Philosophy Phriday: The Formicid Mystique

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the fifty-second contribution in the series, submitted by Madeline Eller.

The Formicid Mystique: Embodied Social Norms and Common Sense

One of the reasons that I am happy to be a philosopher rather than a scientist is that I have never had to glue tiny stilts onto an ant’s legs. Some poor grad student presumably had this task when collecting data for Wittlinger et. al.’s “The Ant Odometer: Stepping on Stilts and Stumps”. In the 2006 article, Wittlinger et. al. argue that they have solved the long-standing mystery of how ants navigate to and from their nest without retracing their steps. Indeed, the Saharan desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis, can explore the surrounding landscape in a roundabout, Magellanic adventure, and then find their way back to the mound using a direct route rather than retracing their steps. How? They use what Wittlinger et. al. call “a path integrator”, which employs directional data from the ant’s “celestial compass” and travel distance as gauged by an idiothetic pedometer (ibid., p. 1965). The pedometer is crucial for the ants to know how far they are from the nest; when stilts were attached to their legs, making their legs longer, the ants overshot the location of the nest, and when the ant’s legs were shortened, they undershot the distance.

Yes, an ant on stilts. Photo: Matthias Wittlinger

No ant thinks “I am so-and-so meters from the nest” when beginning a return journey. To the degree that ants have any thoughts at all, those thoughts certainly do not take the form of claims and propositions. Still, it seems apt to say that a Saharan desert ant knows how to return to its nest. We could say that the Saharan desert ant’s knowledge is embodied: the ant’s knowledge of the nest’s location is somehow encoded in the ant’s body and in its experience as a physical being.

Lots of knowledge is embodied, and not just in ants. After a few years of driving a car, it becomes second nature to us. When we first learn to drive, we think, ok, press the gas pedal, brake to slow down, turn at the light but not too fast, and so on. Over time, those thoughts become encoded in our bodies and muscles so that we do them without consciously thinking. (Anyone who has learned to drive a manual transmission especially knows the slow and tortuous progress of turning wooden, awkward thoughts about shifting gears into smooth and effortless muscle memory.) We can say the same of serving overhand in tennis, or performing a breaststroke, or pirouetting. Knowing how to do these things literally becomes embodied in us.

Some embodied knowledge encodes social norms. To perform femininity is to take up little space physically, to remain immobile, to close off one’s body. The cultural lexicon recognizes this in the term “manspreading”: men take up space in public and women do not. We recognize it in the phrase “throwing like a girl”. Girls throw without force or follow-through; they are unsure, tentative, and reticent (Young, 2009, chapter 2). Eli Clare beautifully describes the embodiment of non-binary gendered experience:

“Our bodies are not merely blank slates upon which the powers-that-be write their lessons. We cannot ignore the body itself: the sensory, mostly non-verbal experience of our hearts and lungs, muscles and tendons, telling us and the world who we are….there was a knowing that resided in my bones, in the stretch of my legs and arch of my back, the stones lying against my skin, a knowing that whispered, “not girl, not boy” (1999, as cited in Shotwell 2011).

Gender norms “reside in our bones”. Women know without thinking to close up their arms and legs and to shrink up on the subway. Men swagger down the street without conscious thought. These norms are embodied within us and tell us how to exist as physical, gendered beings in space.

Other social norms can be embodied as well. Alexis Shotwell draws from a number of critical race theorists to explore the notion of common sense, particularly with respect to race and gender. Common sense is inchoate, contradictory, unconsidered, nonpropositional, and implicit in our worldly activity (ibid., chapter 2, especially pp. 30-36). Race is a common sense notion in that it permeates our lives and is ubiquitous in our interactions, which makes it an explanatory force. Race also is a powerful marker of identity, and unites people with a shared history. Race clearly makes some people “hang together” as members of groups. Despite this, race doesn’t stand up to scrutiny with close examination. We still need a worked-out metaphysics of race even though it’s a common sense concept that we adeptly use to navigate the world every day. Gender is similar. It powerfully explains lots of phenomena in our world, but it’s slippery; there are numerous views in a vast academic literature on just what is gender anyway?

I think the notion of common sense can usefully explain some strange cases of internal tension with respect to body and beauty norms. Consider a feminist college professor who is well-versed in things like the history of women in advertising, changing historical beauty standards, and the contingency of body norms. She knows that body norms are oppressive, but she still finds herself on a diet. We can imagine her internal dialogue: “I know that thinness is a contemporary and arbitrary standard of beauty. I know that my desire to be thin is one that serves the male gaze and objectifies me; it’s disconnected from my value as a human and a woman. I know that if I weight-loss diet, it’s likely to fail to help me permanently lose weight and could even harm my health. I repeatedly failed to lose weight on past diets. In spite of all of this knowledge, here I find myself again, counting calories.”

