CEPA eprint 2414

Enactivism and the Experiential Reality of Culture: Rethinking the Epistemological Basis of Cultural Psychology

Baerveldt C. & Verheggen T. (1999) Enactivism and the Experiential Reality of Culture: Rethinking the Epistemological Basis of Cultural Psychology. Culture & Psychology 5(2): 183–206. Available at http://cepa.info/2414
Table of Contents
Cultural Psychology and the Social Constructionist Thesis
Social Constructionism and Experience
Focusing on Embodied Experience
The Enactive Paradigm
Formal Aspects of Embodiment: Organization and Structure
Heteronomous and Autonomous Systems
Autonomous Systems as Closed Systems
Autonomous Systems as Cognitive Systems
The Emergence of Consensual Domains
Interactions and Communication between Autonomous Systems
Social Reality as a Consensual Coordination of Action
Language and the Consensual Coordination of Action
Language and the Emergence of Objective Reality
Language and the Recognition of Others
Language, Consensual Experience and Non-Discursive Forms
Concluding Remarks
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.
Key words: cultural psychology, embodiment, enactivism, epistemology, experiential reality
The key problem of cultural psychology comprises a paradox that looms up when we realize that especially when people believe they are being ‘themselves’, or to be acting on the basis of their own authentic experience, we can observe their behavior to be culturally patterned. Take for example a social practice like mothering. In our western society, we all seem to agree that motherly love and care and the motherly practice of fostering one’s own children are not the result of explicitly acting on the basis of cultural standards or prescripts regarding motherhood, but something which seems to emanate from a mother’s experience in a spontaneous way. Countless anthropological and sociological studies, however, demonstrate that mothering is hardly ‘natural’ at all, because it adopts a cultural form that differs substantially across cultures and through history. It appears that seemingly natural experience is thoroughly intertwined with sociocultural realities like gender relations, family systems and local moral universes. Moreover, the belief that one acts on the basis of one’s own experience actually contributes to the reproduction of social practices like mothering. Does this mean that a mother is wrong when she believes she is acting in accordance with her own experience? Is it our task as social scientists to refute such claims of authenticity, by revealing human conduct to be in fact culturally ordained? Or should we somehow account for this experiential reality in order to explain the social patterning of human conduct? In our view, cultural psychology should do the latter.
What can psychology say about the nature of human experience, so that it becomes intelligible how this experience becomes socially patterned in the first place? We argue that cultural psychology should not search for such patterns outside the realm of experience itself. Neither a pregiven or ‘out there’ reality nor culturally constructed scripts or models suffice as a psychological explanation for the social patterning of human conduct. After all, our experience is obviously socially patterned but nevertheless remains our own, authentic experience. In the field of cultural psychology there are, on the one hand, scholars who focus entirely on discourse, thereby disregarding the experience of real, acting persons (e.g. Edwards, 1995, 1997). The majority of cultural psychologists, on the other hand, acknowledge the role of experience, but search for the structuring principles of this experience in an already produced cultural order, or in already constituted social patterns (Cole, 1995, 1996; Ratner, 1996; Rogoff, 1994). None of these alternatives can truly account for the social patterning of experience. In our view, the problem is that they both start from ‘culture’ whereas one should start from experience. Therefore, we search for an alternative approach by focusing on the experiential or psychological nature of all that is cultural, instead of pointing out the cultural nature of all that is psychological. Our aim is to provide an epistemological basis for a psychological study of culture that is thoroughly rooted within our experiential reality. While acknowledging and underlining the dedication of contemporary cultural psychology to study the cultural forms of feeling, thinking and acting, we search for the experiential basis of those cultural forms. This approach, to which we refer as enactivism, implies a focus on embodied experience and patterns of embodied knowledge, as we will show.
Cultural Psychology and the Social Constructionist Thesis
The study of culture is essentially the study of human-made, meaningful order. Therefore, according to Shweder (1991), cultural psychology should be the study of ‘intentional worlds’. Because intentional worlds and human selves are ‘inextricably bound up’, cultural psychology should not be looking for some kind of ‘central processing device’, or for universal structures of the mind. Instead it should be interested in personal functioning within particular intentional worlds, and in the interpersonal maintenance of intentional worlds (p. 76). By distancing himself from the idea of a central processing device, Shweder wants to escape from what he calls the ‘prevailing Platonism’ that has been implicit in psychological science since the cognitive revolution. Thus, cultural psychology is, in his opinion, ‘the study of the way cultural traditions and social practices regulate, express, and transform the human psyche, resulting less in psychic unity for humankind than in ethnic divergences in mind, self and emotion’ (p. 73).
