Could All Life Be Agential?”

2 May 2024

In 1892, Ernst Haeckel introduced the term biopsychism to express the view that all and only living beings are sentient. For Haeckel, this position was to be distinguished both from zoopsychism, the belief that all and only animals are sentient, and his preferred panpsychism, the belief that all and only matter is sentient (Haeckel 1892: 483).

In a recent paper titled “Could All Life Be Sentient?”, Evan Thompson approaches the question of biopsychism from the specific perspective of enactivism (Thompson 2022). Here, Thompson sets aside the fundamental question of biopsychism – that of determining whether all and only living things are sentient – focusing instead on the more approachable problem of whether the enactivist concept of life assumes biopsychism. The paper’s conclusion was indeterminate, however. While it did not demonstrate that enactivism necessarily presupposes biopsychism, it did not rule the possibility out entirely, suggestively showing that zoopsychism was no more convincing a presupposition for the program.

Enactivists are clearly more confident ascribing agency to all of life than sentience. Moreover, they believe life’s adaptive agency extends all the way down to the bacterial level (Thompson 2011). However, it remains unclear whether they subscribe to the belief that all and only living things are agents.

In this short essay, I provide a synoptic overview of the historical origins of an adjacent view to biopsychism, which I call bioagentialism. I argue that bioagentialism is originally an Aristotelian position most prominently articulated in three stages: first, in Aristotle; second, in Hegel; and third, in Neo-Aristotelian philosophy of biology. In each of these chapters, bioagentialists develop the idea that what differentiates the living from the non-living is the agential capacity of organisms to move themselves in accordance with their own goals. In outlining this position through a bird’s eye view of its history, I want to suggest that Neo-Aristotelian bioagentialism provides a more solid basis for enactivism than biopsychism.

Aristotelian Bioagentialism

For Aristotle, everything in nature possesses an internal teleological principle of motion or change. All natural bodies, whether living or not, must be explained on the basis of the ends their motions are for the sake of. Crucially, these ends and motions are highly distinctive in living beings. Among natural beings, this distinctiveness is due to what Aristotle calls soul, psuche, the essential principle of life, the primary activity of living beings.

In the first book of the De Anima, Aristotle agrees with his predecessors like Anaxagoras and Thales that only ensouled beings are capable of self-motion, and that it is the soul which sets the body into motion (Aristotle 2020: 403b24-26). However, in the rest of that text, Aristotle takes up the task of demonstrating the exclusive presence of the soul’s self-motion in living things (rather than, for instance, in the elements).

For Aristotle, life’s characteristic agential self-motion is exhibited in the holistic organization and purposive behavior of all organisms but manifests itself differently in plant, animal, and human life. The nutritive soul is the most fundamental for Aristotle, encompassing the basic goals or functions shared by all living beings – namely, reproduction, self-maintenance, growth (and decay). Plants possess the nutritive soul alone, but this soul is transformed by the sentient soul of animals – who also acquire a perceptual faculty, a desiderative faculty, an imaginative or intellective faculty, and a faculty of locomotion – and then again, by the rational soul of humans – who acquire powers of reason and volition.

There is some debate about whether plants are capable of self-motion in Aristotle in the secondary literature, but even those that express skepticism admit that there is strong textual evidence for the opposing claim (Coren 2019). Indeed, it is true that plants are not capable of sentience or locomotion like animals. However, because plants still take action to accomplish their ends, sending “their roots down (not up) for the sake of nourishment,” we can safely conclude that plants exhibit a rudimentary form of biological agency for Aristotle (Aristotle 1970: 199a27-28).

With every transformation of the nutritive soul comes a sea change in self-motion. The self-motion of plants is bound to a single place, whereas animals change place. For Aristotle, this advancement in self-motion begins with perception. Animals not only sense external objects but perceive them as good or bad (Corcilius 2021: 180). In other words, they desire them. And it is this goal-directed desiring which ultimately allows them to move themselves from one place to another.

