Rafael Capurro


Contribution to the panel on Autonomic Computing, Human Identity and Legal Subjectivity hosted by Mireille Hildebrandt and Antoinette Rouvroy at the International Conference: Computers, Privacy & Data Protection: Data Protection in a Profiled World, Brussels, January 16,  2009. Published in AI & Society Vol. 27, 4 (2012), 479-488.

Contribution to the
Symposium on Methodological, technological and ethical implications of biomorphic metaphors for autonomous systems, Karlsruhe Institute of Techology (KIT), Institut für Philosophie,  Karlsruhe, October 20-22, 2011. Published in: Mathias Gutmann, Michael Decker, Julia Knifka (Eds.): Evolutionary Robotics, Organic Computing and Adaptive Ambience. Vienna: LIT, 2015, 81-96.

Keynote at the international conference
FIS/ISIS 2015: Information Society at the Crossroads - Response and Responsibility of the Sciences of Information, Vienna University of Technology, June 3-6, 2015.

A Spanish translation "Hacia una teoría comparada de agentes" was published in Factótum. Revista de Filosofía (Salamanca) (2010). See also my: Living with Online Robots (2015).



Aristotle on Agents
Kant on Personhood
Artificial Agents




The purpose of this paper is to address some of the questions on the notion of agent and agency in relation to property and personhood. I argue that following the Kantian criticism of Aristotelian metaphysics, contemporary biotechnology and information and communication technologies bring about a new challenge –  this time, with regard to the Kantian moral subject understood in the subject’s unique metaphysical qualities of dignity and autonomy. The concept of human dignity underlies the foundation of many democratic systems, particularly in Europe as well as of international treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Digital agents, artificial organisms as well as new capabilities of the human agents related to their embeddedness in digital and biotechnological environments bring about an important transformation of the human self-appraisal. A critical comparative reflection of this transformation is important because of its ethical implications. I deal first with the concept of agent within the framework of Aristotelian philosophy, which is the basis for further theories in accordance with and/or in opposition to it, particularly since modernity. In the second part of this paper, I deal with the concept of personhood in Kantian philosophy, which supersedes the Aristotelian metaphysics of substance and builds the basis of a metaphysics of the moral human subject. In the third part, I discuss the question of artificial agents arising from modern biology and ICT. Blurring the difference between the human and the natural and/or artificial opens a “new space” for philosophical reflection as well as for debate in law and practical policy.


agents, information technology, biotechnology, autonomy, dignity, Aristotle, Kant, subjectivity, personhood, property, ethics, law, policy.



Information and communication technologies (ICT) together with developments in the life sciences, particularly in biotechnology, have brought about not only societal changes but also new philosophical questions. It is the very nature of some key philosophical concepts such as personhood and agency that are challenged when interpreted within the narratives of ICT and genetic biology (Kang 2011). There is a tendency toward dogmatism in the legal and patent fields to highlight the notion of human personhood and its corollaries such as human dignity, autonomy and the uniqueness of human moral action when facing new biotechnological developments.

Genetic biology and ICT seem to lead to methodical and practical reductionism because of anthropomorphic concepts that can be used to view human beings as characterized only by what they have in common with other species or with digital computation. The discovery of the genetic code, which could be deciphered by the aid of ICT, together with the invention of the computer have provided a basis for a naturalistic and technocratic view of human beings, namely their personhood and their capacity of acting in a free and responsible manner. The concept of humans as autonomous moral agents is rooted in a long and complex tradition of Western thought. It builds the core of democratic constitutions and legal systems as well as of international treaties and declarations such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The concept of agent is today often used in an “inflationary” and indiscriminate manner.

The purpose of this paper is to address some of the questions raised by Kang (2011) on the notion of agent in relation to property and personhood. In the first part, I deal with the concept of agent within the framework of Aristotelian philosophy, which is the basis for further theories in accordance with and/or opposition to it, particularly since modernity. In the second part, I deal with the concepts of subjectivity, personhood, and ownership in Kantian moral and legal philosophy. In the third part, I discuss the current creation of artificial and natural agents on the basis of biotechnology and ICT. A theory of agents that does not take into account the rich philosophical tradition, represented in this paper only by Aristotle and Kant, is mostly superficial and fruitless. Many times, it also creates sophistic arguments that give the impression they deal with completely new philosophical questions, whereas the opposite is true. A comparative discussion of past models of agency and agents can only have an impact today if it is hermeneutically confronted with the questions arising particularly from ICT and biotechnology.


Aristotle’s metaphysics deals with the question of being as being and the search for an originating or primordial substance beyond the sublunar ones that we perceive through our senses. Such sublunar substances are a mixture of matter (hyle) and form (morphe) in a process of becoming based on their actuality (energeia) and potentiality (dynamis) toward their end that they already instantiate. According to Aristotle, there must be a primary substance or a prime unmoved mover that is the original source of all natural movements and agents and which is the object of a special science, namely first philosophy (Aristotle 1973: XII).

