Meaning is the modulation of intent. A semiotic agent’s work is never done – not unless he can stop making sense long enough to be the sense he makes.

Life is inherently restless, far from equilibrium, yet yearning for it; the tension between its twin tendencies drives the cycle of birth-and-death. This is another dimension hidden in the pun of Heraclitus:

τῷ τόξῳ ὄνομα βίος, ἔργον δὲ θάνατος.

The name of the bow is life, but its work is death.

Kahn LXXIX, D. 48

Bios is the older, poetic word for “bow” (toxon), and except for an accent mark not written in Heraclitus’ time, is identical to bios, the word for “life.”

… for in the byways of high improvidence that’s what makes lifework leaving …


Gibbs (1999) offers a detailed study of the many and varied usages of ‘intention.’ Some other variations on the theme:

Descartes had seen the mind as a subjective consciousness that contained ideas that corresponded (or sometimes failed to correspond) to what was in the world. This view of the mind as representing the world reached its culmination in Franz Brentano’s notion of intentionality. According to Brentano, all mental states (perception, memory, etc.) are of or about something; in his words, mental states necessarily have ‘reference to a content’ or ‘direction toward an object’ (which is not necessarily a thing in the world). This directedness or intentionality, Brentano claimed, was the defining characteristic of the mind. (This use of intentional should not be confused with its use to mean ‘doing something on purpose.’)

— Varela et al. (1991, 15-16)

Edelman (2004, 125) defines Brentano’s ‘intentionality’ as ‘the property by which consciousness is directed at, or is about, objects and states of affairs that are initially in the world’ (italics mine) – which implies a developmental process involving internalization.

Gendlin’s Process Model (VII.A) derives ‘aboutness’ from interrupted behavior sequences: the interruption begets reiterated gestures, and eventually ‘the aboutness level radically remakes the world’ (by begetting habits, as Peirce would say).

Walter Freeman (1999a and b) rejects both ‘aboutness’ and ‘doing something on purpose’ as the root meaning of ‘intent.’ His intent is related to the definition of living beings as autonomous agents (Kauffman 2001), and refers to the biological ground from which consciously intended meanings, and indeed consciousness itself, emerge. Freeman himself adopted his usage from Aquinas:

The concept – ‘intentionality’ – was first described by Thomas Aquinas in 1272 to denote the process by which humans and other animals act in accordance with their own growth and maturation. An ‘intent’ is the directing of an action towards some future goal that is defined and chosen by the actor.

— Freeman (1999a, 10)

This kind of ‘intentionality’ is essentially what Peirce ascribes to the ‘perfect sign’ which ‘never ceases to undergo changes of the kind we rather drolly call spontaneous’ (EP2:545). The actor or agent does not need to imagine a ‘future goal,’ or consciously define or choose it; even among humans, conscious intention (sometimes called volition or will) is only the tip of the intentional iceberg. Spinoza’s concept of conatus, as interpreted by Damasio, seems to be essentially the same:

It is apparent that the continuous attempt at achieving a state of positively regulated life is a deep and defining part of our existence – the first reality of our existence as Spinoza intuited when he described the relentless endeavor (conatus) of each being to preserve itself. … In Spinoza’s own words: ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being’ and ‘The striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing.’ Interpreted with the advantages of current hindsight, Spinoza’s notion implies that the living organism is constructed so as to maintain the coherence of its structures and functions against numerous life-threatening odds.

Damasio (2003, 36)

Autopoiesis theory is very similar, except that it prefers to describe the organism as constructing or making itself rather than being ‘constructed.’ But the Spinoza/Damasio theory amounts to the same concept:

The conatus subsumes both the impetus for self-preservation in the face of danger and opportunities and the myriad actions of self-preservation that hold the parts of a body together. In spite of the transformations the body must undergo as it develops, renews its constituent parts, and ages, the conatus continues to form the same individual and respect the same structural design.

What is Spinoza’s conatus in current biological terms? It is the aggregate of dispositions laid down in brain circuitry that, once engaged by internal or environmental conditions, seeks both survival and well-being.

