Context: The notion of “enaction,” as originally expounded by Varela and his colleagues, was introduced into cognitive science as part of a broad philosophical framework combining science, phenomenology, and Buddhist philosophy. Its intention was to help the researchers in the field avoid falling prey to various dichotomies (mind/body, self/world, self/other) bedeviling modern philosophy and science, and serve as a “conceptual evocation” of “non-duality” or “groundlessness: an ongoing and irreducible circulation between the flux of lived experience (being) and the search of reason for conceptual invariants (knowing. Problem: It seems that, within the burgeoning field of “enactivism,” these far-reaching dimensions of the original proposal are often either dismissed or simply ignored. For this reason, the article tries to answer the following questions: Does the move away from the original exposition of enaction matter? What, if anything, has been lost along the way? What are the implications of the elements that have been discarded? Method: By drawing on some of the less well-known works of Varela, we spell out and elucidate some of the more radical aspects of the notion of enaction and the broader philosophical framework into which it was originally embedded. Results: We argue that this broader philosophical framework is of utmost importance, as it shows that enaction is only one part of the multi-layered “change in the context” that Varela felt was needed to successfully instantiate a move towards the non-dual. This “change of context” involves not only a change in the way we think about dualities, but also a change in the way we experience them. The role of new scientific metaphors, such as enaction (but also autopoiesis, embodiment, etc.), is to function as conceptual evocations of this back-and-forth exchange between knowing and being. However, if this overall framework is discarded, as is often the case in contemporary accounts, enaction loses its radical impetus and becomes mellowed down to yet another version of naturalized epistemology. Implications: Taking the notion of enaction seriously implies a radical shift in our conceptions of science and knowledge, as it encompasses a theoretical and existential move away from a detached observer to embedded and engaged cognizer. Thus, our manner of thinking can no longer be considered in isolation from our manner of being, which indicates a deep interconnection between epistemology and ethics, and may entail profound changes in the definition of the aims, methods, and values of the research community: self-transformation as a consequence of, and condition for, understanding. Constructivist content: The target article advocates a critical approach to realist presuppositions in contemporary science and philosophy, and emphasizes a deep interrelation between being and knowing, between ethics and epistemology.
Context: In the past three decades, the work of Varela has had an enormous impact on current developments in contemporary science. Problem: Varela’s thought was extremely complex and multifaceted, and while some aspects - notably his contributions to the autopoietic theory of living and enactivist approach to cognition - have gained widespread acclaim, others have been ignored or watered down. Method: We identify three dimensions of Varela’s thought: (i) anti-realism of the “middle way”; (ii) anti-foundationalism of the circular/recursive onto-epistemology; and (iii) ethical/social implications of the circularity/recursivity. The discussion of these dimensions is followed by a concise overview of the individual target articles in this issue and the topics they cover. Finally, we discuss in what ways the articles extend and relate to Varela’s work. We do this by means of a concrete example: the relation between “enaction” and “enactivism. Results: We show that the ignoring-cum-watering-down process of Varela’s contributions to science is at least partly linked to the three dimensions of Varela’s thought. Based on our examination we also find that the more narrow research topics are always interrelated with broader philosophical reflection. Researching into ignored and watered-down aspects of Varela’s work enables us to not only gain fresh insights into Varela’s overall philosophy and rekindle interest in the topics and themes that have been brushed aside, but also cast a fresh light on those that are currently in full bloom. Implications: Reviving interest in Varela’s work in toto could lead to fruitful research and discussion in numerous scientific fields. To illustrate this idea, we delineate, tentatively, three domains - theoretical, empirical, and existential - where Varela’s contribution to philosophy and science could instigate prolific exchange of views. Constructivist content: All three dimensions of Varela’s philosophy have strong affinities with radical constructivist critique of realism and some of its epistemological and ethical implications.
Context: In the past two decades, the so-called 4E approaches to the mind and cognition have been rapidly gaining in recognition and have become an integral part of various disciplines. Problem: Recently, however, questions have been raised as to whether, and to what degree, these different approaches actually cohere with one another. Specifically, it seems that many of them endorse mutually incompatible, perhaps even contradictory, epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions. Method: By retracing the roots of an alternative conception of mind and cognition, as propounded by Varela, Thompson & Rosch, we provide an outline of the original philosophical framework of enactivism and neurophenomenology. We focus on its three central tenets - reflexivity, subject-world co-determination, and the construal of cognition as situated, skillful and embodied action - and show how they collectively add up to a radical change in attitude towards the age-old philosophical dilemmas. Results: We show how contemporary enactivist and embodied approaches relate to the original Varelian conception, and argue that many of them, despite frequent claims to the contrary, adopt significantly less radical philosophical positions. Further, we provide some tentative suggestions as to why this dilution of the original impetus might have occurred, paying special attention to the deep-rooted disparities that span the field. Implications: It is argued that more attention should be paid to epistemological and metaphysical tenets of different proposals within the 4E movement in general and enactivism in particular. Additionally, in emphasizing the inescapable multilayeredness and contextuality of scientific knowledge, enactivism and neurophenomenology accord with pluralist accounts of science and might provide important contributions to contemporary debates in the field. Constructivist content: The epistemological odyssey, construed as a journey to find a middle way between realism and idealism, is a central tenet of anti-representationalist, non-dualist constructivist approaches aimed at avoiding age-old philosophical traps.
This paper provides an accessible introduction to the cognitive systems paradigm of enaction and shows how it forms a practical framework for robotic systems that can develop cognitive abilities. The principal idea of enaction is that a cognitive system develops it own understanding of the world around it through its interactions with the environment. Thus, enaction entails that the cognitive system operates autonomously and that it generates its own models of how the world works. A discussion of the five key elements of enaction – autonomy, embodiment, emergence, experience, and sense-making – leads to a core set of functional, organizational, and developmental requirements which are then used in the design of a cognitive architecture for the iCub humanoid robot.
