Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 157–177 | Cite as

Nano-intentionality: a defense of intrinsic intentionality

  • W. Tecumseh FitchEmail author


I suggest that most discussions of intentional systems have overlooked an important aspect of living organisms: the intrinsic goal-directedness inherent in the behaviour of living eukaryotic cells. This goal directedness is nicely displayed by a normal cell’s ability to rearrange its own local material structure in response to damage, nutrient distribution or other aspects of its individual experience. While at a vastly simpler level than intentionality at the human cognitive level, I propose that this basic capacity of living things provides a necessary building block for cognition and high-order intentionality, because the neurons that make up vertebrate brains, like most cells in our body, embody such capacities. I provisionally dub the capacities in question “nano-intentionality”: a microscopic form of “aboutness”. The form of intrinsic intentionality I propose is thoroughly materialistic, fully compatible with known biological facts, and derived non-mysteriously through evolution. Crucially, these capacities are not shared by any existing computers or computer components, and thus provide a clear, empirically-based distinction between brains and currently existing artificial information processing systems. I suggest that an appreciation of this aspect of living matter provides a potential route out of what may otherwise appear to be a hopeless philosophical quagmire confronting information-processing models of the mind.


Evolution of mind Evolution of cognition Intentionality Intrinsic intentionality 



I thank Daniel Dennett, William D. W. Fitch, Phillip Pettit, Kim Sterelny, Gesche Westphal and an anonymous reviewer for comments and constructive criticisms of an earlier version of this manuscript, and Antonio Damasio for insightful conversations on this topic.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Psychology, St Mary’s QuadUniversity of St AndrewsSt Andrews, FifeUK

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