This is the framework within which Aristotle develops the concept of movement taking it as a basis for a taxonomy of divine, natural, and artificial agents. Natural and artificial agents are what they actually are (energeia) as well as what they can be (dynamis). Potential being is not pure nothingness. It means the potentiality of being addressed by an agent. All Aristotelian agents, with the exception of the prime unmoved mover, are also patients. The concept of dynamis is one of Aristotle’s epoch-making philosophical innovations enabling to think beyond the Parmenedian and Platonic dichotomy of being versus non-being. There is a third possibility of thinking being, namely potentiality. The specific kind of movement which is characteristic to natural living agents, such as animals and plants, is generation and corruption through which they participate in the life of the eternal and divine according to their own possibilities (Aristotle 1974: 415 a 28).

The prime unmoved mover is an eternal substance whose pure activity is thinking that thinks this thinking (Aristotle 1973: 1074 b 34). This kind of agency as pure reflective thinking is the very essence or model of what Aristotle means by agent and agency. Agency and thinking are originally the same. The prime agent is present in every natural agent as its primordial and final cause, i.e., as that to which it is intrinsically and potentially related to from its very beginning. The prime mover moves or “in-forms” all natural agents. It is the originator and final term of reference and attractor of all other kinds of agents and actions with or without own reflective capacity and with different degrees of actuality and potentiality.

In On Heaven (Aristotle 1965), Aristotle points to another kind of natural celestial agents that take care of the eternal movement of the stars being not essentially but accidentally unmoved movers. It is indeed possible, as Aristotle remarks, to think of stars as being just bodies without a soul. But as they are part of action and life (praxeos kai zoe) it should not be strange to conceive them as having a soul that leads them to their final goal (Aristotle 1965: 292 a-b). In other words, heaven and its celestial bodies are conceived by Aristotle as a kind of living being moved by eternal intelligent substances that substitute their anthropomorphic representations in mythology (Aristotle 1973: XII, 8). In this text, Aristotle uses the concept of praxis which is proper to humans as intelligent agents and the one of zoe which is proper to all living beings. Even if this animistic interpretation of Aristotle’s cosmology is controversial (Moraux 1965) it can be stated that for Aristotle the stars are moved by intelligent agents of divine nature, and the divine agent embraces them as their final goal (Aristotle 1973: 1074 b). According to Thomas Aquinas (Thomas 1922: I, 79. X), Arab philosophers called the souls of the stars intelligentiae separatae, i.e., divine intelligences separated from matter. Beyond this cosmic activity, angels, as such divine intelligences are called following the biblical tradition, are divine messengers (Capurro 1993, Piepmeier 1976, Agamben 2007).

Aristotle develops a theory of the human agent with regard to what humans have in common with other living beings as well as to what is proper to their form or essence as an intelligent agent. All living agents move themselves on the basis of a desire towards something as well as imagination. Beyond the perceptual capacity, the human agent has an intellectual one (Aristotle 1974: 433 b 27-30) allowing not just to move arbitrary but to do it on the basis of a planned reflection. Human agents lose their autonomy, i.e., the reflective power over their actions when the will becomes purely a passive object of desire (Aristotle 1974: 434 a 5-15).

What is the cause of spatial movement of agents such as plants, animals, and human beings? Aristotle discusses different possible explanations such as the capacity or potentiality of searching for food, sensory perception, and striving towards something as well as reflection, and reason (Aristotle 1974: 432 b 15-26). He comes to the conclusion that the origins of spatial movement are striving and reason or, more precisely, practical reason (dianoia praktike) as well as sensory perception since not all living beings have the human reflective capacity (Aristotle 1974: 433 a 9-10). (1) 

There is a difference between practical and theoretical reason with regard to their goals which is the knowledge of first philosophy in case of theoretical reason (Aristotle 1974: 433 a 14-15) and good life (eu zen) in case of practical reason. Reflection (dianoia) by itself does not move anything if it is not related to a goal to be achieved. This can be either "practical" (prakton), in case it remains inside the agent, or "poietical" (poieton), in case the subject produces something outside itself (Aristotle 1962: 1139 b 1-4). Practical reason is confronted with what is good as well as with what is apparently good. The good must be of the kind that becomes part of the agent (to prakton agathon) (Aristotle 1974: 433 a 29). This reflection concerns a kind of good that can be otherwise (to endechomenon) (Aristotle 1974: 433 a 30).  