Nowadays, the anti-cognitivist argument contained in Shweder’s line of reasoning is particularly articulated by discursive and social constructionist thinkers (Edwards, 1995, 1997; Gergen, 1985; Harré, 1986; Harré & Gillet, 1994; Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Shotter, 1993). Maybe somewhat prematurely, some authors even make mention of a ‘second cognitive revolution’ within psychological and cognitive science (Harré, 1993; Harré & Gillet, 1994). The label ‘discursive turn’ is used synonymously here to point out the growing awareness that cognitive mechanisms should not be searched for ‘within the head’ of a person, but rather within the discursive or conversational interactions between persons. As Gergen (1985) puts it: ‘The locus of knowledge is no longer taken to be the individual mind but rather to inhere in patterns of social relatedness’ (p. 471). It is in the everyday practice of speaking that people create both their life world and their own identities. So although the constructionist or discursive approach may itself be very differentiated, a common ground can be found in the idea that the reality we have in common, and in which we find ourselves, is neither a world that exists independently from us, nor a socially shared way of representing such a pregiven world, but a world itself brought forth by our ways of communicating and our joint action. As such, our social world can no longer be depicted as a neutral background or context for human behavior. The world we inhabit is manufactured of ‘meaning’ rather than ‘information’ (Bruner, 1990).
Social Constructionism and Experience
Social constructionism was quite successful in defeating the notion of a pregiven world that can be known insofar as its features can be mapped or mirrored within the human mind. However, we claim that social constructionism’s strength is also its weakness: while intending to reject essentialism, it ends up turning down experiential reality as well. The structure of human conduct is not considered to originate from full-fledged unfolding experience. Rather, within social constructionism, one recognizes a similar attitude towards experience as within cultural psychology in general. That is, experience is either excluded from the social constructionist framework, or the structure of human behavior and experience is derived from some kind of already produced linguistic or discursive social order which seems to be well known already. The claim is either that we should restrict ourselves to the study of how people account for their own behavior, or that we should study how what we feel, think or do is structured by, or even constituted within, language.
With respect to the first claim, it is significant to note that although in recent years a shift of attention has taken place towards the study of the discursive production and maintenance of meaning in everyday social interaction (Billig, 1987, 1991; Edwards, 1997; Edwards & Potter, 1992; Potter & Wetherell, 1987), the greater part of social constructionist research is still mainly engaged in the analysis and interpretation of ‘text’, instead of asking questions about the psychological and cultural configurations that enable people to speak. As such, social constructionism and discursive psychology tend to limit themselves to what is said about human feeling, thinking and acting. Stated differently, instead of experience itself, talk about experience is placed at the center of attention. Elsewhere (Baerveldt & Verheggen, 1997) we referred to this methodological choice as ‘aboutism’. The whole focus is shifted from revealing the presumed mechanisms or principles underlying human conduct, to describing the social practice of describing and accounting. Once established, explanations, both those of folk theories and those of science, are considered as ‘rhetorical resources’ from which people can draw in order to account for their own actions or for the actions of others.
The second position with regard to experience holds that cultural scripts, scenarios or other linguistic structures function as a kind of mold for individual action and experience (Fischer, 1991; Harré, 1986; Harré & Gillet, 1994; Heelas, 1981; Hochchild, 1983; Lutz, 1988; Wierzbicka, 1995). However, by assigning a central role to cultural scripts in explaining the social form of feeling, one is in fact begging the question. Even if we suppose that there are socially shared cultural scripts or models that are capable of structuring individual conduct, the question remains how those cultural models can evoke our emotions and even become a motivating force (Voestermans, 1991). Or as Strauss (1992) puts it:
Knowing the dominant ideologies, discourses, and symbols of a society is only the beginning – there remains the hard work of understanding why some of those ideologies, discourses and symbols become more compelling to social actors, while others are only the hollow shell of a morality that may be repeated in official pronouncements but is ignored in private lives. (p. 1)
In general, any theory that searches for the origins of the structuring of experience outside experience itself implies the existence of some kind of internalization process. The acquisition of culture is then essentially seen as an ‘in-struction’ process, that is, it is assumed that the human mind becomes structured by virtue of socio-cultural formations that have their existence outside the realm of our own experience, but that nevertheless become part of our interior world. Hence, an out there reality – albeit a constructed reality – is brought back into the theory. In our view, this is precisely what happens when social constructionism introduces linguistic models and scripts as explanatory devices.