— Damasio (2003, 36)

Damasio’s view is that what we experience as feelings arises from that same brain circuitry; and feelings in turn are the essential components of what i have called guidance systems. As Peirce expressed it in 1868, a feeling is ‘the material quality of a mental sign’ (EP1:43). The engagement to which Damasio refers (called ‘structural coupling’ in autopoiesis theory) has its highest expression in ethics, the collaboration of reason and feeling:

It is not a simple issue of trusting feelings as the necessary arbiter of good and evil. It is a matter of discovering the circumstances in which feelings can indeed be an arbiter, and using the reasoned coupling of circumstances and feelings as a guide to human behavior.

— Damasio (2003, 179)

But all of this is rooted in what Spinoza (in his Ethics) called conatus, and this is what Aquinas called intent. Walter Freeman elaborates on the concept:

Aquinas further proposed that each animal is a unified being enclosed within a boundary that distinguishes ‘self’ from ‘other,’ and that the self uses the body to push its boundary outwards into the world. Etymologically the word ‘intend’ comes from the Latin intendere, which means not only to stretch forth, but equally importantly to change the self by experiencing action and learning from the consequences of acting.

— Freeman (1999a, 36)

Freeman labels his model pragmatism (as opposed to ‘materialism’ and ‘cognitivism’), defining it as the idea ‘that minds are dynamic structures that result from actions into the world’ (1999a, 35). Intent is what drives these ‘actions into the world,’ thus constituting the upper limb of the meaning cycle.

The root of all human ‘intention’ is the inner life which not only generates subjective experience but drives every act of the organism, physical and mental, conscious and unconscious. As Freeman explains,

… we perform most daily activities that are clearly intentional and meaningful without being explicitly aware of them. Consider the activities of athletes and dancers … As the training of the brain and body proceeds, … conscious reflection on the manipulation of the body falls away, and they can take the plunge through having what we commonly call a strong ‘feel’ for the game or dance. Performance becomes ‘second nature.’ For many people, the greatest fulfillment and enjoyment comes with total immersion into the activity, so that self-awareness is scattered to the winds, and they become wholly what they desire in body and spirit, without reservation. The brain and body anticipate inputs, perceive, and make movements without need for reflection. It is precisely this kind of unconscious, but directed, skill in the exercise of perception that the concept of intentionality must include.

— Freeman (1999a, 23)

This is the kind of intentionality inherent in what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) calls flow or optimal experience. It is when the circuits of intent are fully closed, leaving no gaps between mind and body and no space for the busybody conscious ‘self’ to interfere, that the current of experience flows most freely. Self-consciousness disrupts this flow by lifting the ‘self’ out of its context. Shaun Gallagher and Anthony J. Marcel ‘suggest that disruption of the intended behaviour in such cases is due to the behaviour being the explicit focus of consciousness rather than an implicit aspect of the intention’ (Gallagher and Shear 1999, 279, italics in original).

The deep connection, then, between intentionality and ‘aboutness’ is the movement of the subject or agent, or rather its motility, the potential for movement that creates a space in which it can move and thus furnishes its Umwelt with significant objects. It was noted long ago by the precursors of both phenomenology and psychology that activity of the subject was indispensable to perception (see Pachoud 1999). Merleau-Ponty (1945, 158) urges us ‘to understand motility as basic intentionality. Consciousness is in the first place not a matter of “I think” but of “I can”.’ (See also Sheets-Johnstone 1999.)

Motility is always implicit in experience; and, not coincidentally, it is implicit in life as we know it on this planet. According to Margulis and Sagan (1995, Chapter 5), spirochetes which had developed the power of movement as free-living bacteria later bestowed movement on cells to which they became attached, including the internal movement that made sexual reproduction and genetic replication possible. Intracellular motility made possible the development of species. And according to Llinás (2001, 59), ‘the organization and function of our brains is based on the embedding of motricity over evolution.’

The Brentano sense of intentionality, then, can be derived from the biological and psychological by observing that the perception of objects always involves movement (or at least motility) of the subject as body. The infant exploring her environment, for instance by putting things into her mouth, is learning to correlate sense experience with inner intent. Eventually the correlations become habitual and there is no need for gross physical movement in order to see things – yet visual experience is continually fine-tuned by tiny rapid eye movements called saccades. We do not consciously control these movements, yet they are ‘directed’ (Koch 2004, 63ff., 344; see also McCrone 2004).