Aristotle develops a theory of human action (praxis) based on a specific reflective capacity concerned with what is supposed to be good for us humans (ta anthropina) instead of subordinating the human agent to the idea of the good as Plato does (Bien 1985, Capurro 1991). Aristotle calls this capacity of practical ethical reflection oriented towards good life phronesis. This kind of reflection is not purely intellectual reasoning that can be acquired through learning since it is possible to forget what we learn but it is not possible to forget phronesis (Aristotle 1962: 1140 b 29-30). Rather, it is an innate capacity of the human agent to reflect on what is good for good life as a whole and not just for what is good in a particular regard (Aristotle 1962: 1140 a 28).

The moral agent strives toward the good as something that remains in the agent, i.e., the agent strives for becoming good instead of doing externally something good. Aristotle’s terminological distinction in this regard is between poiesis as a kind of productive activity related to what is outside the agent and praxis as the activity concerned with the life (bios) of the human agent (Aristotle 1962:  1140 b 3-4). The knowledge about how to produce something outside the agent is called techne (2). In other words, techne and poiesis – the knowledge on how to produce something external to the agent and the production process itself – correspond to phronesis and praxis, i.e. to the knowledge about good life and the activity of good life itself. The Aristotelian ethics, understood as a theory about the character (ethos) of the human agent is part of his practical philosophy which includes the study of the human agent with regard to the household and the city-state (Bien 1985).

In his Politics, Aristotle addresses different kind of agents such as politicians, kings, managers and family heads (Aristotle 1950: 1252 a 7-8). A main issue in case of managers concerns the relation between slaves and free men. Aristotle justifies the ownership of a house and tools as being necessary for life and particularly for good life (eu zen) (Aristotle 1950: 1253 b 25). He mentions two kinds of tools, namely with or without a soul, and he gives as examples the helmsman steering the helm or commanding the officer and the house administrator who owns tools as well as slaves (Aristotle 1950: 1253 b 25-33). He addresses a third possibility, namely tools without a soul but able to do autonomously the same kind of work as the ones with a soul as was envisioned in mythology like the case of the statues of Daidalos or the tripods of Hephaistos which, according to Homer (Ilias 18, 373-377), came on their own (automatous) to the meetings of the gods. Aristotle remarks that in case we had, for instance, automatic weaving machines or music machines playing by themselves, slaves would not be necessary any more (Aristotle 1950: 1253 b 35-38). In the case of man-made artificial agents the form or eidos remains in the mind of the human designer. They have therefore no intrinsic goal that they would instantiate (Kobusch 1980). They are incapable of praxis.

Aristotle’s main difference in this context concerns the kind of activity performed by tools as different from the one performed by their owners. The action performed by a master is practice (praxis) in the sense of an intellectual planning agent in contrast to material production (poiesis) which is the kind of action proper to tools even if such tools, as in the case of slaves, perceive themselves as having reason (logos) which they are not supposed to use (Aristotle 1950: 1254 b 20-23). The difference between slave and master – not all human beings being by nature masters or slaves (Aristotle 1950: 1255 b 5) – arises from the fact that the master owns the slave which he – in the context of Ancient Greece masters no less than political leaders being always male – uses as a tool. A tool produces (poietika) something while the owner performs an intelligent action (praktikon). What is being produced belongs from the point of view of the master to the realm of practical use (Aristotle 1950: 1254 a 1-2). The relation between master and slave is an asymmetric one. The slave belongs completely to the master. The concept of ownership is based on the idea that no part remains out of the control of the master (Aristotle 1950: 1254 a 10-13). The ownership of production tools characterizes the praxis of the master. It allows him to use what they produce, as well as to purchase and to exchange the products using money (Aristotle 1950: 1257 a 34) for the sake of profit (Aristotle 1950: 1257 b 5). To strive towards an unlimited accumulation of money and things owned through money means that a human agent is committed to life but not to good life (Aristotle 1950: 1257 41-42). A manager can delegate this kind of administrative life allowing him to commit himself    to politics and philosophy, i.e., to another kind of intellectual praxis (Aristotle 1950: 1255 b 35-38).

To summarize, Aristotle develops a theory of agents based on the metaphysical presupposition of a prime unmoved mover whose nature as a pure agent is to think his own thinking as well as to attract all other agents. In the cosmic sphere, there are divine star movers. All living non-divine natural beings are agents with different properties. The human agent can produce artificial agents, giving them extrinsically a form and using them as tools. The difference between master and slave among human agents is a de facto difference based on ownership, the slave being a living tool and having intelligence but not using it autonomously. Tools are agents of material production (poiesis) in opposition to the intellectual activity (praxis) that characterizes the human agent when striving for different possibilities of good life in order to become a good, i.e., virtuous agent.

