Monday, 2 March 2015

Abstract for NASS IX: "Agency in biosemiotics and enactivism"

I have just composed and submitted the abstract below to the organisers of the 9th conference of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies (NASS) (Tartu, August 17-20).


Agency in biosemiotics and enactivism

By Morten Tønnessen, University of Stavanger

Paper proposal submitted to the theme session “Cognitive semiotics meets biosemiotics / Biosemiotics meets cognitive semiotics”

While several fields has a pragmatic interest in the notion of agency qua causal, biosemiotics has an ontological interest in the occurrence of agency in the living realm at large. 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 to a recent survey 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. 

In this chapter I seek to compare the biosemiotic understanding(s) of agency with enactive understanding(s) of agency. Despite considerable overlapping in views and outlook, there are sharp differences in how agency is understood in biosemiotics and enactivism. For example, while biosemioticians typically acknowledge agency in all living systems, whether large or small, enactivists tend for the most part to refer to individual agency, and often with stricter qualifications than biosemiotics makes use of. Gallagher´s emphasis on some organisms´ “sense of agency” exemplifies enactivism´s tendency to focus on conscious animals, and to prioritise theorizing about self-awareness rather than awareness or experience in a broader sense.

Acknowledgements: 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). Parts of this text have previously been published in Biosemiotics (Tønnessen, Morten 2015. The Biosemiotic Glossary Project: Agent, agency. To appear in Biosemiotics 8(1); published online January 21st 2015 (doi: 10.1007/s12304-015-9229-0), with Appendix – Supplementary Material – available online).

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