The Origins of Agency

Mises was, for some reason, reluctant to attribute agency to animals -- he called what animals do "quasi-action."

I've argued against this in the past; Stuart Kaufman offers a detailed defense of my position in his new book, Re-Inventing the Sacred, in which he offers a semiotic definition of agency that extends that concept to single-celled creatures. To be a semiotic interpreter is to possess agency -- it is to interpret a sign and then act upon that interpretation -- in fact, in a sense, the action is the interpretation. To act is the characteristic distinction between life and non-life.


  1. Anonymous8:11 AM

    I don't have my Mises handy. So, is the difference between man and other animals the degree of action?

  2. Does action require consciousness or just subjective experience? I tend to think the latter, and so I attribute action to animals as fully as humans.

  3. Don't computers interpret signs and act upon interpretations? How is an animal acting upon instinct significantly different than a computer acting upon its programming?

  4. Micha, here's the basic difference, without going deep into theories of mind: a bacterium swims up a glucose gradient to fulfill its purpose, while a computer runs an algorithm to fulfill our purpose.

  5. Gene,

    Two questions:

    (1) Are you saying Stuart Kaufman actually refers to you in his book, or do you rather mean that he defends the position that you yourself also hold?

    (2) I'm not so sure I can follow you down this path. I think it's a bold suggestion, to be sure, but I'm not convinced that it's correct. Is it the kind of thing where I will get tangled up in all sorts of contradictions, if I try to place the threshold of "actor" higher than the barrier between life and non-life?

  6. What is a bacterium's purpose and where does that purpose come from? A Darwinian might say that the purpose is a function of genes (which, in turn is a function of its parents genes, or perhaps a mutation), while a creationist might say the purpose comes from a designer. Whereas, in the case of the computer, the purpose clearly is designed by us. But still, I don't see how in either case, a computer can be properly distinguished from relatively simply life forms. None of these entities are able to reflect upon or choose a different purpose; in a sense, both are programmed to fulfill a function.

  7. Sorry for the slow responses -- the site was down, then I had to travel.

    Micha: No, computers do not interpret signs, any more than a car interprets turning the key as a signal to start up! The purpose is an emergent property of the bacterium.

    Jacob: Subjective experience requires consciousness!

    Bob: He doesn't cite me. Question 2 -- not enough time to answer right now.


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