This analysis of Aristotelian agents is, by far, not enough. Essential elements from the Poetics, Rhetorics, and Physics as well as from his works on natural philosophy are missing. In the context of this chapter, however, our investigation should suffice. Eventually, it is important to notice that each kind of agent – excluding the prime mover – corresponds to a different way of being a “patient.” Being “patient” is, from an Aristotelian perspective, primarily the capacity of developing a potentiality (dynamis). Beings are in a permanent process of ‘in-formation,’ i.e., of informing and being informed. The concepts of agent and patient have different related but not identical meanings or legatai pollachos as Aristotle would say.

Now moving from Aristotle to Kant, we might think, prima facie, that both thinkers are antipodes with regard to agents. Let us take a thorough look.


Modernity brings about a transformation of the Greek metaphysics of substance into that of the subject made possible by the epoch-making Jewish-Christian tradition, as well as by the rise of Modern empirical science. The Enlightenment questions the hierarchical dependence of the human subject on a divine agent including its analogical worldly power structures such as the slave-master dependency and the view of material production as something less honourable than thinking. The influence of the Aristotelian agent theory is obvious, for instance, on Hegel’s master-slave trope and on Karl Marx’s theory of use and change value, the dualism between intellectual and bodily work, and on the question of using human beings purely as means for purchasing and exchanging products with the goal of the endless accumulation of capital.

Kant’s critical philosophy is, prima facie, the antipode of the metaphysics of substance. It is the finite human subject, and not the divine prime mover, who is at the core of Kant’s knowledge theory as well as of his practical philosophy. Kant compares his transformation of classic Greek-Christian metaphysics with the Copernican revolution that “decentres” the human subject from the apparently obvious position as a stable observer of things, without taking care of the limits of theoretical reason and its aspiration to a first philosophy – i.e., to a knowledge of what is metaphysical or beyond the natural world. But, nevertheless, he still makes a conceptual difference between the metaphysical god that has now many attributes of the Christian one and is being called intellectus archetypus in contrast to the derivative human intellect or intellectus ectypus (Kant 1974a, B 351). The human subject as is dual agent. Being a natural agent, human actions are determined by the laws of nature in a Newtonian universe. As a member of a "noumenal," i.e., transcendent world, the human subject is a free agent and origin of moral laws. This has far reaching consequences. As Kang rightly remarks:

As humans, by legal orthodoxy, cannot be property, patent law transfers human subjectivity into a non-material, disembodied realm of the 'sacred' [footnote 7: See Agamben (1998) for the notion of the sacred as falling outside the legal realm. On the quasi-religious aura of genetic language, see Kay (2000)] as expressed in the notion of human dignity, [footnote 8: See Pottage (2002) for an exposition of the employment of the concept of human dignity as a legal blackbox.], which has the adverse effect of disconnecting the human from the singular experience of embodiment. In order to redress such a lack of representation of processes of human embodiment in the context of patent law, it would be necessary to incorporate representations of human embodiments discourse to the patent law discourse itself.

(Kang 2011, 113)

It is, in fact, not only patent law but also Kant himself who transfers human subjectivity into a disembodied and sacred or noumenal realm which is addressed with the concept of human dignity (Würde) in opposition to value (Wert) or price (Preis) of all worldly natural and artificial things to which human beings as natural beings (homo phaenomenon) also belong (Kant 1974b: B 77). One corollary of this thesis is that there is no equivalent that could be given in exchange for humans because they do not just belong to the kind of things that can be produced, evaluated, used, and/or exchanged. Their noumenal nature is strictly speaking invaluable, which means also that they cannot be used simply as means towards ends like in case of the Aristotelian slave. Humans as noumenal beings belong to a transcendent or metaphysical community, the "kingdom of ends in themselves" of intellectual beings (vernünftige Wesen) whose noumenal will is itself the origin of the law of their actions as members of the "kingdom of ends." Kantian autonomy is based on transcendent freedom and not, as in the case of the Aristotelian practical reason, as a capability of choosing between what is relatively good for the human agent. It means the capacity of an agent to be the spontaneous origin of a free action in the noumenal or metaphysical world of intellectual agents.

The Kantian concept of autonomy is apparently an exclusive property of human freedom. Kantian philosophy is mostly understood as being anthropocentric. In fact, the concept of autonomy is not only applicable to humans as intellectual beings (Vernunftwesen) but is the foundation of the dignity of "every kind of intellectual nature" (Kant 1974b: B 79). This argument addresses the possible existence of other intellectual noumenal agents that are not part of the natural world but of whom we can have no theoretical knowledge due to the sensory dependency of human reason (Kant 1977a: A 2). This lack of knowledge makes the difference to the Aristotelian first philosophy dealing with the nature of divine agents. The Kantian philosophy is only prima facie anthropocentric as it is usually understood. It is reason centered no less than the Aristotelian one. The main difference being that Kant splits the concept of reason in case of the human agent. Reason (Vernunft) or the capability of reasoning is a theoretical capacity that can also be the quality of a natural agent within a living body, which is the case when humans are seen just as sensory beings (Sinnenwesen) or members of the animal species. Kant calls this a being with an intellectual capacity (vernünftiges Wesen) or an "intellectual natural being" (vernünftiges Naturwesen) (Kant 1977a: A 65). This kind of intellect qualifying a natural agent has nothing to do with the metaphysical quality of humans as moral agents or "intellectual beings" (Vernunftwesen) having a responsibility towards themselves as "ends in themselves" (Kant 1977a: A 65) from which the call of moral conscience as a categorical imperative originates. Kant uses in this context the concept of personhood (Persönlichkeit) as well as of internal freedom (innere Freiheit) which are the characteristics of humans as homo noumenon. Not only the concept of human being is thus twofold but also that of human agents or, more general, of natural and noumenal intellectual agents.

