The Philosophy of Cute

Poll: is this baby bat cute?

I posted a few things a while back on analysing disgust philosophically. Some emotions have got plenty of attention like this from philosophers, especially love. But something that I’ve never seen discussed in the literature is cuteness – what is the content and the meaning of our perceiving things as cute? A google search brings up nothing but people naming their cats Socrates and Nietzsche. So I’m going to have a go.

The obvious thing people say when analysing cuteness is that it’s an evolutionary adaptation to facilitate care for infants. This is quite true, but it doesn’t answer the question. What is a mouse or a bear or a human actually conscious of when they perceive their young in this way? They can’t really be conscious ‘that the infant is theirs and is very young’, because they probably don’t have enough sense of self-identity, or of time, to understand such concepts. Besides, how young is young? It’s a different space of time for different species. So merely knowing why this reaction came about doesn’t tell us what its content is.

What do people find cute? One answer is things with certain body shapes – soft edges, large foreheads, large eyes, etc. Another thing we respond to is size, especially disproportion – something that’s very small relative to you or relative to how big it should be, is cute. Observe the deer and turtle to the left.

A related issue, I think, is how we respond to apparently disproportioned efforts – animals or people doing things that are hilariously beyond their abilities, or making judgements that seem to draw upon a level of authority and knowledge they clearly lack. Observe Fluffy, the Destroyer of Worlds:

Or observe the cuteness of children or animals doing things the only adult humans are really capable of, such as this squirrel:

But this sort of ‘aspirations far beyond abilities’ isn’t always cute. If it’s in someone who has the power to harm us by their misguided efforts, it’s not cute; and sometimes it’s just pathetic.

Patheticness and cuteness, in fact, seem very similar: both are encouraged by perceptions of vulnerability, uncertainty, and weakness (observe the worry and fragility on the face of eated-cookie-cat, left, intensified by the act of openness and interdependence implied by the original making of the cookie.

What they seem to share, I venture to suggest, and what differentiates them from the person whose delusions of grandeur are dangerous, is something like the complete containment of one world within another.

By ‘world’ I mean in the sense that for any person, we can sort of talk about ‘the world they inhabit’: the network of things that they interact with, depend upon, think about, aim for, and respond to. A cute (or pathetic) being is one who ‘inhabits’ a miniature world, a world that is contained within the larger world that we grander and more knowledgeable beings ‘inhabit’.

To put it another way, the significance that the cute being puts on any given object is greater than what we would, because that same object seems like a bigger part of a smaller world.

For instance, consider the ‘anger’ we perceive (perhaps mistakenly) on the face of Fluffy, above. What’s so funny and cute is the pettiness that we feel the anger must display: anger about some trifling thing, directed onto the tiny portion of reality that a small dog can be aware of. Compare also the anxiety on the face of eated-cookie-cat: what is he/she anxious about? That we will be annoyed at the loss of a potential cookie – something that to ‘us’ (the implied addressee) is of hardly any importance, but which looms large before the cat.

Similarly, a person’s quirks, habits, or interests, when they seem to motivate or matter to that person, but not to us, can seem ‘cute’, because they show us a part of that person’s world which they put more importance on than we do.

Size obviously connects to this, because spatial metaphors are so important to our thinking. Large forehead, small mouth, etc. are then presumably contingent cues that evolution has built us to perceive as indicating that a being’s world is within ours in this way.

What, then, differentiates the cute from the pathetic? It seems that in both cases there are two steps: first, the empathetic one through which we ‘step into the shoes’ of the cute being, so as to perceive what it perceives (whether that’s an identifiable object, or an implied one), and then secondly, we shift back ‘up’ and ‘outwards’ to our own world, so as to see the previously-perceived world of the cute being (or part thereof) as a component.

The difference between cuteness and patheticness seems to be that a in one case, this second step is pleasant, and in the other, it is unpleasant. What accounts for this difference though?

We can take as a clue, that perceiving someone or something as pathetic seems to be connected to perceiving them as a bit disgusting. If, as I have argued in the past, the essence of disgust is a blurring of the boundary between mind (life, spirit, etc.) and matter, then this might suggest the following: that the ‘pathetic’ reaction is prompted by anxieties about where, between those two worlds, oneself is located. When one sees oneself as within that smaller, contained world, precisely because it’s so entirely conatined, it comes to seem less like a world at all, and more like an object within the larger world. That is, it seems to objectify the self, to turn it from a proper mind (which is: consciousness of the world) and into a thing, a piece of matter almost.

That is, something pathetic worries us because we can’t quite persuade ourselves that we too are not similar pathetic. This prompts a attempt to withdraw, to avoiding thinking about the pathetic person or thing, to avoid entering into their mental world for fear of being stuck there and contaminated.

Something cute, on the other hand, doesn’t worry us, because we’re confident that it is a silly adorable little child-like creature, while we are a proper, intelligent, worldly adult. In entering into its world, and then shifting back out to ours, we find ourselves not contaminated or put in question, but affirmed and reassured.

This is why, for instance, we are likely to consider something cute when done by a child or animal, which if done by an adult human would be pathetic. The adult human confuses and blurs our boundaries – adults shouldn’t be childish like that, because we are adults, and we need to keep up the boundaries that define that sense of confidence.

Anyway, that was my initial stab at a philosophical clarification of cuteness. Since as I said I’ve not found any prior writing on the subject, it’s likely to be somewhat amateur, and no doubt have several points where improvement is needed. But whatever. The pictures are nice.

4 Responses to “The Philosophy of Cute”

  1. Patrick Nichols Says:

    Not sure about the etiquette of this, but I posted a response on reddit:

    Maybe it would have been better to copy and paste it here? Or would that be self plagiarism? In any case, I got to use the phrase “the phenomenology of cute,” for which I’m in your debt!

  2. links for 2009-11-28 « Rumblegumption Says:

    […] The Philosophy of Cute « Directionless Bones […]

  3. Awais Aftab Says:

    An insightful read!

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Thanks’ Awais.
    Patrick, I think you’re definitely on to something regarding ‘love without risk’. Certainly love connects very much with cuteness, as evidenced by (everything you mentioned and) the use of terms like ‘baby’ to address lovers. I don’t have much to add, so I’m actually going to plagiarise you if you won’t do it yourself:

    “One point I think the author missed out on is the role of love (or perhaps just recognition) in the phenomenology of cute. It’s certainly true that there is a power dynamic at play, and the perception of cuteness always involves “looking down” upon the “miniature world” of the cute. But I’d go further to say that it’s effect upon us is the idea of love without risk. We get that warm rush of love that comes in recognizing yourself in another being – the pleasure of a momentary freeing from existential loneliness. But because it is an “inferior” being – like a kitten or puppy or otter or ooooh what about those tiny baby monkeys! – there is no risk of our love being rejected.

    There’s plenty of reason to bring love into the equation – I mean think of how naturally intertwined our images of puppies and kittens are with traditional valentine expressions. Or that the impulse towards something cute is to reach out and bring it closer. Or that the “rush” of the cute is awfully similar to the “rush” of affection expressed in love.

    Also, I think part of the allure of the cute is that it assuages the sting of our basic affections’ initial collision with the world. I tend to think that all babies first resolve the existence of the world around the emotion of love – love for the mother is the emotion for the infant which brings into focus the world as desire. But this is followed by the psychic shock of realizing that the Other (MOther) is actually a different being, and with whom we will never escape conflict. This is the first, and hardest lesson all of us have had to endure. And this initial shock, I think, is what gives such power to the cute. For a moment, at least, we are able to believe again in that pure uncomplicated love which was our first foray into the world.”

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