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Fox summary

Martin Wallen

The Cultural History of this Mystical Animal

4.3 (12 ratings)
10 mins
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    Aristotle was the first Westerner to classify the fox; later, his system was replaced by more scientific descriptions.

    If asked to name the most influential philosophers of all time, you’d probably mention Aristotle. But a lesser known fact is that Aristotle was also a pioneer of zoology – the first person to describe and classify nature in a systematic way.

    This makes Aristotle the first Western thinker to categorize the fox, though he didn’t have a very high opinion of the animal, describing it as an inferior creature, the direct opposite of man.

    Aristotle had a unique way of classifying animals in relation to each other, which included grouping them into “cold and earthy” or “warm and fluid” categories. The “warm” category was considered superior and was made up of flesh and blood animals, like humans, while the inferior “cold” category contained more bony, sinewy and hairy creatures.

    This classification also took into consideration the animal’s habitat, and since the fox is a hairy and bony creature that burrows in the earth, Aristotle placed it in the less respectable “cold and earthy” category.

    Creatures in Aristotle’s “warm and fluid” category were also considered closest to divinity and perfection, whereas the “earthy” creatures, including the fox, were furthest from divinity.

    Unfortunately for the fox, this classification would obscure our view of the creature for centuries.

    It wasn’t until around the eighteenth century, during the Enlightenment, that naturalists ventured outside their libraries and discovered the true nature of the fox.

    Up until this point, Europeans were only aware of the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, and the Arctic fox, the Alopex. But when they began to travel around the world, naturalists found new and exotic species of foxes everywhere and began to realize how incredibly adaptable foxes really are.

    Today, we know of at least 21 species of fox, covering a broad range of habitats, and coming in many different sizes and colors.

    Though some foxes may appear rather cat-like, they all belong to the biological family Canidae, which also includes dogs, wolves and jackals.

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    What is Fox about?

    To simply explain the fascinating animal known as the fox in biological terms wouldn’t do it justice. This mysterious animal has long been the subject of countless stories and myths and cultures around the world have developed their own unique perception of the animal. Fox (2006) dives into these many myths and stories, and also shows how the fox continues to influence our language and culture.

    Best quote from Fox

    Of all creatures, the fox seems to be the one whose most defining feature is ambiguity.

    —Martin Wallen
    example alt text

    Who should read Fox?

    • Linguists who wonder why we say “foxy”
    • Sociologists curious about how stories change the way we think about a species
    • Animal-rights activists who wonder why the fox has gotten a bad rap

    About the Author

    Martin Wallen is a professor of English at Oklahoma State University and an expert on how our culture relates to animals, especially dogs and foxes. In 2004, he published the book City of Health, Fields of Disease.

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