Among the many ideas that go by the name of “enactivism” there is the idea that by “cognition” we should understand what is more commonly taken to be behavior. For clarity, label such forms of enactivism “enactivismb.” This terminology requires some care in evaluating enactivistb claims. There is a genu-ine risk of enactivist and non-enactivist cognitive scientists talking past one another. So, for example, when enactivistsb write that “cognition does not require representations” they are not necessarily denying what cognitivists claim when they write that “cognition requires representations.” This paper will draw attention to instances of some of these unnecessary confusions.
The key problem of cultural psychology comprises a paradox: while people believe they act on the basis of their own authentic experience, cultural psychologists observe their behavior to be socially patterned. It is argued that, in order to account for those patterns, cultural psychology should take human experience as its analytical starting point. Nevertheless, there is a tendency within cultural psychology to either neglect human experience, by focusing exclusively on discourse, or to consider the structure of this experience to originate in an already produced cultural order. For an alternative approach, we turn to the enactive view of cognition developed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Their theory of autonomy can provide the epistemological basis for a cultural psychology that explains how experience can become socially patterned in the first place. Cultural life forms are then considered as consensually coordinated, embodied practices.
Enactivism is an emerging perspective both in cognitive science and in cultural psychology. Whereas the enactive approach in general has focused on sense-making as an embodied and situated activity, enactive cultural psychology emphasizes the expressive and dynamically enacted nature of cultural meaning. This chapter first situates enactivism within a tradition of expressivist thinking that has historical roots both in radical Enlightenment thought and Romantic reactions against the rationalization of human nature. It will then offer a view of our human biology that can be reconciled with an account of meaning as irreducibly normative. By emphasizing the consensual rather than the supposedly shared nature of meaningful conduct, enactivism avoids some of the classical pitfalls in thinking about culture. In the conclusion a genetic enactive psychology will be presented, which understands sense-making not as a mediated activity, but as a competence acquired through cultural training and personal stylization.
The concept of “autonomy,” once at the core of the original enactivist proposal in The Embodied Mind (Varela et al. in The embodied mind: cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1991), is nowadays ignored or neglected by some of the most prominent contemporary enactivists approaches. Theories of autonomy, however, come to fill a theoretical gap that sensorimotor accounts of cognition cannot ignore: they provide a naturalized account of normativity and the resources to ground the identity of a cognitive subject in its specific mode of organization. There are, however, good reasons for the contemporary neglect of autonomy as a relevant concept for enactivism. On the one hand, the concept of autonomy has too often been assimilated into autopoiesis (or basic autonomy in the molecular or biological realm) and the implications are not always clear for a dynamical sensorimotor approach to cognitive science. On the other hand, the foundational enactivist proposal displays a metaphysical tension between the concept of operational closure (autonomy), deployed as constitutive, and that of structural coupling (sensorimotor dynamics); making it hard to reconcile with the claim that experience is sensorimotorly constituted. This tension is particularly apparent when Varela et al. propose Bittorio (a 1D cellular automata) as a model of the operational closure of the nervous system as it fails to satisfy the required conditions for a sensorimotor constitution of experience. It is, however, possible to solve these problems by re-considering autonomy at the level of sensorimotor neurodynamics. Two recent robotic simulation models are used for this task, illustrating the notion of strong sensorimotor dependency of neurodynamic patterns, and their networked intertwinement. The concept of habit is proposed as an enactivist building block for cognitive theorizing, re-conceptualizing mental life as a habit ecology, tied within an agent’s behaviour generating mechanism in coordination with its environment. Norms can be naturalized in terms of dynamic, interactively self-sustaining, coherentism. This conception of autonomous sensorimotor agency is put in contrast with those enactive approaches that reject autonomy or neglect the theoretical resources it has to offer for the project of naturalizing minds.
Open peer commentary on the article “Never Mind the Gap: Neurophenomenology, Radical Enactivism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness” by Michael D. Kirchhoff & Daniel D. Hutto. Upshot: I strongly agree with Kirchhoff and Hutto that consciousness and embodied action are one and the same, but I disagree when they say this identity cannot be fully explained and must simply be posited. Here I attempt to sketch the outlines of just such an explanation.