Humans act then not only on their perceptions and desires, but also on reasons. Actions can be conceived as rational or not as well as right or wrong. What makes human, rational agency the most sophisticated form of biological agency for Aristotle is this reflective ability to act on knowledge of whether inclinations and reasons are worthy of choice.

Thus, whether in plants, animals, or humans, Aristotelian bioagentialism is grounded in the fact that only ensouled living beings move themselves in accordance with their own goals. It is for this reason that Aristotle makes the strong claim in the Physics that it is “impossible” that the elements “are moved by themselves. For this is characteristic of a living thing” (Aristotle 1970: 255A2-7). The elements and inorganic substances certainly contain internal, teleological principles of motion, or of being affected to move, but in nature, all and only living beings move themselves.[1]

Yet, there is an interesting wrinkle within this first articulation of bioagentialism, since Aristotle thought of the motion of the heavens as exhibiting a vital kind of self-motion, and according to Monte Ransome Johnson, “of the stars themselves as living things” (Johnson 2005: 139). This view should catch the modern eye askew. However, it does not change the fact that Aristotle defined the living in terms of an agency unparalleled in non-living nature. However celestial his bioagentialism may be, and there is room for debate here, it remains evident that living beings – and specifically animals – are the paradigms of self-motion in Aristotle. In the following subsection, we will see that for Hegel, the first great modern Aristotelian and the next great Aristotelian defendant of bioagentialism, nothing could be further from life than the stars.

Hegelian Bioagentialism

Of course, a great deal happens between Aristotle and Hegel. With Descartes’ definition of organic bodies as nothing but animate machines, and Newton’s laws of motion, mechanism becomes the arbiter of all genuine natural-scientific explanation, and Aristotle’s philosophy of biology is rendered virtually obsolete (Riskin 2016). Although the metaphysical problem of teleology is first re-awakened in modern philosophy in the work of Leibniz, the question of biological agency reappears most powerfully, if ambivalently, in the writings of Immanuel Kant.[2]

 By the time of the third Critique, Kant became convinced that there was a limited but important role for teleological explanation in observing living organisms. There, he argued that organisms exhibit a holistic, purposive character, which was not imparted to them by an external agent, and which therefore defied any causality “known to us.” The intuitions motivating this perspectival shift were basically Aristotelian. Due to the peculiar functional unity and self-organizing activity of organisms, Kant characterized living things as “natural ends,” and as causes and effects of themselves (Kant 2000: 20:236). In doing so, he introduced a distinction between external and internal purposiveness, which Hegel would later say “opened up the concept of life” itself (Hegel 2010: WL 654).

Crucially, however, Kant was unwilling to assign such purposiveness directly or constitutively to organisms, instead considering such teleological reasoning merely a regulative feature of our reflective judgment of them. Thus, we might say that Kant was a regulative bioagentialist. On this “heuristic” view, Kant imported a teleological principle into judgment for the sole purpose of observing organic life, whose proper explanation had to issue from the determining judgments characteristic of natural science (Gambarotto and Nahas 2022: 47).

This would not sit well with all of Kant’s successors, as many post-Kantian naturalists took it upon themselves to naturalize the purposiveness of organisms in different ways.[3] To take one example, Schelling considered organisms to be internally purposive agents characterized by opposing forces of receptivity and activity. However, Schelling also thought of the physical world as an organism itself, speculatively claiming that inorganic matter was alive in some inchoate sense. For this reason, Schelling might be understood as a constitutive pan-bioagentialist, attributing some degree of biological agency to all of matter.

Like his college roommate, Hegel wanted to insist that organisms were constitutively purposive. But unlike Schelling, Hegel was unwilling to consider inorganic matter itself alive.[4] Consequently, he does not follow Aristotle in believing in the life of the stars.[5] There is a famous anecdote in fact. One clear night, Hegel somewhat comically described the stars as “only a gleaming leprosy in the sky” to his pupil Heinrich Heine (Heine 1854: 85). Why? Because for Hegel there is nothing more abstract than the stars or more concrete than life. It is for this reason that Hegel will declare in his mature system that: “life is therefore the primary truth: it is superior to the stars and to the sun” (Hegel 1970: §337A).