An ant counting calories in scale insect honeydew. Photo: Alex Wild

This college professor has internalized her own oppression. According to Diana Meyers, “to internalize oppression is to incorporate inferiorizing material into the structure of the self – to see oneself as objectified, to value and desire what befits a subordinated individual, and to feel competent and empowered by skills that reinforce one’s subordination” (2002, p. 7). Sandra Bartky famously describes how women internalize their own oppression by obsessing over what they eat and their body weight and perceived imperfections (1998). We can imagine this professor feeling the pull of other, different beauty norms and having a similar internal dialogue: “I know beauty norms are oppressive but I still want a breast augmentation” or “I know beauty norms are oppressive but I still want to shave my legs and wear makeup every day”. (To be clear, I don’t think that everyone on a diet or getting a nose job has become her own oppressor. But it’s undeniable that some have.)

What’s puzzling about the college professor case is that she has good reasons to reject the thinness norm, and she knows those reasons, yet they fail to undermine her desire to be thin. Our intuition is that she should know better – and in fact, she does know better! She would admit as much: “I know that body norms are oppressive, arbitrary, and stupid, but I still want to be thin”. (I think there is a case to be made that in dieting, the college professor acts akratically – that is, irrationally – because she fails to act on her own best reason. I don’t know whether this is true; I don’t know what the professor’s best reasons are nor her most rational action. Regardless, while considering this response to the puzzle might be worthwhile, it misses the point of this essay. I only want to comment here on the phenomenology of socially-imposed desires and draw together some observations about embodied social norms.)

I think we can understand the case of the college professor as a case of a social norm being embodied as common sense. Just as there is a phenomenology of being racialized or gendered, there is a phenomenology of being fat or thin or normatively beautiful. The norms of body and beauty become imbued in us and implicit in our thinking as we navigate the world. These norms shape our interactions with other people and our physical environment. Consider these personal narratives (Hancock, 2015, pp. 77-78):

“…you learn to watch what you say and watch who you eat around. I used to have this thing where I would hate people seeing me eat because I would think that people would be thinking to themselves “why is she eating?” especially in public. When I was 19 I had a boyfriend and I would go to his house and his family would offer me dinner and I would be starving and I wouldn’t take it because I didn’t want him to see me eating. But that was just normal for me.”


“I remember standing outside the gym and these boys calling out something, and I didn’t realise for a couple of weeks but they were calling me Hulk. And that was it, I never did any sports ever again. I completely locked down in my own self and I moved into this invisible self. I just isolated myself, out of complete embarrassment of my own body.”


“Andy: I’m so used to hiding in pictures….I would just stand behind my wife or the kids. So obviously it was playing on my mind.

Tayla: Is that something you did on purpose?

Andy: It started off that way yeah.”

Fat people learn that their taking up space is undesirable according to the norms of body and beauty, and moralized as a matter of personal responsibility (Eller 2014). So, they hide in their homes or in pictures and remove themselves from public life. They are careful not to eat too much in public so that others don’t judge them. The thinness norm becomes implicit, embodied, and commonsensical. Of course fat people should hide in photos! They look better that way. Of course they shouldn’t eat too much in public. No one wants to look like a glutton. When the norm becomes embodied, it becomes slippery and resists critique. Body and beauty norms are thus inchoate and contradictory and implicit just as much as racial or gender norms. So, our college professor might know that the thinness norm is oppressive, but she still feels the force of the norm, embodied; hence, its confusing power and pull. Oppressive social norms, when embodied, become pernicious. They cause us to become our own oppressors.

I do not envy Saharan desert ants that navigate according to a celestial compass and internal pedometer. However, I imagine they do not envy us either, for we navigate according to a worldly labyrinth of embodied oppression. Our bodies are a site of resistance; our knowledge of normative non-conformance resides in our bones.



Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Skin deep: Femininity as a disciplinary regime”. In Bat-Ami Bar On & Ann Ferguson (eds.), Daring to Be Good: Essays in Feminist Ethico-Politics. Routledge, 1998.

Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Duke University Press, 1999.

Eller, M. “On Fat Oppression.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, vol. 24, no. 3, 2014, pp. 219–245., doi:10.1353/ken.2014.0026.

Hancock, Tayla. “Life in This Fat Body: Exploring the Multiple Realities of Fat Embodiment.” Victoria University of Wellington, 2015.

Meyers, Diana Tietjens. Gender in the Mirror: Cultural Imagery and Women’s Agency. Oxford University Press USA, 2002.

Shotwell, Alexis. Knowing Otherwise: Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Wittlinger, M., et al. “The Ant Odometer: Stepping on Stilts and Stumps.” Science, vol. 312, no. 5782, 2006, pp. 1965–1967., doi:10.1126/science.1126912.

Young, Iris Marion. On Female Body Experience: “Throwing like a Girl” and Other Essays. Oxford University Press, 2009.

AntHead2Madeline Eller is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Georgetown University. She works on issues in social and political philosophy and feminist epistemology. In her free time, she enjoys tabletop gaming and watching reality tv.