for lack of a better term, art. However, the presence of such feline-populated anti-cat-picture cat pictures (in this case, a cat video, but the differences are here mere matters of form) as Henri, the existentialist cat, would prove this wrong as a simple matter of deduction. Rather than pleasure or displeasure, this phenomenon actually poses questions, such as “I can has cheezburger?” or some other prompt toward contemplation, such as how many Cheez-its one can place upon a sleeping cat before he awakens. Further, the existence of these pictures on the social media (in other words, relationally) is indicative of an attempt to communicate some idea (or set of ideas) to another person (or set of people) about catness, cheezburgers, “has-ing,” and so forth. If it were a matter of art, the cat picture would be kept to itself. The cognitive power at work with the cat picture as it appears on social media is, thereby, a matter of reason, ie. a matter of desire. The act of sharing moves the cat picture from the a priori principle of purposiveness only to the realm of purposiveness that is also law and therefore obligation.

So when the cat appears asking if, indeed, he “can has cheezburger,” he (and by extension the person posting, sharing, or “liking” the picture) are asking a fundamentally moral question and engaging in a fundamentally moral act.

This, then, can be considered the cat-egorical imperative, which can be formulated thus: post nothing except that the post could be considered universal law. In other words, if that cat whose picture you post can has cheezburger, then, for cats, can has all as well.


*And here, by “to do so” I refer both to their observation and their creation. I feel this is somewhat safe, since there is little conceptual difference between the creation of a picture of a cat that “has cheezburger” and its observation. Both rely on the a priori existence with which we are concerned.