Hegel’s interests in biological life span his entire career. His concept of life is first formally articulated in his 1800 text “Fragment of a System,” where he offers an initial definition of “life” as a dialectical “union of union and nonunion” (Hegel 1800: 312). In defining life in terms of its active capacity to unify the dissimilar, it is clear that from early on Hegel develops a distinctive constitutive bioagentialist view, which associates the self-mediating, contradictory unity of organic life with a Fichtean capacity of self-positing.

Hegel’s most developed reflections on biology can be found in the “Organics” section of his 1830 Philosophy of Nature. Subjectivity is the central term of art in Hegel’s philosophy of biology in general (Gambarotto and Illetterati 2020). It essentially refers to the formal organization of an organism and the specific sensory and agential capacities that follow from it.

As with Aristotle, plant life is the most rudimentary form of organic life in Hegel. Unlike crystals, which Hegel ascribes some degree of “individuality” to, plants possess minimal “subjectivity” because they are beings whose parts and behavior are internally organized by the goals of the whole. Again, as with Aristotle, there is some debate in the literature about whether plants are truly self-moving in Hegel (Gambarotto and Illetterati 2020). In my view, plants must be agents for both figures because their growth remains a goal-directed, self-moving activity, even if that agency is patently restricted.[6]

Again, as in Aristotle, plant agency “lacks sentience” and motility (Hegel 1970: §343). Building on the research of Trevinarus, Hegel instead attributes a mere mechanical “sensitivity” to plants (§344Z). Hence, the agency of plants is minimal for Hegel due to the highly dependent nature of its entangled capacities for motion and sense.

These restrictions ultimately issue from the plant’s lack of central organization. Uniquely, however, since the severance of a plant’s parts can actually facilitate its reproduction for Hegel, their lack of central organization affords a distinctive kind of reproductive agency in plants. Thus, Hegel writes that the plant “comes forth from itself and falls apart into separate individuals” (Hegel 1970: §343). Still, even if the plant comes forth from itself, plant subjectivity does not return to itself in the same way as that of the animal.

Animals have a higher degree of subjectivity and agency for Hegel primarily then because they are more integrated. Unlike the plant’s semi-autonomous parts, an animal’s parts are members, which cannot be removed without injury. Beyond Aristotelian sentience and locomotion, in Hegel, animals are also distinguished by their more sophisticated metabolism, greater warmth, self-feeling, and “free time,” that is, time not allocated to meeting needs for survival. There is much more to be said here, but Hegel also develops Aristotle’s insights into the distinctiveness of the agency of rational animals in decisively social and historical directions, rendering recognition of action by others an intrinsic feature of free action, and insisting that the contingency of human action can only be successfully interpreted retrospectively.

Consequently, Hegel offers the first systematic modern Aristotelian attempt to naturalize biological agency and further demarcate its different spheres. Although he does claim that the earth is “implicitly” or “potentially” alive (in the specific sense of providing necessary conditions for life), he refuses to attribute biological subjectivity to inorganic matter. Nevertheless, while Hegel enriches the Aristotelian story of biological agency considerably, his modern Aristotelian account remains bound by the traditional hierarchical tripartition of life, which will only become expanded in Post-Darwinian, Neo-Aristotelian bioagentialism.

Neo-Aristotelian Bioagentialism

Darwin’s claim that natural selection follows inevitably from “the struggle for existence” in the Origin of Species is indicative of some attribution of agency to individual organisms in the process of evolutionary change.[7] Much evolutionary theory today appears to have lost access to this important Aristotelian insight. Still, many 19th and 20th century figures after Hegel have followed the Aristotelian tradition in attributing some degree of agency to all living things. For instance, even the young Karl Marx offers an Aristotelian scala naturae premised on thedivergent, productive “life-activities” of different classes of organisms (Marx 1992: 276).

