Why animalism matters


Here is a question as intriguing as it is brief: what are we? The animalist’s answer is equal in brevity: we are animals. This stark formulation of the animalist slogan distances it from nearby claims—that we are essentially animals, for example, or that we have purely biological criteria of identity over time. Is the animalist slogan—unburdened by modal or criterial commitments—still interesting, though? Or has it lost its bite? In this article we address such questions by presenting a positive case for the importance of animalism and applying that case to recent critiques.

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  1. 1.

    Johnson (2016, 127). For other avowed anti-animalists who nonetheless agree that it is a trivial and obvious truth that we are animals, see also Baker (2000, 112), Shoemaker (2008, 318), and Shoemaker (2016, 128–129). Bailey 2016 argues that Baker’s and Shoemaker’s positions collapse into full-blown animalism despite their best intentions.

  2. 2.

    Parfit (2012, 12).

  3. 3.

    Duncan forthcoming a.

  4. 4.

    We here follow Bailey and van Elswyk (forthcoming). On the question of what we are, see Olson (2007, Chapter 1).

  5. 5.

    For citations and more on these alternatives to animalism, see Bailey (2015, 869) and Blatti (2019, section 1.1).

  6. 6.

    Recent defenses of animalism include Bailey (2014), Bailey (2017), Olson (2018), Thornton and Bailey forthcoming, Yang (2013), and Yang (2015). Johansson (2007) and Toner (2011) discuss how to best formulate the view. Thornton (2016) surveys variation within the view. See also all the essays in Blatti and Snowdon (2016).

  7. 7.

    For defense, elaboration, and application of this general argumentative strategy to another domain in metaphysics, see Bailey and Brenner forthcoming.

  8. 8.

    Can merely contradicting other interesting theories make a view interesting? One might think not: the view that we are noses (or middle toes, or elbows, or appendixes…) contradicts every known theory of human nature. And yet it is more of a joke than an interesting theory to be taken seriously. Supplementing the nose view with modal or criterial content (that we are essentially noses, or that we continue to exist only so long as we can smell, for example) changes little; it is still a joke and unworthy of further attention. And yet it still contradicts every known theory of human nature. Here’s what’s going on: various factors determine whether a theory is worth our attention and allegiance. Among them: substantivity, prior probability, probability given our evidence, fruitfulness, and ideological and ontological parsimony. The nose view scores high on substantivity, in fact. It is an interesting view, and would have fascinating ramifications in the ethics of plastic surgery, for one. And it would show that every philosopher who's ever written on the metaphysics of human nature has been wrong not just in the details but in the main. But the nose view scores very low indeed on other dimensions—one may be forgiven for assigning it a very low prior probability, for example—and so may be set aside. We thank an anonymous referee for bringing this objection to our attention.

  9. 9.

    Hamblin (1973) and Groenendijk and Stokhof (1984).

  10. 10.

    This list is from Duncan forthcoming a: 10–11.

  11. 11.

    ‘Animalism’ has sometimes been used to name a thesis that explicitly includes (a) (see Snowdon 1991, 111 and Nichols 2010), (b) (see Madden 2016), or (d) (see Shoemaker 2016). Other animalists—such as Olson (2015), Sauchelli (2017), and Thornton and Bailey forthcoming—are careful to distinguish the core thesis that we are animals from claims like (a) through (e). And that distinction is, of course, central to understanding Duncan’s dilemma.

  12. 12.

    Duncan forthcoming a, 5.

  13. 13.

    Thornton 2019.

  14. 14.

    Duncan forthcoming a, 8.

  15. 15.

    One of us has answered no to this question. See van Elswyk (2018).

  16. 16.

    A different objection is that What are we? is defective and that we’d instead pursue one of Duncan’s other questions if we were truly interested in the metaphysics of human persons. But such an objection would turn on—and require argumentative support from—a number of topics in modality, metaontology, and metaphilosophy. That support is not forthcoming in anything from Duncan (or Johnston, or other anti-animalists). For arguments that What are we? is an especially apt question, see Bailey and van Elswyk forthcoming.

  17. 17.

    Duncan forthcoming a, 11.

  18. 18.

    Duncan forthcoming a: 12. Note that Duncan’s thought experiment is an objection only to some forms of Robust Animalism. Views on which detached cerebra are themselves shrunken human animals—a variation on the view in van Inwagen (1990)—are immune.

  19. 19.

    On which, see Bailey and van Elswyk forthcoming.

  20. 20.

    For defense of this kind of modal skepticism—better, modal agnosticism—as applied to animalism, see Bailey and van Elswyk forthcoming. A general form of modal skepticism appears in van Inwagen (1998). On skeptical stances that specifically focus on thought experiments about personal identity, see Gendler (2002) and Wilkes (1988).

  21. 21.

    Robust Animalists, to be sure, are committed to modal claims about cases like Duncan’s—to their impossibility, that is. We will not take up here the delicate question of whether such commitment is a liability. But note that their commitment need not derive from a fanciful case. It could, instead, stem from a more general claim about substance sortals, for example (on which we say more below).

  22. 22.

    This story requires that something new can come to be—a cerebrum, in this case—merely from the annihilation of surrounding matter. This isn’t as strange as it may seem; consider the statue that comes to be upon the carving away of surrounding marble. But there are still puzzles here, and animalists have had much to say on related issues; see, for example, Olson (2016).

  23. 23.

    Duncan forthcoming a: 13, emphasis original. Duncan’s subsequent discussion focuses on the alleged impossibility of being wrong about something like (ii). His arguments there are not at war with what we claim here, though, which is that it is possible to be wrong about something like (iv).

  24. 24.

    Including Duncan (2015a, b, 2018, 2019, forthcoming b), of course—all of which buttress an introspective approach to personal identity issuing in certain or near-certain judgements.

  25. 25.

    We take issue, then, with Duncan forthcoming a, 15, “The evidence that I’ve given is especially potent. It’s evidence that we all have access to. It’s evidence that we can be directly aware of whenever we think. And it’s evidence that is absolutely foundational to how we reason about and conceptualize ourselves as persons. Thus, rather than being just one consideration among many, this evidence carries special weight. It is certain. It is undeniable”.

  26. 26.

    As in, for example, Olson (2016).

  27. 27.

    Duncan forthcoming a, 16.

  28. 28.

    Also known as the Thinking Animal Argument: see Olson (2003) and Snowdon (1990). Note that there are many other arguments for animalism besides, as in Bailey (2016), Bailey (2017), Blatti (2012), Licon (2012), and Thornton and Bailey forthcoming.

  29. 29.

    On animal as a substance sortal see Olson (1997, 120–123).

  30. 30.

    For the record: two of the authors positively disagree with the move (we prefer a version of Animalism Light that explicitly eschews Robust Animalism); the other author leans towards accepting the thesis that animal is a substance sortal.

  31. 31.

    Johnston (2016, 100).

  32. 32.

    Johnston (2016, 100).

  33. 33.

    For other arguments distinguishing the question of personal ontology from those about personal identity, see Olson (2007, 15–19).


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Thanks to an anonymous referee and Brad Rettler for comments and to Matt Duncan for helpful conversation prior to the writing of this article. Funding from Yale-NUS College and the Singapore Ministry of Education supported this research. Co-authorship is equal.


Funding was provided by National University of Singapore (Grant No. FY2020-FRC1-008).

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Correspondence to Andrew M. Bailey.

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Bailey, A.M., Thornton, A.K. & van Elswyk, P. Why animalism matters. Philos Stud (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-020-01593-x

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  • Animalism
  • Personal ontology
  • Personal identity
  • What are we?