In the enactive paradigm of cognitive science, development plays a crucial role in the realization of cognition. This position runs counter to the computational functionalism upon which cognitivist and classical artificial intelligence systems are founded, especially the assumption that cognition can be achieved by embedding pre-formed knowledge. The enactive stance involves a progressive phased transition from cognitive capacity to cognitive capability, highlighting the role of development in extending the timescale of a cognitive agent’s prospective abilities and in expanding its repertoire of effective action. We review briefly some necessary conditions for cognitive development, drawing on examples from developmental psychology, illustrating the ideas by looking at the ontogenesis of instrumental helping and collaboration in infants, and identifying some of the essential elements of a developmental cognitive architecture. We then focus on the fact that enactive systems are operationally-closed, autonomous, and self-maintaining. Consequently, there are organizational constitutive processes at play as well as behavioural ones. Reconciling these complementary processes poses a significant challenge for the creation of complete model of development that must show how constitutive autonomy is compatible with and may even give rise to behavioural autonomy. We conclude by drawing attention to recent research which could provide a way of addressing this challenge.
The enactive approach is usually associated with a revolutionary project that aims to transform in a radical way our understanding of mind and cognition. Bold theoretical moves such as the rejection of cognitive representations or the assumption of a deep continuity between life and mind, among other enactive ideas, justify this perception. Nonetheless, when we assume a broader historical perspective, including the long cybernetic tradition that preceded the emergence of cognitive sciences, the image of the enactive approach looks different. Put in the context of the paradigmatic shift that took place between first-order and second-order cybernetics, especially in the case of Maturana’s autopoietic theory, the enactive paradigm, so I will try to show in this work, appears rather like a conservative or revisionist project. Better said, it appears as a slightly hybrid paradigm, wherein original and progressive elements coexist with revisionist components. The paper aims to offer an alternative interpretation of the enactive approach and contribute to a better understanding of its identity as a research program, and its present and its possible future challenges. Relevance: The paper offers a reconstruction of the historical relationship between autopoietic theory and the enactive approach, and evaluates the internal consistency of the enactive approach.
Context: The majority of contemporary enactivist work is influenced by the philosophical biology of Hans Jonas. Jonas credits all living organisms with experience that involves particular “existential” structures: nascent forms of concern for self-preservation and desire for objects and outcomes that promote well-being. We argue that Jonas’s attitude towards living systems involves a problematic anthropomorphism that threatens to place enactivism at odds with cognitive science, and undermine its legitimate aims to become a new paradigm for scientific investigation and understanding of the mind. Problem: Enactivism needs to address the tension between its Jonasian influences and its aspirations to become a new paradigm for cognitive science. By relying on Jonasian phenomenology, contemporary enactivism obscures alternative ways in which phenomenology can be more smoothly integrated with cognitive science. Method: We outline the historical relationship between enactivism and phenomenology, and explain why anthropomorphism is problematic for a research program that aspires to become a new paradigm for cognitive science. We examine the roots of Jonas’s existential interpretation of biological facts, and describe how and why Jonas himself understood his project as founded on an anthropomorphic assumption that is incompatible with a crucial methodological assumption of scientific enquiry: the prohibition of unexplained natural purposes. We describe the way in which phenomenology can be integrated into Maturana’s autopoietic theory, and use this as an example of how an alternative, non-anthropomorphic science of the biological roots of cognition might proceed. Results: Our analysis reveals a crucial tension between Jonas’s influence on enactivism and enactivism’s paradigmatic aspirations. This suggests the possibility of, and need to investigate, other ways of integrating phenomenology with cognitive science that do not succumb to this tension. Implications: In light of this, enactivists should either eliminate the Jonasian inference from properties of our human experience to properties of the experience of all living organisms, or articulate an alternative conception of scientific enquiry that can tolerate the anthropomorphism this inference entails. The Maturanian view we present in the article’s final section constitutes a possible framework within which enactivist tools and concepts can be used to understand cognition and phenomenology, and that does not involve a problematic anthropomorphism. Constructivist content: Any constructivist approach that aims for integration with current scientific practice must either avoid the type of anthropomorphic inference on which Jonas bases his work, or specify a new conception of scientific enquiry that renders anthropomorphism unproblematic.
Just over 25 years ago, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch published The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (TEM). An ambitious synthesis of ideas from phenomenology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, Buddhist philosophy and psychology, it attempted to articulate a new research programme: an enactive cognitive science, that would bridge the gap between the empirical study of the mind and the disciplined reflection on our lived experience that characterises phenomenological and Buddhist practices. This enactive approach to the study of mind represented a confluence of several streams of thought whose effect on the cognitive scientific landscape was becoming gradually more pronounced. A vision of cognition as active, embodied, and embedded was beginning to crystalise, and TEM consolidated and further strengthened existing trends. In the intervening years, the theoretical currents that flowed into TEM have only grown stronger within cognitive science and philosophy of mind. As a result, the ‘enactivist’ label has gained in currency, as different combinations of TEM’s main conceptual ingredients have been concocted and presented by different researchers. A consequence of this is the apparent existence of a variety of distinct but overlapping ‘enactivisms’, the relations between which are not always clear. This special issue aims to provide a clearer picture of the enactivist theoretical landscape, some of its distinctive landmarks, and the disputed borders between its main provinces. Each of the papers in this issue takes up and pursues a live theoretical issue for enactivist research, while at the same time shedding light on the conceptual geography of enactivism. In this introduction, we frame these contributions by providing a brief sketch of the streams of thought that flowed into TEM and the origins of enactivism, and the main theoretical channels that have emerged from it.