The Birth of Intermediacy?

by John Holbo on February 1, 2018

I’m taking a break from reading stuff about political theory and liberalism and reading, instead, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness [amazon]. It turns out Peter Godfrey-Smith on the octopus brain is more like Jacob Levy on Montesquieu and intermediacy than I was expecting. (The cover of Levy’s book is a bit tentacular. Maybe they should have played that up?)


The cephalopod body, and especially the octopus body, is a unique object with respect to these demands. When part of the molluscan “foot” differentiated into a mass of tentacles, with no joints or shell, the result was a very unwieldy organ to control. The result was also an enormously useful thing, if it could be controlled. The octopus’s loss of almost all hard parts compounded both the challenge and the opportunities. A vast range of movements became possible, but they had to be organized, had to be made coherent. Octopuses have not dealt with this challenge by imposing centralized governance on the body; rather, they have fashioned a mixture of local and central control. One might say the octopus has turned each arm into an intermediate-scale actor. But it also imposes order, top-down, on the huge and complex system that is the octopus body.

This is something a lot of people know about the politics of being an octopus: your various members enjoy semi-autonomy. Tentacles are federated, after a fashion. They continue to act in a purposive manner even if they are cut off from the center. Weird! (See also: Montesquieu on monarchy.) But what does he mean by ‘these demands’? [click to continue…]