This question broadly regards the Denettian "intentional stance" to agency, which says that on the most fundamental level there are only physical things in the world, but nevertheless for certain complex physical entities (and people in particular) it is often pragmatically useful to treat them as if they were agents acting according to beliefs, goals, etc., rather than try to understand them fully on the physical level.

In order to do this, we have to decide which parts of the physical world constitute the agent and which its environment. In some cases there may be more than one useful place in which this boundary can be drawn - Clark and Chalmers give the example of a person called Otto who has to write everything in a notebook due to a memory disorder, and they argue that the notebook can reasonably be seen as part of Otto as an agent.

With that background in place, my question is as follows: is there a name for the "cut" that we must make in order to apply the intentional stance, between something we wish to treat as agent and its environment?

There are two other "cuts" that seem related, but not the same. The first is the "Cartesian cut" between the world of the physical and the world of the mental. This cut is different because it is a cut between two parts of the physical world - one that is to be considered an agent, and one that consists of everything else.

The other related cut is the "Heisenberg cut" in quantum mechanics, between the system we wish to measure (to be treated using quantum theory) and the apparatus we use to measure it (to be treated classically). This cut shares the property that we have some flexibility in where we draw it, but it deals with a different domain of enquiry.

  • What about J.J. Gibson's notion of 'affordance'? Not exactly a "cut" though. Aug 4, 2015 at 21:50
  • What the hell, why are people voting to close this as off topic? It's a specific terminological question about a specific sub-field of philosophy of mind! Is this the Philosophy But Not Philosophy Of Mind Stack Exchange or something? Or more likely it's the Philosophy But Only Trivial Questions That Can Be Understood By Anyone Without A Specific Background In A Particular Subfield Stack Exchange. I think I'm about ready to give up on the SE model as a way to have a serious conversation with academics.
    – N. Virgo
    Aug 5, 2015 at 2:12
  • @Nathaniel: Hope you stay with Philosophy Stack Exchange. Otherwise I would miss posts like yours above.
    – Jo Wehler
    Aug 5, 2015 at 5:50
  • I thought and still think this is a pretty good type of question. The votes to close it are related to it being a definition, but I'm not entirely sure this is the sort of off-topic qua definition close that we're hoping for (but meta is for discussing those boundaries).
    – virmaior
    Aug 5, 2015 at 6:10
  • As someone who doesn't specialize in phil. mind, I would guess we can call this "observer" / "world" or agent/world but maybe there's some technical term. Or maybe "intentional world" vs. "world of physics" but again, I'm not a phil. mind guy.
    – virmaior
    Aug 5, 2015 at 6:11

2 Answers 2


I don't know if there is a term for this "cut", but it seems to me that it doesn't have to be a "cut"; it could be simply the boundary of an object. I take the term "cut" to imply something more ontologically significant than boundary, like a separation between things of different nature, but here the agent and its environment are both physical systems. You only need to specify which object is an agent and the rest of the world (all other objects) constitute its environment, so the identification of the agent (and its boundary/cut) boils down to the identification of an object in the world, as distinct from other objects.

  • Right, but the boundary separating an object from its environment can be drawn in more than one place. Is the air in my lungs part of me-as-an-object? What about my hair and fingernails, without which I would still be the same person? These choices are more or less arbitrary, and the thing I'm calling a "cut" is the choice one makes in calling some things part of the object (or agent) and some things not.
    – N. Virgo
    Aug 5, 2015 at 2:03
  • Of course, if there is a general name for this "cut" in relation to objects in general, as opposed to agents in particular, it would be extremely helpful to me to know it.
    – N. Virgo
    Aug 5, 2015 at 2:26
  • @Nathaniel Sorry I don't know if there is a name for it. Aug 5, 2015 at 8:12

A baby when growing up learns to make a cut between his body and his environment. In order to establish this cut it is of fundamental importance that the baby explores the world not only by seeing and hearing but also by acting - not only sensing but also acting as agent.

Those objects where I can act upon and get a sensual feedback, they form my body. I see my foot, touch it with my hand and have a corresponding preception.

All objects where I can act upon without getting such feedback, they form my environment.

Hence the cut between the system and its environment depends on the feedback from the motor areas to the sensoric areas of the cortex due to intentional actions. So far - in short - the first approximation.

I do not know whether Dennet coined a separate term for the cut between the system and its environment. Thomas Metzinger, also coming from cognitive science, names the system in question the “phenomenal self-model”. Hence the cut is the boundary of the phenomenal self-model, where the latter embeds into the world-model of the system which is the environment. Both the system and its environment are located on the mental level. Both are inner models.

For a survey see

Thomas Metzinger: Empirical perspectives from the self-model theory of subjectivity: a brief summary with examples. In: R. Banerjee & B.K. Chakrabarti (Eds.) Progress in Brain Research, Vol. 168 (2008)

Apparently an individuum can extend his self-model due to later experiences, e.g. by using tools. Temporarily it can even release the phenomenal self from the body and make an out-of-body experience. Anyhow, I would consider the notebook from the example of your post, being a kind of external hard-disc, part of the system – and not of its environment.

The Cartesian cut is the mind-body problem. It is still unsolved but it is tackled now also by methods from neuroscience.

The Heisenberg cut - or Kopenhagen cut – seems to be not the final word. Since the beginning it has been highly debated whether such cut between system and observer – or more general between micro-cosmos physics and meso-cosmos physics – exists at all. The concept of decoherence attempts to bridge both levels by a unified explanation.

  • This answer seems to focus on a claim that the cut "should" be made in a particular place, namely that place in which the agent itself is claimed to draw it. These claims could be debated. However, the question is not concerned with where to draw the cut, but merely the name for it.
    – N. Virgo
    Aug 5, 2015 at 2:05
  • You are right, my answer discusses the cut entirely from the viewpoint of the first person. I consider it a question on the internal, mental side, asking how the agent draws the boundary due to his self-perception. On the other hand, quen_tin in his/her post considers the physical side.
    – Jo Wehler
    Aug 5, 2015 at 5:41
  • I know we're only supposed to do Q&A here, but I can't resist just a little bit of discussion. If you practice feeling your way around with a stick with your eyes closed, you will come to feel that you are getting sensations from the tip of the stick, rather than merely inferring what's at the end of the stick from the vibrations it imparts to your hand. This is a closely related phenomenon to Bach-y-Rita's sensory substitution experiments, various experiments involving goggles that invert the visual field, and the rubber hand illusion. ...
    – N. Virgo
    Aug 5, 2015 at 6:35
  • ... the point being that the distinction between "those objects where I can act upon and get a sensual feedback" and those "objects where I can act upon without getting such feedback" is not a straightforward one. Even from a first-person point of view, the place in which the cut is made seems somewhat malleable (though not, as far as I know, under conscious control). This kind of discussion is why I feel the need for a name to describe the cut itself, since one person may draw it in a different place from another, or the same person may draw it in different places at different times.
    – N. Virgo
    Aug 5, 2015 at 6:38
  • Already in the survey cited above Metzinger discusses the rubber-hand and proceeds to further extra-body experiences. Mostly with humans, but also with apes on the treadmill (at least in the German version of the survey from 2014.) The theory behind is given in Metzinger, T. Being No One. The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (2004). I consider this book a seminal paper from philosophy of mind, but highly challenging to study.
    – Jo Wehler
    Aug 5, 2015 at 7:19

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