Five elements of the enactive account

Most theories on subjectivity look to social cognition from a representationalist point of view (Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009). Models such as theory of mind, theory theory or simulation theory[1]all state that the mental state of other people cannot be directly observed and therefore our mind-reading abilities have to rely on common sense or folk-psychological theory (Gallagher, 2004). In contrast, the enactive account looks at the problem of intersubjectivity from an interactive, embodied, non-representational perspective (Gallagher & Varela, 2003; Gallagher, 2005; Thompson, 2007).

In the enactive account, cognition is considered an “organismic activity taking the form of sensitive interactions stretching across the brain, body and environment” (Röhricht et al., 2014, p.13).  Inspired by robotics, dynamic systems theory, ecological psychology, the enactive account resonates well with phenomenology. The enactive account challenges the traditional idea of a representational mind.In the enactive account, the interaction itself is the source of intersubjectivity. Social understanding is not considered a simulative, projective or inferential process in the individual brain but meaning giving processes are generated and transformed in the interplay between individuals. Four assumptions are foundational for this alternative concept of intersubjectivity: (1) social understanding is both interactional and individual, (2) the basis for intersubjectivity is the embodied encounter with the surroundings, (3) intentions are not hidden but are expressed in action and perceptible to others, (4) intentions are dynamic and context-dependent (Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009).

Enaction stands for the manner in which a subject of perception creatively matches its actions to the requirements of the situation. The term wasfirst introduced by Varela, Thompson and Rosch (1991) and refers to a pathway[2]in which several related ideas come together and are unified: autonomy, sense-making, embodiment, emergenceand experience(De Jaegher & Di Paolo, 2007). These five different notions will be shortly addressed.

In the enactive approach cognition is seen as a form of embodied action. Saying that a cognitive system is embodied is almost a “tautology” (De Jaegher & Di Paolo, 2007, p.487), albeit a necessary one, since in cognitive science the body has long been ignored.  Cognitive structures and processes emerge from “recurrent sensorimotor patterns of perception and action” (Thompson, 2005, 407).  Cognition involves an engagement of the full agent with the world including intentions, actions, perceptions and affects (Gallagher, 2000).

In the enactive approach living beings are seen as “autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain their identities, and thereby enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains” (Thompson, 2005, p. 407-408). An autonomous agent is a living being that generates its own activity: the living being is organised in such a way that the activity is both cause and effect of its own autonomous organisation (Thompson & Stapleton, 2009). A key attribute of the living body is its individuation, the process by which it makes itself distinct from its immediate surroundings and that enables an observer to distinguish it as an identifiable entity. More precisely, ‘a key attribute of the body is that it is self- individuating– it generates and maintains itself through constant structural and functional change’ (Di Paolo & Thompson, 2014, p.68). Autonomous agents are self-constructive: they actively monitor and coordinate their interactions with the environment (Froese & Di Paolo, 2011). 

Emergence is a term that refers to collective self-organisation in complex systems theory. An emergent process  “belongs to an ensemble or network of elements, arises spontaneously or self-organises from the locally defined and globally constrained or controlled interactions of those elements, and does not belong to any single element” (Thompson, 2005, p. 60). In neuroscience the concept of emergence offers a new perspective on how numerous interacting brain regions and areas work together in linking movement, cognition and action. Emergence offers an alternative to “boxology” thinking (De Jaegher & Di Paolo, 2007), that is, “the localisation of function at one level in specific components at a lower level” (p. 487).

In the enactive approach experience is interweaved with being alive and acting upon the world (De Jaegher & Di Paolo, 2007). We give meaning to the world not by an isolated mental act but by experiencing and interacting with that very same world. “The experiencing agent is intentionally engaged with the world through actions and projects that are not reducible to simple mental states, but involve an intentionality that is motoric and bodily.” (Gallagher & Miyahara, 2012, p. 119).

By moving in the world we do not only process information but we create meaning. We inhabit the world: we bring our own identity into play. As an autonomous agent we sustain our identity, and by doing that, we do not only witness the world, but we modify it, we adapt it, we shape it. To create meaning is to give the world a temporal spatial shape. Moving in the world also means being moved by the world. Sense-making is not something passive but it presupposes a living being that actively engages in the world. By bringing his own identity into play, the living being throws a perspective into the world, through which meaning arises (De Jaegher & Di Paolo, 2007). Sense-making is thus interactional and relational (Thompson & Stapleton, 2008).



[1]  Theory of mind, theory-theory and simulation theories are all theories that attempt to explain how we are able to attribute mental states of others (Shanton & Goldman, 2010). Theory theory holds that people “some-how acquire a ‘theory’ of the mental realm, analogous to their theories of the physical world’ (also referred to as folk psychology) while the simulation theory states that ‘people use imagination, mental pretense, or perspective taking (‘putting oneself in the other person’s shoes’) to determine others mental states” (Shanton & Goldman, 2010, p.527).

[2]Varela got inspired by the words of the poet Antonio Macheda: ‘Wanderer, the road is your footsteps: you lay down a path in walking’ (Varela, as cited in Thompson, 2007, p.13). 

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