It should be mentioned that especially in the line of Vygotsky a notion of internalization or interiorization was developed that elaborates on the idea of learning as con-struction or co-construction rather than instruction (Valsiner, 1994). Vygotsky (1978, 1986) pictures child development and socialization in the context of social guidance, which he calls a ‘zone of proximal development’. What Vygotsky calls interiorization is in fact the process whereby the means by which a child learns to coordinate its actions with regard to others become the means by which the child learns to coordinate its own intrapsychological processes. So, in Vygotsky’s view, child development and socialization move from cultural competence and skills to the skill of coordinating one’s own thinking. Social guidance is no ‘instruction’ here in the aforementioned sense: the parent does not regulate the child’s behavior; the child actively adjusts or coordinates its behavior with respect to the parent. Although Vygotsky uses the word ‘interiorization’, his constructivism comes close to the enactive view we want to propose.
Focusing on Embodied Experience
When we limit ourselves to the study of the argumentative or narrative structures of already produced texts, we conceal those principles of production that are ‘unquestioned and unqestionable’ (Bourdieu, 1984). Even the more dynamic versions of constructionist and discursive psychological thought tend to restrict their analysis to the study of meaning insofar as it is already discursively articulated and argumentatively structured. However, as was already argued by authors like Susanne Langer and Mary Douglas, meaning is often articulated in a presentational rather than in a discursive way. Meaning is then expressed by coordinating the body as a whole, rather than by using the body as a discrete sign system (Baerveldt & Voestermans, 1996; Douglas, 1973; Langer, 1951; Radley, 1991). This implies the acquisition of embodied skills. In our view, psychologists are only just beginning to understand how training, exercise, stylization and ritualization shape our expressive register and our modes of embodied understanding. Moreover, as Bourdieu (1984, 1990) made clear, even speech should not be analyzed as a fully discursive phenomenon. The analysis of speech requires the investigation of processes that constitute both the authority or legitimacy of the speaker, and his or her competence to put something into words. Also, linguistic competence is part of a much wider range of social competence. When we consider the implications of this position for psychological research, we are obliged to pay much more attention to the acquisition of various social skills. Social practices like courting, mothering, dining out, attending a party and having an informal chat all require specific skills of which we are usually not cognizant, as we perform them in an automatic, seemingly natural way. In the enactivist model we propose, these social practices, competences and skills are essentially coordinations of one’s actions. Skills and experience imply one another: one learns to coordinate one’s experience by coordinating one’s behavior with respect to others.
We claim that if cultural psychology wants to account for the social structure of human conduct, it should not search for this structure outside the realm of experience. Where, then, can we find the epistemological ground for a cultural psychology that does justice to our experiential reality, without a retreat into essentialism? Or stated differently: how can we account for the social or cultural patterning of experience, while at the same time avoiding the paradox we mentioned at the outset? One promising attempt to reformulate the epistemological foundations of science’s enterprise can be found in the work of two theoretical biologists: Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Their work is often referred to as ‘autopoietic theory’, but we prefer the word ‘enactivism’, more recently proposed by Varela, Thompson and Rosch (1991) in order to situate their position within contemporary cognitive science.