In line with the Kantian speculation about divine but finite intellectual agents, it is possible to imagine, as Kant does, natural beings having the quality of theoretical intelligence as well as potential artificial non-living (or mechanical) intelligent agents. It is also possible to imagine artificial living beings as we do today in case of synthetic biology, as the science of designing new organisms or biological functions. In both cases, the motivation of their action remains within nature. It is, following the Kantian argument, impossible to create an artificial living or non-living moral being because freedom and autonomy are not a quality of sensory natural and/or artificial beings. In other words, to create a being that is an end in itself is, at least for us finite beings (intellectus ectypus), a contradiction. We are not morally responsible toward them as moral agents or members of the ‘kingdom of ends in themselves.’ This argument shows the specific characteristics of an artificial agent within Kantian philosophy.

The artist or genius is an agent who is  able not only to follow or reproduce established rules for creating artificial products (reproduktive Einbildungskraft) as in case of the mechanical arts, but one who freely creates new rules based on productive imagination (produktive Einbildungskraft) (Kant 1975: A 67, A 80). The artist is guided by the only ideal of perfection that can be found in this world namely humanity in our own person as intelligence (Kant 1974: B 56). The primum analogatum of any aesthetic judgement is the human being as a free moral agent. Kant calls this ideal also ‘the undetermined idea of the suprasensual in us’ (die unbestimmte Idee des Übersinnlichen in uns) (Kant 1974a: B 238). Kant and Aristotle are only at first sight opposite to each other. Extremes meet.

What can and cannot be owned, according to Kant? Material things outside of myself (Kant 1977b: A 59) can be owned, but nobody can own other human beings. We are not in an ownership relation with regard to our own body, although we are our own masters (Kant 1977b: A 95-96). Kant  also stresses that all human beings are originally owners of the earth (Kant 1977b: A 84). The arbitrary will of another person to do a specific task (Kant 1977b: A 59) can be owned, which means one can be the owner of the promise of another person regarding a specific performance (Kant 1977b: A. 60).

The situation of another one with regard to myself (Kant 1977b: A 59) cannot be owned, which means that one cannot say that one owns "a woman or a child or a servant" because they belong to one’s house or because one has them empirically under control. The concept of ownership in this regard is purely legal (Kant 1977b: A 61).

In this regard, Kant is in each case in opposition to Aristotle particularly concerning the ownership of other human beings as slaves. Kant’s philosophy of personhood also denies categorically any justification of suicide, while Aristotle and Plato take into consideration mainly the individual’s roles and obligations (Cholby 2008).

To summarize, Kant’s theory of agents is based on a metaphysics of the subject that draws a sharp line between noumenal and non-noumenal (natural and/or artificial) agents. Kant stresses that human agents are not just natural agents, which are, as such, patients – i.e., subject deterministically to natural laws – but also members of the noumenal world and thus beyond the realm of what can be owned, changed, or economically evaluated. Human personhood is invaluable and has a dignity not a price. On the other hand, humans can own a specific performance of others. They can become owners of any material thing, including living as well as artificial things.

The Kantian as well as the Aristotelian theory of agents seem to be fundamentally challenged by modern ICT and biotechnology, particularly as they concern the moral status of (bio-)artificial agents.


ICT and biotechnology have brought about new vistas, not only with regard to digital agents but also in relation to the possibility of the transformation and creation of new kinds of living beings, as discussed under the label of synthetic biology (Balmer & Martin 2008). There is a wide range of possibilities arising from these technologies, and in combination with nanotechnology, that have a broad economic and societal relevance, as well as an impact on the self perception of humans and their relation to nature and technology.

