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The female great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) is said to exhibit sphexish behaviour when building nests.

From sphex (sand wasp of Sphex or an allied genus) +‎ -ish (suffix meaning ‘being like, similar to, typical of’), coined by the American scientist and scholar of comparative literature Douglas Hofstadter (born 1945) in a September 1982 “Metamagical Themas” column in Scientific American,[1] after a study of the behaviour of sphexide wasps. Sphex is derived from Ancient Greek σφήξ (sphḗx, wasp), either from Proto-Indo-European *bʰey- (bee) or a Pre-Greek word.



sphexish (comparative more sphexish, superlative most sphexish)

  1. (philosophy) Of animal behaviour: deterministic, preprogrammed. [from 1982]
    Antonym: antisphexish
    • 1984, Daniel C[lement] Dennett, “Making Reason Practical”, in Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (A Bradford Book), Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, published 1997, →ISBN, page 46:
      Is this the top of the pinnacle then? Or is it just the top of our pinnacle, the point at which we reveal our sphexish streak and flounder about foolishly in the face of higher thought?
    • 1999, John [William Nevill] Watkins, “Genes, Brains, and Creativity”, in Human Freedom after Darwin: A Critical Rationalist View, Chicago, LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing Company, →ISBN, part 1 (Naturalism), § 5.1 (Genes and Behaviour), page 120:
      [A] sphexish creature in unusual circumstances may seem to be under the control of a malevolent puppet-master. A reliable sign that behaviour is sphexish is that the creature persists with it in circumstances that render it futile, rather as my first electronic typewriter would go on furiously hammering away with its daisy-wheel after the paper supply had run out.
    • 2004, Keith E. Stanovich, “A Brain at War with Itself”, in The Robot’s Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin, Chicago, Ill., London: University of Chicago Press, →ISBN, page 75:
      Dual-process models of cognition [] all propose, in one way or another, that in fact we all are a little bit sphexish. In fact, many of these theories, in emphasizing the pervasiveness of TASS [The Autonomous Set of Systems] and the rarity and difficulty of analytic processing, are in effect proposing that our default mode of processing is sphexish.
    • 2013, Stephen D. Hales, “Freedom”, in This is Philosophy: An Introduction, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, →ISBN, paragraph 4.23, page 125:
      What makes you any different from the digger wasp? Aren't you the least bit sphexish? You might argue (and probably will!) that we're far more complex than poor Sphex, and don't engage in the same repetitive actions that she does. [] Yet human beings are infinitely variable in their behavior, we don't all do the same thing in the same circumstances. Maybe it is hard to say exactly why we're not sphexish, but surely we're not. Regrettably, this rejection of sphexishness is not that great an argument.

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  1. ^ Douglas Hofstadter (1982 September) “Can Inspiration be Mechanized?”, in Scientific American, volume 247, number 3, New York, N.Y.: Munn & Co., [], →ISSN, →OCLC, pages 18–31.

Further reading[edit]

  • Sphex on Wikipedia.Wikipedia
  • G. Scott Acton (1998 May) “Sphexishness”, in Great Ideas in Personality[1], archived from the original on 9 November 2020