The Enactive Paradigm
Enactivism has a large part of its historical roots within what could be called ‘biological system theory’. The history of this theory was marked by the founding of the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) by Hans von Foerster in 1957 (Boshouwers, 1996). A central aim of the BCL was to study cognition as a feature of complex dynamical systems by applying principles of self-organization and self-reference. Maturana was one of the first to join von Foerster’s research program. His own experimental work in the neurophysiology of perception (Maturana, Lettvin, McCulloch, & Pitts, 1960; Maturana, Uribe, & Frenk, 1968) had led him to the conclusion that the traditional na¨ıve realistic ‘mapping’ approach to perception stirs some fundamental epistemological problems. For example, although in the case of color perception, invariances can be observed in the relation between the activity of the nervous system and the perception of color, it turned out to be impossible to predict the activity of the nervous system on the basis of physical stimuli. It is possible, however, to predict the experience of color on the basis of the activity of the retina (Maturana et al., 1968). Maturana et al. concluded that the activity of the nervous system should be treated as determined by the nervous system itself, while the ‘external’ world can only be allocated a triggering role for this internally determined activity. Therefore, according to Maturana et al., the neural system should be considered as an ‘operationally closed’ or internally determined system that can only be characterized with reference to itself.
The notions of self-reference and closure constitute the basis of the theory of ‘autopoiesis’ Maturana later developed with Francisco Varela. This theory is the formal basis of the enactive paradigm. It is a theory both about the organization of living systems and about cognition. Those two issues merge when it is asked what the necessary organization of a living system is, such that it can act adequately within its behavioral environment. According to enactivism, cognition can never be separated from the embodiment of a system. This embodiment is simultaneously understood in terms of the physical body of biology and in terms of the ‘lived’, experiential and expressive body that was particularly thematized by phenomenology (e.g. in Merleau-Ponty’s conceptualization of the ‘corps sujet’). Enactivism considers cognition to be rooted within the kind of experience that comes from having a body (Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991, p. 173). Embodiment is a conditio sine qua non for all knowledge, including the complex patterns of cultural knowledge. A theory of culturally patterned knowledge should therefore address both the formal and the experiential aspects of embodiment.
Apart from the fact that enactivism looks upon cognitive systems as self-referential systems, it can also be considered as a consistent self-referential theory, because it starts and ends with the operations of an observer. Enactivism states that there can be no claim about reality without an observer making this claim. Or as Maturana (1988) put it: ‘Observing is both the ultimate starting point and the most fundamental question in any attempt to understand reality and reason as phenomena of the human domain’ (p. 27). Thus, enactivism finally addresses itself by bringing up the question how observing and describing are possible. The fundamental circularity of life it tries to reveal is reflected in the structure of the theory itself.
Formal Aspects of Embodiment: Organization and Structure
Enactivism starts with the general observation that any identification of an entity – animate or inanimate – implies the recognition that this entity is somehow organized. The notion of organization refers to those ‘properties’ of a system that allow an observer to distinguish it as a unity from a background. The word ‘properties’ is placed in quotation marks because it is in fact the observer who assigns those properties to the system. An organization is therefore the set of relations between components that for an observer specifies a unity as a unity of a certain kind. Those relations comprise the invariant features of the system, without which it would cease to be what it is. In other words, it is the organization of a system that for an observer constitutes its identity and that determines the interactions and transformations it may undergo as such a unity (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 77). Within the enactive paradigm, organization is sharply distinguished from structure. The structure of a system is the way in which it is actually embodied. While the relations between components comprise a system’s organization, the actual realization of those components and their relations in a given space makes up its structure (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 77).
The distinction between organization and structure has several implications. First, it implies that the same kind of organization can have different structures. For example, both an electronic and a mechanical device can make up the essential feedback system of a thermostat. Another consequence is that the structure of a system can change while its vital organization is preserved. Although, for example, we can exchange a wooden tabletop for one made of glass, or in some cases even remove some of the table legs, the system can be considered a table as long as its defining organization (i.e. the relations between its components such as the tabletop and table legs), which for us as observers specifies the system as a table, remains unchanged. Likewise, a football team remains a football team even when all players are replaced by other players, or when the line-up of the team is drastically changed, as long as those players maintain the vital relationships that for an observer specifies their collective as a football team.
Heteronomous and Autonomous Systems
Like social constructionism, enactivism considers description to be constitutive of reality rather than it being a representation of a pregiven world. An act of description is a creative act of an observer who calls the entities she or he describes into being by distinguishing them as unities from their background. In a sense, all description is therefore arbitrary because any identification of an entity depends on the distinctions and features an observer happens to consider as relevant. A very specific situation occurs, however, when an observer intends to describe a living system. A characterization of living systems requires a description that includes autonomy as a central feature of those systems. According to Maturana (in Maturana & Varela, 1980), such a description can never be a characterization in terms of purpose or function ‘because those notions are intrinsically referential and cannot be operationally used to characterize any system as an autonomous entity’ (p. xii). What, then, is the kind of organization that specifies an autonomous system?