Purpose: To present an account of cognition integrating second-order cybernetics (SOC) together with enactive perception and dynamic systems theory. Methodology – The paper presents a brief critique of classical models of cognition then outlines how integration of SOC, enactive perception and dynamic systems theory can overcome some weaknesses of the classical paradigm. Findings: Presents the critique of evolutionary robotics showing how the issues of teleology and autonomy are left unresolved by this paradigm although their solution ﬁts within the proposed framework. Implications: The paper highlights the importance of genuine autonomy in the development of artiﬁcial cognitive systems. It sets out a framework within which the robotic research of cognitive systems could succeed. Practical implications: There are no immediate practical implications but see research implications. Originality/value – It joins the discussion on the fundamental nature of cognitive systems and emphasises the importance of autonomy and embodiment. Relevance: This paper draws explicit links between second order cybernetics, enactivism and dynamic systems accounts of cognition.
Open peer commentary on the article “Never Mind the Gap: Neurophenomenology, Radical Enactivism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness” by Michael D. Kirchhoff & Daniel D. Hutto. Upshot: We point out that the significance of the neurophenomenological approach to the “hard problem” of consciousness is underrated and misunderstood by the authors of the target article. In its original version, neurophenomenology implies nothing less than a change in our own being to dispel the mere sense that there is a problem to be theoretically solved or dissolved. Neurophenomenology thus turns out to be much more radical than the enactivist kind of dissolution promoted by the authors.
Open peer commentary on the article “Perception-Action Mutuality Obviates Mental Construction” by Martin Flament Fultot, Lin Nie & Claudia Carello. Upshot: In my view, the clash between ecological psychology, enactivism, and constructivism in general has more to do with irreconcilable metaphysical and theoretical incommensurabilities (ontologies, epistemologies, modes of explanation) than disagreements about specific mechanisms or processes of perception. Even with mutual enabling of action and perception, some internal process of self-modification (neural construction, learning) is still needed if novel behavior is to be adequately explained.
Embodied Cognition represents the most important news in cognitive psychology in the last twenty years. The basis of its research program is the idea that cognitive processes depend, mirror, and are influenced by bodily control systems. A whole class of novel perspectives entered into the psychologists’ agenda only after the emergence and success of EC. In the paper we will deal with some of the main topics debated within EC, from the discussion on the role of representation, to the relationship with enactivism, with functionalism and with the extended mind view. Against an interpretation according to which EC is simply an evolution of the classical cognitivist program, we will focus on the aspects that highlight crucial discontinuities with it, suggesting instead that the EC perspective is indebted to previous theoretical traditions such as American pragmatism, ecological psychology and phenomenology. In the present paper we will discuss some of the most important achievements of EC in different areas of experimental research, from the study of affordances to that of the bodily experience, from the investigation on emotions to that on language. Our aim is to force the Italian public, particularly recalcitrant to EC, to critically reflect on the debts to previous traditions. Relevance: The paper reviews embodied theories with a special focus on enactivist approaches.
Context: Affective neuroscience has not developed first-person methods for the generation of first-person data. This neglect is problematic, because emotion experience is a central dimension of affectivity. Problem: I propose that augmenting affective neuroscience with a neurophenomenological method can help address long-standing questions in emotion theory, such as: Do different emotions come with unique, distinctive patterns of brain and bodily activity? How do emotion experience, bodily feelings and brain and bodily activity relate to one another? Method: This paper is theoretical. It advances ideas for integrating neurophenomenology and affective neuroscience, and explains how this integration would allow progress on the above questions. Results: An integrated “affective neuro-physio-phenomenology” may help scientists understand whether discrete emotion categories come in different experiential varieties, which would in turn help interpret concomitant brain and bodily activity. It may also help investigate the bodily nature of emotion experience, including how experience relates to actual brain and bodily activity. Implications: If put into practice, the ideas advanced here would enrich the scientific study of emotion experience and more generally further our understanding of the relationship of consciousness and physical activity. The paper is speculative and its ideas need to be implemented to bear fruit. Constructivist content: This paper argues in favor of the neurophenomenological method, which is an offshoot of enactivism.