, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 125–143 | Cite as

The Biosemiotic Glossary Project: Agent, Agency

  • Morten TønnessenEmail author


The current article is the first in a series of review articles addressing biosemiotic terminology. The biosemiotic glossary project is inclusive and designed to integrate views of a representative group of members within the biosemiotic community based on a standard survey and related publications. The methodology section describes the format of the survey conducted in November–December 2013 in preparation of the current review and targeted on the terms ‘agent’ and ‘agency’. Next, I summarize denotation, synonyms and antonyms, with special emphasis on the denotation of these terms in current biosemiotic usage. The survey findings include ratings of nine citations defining or making use of the two terms. I provide a summary of respondents’ own definitions and suggested term usage. Further sections address etymology, connotations, and related terms in English and other languages. A section on the notions’ mainstream meaning vs. their meaning in biosemiotics is followed by attempt at synthesis and conclusions. Although there is currently no consensus in the biosemiotic community on what constitutes a semiotic agent, i.e., an agent in the context of semiosis (the action of signs), most respondents agree that core attributes of an agent include goal-directedness, self-governed activity, processing of semiosis and choice of action, with these features being vital for the functioning of the living system in question. I agree that these four features are constitutive of biosemiotic agents, and stipulate that biosemiotic agents fall within three major categories, namely 1) sub-organismic biosemiotic agents, 2) organismic biosemiotic agents and 3) super-organismic biosemiotic agents.


Agent Agency Biosemiotic glossary Survey Terminology 



This work has been carried out thanks to the support of the research project Animals in Changing Environments: Cultural Mediation and Semiotic Analysis (EEA Norway Grants/Norway Financial Mechanism 2009–2014 under project contract no. EMP151). I would like to thank my fellow editors, Alexei Sharov and Timo Maran, for contributing to designing the biosemiotic glossary project and for important feedback on this specific article. Furthermore I thank two reviewers of this paper for critical comments, and the respondents to the first survey for their contributions. I would also like to thank members of the Editorial Board of Biosemiotics for providing feedback – particularly Peter Harries-Jones, Myrdene Anderson, Günther Witzany, Claus Emmeche and Victoria Alexander. Finally I am grateful to Kalevi Kull for providing references for two biosemiotic glossaries, and to Sergey Chebanov for sending me Sedov and Chebanov 2009.

Supplementary material

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of health studies and Department of social studiesUniversity of StavangerStavangerNorway

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