At today’s early stage of these breath-taking developments, it is difficult to give a typology of the new kinds of digital and living agents and the theoretical and practical challenges arising from them. From a broad perspective, these challenges are related, on the one hand, to all kinds of robots, starting with the so-called softbots (digital robots) as well as to all kinds of physical robots – including the (still speculative) nanobots based on nanotechnology – with different degree of complexity, including all forms of imitation of human and non-human living beings (bionics). On the other hand, there are the possibilities arising from the hybridization between ICT with non-human as well as with human agents, for instance. ICT, or other technologies, can become part of living organisms, for instance as implants (EGE 2005), or vice versa. In this case, humans become (or have already become) "cyborgs" (Hayles 1999). Finally, synthetic biology allows the artificial construction of new as well as the genetic modification of living beings (EGE 2009; Karafyllis 2003).

What moves a robot? Usually a battery and a programme in a microprocessor related to more or less well-defined situations and goals in the outside world. Hybrids, i.e., either living beings with ICT components, or robots incorporating (parts of) living beings are moved consequently by a combination of, as Aristotle would say, striving natural forces (orexis) with artificial ones, including "enhanced" sensory and/or intellectual capabilities. It is difficult to imagine how non-human moral consciousness can arise, for instance, through the creation of new living species. The programming of a moral code in a robot is a mimicry of morality or ethos, no less than of ethical reflection and phronesis. Obviously, the digital networking of all (or part of) human beings’ sensory, intellectual and moral capabilities brings about fundamental changes regarding not only the range of their actions but also of their "passions," i.e., of the situations in which they can lose partly or completely the power and responsibility over their actions (akrasia) as an individual, or even as a society.

The notion of autonomy with regard to robots usually refers to the capacity of artefacts to do what the programmer wants them to do (including what the programmer wants them to learn), but without having a direct (online) connection to them. Robots might be able to choose among different possibilities of action also on the basis of sensory feed-back processes. As can be easily seen, this terminology is anthropomorphic. The concepts of autonomy, learning, decision etc. are analogies of the human agent, deprived of its historical, political, societal, bodily, and existential dimensions. There is nothing at the moment in the field of robotics that can be compared with the capabilities of the human agent or even with the capabilities of much less complex natural beings. This will not basically change with top-down programming, as the history of artificial intelligence of the last, say, 30 years, clearly shows. A bottom-up approach, according to the insight that matter matters (!), might produce new useful knowledge and practical applications, but the main question with regard to the nature of the agent concerns its materiality that conditions its (potential) beliefs, needs, and desires. An "implanted" morality in the form of a moral code programmed in a microprocessor has nothing in common with the capacity of practical reflection even in case there is a feedback that mimics (human) theoretical and/or practical reason. The evaluation and decisions coming out of such programmes remain lastly dependent on the programmers themselves. I consider the question of the moral autonomy of future artificial or artificially produced natural agents as purely speculative, at least at this stage of technical evolution. It is cynical to speculate, and to spend public funds, on the supposed creation of artificial agents towards whom we would be morally (and legally) responsible (and vice versa) given the present situation of some six billion human beings on this planet and the lack of such responsibility towards them.

In contrast, the question of what kind of transformation is being operated in human societies when billions of human beings interact in digital networks that are interwoven with their bodies is highly relevant today and in the future. As Don Ihde writes:

We are our bodies – but in that very basic notion one also discovers that our bodies have an amazing plasticity and polymorphism that is often brought out precisely in our relations with technologies. We are bodies in technologies.

(Ihde 2002, 138) (3)

We can also say that technologies are more and more in our bodies. The way we perceive reality is shaped hermeneutically by our technologies, and vice versa, our technologies are adapted to the ways we perceive and interpret reality, otherwise they will be useless and, in the worst case, dangerous. But in a way that is more fundamental than the applications of artificial agents in or on the human body, it is the concept itself of the human body that changes when perceived as digital data. We can even enlarge this realm of the digital to the whole of reality in which case I speak of digital ontology (Capurro 2006,  Capurro 1999, Eldred 2001). In fact, as Andrew Feenberg remarks, we are "active and passive bodies" (Feenberg 2003). Our lives are written by ourselves but not just by ourselves. This means also that our history is written by as well as in our bodies and that our bodies have a cultural and historical dimension.

Digital ontology refers not simply to the creation of digital beings but also to the interpretation of all beings or, more radically, of Being itself, understood as the horizon with regard to which we interpret beings as digital. George Berkeley’s formulation concerning the nature of objects of knowledge, namely "Their esse is percipi" (Berkeley 1965: 62) should be reformulated into "to be is to be digital" or "their esse is computari." This utterance does not necessarily mean that things are conceived as made out of binary digits, but rather that we believe we understand them when we interpret them from a digital perspective. In case this digital perspective of Being and beings is taken as the only true one, we get a kind of digital Pythagoreism or digital metaphysics. Digital ontology means, in contrast, an opportunity for "weakening" the metaphysical ambitions of digital technology (Vattimo 1985).

