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What is Agency? A View from Autonomy Theory

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The theory of biological autonomy provides a naturalized characterization of agency, understood as a general biological phenomenon that extends beyond the domain of intentionality and causation by mental states. Agency refers to the capacity of autonomous living beings (roughly speaking: organisms) to purposively and functionally control the interactions with the environment, and to adaptively modulate their own self-determining organization and behavior so as to maintain their own existence, construed as their intrinsic telos. We mention some crucial strengths of the autonomist conception of agency, and some interesting challenges that it faces. Among the latter, we focus on the intertwined relationships between agency and evolution, as well as on the transition between agency and cognition.

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  1. A canonical definition of autopoiesis reads as follows: “An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as a network” (Maturana and Varela 1980, pp. 78–79).

  2. While minimal agency appears to be necessary but not sufficient to characterize autonomy (and organismality), not every biological system is necessarily an agent. For instance, an ecosystem’s organization might possibly be shown to realize closure and, thereby, be considered as a biological system (Nunes Neto et al. 2014); yet this would not necessarily imply that the ecosystem is also an agent. We do not address these questions here, but it is important to keep in mind that concepts such as closure, agency, and autonomy are not only conceptually distinct, but could also apply differently to various empirical cases.

  3. Di Paolo’s definition of adaptivity reads: “A system’s capacity, in some circumstances, to regulate its states and its relation to the environment with the result that, if the states are sufficiently close to the boundary of viability, tendencies are distinguished and acted upon depending on whether the states will approach or recede from the boundary and, as a consequence, tendencies of the first kind are moved closer to or transformed into tendencies of the second and so future states are prevented from reaching the boundary with an outward velocity” (2005, p. 438).

  4. There is a debate within the theory of autonomy about whether, insofar as virtually all existing living systems are adaptive agents, only adaptive agency should count as genuine agency (see Moreno 2018 for a discussion). Here, we do not take a position on this debate, and we limit ourselves to noting that (1) minimal agency has the merit of pinpointing the fundamental features of the concept (notably those discussed by Barandiaran et al. 2009) and (2) it may be that minimal and adaptive agency can be separated empirically, for example in the context of investigations into the origins of life.

  5. As a matter of fact, the same kind of problem applies to reproduction, which seems also to be a biological phenomenon in which purposeful behavior does not contribute to the preservation of the agent itself. Advocates of the theory of autonomy have dealt with reproduction in previous publications (see Saborido et al. 2011; Mossio and Pontarotti 2019).


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Funding for this research was provided by the CNRS—University of Toronto “PhD Mobility Joint Program” (PhD Fellowship to Louis Virenque).

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Correspondence to Matteo Mossio.

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Virenque, L., Mossio, M. What is Agency? A View from Autonomy Theory. Biol Theory (2023).

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