Running Behind

The Subjective Knowledge of Squirrels

Grey Squirrel from Oak TreeIf you startle a grey squirrel who is foraging on the ground, they will immediately dash towards the nearest tree, run up and around it until they cannot be seen by you, then climb upwards as much as needed to in order to feel somewhat safe. If you pursue the squirrel, they will shoot up the tree, along the branches, and head for the point in the foliage of the canopy where another tree overlaps, or is at least fairly close by. When the neighbouring trees do not touch, the squirrel who is avoiding your unwanted attention will leap from its original tree across to a branch on the next one – sometimes arriving on nothing more than a twig, which may bend worryingly downwards under its weight. The squirrel, while visibly perturbed by such an event, quickly clambers to the secure footing on the other tree and can be gone from your sight before you even noticed it was there.

Now the squirrel’s capacity to negotiate trees not only exceeds our own, but their knowledge of trees and their surfaces exceeds even our ability to conceptualise an adequate parallel. Next to this arboreal labyrinth, our flat pathways and roads are positively dull exercises in trivial navigation, while the world of the tree squirrels is one of possibilities and intersections along fractal routes they can traverse with consummate skill. It is something that we can only barely imagine: like Thomas Nagel denying we could know what it is like to be a bat, the squirrels’ experience of trees is fundamentally barred to us. We would not, it is clear, want to describe the sure and certain agility of squirrels as being objective knowledge, no matter how assuredly they traverse it. Yet if the capabilities of squirrels are to be understood as subjective knowledge, we are forced to admit that such knowledge can be every bit as reliable as what is produced by the sciences – and a damn sight more applicable to everyday life!

Suppose we understand objective knowledge in the manner proposed by Isabelle Stengers, as something produced through the painstaking creation of methods of investigation. When scientists manage to produce something that can resist all objections, it forms a reliable witness on some topic, albeit in a rather narrow fashion. Objective knowledge necessarily tends towards this kind of partial quality, and would not by itself be a plausible way of being part of any world: someone who solely understood gravity, quantum mechanics, organic chemistry, and cell mitosis would be thoroughly ill-equipped for life. Such a narrow field of vision inevitably follows from the complex compositions of things that must be coaxed into developing an objectivity for those who are working with them.

Accepting the myopic quality of our various and impressive scientific apparatus makes the contrast between objective and subjective knowledge feel rather claustrophobic… the vast majority of knowledge lacks this quality of objectivity, of belonging to networks of objects that give a voice to something that cannot speak without us. Yet these other, subjective knowledges, while lacking the robustness of their artificially created cousins, are still capable of being reliable witnesses too. We can trust a builder to know how to construct a house, a mechanic to know how to repair an engine, a chef to know how to bake a soufflé, an artist to know how to blend paint to make a certain hue, or a musician to know how to harmonise. Likewise, we can trust a squirrel to climb a tree.

We have all been inculcated into an understanding that subjective knowledge is unreliable, a situation that comes out of contrasting it with objective knowledge, which is deemed reliable, essentially by definition. We should not trust our own judgements as they are merely subjective, but we should trust what is reported by scientists as this is objective fact. But if reliability is our purpose, subjective knowledge is just as capable of producing it as its cousin, and furthermore the methods that produce objective knowledge are just as capable of error as anything else. Aligning objectivity with reliability, and subjectivity with error, is to simultaneously misunderstand the core qualities of skilful practices while artificially canonising scientific techniques with an unwarranted infallibility that is thoroughly undeserved.

This dichotomy between the subjective and the objective has been handed down to us over nearly four centuries from original ideas in Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, first published in 1641, which imagined a thinking subject (“I”) and contrasts it to the world of extension and matter it is situated within. Mind is thus contrasted to matter in Descartes proposal, and the fingerprints of this Cartesian dualism are found everywhere today, as Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor observe, even among people who claim to repudiate Descartes. For instance, those who turn against the dualism of mind and matter that was core to Descartes’ account often do so by deflating the significance of mind, thus raising matter to centre stage by suggesting mind simply emerges from the action of matter. Such materialist apples have not fallen far from their dualist tree.

Drawing against the work of the two pivotal figures of twentieth century philosophy, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgeinstein, Dreyfus and Taylor offer an alternative understanding of our relationship with the world – one that is not based upon our being trapped inside the disconnected mind implied by the famous image of a brain-in-a-vat. They propose instead that we should understand ourselves as in contact with the world we live within. Rather than our minds forming images of an ‘outside’ world that they are forever separated from (the Cartesian mythos of mind versus matter) they suggest that we have a direct encounter with reality that utterly straddles the supposed divided into subject and object.

This contact theory (as they term it) is strongly rooted to Heidegger’s idea of being-in-the-world, and leads to a sense that at the base of those experiences what we usually term ‘subjective’ is a co-production between a being and the reality it lives within. It certainly counts in favour of this view that it aligns with work in numerous scientific fields, including cognitive science, neurobiology, and artificial intelligence, all of which are drawing away from Descartes and towards Heidegger’s perspective under umbrella terms such as ‘embodied cognition’ and ‘enactivism’. Our minds, in the contact view, are engaged in transactions with reality at the centre of which can be found not just our brains but our entire bodies. Hence the phrase ‘embodied cognition’: our minds are not just in our heads, they are in our worlds.