As Kang rightly states, there is a difference between body and embodiment (Kang 2011). In German, we use two different words that correspond to this difference, namely Körper and Leib. Our bodily existence is not identical with the mere physical presence of the body (Körper). Our spatiotemporal existence makes possible an expansion of the limits of bodily (körperlich) existence to what was, is and can be in the world-openness. Following Katherine Hayles (1999) Kang writes:

Embodiment represents human contextual and temporal experience, which never coincides exactly with the body, but is enacted by human consciousness' interaction with social processes. Hayle's understanding of embodiment stipulates an oscillating unity between the norm and corporeal experience, which has the effect of folding the environment into the integral constitution of the body itself, rather than positing a separation between them.

(Kang 2011, 110) 

Heidegger’s phenomenology of human existence is an example of a critical view of the human body (Körper) and of the human being as an object – and of a subject "within" an object – separated from the so-called "outside world" (Heidegger 1976). The formula of this criticism of the Cartesian split is well known, namely being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein). It goes beyond the Aristotelian view of the agent based on a metaphysics of substance, as well as beyond modern subjectivity originally isolated from a ‘reality’ that does not really belong to his true noumenal nature. There is a specific opacity of the human body, arising from its materiality and its own natural forces. This opacity of the body (Leib) throws back, not only in case of so-called physical illness, into the pure facticity of the here and now (Holzhey-Kunz  2001). In other words, human bodily existence is ambiguous.


New artificial and/or natural agents that are being created on the basis of ICT and biotechnology blur the difference between the human and the artificial, as well as between the human and the natural, as conceived by Aristotle’s metaphysics of substance and by Kant’s metaphysics of the subject. From this perspective, they are an antidote that "weakens" (Vattimo 1985, Zabala 2007) the ambitions of both theories, as well as their corollaries, concerning personhood and ownership. They weaken the Kantian dichotomy between the noumenal and the natural, no less than the Aristotelian hierarchy of agents based on their substances and potential qualities. But it is not less evident, I think, that the development of new artificial and natural agents based on ICT and biotechnology is ontologically and morally ambivalent, as it can itself degenerate into a techno-metaphysics, such as so-called transhumanisms. This ambivalence is clearly perceived by Kang when she oscillates between body and embodiment. It is also clear with regard to ICT as a, say, user friendly communication tool that transforms the lives of millions of human beings but which may in fact function as the unquestioned horizon that I call digital metaphysics.

What resists the ownership and patentability of the human body? Is it the metaphysical character of the intellectual substance (nous), as Aristotle argues? Or is it the noumenal nature of human dignity, as Kant suggests? Or is it the singular and opaque nature of embodiment? We are beyond what we are and what we produce, particularly when this production concerns what we believe to be our true nature. This "being beyond our own nature" in and through technology can be experienced as a non-metaphysical source of self-esteem – i.e., something that we should not give up or use for the sake of anything else that we produce and use. Aristotle and Kant looked for this source and provided different foundations. Our bodily existence as embodiment in a common world together with natural and artificial beings is, in itself, a weaker but may be today more plausible foundation for an ethics of care and for respect towards human and non-human agents than of the foundations of Aristotelian and Kantian metaphysics.

A theory of agents based on their embodiment in the world that underlines commonalities and mutual relationships is more difficult to translate into clear delimitations with regard to, for instance, questions of ownership and patentability. It resists the primacy of economy as far as that would imply that everything is being understood under the perspective of its physical production (poiesis) for the sole use of human well-being. The production of artificial living beings includes a dimension of use value in as far as any living being is also a work of nature. There is a common ground for all living beings, a common life (zoe). According to Kant, we are originally owners of the common earth. This ownership can be reversed: natural and/or artificial living beings are owned originally by nature. Nature owns us. This is the reason why there cannot be a clear distinction of what kind of artificial living beings can and cannot be patented. The question of where to draw the line remains open to ethical and legal judgement (EGE 2009). We can reverse the Aristotelian hierarchy between actuality (energeia) and potentiality (dynamis) by opening nature and humanity to a common possible future, without binding it to fixed goals either metaphysical, technological, or anthropological engaging in an interplay with nature and technology (Capurro and Holgate 2011). 


The author thanks Mireille Hildebrandt (Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands) and Herman T. Tavani (Rivier College, USA) for their constructive criticisms and their assistance in polishing this text.


(1) A resonance of the distinction between human action as guided by reflection in opposition to other human actions that we share with other living beings deprived of reason can be found in Thomas Aquinas difference between actus humanus understood as rational action originated in the deliberating will (‘actionum quae ab homine aguntur, illae solae dicuntur humanae proprie quae sunt a voluntate deliberata’) and actus hominis as a non-reflective and unwilling movement  (Thomas Aquinas 1922: I-2, I,I, c., 3).

