Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 23, Issue 1, pp 87-100

First online:

Beyond persons: extending the personal/subpersonal distinction to non-rational animals and artificial agents

  • Manuel de Pinedo-GarciaAffiliated withDepartamento de Filosofía, Programa ‘I3’ (Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia) Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Edificio B, Universidad de Granada Email author 
  • , Jason NobleAffiliated withSchool of Electronics and Computer Science, University of Southampton

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The distinction between personal level explanations and subpersonal ones has been subject to much debate in philosophy. We understand it as one between explanations that focus on an agent’s interaction with its environment, and explanations that focus on the physical or computational enabling conditions of such an interaction. The distinction, understood this way, is necessary for a complete account of any agent, rational or not, biological or artificial. In particular, we review some recent research in Artificial Life that pretends to do completely without the distinction, while using agent-centred concepts all the way. It is argued that the rejection of agent level explanations in favour of mechanistic ones is due to an unmotivated need to choose among representationalism and eliminativism. The dilemma is a false one if the possibility of a radical form of externalism is considered.


Agents Artificial life Category errors Externalism Eliminativism Levels of explanation Mechanism Philosophy of mind Representationalism