Perhaps most notably, a resurgence of Aristotelian bioagentialism can be seen in various biologists with organicist sympathies, such as Julius Schaxel, John Scott Haldane, Jakob Von Uexkull, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, Edward Stuart Russell, and Agnes Arber. Indeed, as the young Donna Haraway once asserted, “all varieties of organicists trace themselves to Aristotle” (Haraway 1965: 33).

Additionally, many thinkers in the continental tradition have espoused Aristotelian views about organismal agency, such as Helmuth Plessner, Hans Jonas, and Georges Canguilhem. One might be tempted to sort Hans Driesch and Henri Bergson as theorists of biological agency too, but the immateriality of the Drieschian entelechia and the population theoretic nature of the Bergsonian élan vital contradict the Aristotelian view of biological agency reconstructed here.

The achievement of the Modern Synthesis brought an almost total eclipse of organicist thought. However, in recent years, a series of challenges to and calls for an extension of the synthesis have re-focused evolutionary biology on the organism by recentering evolutionary change around the problem of development (Walsh and Huneman 2017; Chiu 2022).

Richard Lewontin was a critical catalyst of this shift. Together with Richard Levins and Stephen Jay Gould, Lewontin called evolutionary theory into question for its adaptationism and genocentrism, which essentially enabled natural selection to take place behind the backs of organisms (Lewontin and Gould 1979; Lewontin and Levins 1985). To counter the biological reification imposed by this “superficial Darwinism,” Lewontin proposes a participatory view of organisms as subjects and objects of their own evolution (Lewontin 1985: 89). This almost Copernican revision has laid much of the foundation for the recent Neo-Aristotelian turn in evolutionary biology.

According to Phillipe Huneman and Hugh Desmond, the Neo-Aristotelian program ought to be associated with Francisco Varela’s notion of autopoiesis, Alvaro Moreno and Matteo Mossio’s theory of biological autonomy, and most prominently, Denis Walsh’s ecological theory of biological agency (Huneman and Desmond 2020). That said, there have been many other recent contributors to the Neo-Aristotelian turn as well, such as Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, Christopher J. Austin, Anna Marmodoro, and David Oderberg.[8]

Since Walsh has articulated the most rigorous defense of a Neo-Aristotelian evolutionary biology to date, as well as the most robust account of the scope of biological agency together with Fermin Fulda, in the rest of this essay, I will delineate how these contributions have specifically updated and refined Aristotelian bioagentialism.

With regards to Neo-Aristotelianism, Walsh criticizes Modern Synthesis evolutionary biology for being Neo-Democritean, both because it is atomistic and overly reliant on chance-based explanations (Walsh 2017: 242). Since random mutations can only be given mechanistic accounts according to Walsh, this program is incapable of accommodating purposive regularities in evolution, such as the distinctive integration and adaptive plasticity of organisms (Walsh 2017: 244). Consequently, for Walsh, the principal desiderata of adaptive evolution – constancy of form across generations, the production of novelties, and adaptively biased change – can only be attained with a robust, Neo-Aristotelian account of the organism and its role in each of these evolutionary processes (Walsh 2017: 254).

With regards to biological agency, Walsh has proposed an ecological account of organismal agency as a naturalistic, goal-directed, repertoire-possessive, and affordance-responsive fact of all biological life (Walsh 2015). In this view, evolution is an ecological phenomenon rather than a molecular one because its operations hinge on the agential activities of organisms in response to their environments. Evolutionary biology thus demands a distinctive agential ontology and ensemble of teleological concepts which are simply unavailable within the atomistic, ontological framework of the Modern Synthesis (Walsh 2018: 274). Crucially, this ontology and vocabulary is necessary to accommodate all organisms for Walsh, as even the most basic single-celled organisms respond to their environments with self-determining, adaptive plasticity.