The crucial insight contained in the theory of autopoiesis is that living systems can only be characterized as autonomous systems with reference to their own organization. Maturana and Varela coined the word ‘autopoiesis’ in order to account for the type of organization that characterizes living beings. The word is derived from auto (self) and poiesis (creation, production) and conveys the circular organization that is typical for living systems. An autopoietic system is formally defined as a system that specifies itself by continuously producing its own components and regenerating its own organization (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 79). An autopoietic system constitutes itself as a unity by specifying its own boundaries with an environment. Varela (1979) has made clear that autopoietic systems are in fact a subclass of a more general class of autonomous systems. While autonomous systems in general are systems that maintain their own organization, autopoietic systems are autonomous systems that also produce their own components or their own structure.[Note 1]
Autonomous systems can be contrasted with heteronomous systems, which only exist as a unity by the distinctive operations of an observer. Heteronomous systems can be characterized in ‘allo-referential’ terms. For example, an observer can easily describe a table (a heteronomous system) in functional terms, that is, by reference to the way in which it can be used, or in semantical terms, by specifying the correspondences and differences with other objects. A glass plate hanging on four cables from the ceiling can also serve as a table. However, when we describe an autonomous system solely in terms of its relations with other objects or in relation to ourselves, we pass over precisely the features that specify the system as an autonomous system. Those features can only be addressed in terms of the structure and organization of the system itself. The boundaries of an autopoietic system are specified by its own operations: ‘A unity is defined by an operation of distinction; in an autopoietic system its autopoiesis constitutes the operation of distinction that defines it, and its origin is cocircumstantial with the establishment of this operation’ (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 94). Of course, an observer can nevertheless treat an autonomous system as if it were a heteronomous system, by describing it solely in terms of its relations and interactions with an environment. Such a description is not necessarily wrong. In fact, it is what people do all the time: accounting for their own and other’s behavior by assigning some kind of purpose or function to this behavior. Teleonomical and functional explanations of human conduct are unmistakably part of folk psychology and everyday talk. However, enactivism claims that the notions of purpose and function only belong to the domain of discourse about human conduct (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 85). Although they can be used in the mutual orientation of the interlocutors, they cannot be used to explain the operations of an autonomous system. ‘[The] notions of purpose and function have no explanatory value in the phenomenological domain which they pretend to illuminate, because they do not refer to processes indeed operating in the generation of any of its phenomena’ (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 86). A living system can only be characterized by reference to its autopoietic organization. Describing an autonomous system in heteronomous terms is like searching for the features of life by slicing up a living body on the dissection table.
Autonomous Systems as Closed Systems
Because an autonomous system constitutes itself as a unity distinct from its background, Maturana and Varela claim that such a system is organizationally closed (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 127; Varela, 1979, p. 55). It is in fact a homeostatic system that has its own organization as the variable it maintains constant (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 80). Maturana and Varela’s insistence that autonomous systems should be considered as closed systems has often raised confusion. After all, it can hardly be denied that ‘living’ involves some kind of metabolism, or exchange of matter and energy with an environment. Neither can it be denied that autonomous systems are responsive to their environment. In recent years, several authors within the social and cognitive sciences have tried to adopt the concept of open self-organizing systems from the physical sciences in order to get a grip on the developmental dynamics of psychological and social systems (Fogel, 1993; Fogel, Lyra, & Valsiner, 1997; Thelen & Smith, 1994). According to the physicist Ilya Prigogine, it is the thermodynamical openness of complex ‘far from equilibrium’ systems that enables processes of selforganization in them (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984). It is important to notice, however, that a physical theory like that of Prigogine gives a thermodynamical rather than a semiotic account of complex systems. In other words, it gives an account of the dynamical properties of such systems in terms the exchange of energy, rather than in terms of meaning. Enactivism is essentially a theory of meaning or meaningful action. It claims that autonomous systems are closed in an operational sense, because they operate within a phenomenal domain that is specified by their own organization. Those systems should therefore not be depicted as ‘input/output machines’ as in the informationprocessing paradigm of traditional cognitivism. The central claim of enactivism is that exactly because of their operational closure, autonomous systems operate as cognitive systems. This claim asks for a redefinition of cognition as meaning production rather than information processing.
