The Enactive Account and Participatory Sense-Making

The term “enactivism” was first coined by Francisco Varela and colleagues in the 1990s. It stands for an emerging set of ideas that take the dynamic interaction of an acting organism with its environment as the central starting point (Paolo et al. 2010).The enactive account challenges the traditional idea of a representational mind. In the enactive account, the interaction itself is the source of intersubjectivity. Cognition arises through the dynamic interaction of an organism and its environment. ‘Organisms do not passively receive information from their environments, which they then translate into internal representations […]. They participate in the generation of meaning through their bodies action often engaging in transformational and not merely informational interactions: they enact a world’ (Paolo et al. 2010: 39).

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 in which several related ideas come together and are unified: autonomy, sense-making, embodiment, emergence and experience (De Jaegher & Di Paolo, 2007). These five different notions will be shortly addressed below.

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).

According to the enactive account sense-making arises when the behavior of two systems are in a sustained coupling. Think for example of the synchronization of pendulum clocks hanging on the same wall (Winfree 2001) or the affect attunement of mother and infant (Stern 1985).

For the enactive account experience is central to sense-making. ‘Experience in the enactive approach is intertwined with being alive and enacting a meaningful world […]. Organisms casta web of significance on their world’ (Jaegher and Paolo 2007: 488) and they do this by interacting with the world. That is, organisms or agents engage in sense-making, they generate meaning and take a perspective unto the world. The generated meaning does not belong to the internal dynamics of the agent, nor to the environment: it manifests it self in the relational field.

Since agents give meaning to the world, their interactions with the world move beyond information exchange. ‘Meaning is generated and transformed in the interplay between the unfolding interaction process and the individuals engaged in it’ (Jaegher and Paolo 2007: 486). Paolo et al. (2010) argue that play and dance improvisation are transformational activities that foster novel sense-making capacities. Play and improvisation allow us to temporarily detach meaning and to imbue the interaction with affects, intensities and values that emerge on the spot (Paolo 2007).

As Johnson (2007) states, we make sense of the world, first on the base of our sensorimotor experiences, affects and visceral connections to the world, and second by our imaginative capacity that enables us to understand abstract concepts. The enactive account offers an explanation of how we are able to inhabit two seemingly different worlds, the biological sensorimotor world and the world of language, symbol and representation. In the modern Western world the latter has become privileged, leading to the dominance of propositional and conceptual meaning-making processes. As a result of the linguistic-symbolic articulation the world presents ‘itself to us as a collection of seemingly fixed (i.e., reified) independent categories and objective things, pre-given social structures and institutionalized ways of thinking and interacting’ (Schyff 2015: 5).

The enactive account, resonating deeply with Eastern philosophy, counterbalances the Western focus on language, symbol and representation  (also known as the disembodied mind). One of the goals of enactivism is to close the gap of the ‘double articulation’, i.e. the gap between the biological and symbolic world. In the enactive approach, higher-order processes find their base in the embodied interaction with the world through processes such as dynamic coupling, multi-sensory engagement and the action-perception link.

The enactive account offers a holistic perspective in which life, body-mind and environments are deeply intertwined. Sense-making in this respect is not seen as the appropriation of fixed codes of meaning by a stable and unified agent. Instead, sense-making is considered a fluid, dynamic process that takes place in the coordinated and synchronized interaction with things, others and environments. ‘It is the world of Becoming, which includes both relative being and non-relative being taking place in the flux of self-organizing, self-renewing processes of the universe (Nakagawa 2000: 32).

The enactive account, in line with Eastern philosophy, argues that nothing in the world can exist entirely in and of itself – experiences, things, thoughts, selves and minds come into being in the interaction with the world. Out of this follows that the self is not a singular, fixed entity but a plural and dynamic being. We do not move and engage with the world from a pre-given, fixed stance instead the self is just as much a non-self, floating in between being and non-being (Varela et al. 1991). The same is true for meaning. Meaning is here ‘understood as ‘knots’ of various relations, which includes the perspective of the experiencing ‘subject’ her- self as constituted by a unique and ongoing history of such relational processes’ (Schyff 2015: 6).



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