Behaviors reveal a sort of prospective activity in the organism as if it were oriented toward the meaning of certain elementary situations, as if it entertained familiar relations with them, as if there were an ‘a priori of the organism,’ privileged conducts and laws of internal equilibrium which predisposed the organism to certain relations with its milieu. At this level there is no question yet of a real self-awareness or of intentional activity.

— Merleau-Ponty (1964, 4)

The ‘as if’ here anticipates Dennett’s concept of ‘the intentional stance’ – that is, we attribute intentionality to the organism, or infer it, rather than observing it directly; but the attribution itself is often not voluntary but automatic. ‘Intentional’ in Merleau-Ponty’s final sentence above refers of course to conscious intention or to the ‘illusion of conscious will’ (Wegner 2002). Walter Freeman on the other hand uses ‘intentional’ in reference to what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘prospective activity.’ Both emphasize the intersubjective nature of the intentional space inhabited by humans:

Evolution has given us the capacity to detect intentionality in others without having to define it.… Intentional action is directed by internally generated goals and takes place in the time and space of the world shared with other intentional beings.

— Freeman (1999a, 41-2)

… we are typically conscious of the results of mental processes but not of the processes themselves.

— Baars (1997, 177)

The idea we’ve been pursuing throughout this book is that the experience of conscious will is not a direct indicator of a causal relation between thought and behavior.

— Wegner (2002, 288)

Consciousness holds itself responsible for everything, and takes everything upon itself, but it has nothing of its own and makes its life in the world.

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 526)

It is as though people aspire to be ideal agents who know all their actions in advance.

— Wegner (2002, 145)

People are surely not conscious of faking, at least after the first little while, when they play the roles of everyday life. A lack of consciousness of the processes whereby one has achieved a mental state, however, suggests a kind of genuineness …

— Wegner (2002, 304 fn.)

Wegner (2002, Chapter 5) shows that ‘ideal agency’ is an illusion which we protect by confabulating our own motives when necessary. Merleau-Ponty had already anticipated this:

… my temperament exists only for the second order knowledge that I gain about myself when I see myself as others see me, and in so far as I recognize it, confer value upon it, and in that sense, choose it. What misleads us on this, is that we often look for freedom in the voluntary deliberation which examines one motive after another and seems to opt for the weightiest or most convincing. In reality the deliberation follows the decision, and it is my secret decision which brings the motives to light, for it would be difficult to conceive what the force of a motive might be in the absence of a decision which it confirms or to which it runs counter.

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 506)

Peirce (CP 1.623 and elsewhere) uses the terms logica utens (logic-in-use) for implicit logic, and logica docens (logic-in-teaching) for explicit logic, observer’s logic, ‘the result of scientific evaluation of the logica utens’ (Ochs 1998, 76). The distinction is like that between use and mention, or perhaps between body and mind. But

Our century has wiped out the dividing line between ‘body’ and ‘mind,’ and sees human life as through and through mental and corporeal.

— Merleau-Ponty (1960, 226)

What remains?

When we select some part of the system to symbolize the life of the whole, we always choose something that flows, such as blood or breath, rather than the rigid parts. Indeed the skeleton, essential as it is for a living body’s movement, usually stands for death. Can flow itself be imagined apart from any fluid substance? If it can, it seems to be nothing other than time. Time is the essence of life because life is essentially a process, or rather a network of processes.

If your real life is a process, a kind of flow, then the fixed identity you call your self is an illusion – or at least its continuity is inseparable from its being always in transition from one “state” to another. Its life is its impermanence. The idea of a substantial, permanent selfhood is a species of what Trungpa (1973) called ‘spiritual materialism.’ A fixed “creed” or formulated belief is more of the same. But the practice of whole-body reading, grounded in the spirit of inquiry, can resurrect a dead dogma into a living, breathing belief.

The true remains of the Buddha’s body are found in the sutras.

