Plants, Wants, and Agents

November 5, 2021

13:00-15:00 CET

Helen Steward

University of Leeds, UK


Might plants be agents? This paper considers an attempt by Hans-Johann Glock (2019) to draw two important distinctions which might help us think about the bounds of agency. One is a distinction between ‘information-processing’, on the one hand and ‘behaviour’, on the other; and the second is a distinction between ‘mere’ behaviour and true agency. The way in which Glock draws and illustrates these distinctions suggests that although many non-human animals can pass the test for agency, on Glock’s view, plants cannot even meet the requirements for engaging in behaviour. I argue that Glock’s distinction lies open, dialectically speaking, to the charge of unjustified zoocentrism and that we need more argument if plants are to be safely positioned amongst the mere information-processors. In the second part of his paper, Glock further considers two different ways of drawing a distinction between agency, on the one hand, and ‘mere behaviour’ on the other – one based on the difference between rigid and flexible forms of activity; and the other based on the difference between creatures which possess both conative and cognitive representational states and those which do not. Glock argues for a conception of agents which is based on the second of these distinctions, and which suggests that true agents have wants which might outstrip their mere biological needs. I argue that it is unclear how to make Glock’s views consistent, given this approach. I end by suggesting that the first is in fact the more promising starting point for a successful conception of basic agency.

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