Cat & missing, retracted mouse philosophy?

Wednesday 2nd August 2017
Cat philosopher, via Pixabay

In 1982, Bruce Le Catt wrote a response to a paper in the "Australasian Journal of Philosophy" critiquing an earlier article about prosthetic vision. But Le Catt was no ordinary author. No, he was a cat, and beloved pet of David Lewis, world-class philosopher, who just happened to be the author of the article about which Bruce Le Catt was commenting.

After 35 years, philosophy journal Retraction Watch corrects an article…by a cat!  Lewis’ inside joke wasn’t lost on those who knew him, and the benign deception seems to have been common knowledge in the field since the Le Catt paper appeared in 1982 (which also happens to be the year Cats began its run on Broadway). The paper has been cited four times since it was published, according to Clarivate Analytics. But 25 years later, the journal has finally decided to put an end to the gag.

The joyless notice states plainly: The Australasian Association of Philosophy would like to clarify that ‘Bruce Le Catt’, was a pseudonym used by the author (right) David Lewis, to discuss some work published under his own name.

Pets have made appearances before as authors and co-authors. Polly Matzinger, an immunologist, has used her dog to make a point about the use of the third person in science publishing. And in 1975, F.D.C. Willard (otherwise known as Chester the cat) beat Bruce Le Catt to the masthead by seven years when his owner, Jack Hetherington, included him in an article for Physical Review Letters.

The correction was prompted by (left) Michael Dougherty,  chair of the philosophy department at Ohio Dominican University, in Columbus.  Dougherty,  writing a book about research integrity in his field, contacted the journal in early July about the fake name.  Lewis apparently uses the pseudonym to critique work published under his own name in the journal two years earlier. The online version of the article in question on the Taylor & Francis website does not indicate the true authorship of the article.

Occasionally, but not always, the pseudonymously-published article is attributed to Prof. Lewis by others publishing on the topic discussed. Not all philosophers are aware of the identity between Lewis and Le Catt, and it is conceivable that many younger members of the profession could read the 1982 article without knowing that Lewis is providing a critique of his own work.

"I am writing to request a correction of the scholarly record. Would you kindly publish a brief corrigendum to the article in question, both in the pages of the journal and tethered electronically to the online version of the article, that declares the true authorship of the article? In doing so, Australasian Journal of Philosophy would be following the best practices for maintaining publishing and research integrity. Thank you for considering my request for a correction of the scholarly record."

Lewis, who died in 2001, was an architect of the theory of modal realism, a branch of philosophy which holds that all possible worlds are as real as the actual world. In that sense, Lewis’ ruse comports nicely — if ironically — with his outlook: After all,  worldviews of a man and a man’s cat are both worldviews? Or, as Hippolyte Taine said: I have studied many philosophers and many cats. The wisdom of cats is infinitely superior.

 Retraction Watch? 

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