Swallows, Moles, and other Animal-Philosopher Typologies


“There are two kinds of philosophers: swallows and moles.”

The swallow and the mole are offered up by Edouard Machery (Pittsburgh) in a recent review of The Weirdness of the World by Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside).

He writes:

Swallows love to soar and to entertain philosophical hypotheses at best loosely connected with empirical knowledge. Moles, on the contrary, rummage through mundane facts about our world and aim at better understanding it.

Which philosophers are swallows and which are moles?

Note that the swallow-mole distinction is not to be confused with the fox-hedgehog distinction (from Archilochus, usually via Isaiah Berlin). The fox knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing.

A further question, of course, is what other animal pairs would make for helpful, or, if not helpful, at least amusing, typologies of philosophers?

Here are some possibilities:

  • Ants and Anteaters.
    Ants do their specific little jobs as part of creating and maintaining the collective body of knowledge. Anteaters paw through the anthill, slurping up what they need, leaving destruction and confusion in their wake.
  • Dogs and Cats.
    Dogs are happy to approach you or play with any idea you throw at them, just for fun. Cats may interact with you but usually only if you’re doing something for them.
  • Snakes and Glass Lizards.
    Snakes are always doing something potentially important: if a snake is nearby, you better pay attention. Glass Lizards are a type of legless lizard that is not a snake (despite that you might have thought that the definition of a snake was “legless lizard”) and are constantly making distinctions that do not make a difference.

Discussion and suggestions welcome (but please play nice).

Central European University Philosophy Graduate Program
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Farzad Mahootian
Farzad Mahootian
25 days ago

Let’s add hybrids to the mix. Here’s the case of the glass mole. Left to their own devices, moles change color, eventually losing all color and become transparent without ever noticing their deteriorating eyesight. Having long since disproven the sun’s existence, glass moles become insensate even to reflected light and eventually go completely blind.

SCM
SCM
25 days ago

Remoras attach themselves to larger creatures via specially adapted suction devices and feed off the incidental detritus that emerges from that bigger fish’s engagement with the literature ecosystem.

Last edited 25 days ago by SCM
Zsuzsanna Chappell
Zsuzsanna Chappell
25 days ago

My first thought when reading about the distinction was that I’d like to be a hawk. Map out the terrain from above, paying attention to details and movement but not digging in the ground. More soaring and observing, but not detached either.

King Arthur
King Arthur
25 days ago

The real question here concerns the philosophical coconut: that is, whether these are African swallows or European swallows.

Michel
25 days ago

The mouse and the elephant.

The mouse has lots and lots of offspring so that at least some will make it to adulthood.

The elephant has one, and spends a lot of time and energy caring for it to make sure it survives.

Off the cuff
Off the cuff
25 days ago

The octopus and the whale: the octopus’ distributed neurons equip it to explore variegated niches (sometimes simultaneously), adeptly shifting between, and fitting into, diverse fields. It often moves sideways. Fear for its survival provokes it to spill much ink. The whale moves straight ahead, covering great distances nearer the surface but occasionally diving deep… (can’t think of much more for the whale)

Pomelo
Pomelo
Reply to  Off the cuff
25 days ago

The whale communicates in ways that, though sophisticated, are easy to mock.

Fritz Allhoff
25 days ago

In graduate school one of our advisors said we could (aim big or aim small) and (be right or be wrong). This gives four quadrants. Aiming big and being right was rumored to be too hard. Aiming small and bring wrong was, well, kinda worthless.

So we were advised to either aim big and be wrong, or else aim small and be right (i.e., the remaining two boxes). I’ve often wondered whether this was insightful or terrible advice, but I’ve been thinking it over for about 20 years.

don't mourn, organize!
don't mourn, organize!
Reply to  Fritz Allhoff
25 days ago

on the other hand, perhaps even if you aim small you’ll still be wrong. so why not aim big and be wrong?

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Fritz Allhoff
25 days ago

Lol, who told you that??

So, the advice essentially boils down to: aim big (and don’t worry about being right or wrong), or aim small (and be very careful that you are right).

I mean…ok, that’s actually not terrible advice, as long as you don’t think there’s anything wrong with being wrong…

John Collins
Reply to  Patrick Lin
22 days ago

Fritz, exactly what I was wondering! When I read that I pictured Francis but I don’t remember being told that.

Steven DeLay
Steven DeLay
25 days ago

Lion and hyenas

Michel
Reply to  Steven DeLay
25 days ago

So… let the women do the work and take the credit or… let the women do the work and keep the credit?

Last edited 25 days ago by Michel
Vilius Dranseika
25 days ago

I like Francis Bacon’s ants, spiders, and bees. I guess sparrows are supposed to be like spiders, but not sure if moles are meant to be ants or bees.

V. Alan White
23 days ago

Worms and robins. Worms diligently plow through all the crap to make fertile casts with slow digestion, but then robins pluck out the big ones and fly high ingesting the worms’ productive lives with color and height the worms could never achieve.

Louis F. Cooper
17 days ago

Chimpanzees and bonobos. (I’ll let others fill in the details.)

Dr. Chen
Dr. Chen
15 days ago

How about an analytical animal that engages in rigorous logical argument like a big brained dolphin and a continental animal like a mouse smoking a cigarette?

Outsider
Outsider
Reply to  Dr. Chen
14 days ago

Robert Brandom has said in an interview that, “I think one would do well to go to analytic philosophy for one’s methodology, but to the continent for one’s understanding of philosophical problems that are worth thinking about. That certainly is what I have done.” He is not the only philosopher to completely disregard the tired, old spat between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy. Indeed, more and more philosophers are doing work which completely disregards that dubious distinction. The fact that people like you take it so seriously when “analytic” philosophy originated with the Vienna Circle in continental Europe and many continental philosophers are not from Europe at all reveals your eagerness for a catch-all category for anything apart from your way of doing things. Anyone not educated in the history of analytic philosophy would be just as lost reading your work as you are reading “continental” philosophy. Indeed, most fields in the humanities outside of philosophy draw upon continental philosophy more than they do analytic philosophy. Just because you lack the requisite background to understand something doesn’t make it the work of a charlatan. Just because you have no use for it doesn’t mean it has no use at all. Just give it a rest, would you?

Dr. Chen
Dr. Chen
Reply to  Outsider
10 days ago

It strikes me as ironic that in our discussion about the purported ‘non-existence’ of the analytic-continental divide, a form of demarcation emerges between us. It’s important to remember that the scholarly debate over this division is far from resolved.

I could very well appeal to the authority of Roger Scruton as how you invoked Robert Brandom. In scholarly discussions, it’s crucial to prioritize evidence and logical reasoning over appeals to emotion or authority. Relying on authoritative quotes or emotional engagement, while persuasive, can detract from the objective analysis essential for rigorous intellectual debate.

All I’m saying is that analytical philosophy should be represented by a super cool smart animal like a floating telekinetic dolphin. while the reddit savvy Nietzsche quoting continental animal would be like a marmot drinking an espresso.

Outsider
Outsider
14 days ago

Perhaps I’m misinterpreting the anteater metaphor but it’s strange to frame an outsider who overturns established ways of doing things as a predator on a gluttonous rampage. For a discipline ostensibly concerned with critical thinking, this is a profoundly conservative attitude to take towards iconoclasts. It becomes more ironic in light of the fact that, by and large, professional philosophers engage predominantly in more or less adversarial criticism of one another’s work. Criticism is evidently only welcome from insiders. Cue “it’s just a joke”.