Developing this insight further, Fulda’s work has defined the minimal agency characteristic of the simplest living organisms, showing that even bacteria pursue goals and respond appropriately to a wide array of novel conditions through the adaptive, self-directed motions of chemotaxis (Fulda 2017: 71). Consequently, Walsh and Fulda redefine the Aristotelian view of agency as a primitive aspect of all life, illustrating that minimal agency does not take off from multicellular plant life as it does in Aristotle or Hegel, but from unicellular prokaryotes, such that the continuum of biological agency now encompasses bacteria and the entire multi-cellular biological kingdom (Fulda 2017: 76). Additionally, this Neo-Aristotelian scheme destabilizes the traditional Aristotelian hierarchy by unveiling an entanglement of sensitivity and agency in simpler forms of life than plants, as well as nascent capacities for locomotion in simpler forms of life than animals. Hence, this “biological agency perspective” is not only more compatible with the current state of biology than the theories of biological agency we find in Aristotle or Hegel but also uncovers contemporary biology’s urgent need for a revamped Aristotelian philosophy of biology (Walsh 2021).


This brief genealogy has proceeded at a high altitude, but I believe it begins to countenance the core phases of, and key contributors to, Aristotelian bioagentialism. We have seen bioagentialism first appear in the work of Aristotle, however celestial it might have been. After the modern scientific and Kantian Copernican revolutions, we saw Hegel modernize this naturalistic program, introducing the concept of subjectivity into discourse about biological agency, while magnifying the specific agential capacities of plants and animals, as well as the social and historical features of the agency of rational animals. Throughout we have seen Aristotelian and Hegelian bioagentialisms converge with zoopsychism and contest biopsychism. Yet, this traditional convergence need not determine bioagentialism’s fate.

Indeed, Neo-Aristotelian bioagentialism is not necessarily incompatible with biopsychism. As we have seen, Neo-Aristotelians problematize the traditional Aristotelian hierarchy of biological capacities a great deal. At the same time, their disclosure of rudimentary locomotion and sensitivity in bacteria does not amount to proof of sentience in all life. What it does reiterate, however, is the inseparability of biological agency and sensitivity in all organic life, wherever one situates sentience in living nature. Accordingly, while enactivists may disavow zoopsychism or biopsychism, they cannot dispense with bioagentialism.


Aristotle. 2020. De Anima, trans. Christopher Shields (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press)

Aristotle. 1970. Aristotle’s Physics. Books I and II, trans. William Charlton (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press)

Aristotle. 2019. Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Book Λ, trans. Lindsay Judson (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press)

Austin, Christopher J. 2021. “Form, Cause, and Explanation in Biology: A Neo-Aristotelian Perspective,” in Jansen, Ludger, and Petter Sandstad. Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Formal Causation. (New York, NY: Routledge)

Austin, Christopher J., and Anna Marmodoro. 2017. “Structural Powers and the Homeodynamic Unity of Organisms.” In William M. R. Simpson, Robert C. Koons & Nicholas J. Teh (eds.), Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science. (New York, NY: Routledge), 169-184.

Baedke, Jan and Alejandro Fábregas-Tejeda. 2023. “The Organism in Evolutionary Explanation: From Early 20th Century to the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis,” in Dickins, Thomas E., and Benjamin J. A. Dickins, eds. Evolutionary Biology: Contemporary and Historical Reflections Upon Core Theory. (Cham, Switzerland: Springer), 121-150.

Corcilius, Klaus. 2021 “Aristotle’s Theory of Animal Agency and the Problem of Self-Motion,” in Connell, Sophia M. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’s Biology. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press)

Coren, Daniel. 2019. “Aristotle on Self-Change in Plants.” Rhizomata (Boston)7(1), 33–62.

Chiu, Lynn. 2022. Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. A Review of the Latest Scientific Research. John Templeton Foundation. West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, USA. 85 pp. 10.15868/socialsector.40950

Darwin, Charles. 1859. The Origin of Species. (London, UK: Penguin).