— Dogen (Cook 1978, 47)

Living Earth

Eugene Gendlin wrote that ‘the living body is an interactive process with its environment and situation’ (Hendricks 2004, 8). Its life is its withness.

We could say this of the whole biosphere, as suggested by John Palka in his blog post Is Earth Alive?, which reconsiders the “Gaia hypothesis” originally proposed by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock. John Palka, “a neuroscientist who loves plants and ponders big questions,” quotes from a recent book by planetary scientist David Grinspoon:

Margulis and Lovelock proposed that the drama of life does not unfold on the stage of a dead Earth, but, that, rather, the stage itself is animated, part of a larger living entity, Gaia, composed of the biosphere together with the “nonliving” components that shape, respond to, and cycle through the biota of the Earth. Yes, life adapts to environmental change, shaping itself through natural selection. Yet life also pushes back and changes the environment, alters the planet. This is now as obvious as the air you are breathing, which has been oxygenated by life. So evolution is not a series of adaptations to inanimate events, but a system of feedbacks, an exchange. Life has not simply molded itself to the shifting contours of a dynamic Earth. Rather, life and Earth have shaped each other as they’ve coevolved.

Palka’s article gives several specific examples of life changing its environment on this planet. Grinspoon’s book, Earth in Human Hands, is about the “Anthropocene epoch,” in which “the net activity of humans has become a powerful agent of geological change.” Here’s another sample from it:

I think our fundamental Anthropocene dilemma is that we have achieved global impact but have no mechanisms for global self-control. So, to the (debatable) extent that we are like some kind of global organism, we are still a pretty clumsy one, crashing around with little situational awareness, operating on a scale larger than our perceptions or motor skills. However, we can also see our civilization, such as it is, becoming knitted together by trade, by satellite, by travel, and instantaneous communications, into some kind of new global whole—one that is as yet conflicted and incoherent, but which is arguably just beginning to perceive and act in its own self-interest.

— Grinspoon, David (2016-12-06). Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future (Kindle Locations 158-163). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.


From the earliest recorded myths to the latest scientific cosmologies, we have speculated and theorized about the origins of the universe, of life, of species, of language, and so on. But no matter what stories we tell about the past, it’s a present problem that precipitates our storytelling and our inquiry. The origin of inquiry is closer than your jugular vein, to steal a metaphor from the Qur’an. It’s the human bodymind exploring its own presence here and now by tracing it back to the past. The first step in your quest is always from where you stand.

I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be
      I knew I should be of my body.

— Walt Whitman, ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’

Within this fathom-long sentient body itself, I postulate the world, the arising of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.

— a Pali text quoted by Rahula (1974, 42)

Brain the size of a planet?

The matter or “material cause” of human bodymind consists of the cells who interact to carry on the body-process, which in turn organizes itself in several levels intermediate between the cellular and organism levels.
holarchyYet each cell has its own life or identity, constituted by still smaller-scale molecular interactions; and we ourselves form the substrate of larger-scale entities, such as communities and ecosystems. At that level, the dialogue of which this book is a minute part may constitute the thoughts of a “global brain,” expressed in a vast language we humans can only imagine by analogy with human languages. But its context is beyond our comprehension. Is there a being for whom “the Great Conversation” is an internal dialogue?

At the scale of the human bodymind, all the buzzing business inside your brain serves the purpose of your understanding, and none of your neurons has any idea of that, even though they constitute it with their interaction. But what if all the human dialogue, including the crosstalk of the Internet and all the global media, is just the inner working of a global brain, working as a guidance system within the global body? What if the human collective, or Gaia perhaps, is doing the real meaning, even though we constitute it by interacting?

This may be an appealing idea, since we long to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to serve a higher purpose – this is part of our heritage as social animals. But we can at best imagine such ‘higher purpose’ – as we are now doing – within the limitations of a human organism. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, ‘Things known are in the knower according to the mode of the knower’ (Swidler 1999, 9). Drawing upon the repertoire of human-scale experience, we might imagine Humanity or Gaia or God like a wise and nurturing parent – or we might imagine that this higher-level being cares about us no more than an anthill cares about the feelings of its ants.

Let imagination do its wild work, and let our humble dialogue probe and push the envelope of knowledge.