Accepting my understanding of knowledge as a practice, we can see that the kind of subjective knowledges I have suggested here i.e. building, repairing, baking, painting, harmonising – not to mention tree climbing for squirrels – are genuine knowledge practices. They have the reliability that is the sign of knowledge, they produce facts as a side-effect of this reliability, and they are sustained by networks of practitioners. Having come this far down this line of approach, it begins to seem as if the adjective ‘subjective’ has become empty and vacuous: the knowledge of beings is knowledge. Objective knowledge – the knowledge teased from objects – is just a special case of knowledge, not its paradigm case.

If this leads us to a conclusion that feels surprising, or even alien, this is only because we are unaccustomed to recognising knowledge as a practice, and even less comfortable with admitting that other animals can possess knowledge. Still, the squirrels’ adroitness with trees must be understood this way if we are honest about their capabilities. Dreyfus and Taylor suggest that blind spots like these come about because we treat subjective experience as if it were a picture generated internally of an external world – the Boxer picture of reality I rejected as incomplete on different but parallel grounds in How Many Real Worlds Are There? When we think this way, we are ignoring all the intricate perceptual practices of our living body that Maurice Merleau-Ponty drew attention to. Just seeing an object clearly is a knowledge-practice: we routinely underestimate the skill we possess in such matters, which requires us to pick out an object in a cluttered visual field, bring it into focus, and often to move our body to gain an optimal vantage point.

One objection may spring to mind: that rather than ‘knowledge’, we should understand the squirrel’s competence as instinct. But this is to make another of Descartes’ errors – to think of animals as mere machines, and thus ignore the way that beings other than humans also possess minds that influence their existence in the short term and, via the chain of inheritance and persistence of advantages, alter their biology in the long term. In this regard, I call to the witness stand the humble rock squirrel, a denizen of the desert plains of Mexico and the south-western United States, whose primary interest to us is their biological similarity to the grey squirrel I recruited as an example above. Despite the rock squirrel being about fifty percent bigger and heavier, the overall physiologies of the two species are notably parallel.

Rock squirrels are perfectly capable of climbing trees, but they seldom do so because they live in arid flatlands. Instead, their elongated claws (which are what help the grey squirrel with its arboreal escapades) are used for digging burrows. The same biological blessing – claws – supports two very different worlds, the climbing world of the tree squirrels and the burrowing world of the ground squirrel. It is not that the grey squirrel and the rock squirrel possess radically different instincts about how to use their claws – they are biologically similar in every key way, and are clearly close relatives. What differs between them are their knowledge-practices and the worlds that these lead to, or – equivalently – the worlds they live in and the knowledge practices that these lead to. It is the grey squirrels life in and around trees that gives them their competences, just as it is a life around rocks that give their cousins theirs. These lives and worlds are not fixed by biology, awaiting a chance mutation like a miracle from heaven; there is always a new world to be discovered when you leave the trees for the ground, or vice versa.

Knowledge-practices belong to the worlds they are embedded within – that they are embodied within – and to share a knowledge-practice is to share a world. Grey squirrels live with trees, and trees are as much a part of their world as cars, roads, and shoes are to us. Rock squirrels live in yet another world, with different knowledge-practices that belong to that world. Dreyfus and Taylor, developing arguments that parallel mine but proceed upon a thoroughly different line of attack, conclude their investigations by suggesting that realism must be connected to the worlds we are embodied within. Since there are multiple ways to describe nature, any or all of which could possess truth, the only viable realism available to us is what they call a plural realism. They took a different path, but one that ends in what I have called, following both Michael Moorcock and William James, a multiverse. We live in different worlds, we practice different knowledges, but all of us – including the squirrels – live in the same multiverse.

The opening image is by and copyright to Stephen Dalton, and is part of the ARKive project. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I enjoy your articles. I would enjoy them much more if the website were more mobile friendly.

Hi Ben,
Thanks for your kind words!

And yes, I know what you mean about TypePad not being very mobile friendly... I have thought about moving to another provider, but it's not clear where I would go or how much work would be involved in switching. So I end up staying put.

I'll have a quick check to see if there's anything I can do to support mobile access in the TypePad settings, though.

Thanks for commenting!


Hi Ben,
I've now launched a new template... let me know if this is more mobile friendly!

Many thanks for taking an interest,


"Our minds are not just in our heads, they are in our worlds" - Lovely.

So, you dissolve the need for 'subjective' and then demote the use of 'objective', I suppose that means knowledge is just knowledge without tether, works for me but I struggle with labels anyway.



Hey Rob,
Yeah, I've been on a weird journey in epistemology, and I'm at the point of thinking: if we can call it 'knowledge', what is the 'subjective' giving us? Especially since 'objective' knowledge seems to have a particularly clear scope for usage. I like this scheme... it's intuitive, but helpfully avoids contrasting different kinds of knowledge against each other as if they were opposites.

Great to hear from you!


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)