(2) The Aristotelian typology of intellectual knowledge includes know how (empeiria), theoretical knowledge (episteme) and knowledge of the objects of first philosophy. See for instance (Aristotle 1974: 427 b 26-27; Aristotle 1962: 1139 b 16-17; Capurro 2004). The formation or education of human agents is developed by Aristotle in his theory of virtues (arete) which are either capacities or potentialities of reason (dianoia) –  such as techne, empeiria, phronesis, and sophia – or of character (ethike) such as friendship (philia), courage (andreia), self-control (sophrosyne), magnanimity (eleutheriotes), justice (dikaiosyne), and pleasure (hedone). The last ones are dealt with in the Nicomachean Ethics.

(3) In his contribution to this panel "Clouds and Cyberspace-Time" Don Ihde (Ihde 2010) quotes Heidegger's "Parmenides" on the relation between writing and the (human) hand (M. Heidegger: Parmenides, GA 54, Frankfurt a. Main 1982, pp. 125-127). According to Ihde, Heidegger rejects new media in a "typical desdain for the modern" by giving the primacy to the pen over the typewriter. This is prima facie a good criticism.

If one reads carefully Heidegger's text there are some basic assumptions that do not seem to be nonsense as this critique suggests. Heidegger states that the origin ("Wesensherkunft") of writing ("Schrift") is "hand writing" ("Handschrift"). He states that reading ("Lesen") understood as "legein" means to collect ("Sammeln") and that it is another name of Being. There is a close relationship between Being, the word 'to collect,' writing and the human. It is, at least for Heidegger as a phenomenologist, clear that with the technical mediation of the typewriter there is change with regard to hand writing. Writing becomes 'uni-form' and it is the form of the machine not of the hand which is now prevalent. This means that the origin of writing as the source of the uniqueness of each human writer is concealed.

According to Heidegger this is just one more example of the primacy of the machine over the human as well as of the challenge arising from technology since Modernity. He writes, and  I quote from a printed text:  "Technology is in our history" ("Die Technik ist in unserer Geschichte"). If Heidegger had been basically against modern printing technology he should have never been in favor of publishing his hand written texts. Heidegger is not rejecting or even demonizing modern technology. He is exploring phenomenologically how technology changes one of the possible ways to be human particularly since Modernity. This can be criticized, of course. But such a criticism should take into account the context in which these propositions are made. Otherwise it is relatively easy and wrong to criticize Heidegger as romantic and anti-modern thinker.

Ihde as a phenomenologist or a post-phenomenologist, whatever this 'post' means, seems to forget the qualitative difference between hand writing and machine writing. Even today, it is still the hand written signature the sign of a unique self that is needed in legal and economic transactions. Is this a romantic and anti-modern relict? There is even the need of users to 'teach' the computer to read their hand writing. Are all these people romantic and anti-modern? Is all this nonsense?

This kind of dualisms reminds me the controversy about cyberspace vs. Gutenberg galaxy. There are many authors who do not like the Internet and (ideologically) defend the book culture, sometimes due of economic reasons. As everybody knows, a printed text has other qualities as the same text on the Internet, concerning for instance accessibility, distribution, interactivity, networking etc. Ihde seems to privilege (his) printed works over the open, digital and dialogical space of the Internet. I have the impression that he does not understand the Internet as a dialogical or interactive space. His texts are of the kind of fixed and printed monologues to be sold, not invitations to a dialogue that can be freely shared on the Internet with few exceptions:

At the end of his article, when speaking about cyberspace-time relationships as being a partial reduction of "sensory plenum relations" Ihde writes: "I can recognize your voice or your face but I cannot shake your hand, even though you remain the recognizable mediated you." (Ihde 2009) Now we are facing Ihde's hand, not Heidegger's! This could be criticised in a similar way as Ihde's criticism on Heidegger, as being romantic and anti-modern. Moreover, Ihde's narrative about the body can be seen as a kind of anti-modern narrative trying to save the (human) body facing the challenge of modern information technology. To put it in more general terms: there is an ambivalence or an ambiguity in some of today's narratives about body and embodiment with regard to technology as well as to what is  authentic or not.

Finally, Ihde states, following Michael Heim, that "erasability" is "an essential feature" of "new media."  But he and Heim forget that Google never forgets. These are bad news for "the rabbis," as quoted by Ihde following Heim, who would apparently join Heidegger concerning "authentic writing" (hand writing) as something that cannot be erased – but there is nothing about the question of erasability in Heidegger's text – and that therefore the Internet as a "new medium" would be appropriate in order to write but also to erase the name of God.

There are too many misunderstandings and biases and wrong perceptions about "new media" in this text. It might be understood as a romantic view on the relationship between technology and the body or at least as the kind of questions troubling a post-phenomenologist of the 20th century. A new generation of post-post-phenomenologists might consider this kind of discourse as obsolete.


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Last update: February 6, 2015


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