Fulda, Fermín. 2017. “Natural Agency: The Case of Bacterial Cognition.” Journal of the American Philosophical Association 3, no. 1: 69-90.

Gambarotto, Andrea, and Luca Illetterati. 2020. “Hegel’s Philosophy of Biology? A Programmatic Overview.” Hegel Bulletin 41, no. 3: 1-22.

Gambarotto, Andrea, and Auguste Nahas. 2022. “Teleology and the Organism: Kant’s Controversial Legacy for Contemporary Biology.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. Part A 93 (2022): 47–56.

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Heine, Heinrich. 1854. Confessions cited in Robert C. Solomon. 1987. From Hegel to Existentialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 58.

Huneman, Philippe, and Desmond, Hugh. 2020. “The Ontology of Organismic Agency: A Kantian Approach.” In: Altobrando, A., Biasetti, P., Natural Born Monads: On the Metaphysics of Organisms and Human Individuals. (Berlin: De Gruyter)

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Lewontin, Richard and Stephen Jay Gould. 1979. “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 205, no. 1161: 581-98.

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Oderberg, David. 2018. “The Great Unifier: Form and the Unity of the Organism.” In: Simpson, W. M. R., Koons, R. C. and Teh, N. J. (eds.) Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science. Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Science. (New York, NY: Routledge), 210-232.

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Thompson, Evan. 2022. “Could All Life Be Sentient?” Journal of Consciousness Studies 29, no. 3: 229–265.

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[1] It is noteworthy that Aristotle also attributes “life” (zōē) to “god” (theos) in Book Lambda of the Metaphysics. As he notes there, “God (theos) is a living being (zōion) eternal and best, so that life and lifetime, continuous and eternal, belong to God; for this is God (Aristotle 2019: 1072b 28-29). That said, I have restricted this overview to natural phenomena, however dependent the latter may have been on theos and its intellectual life in Aristotle.

[2] For instance, one sees an Aristotelian thread of interest in life’s immanent purposiveness in the biological and philosophical work of Georg Ernst Stahl, Albrecht Von-Haller, Comte de Buffon, Caspar Friedrich Wolff, Theóphile Bordeu, Paul Joseph-Barthez, and Xavier Bichat.

[3] This is true of Johann Christian Reil, George Cuvier, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Carl Friedrich Kielmeyer, Friedrich Schelling, and others.

[4] Although Hegel does describe the earth as a “geological organism” in his “Organics,” even suggesting there that it is immediately or implicitly alive, it is important to note that this claim is ecological, as what he really means to indicate is that the earth provides the necessary conditions for the possibility of life. Hence, Hegel writes, “The primary [geological] organism, in so far as it is initially determined as immediate or implicit, is not a living existence [emphasis added], for as subject and process, life is essentially a self-mediating activity” (Hegel 1970: §338).

[5] It is true that Hegel describes the divine as a “pure life,” but since this life is one characterized by freedom from any opposition, it is quite unlike Hegel’s view of organic life (Hegel 2011: 255).

[6] This is why Hegel will claim in the Encyclopedia Logic that, “the causa finalis of the plant’s growth… is nothing other than… the concept of the plant itself.” (Hegel 2010: §121A).

[7] This point has been made most clearly and developed most forcefully by Denis Walsh (Walsh 2015: 433)

[8] See Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka. 2019. The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press). Christopher J Austin. 2021. “Form, Cause, and Explanation in Biology: A Neo-Aristotelian Perspective,” in Jansen, Ludger, and Petter Sandstad. Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Formal Causation. (New York: Routledge). Christopher J. Austin & Anna Marmodoro. 2017. “Structural Powers and the Homeodynamic Unity of Organisms,” and David Oderberg. 2018. “The Great Unifier: Form and the Unity of the Organism.” in William M. R. Simpson, Robert C. Koons & Nicholas J. Teh (eds.), Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science. (New York, NY: Routledge), 169-184.

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