Autonomous Systems as Cognitive Systems
Once we recognize autonomous systems as systems that cannot adequately be described with reference to an environment, we face some serious epistemological consequences when we try to account for their cognitive operations. Any functional or semantic explanation falls short because it introduces a world ‘outside’ the system that in fact belongs to the descriptive domain of an observer. An observer can, for example, establish a connection between a description of the internal dynamics of a system and a description of its interactions with an environment. However, such a description is always a description in terms of the meaning the observer assigns to this behavior, and cannot be operationally part of the behavioral dynamics of the system itself. Any notion of an ‘outside’ world belongs to the descriptive domain of an observer and does not pertain to the closed phenomenal domain of the acting system.
Traditional cognitivism looks upon cognitive systems as open systems. According to the cognitivistic paradigm, the central feature of such systems is that they are capable of receiving informational input from their environment, to process this information according to a set of syntactical rules and finally to produce some kind of behavioral output again. Bruner (1990) states that it is exactly this focus on information processing that has kept cognitive science from achieving its original aim: establishing meaning as the central concept in the study of the mind. Not the human mind, but the computer has become the prototypical example of a cognitive system. Viewed from an enactive perspective, however, a computer is a clear example of a heteronomous system. It has a design instead of a history. The features of a designed or engineered system like a computer are totally specified by the ways in which we can interact with it. By itself, therefore, a computer cannot operate as a truly cognitive system.
The operations of an autonomous system are not externally determined. Therefore, those systems do not have inputs or outputs (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 81; 1984, p. 169). Notions like ‘input’ and ‘in-formation’ wrongly imply that a pre-existing environment can somehow be instructive for the system. This idea is clearly expressed in the formal definition of information that has become prevalent in cognitive science: that of information as a measure of uncertainty, that is, as the number of alternatives that are available to predict the outcome of a given situation (Shannon & Weaver, 1949). In this definition, information is essentially conceived of as a property of an objective, pregiven world. Enactivism, however, claims that ‘the notion of information is valid only in the descriptive domain as an expression of the cognitive uncertainty of the observer, and does not represent any component actually operant’ (Maturana, 1975, p. 322).
The far-reaching consequence of this position is that cognition can no longer be depicted as some kind of representation of a pregiven world. To evoke representations as part of an explanation of cognition is to mix up two non-intersecting phenomenal domains. Alternatively, enactivism conceives of cognition as all operations of an autonomous system that are effective with respect to the maintenance of its own organization, or its own identity. The criterion of knowledge is not the environment, to which an observer can claim some kind of privileged access, but the autopoietic organization of the system itself. As von Glasersfeld (1991, p. 16) states, the question is not whether a cognitive system adequately maps or mirrors the real world, but whether its actions are viable. It is the organization of an autonomous system itself that determines its cognitive domain, that is, the domain of interactions in which it can enter without losing its identity. Its ‘environment’ can only trigger or select certain patterns of structural change within the system, but cannot bring about the range of possible changes (Winograd & Flores, 1986, p. 43).
An observer may attribute cognition to a system that is capable of making operational distinctions with respect to its environment. However, it is actually the system itself that on the basis of its own autonomy ‘enacts’ a domain of significance with respect to which it can act (Varela et al., 1991, p. 156). A cognitive system operates as a producer of meaning rather than as a processor of information. Enactivism considers the operational closure of autopoietic systems to be the formal condition of meaning. As a theory of meaning, enactivism rests on what – with an allusion to thermodynamics – could be called ‘the law of conservation of identity’. The full consequences of this position become clear when we transform a formal claim into a phenomenological one. Autopoietic systems are then considered as systems that live in a world of their own experience. It is because of this ‘experiential closure’ that they can operate as meaning producers.
The Emergence of Consensual Domains
The most important conclusion that can be drawn from the argument above is that only autonomous, or operationally closed, systems can be cognitive systems. Autonomous systems are meaning producers, which implies that their operations and structural changes are subordinated to the maintenance of their own identity. As such, they are systems that have experience, or, they are systems operating within a closed phenomenal domain. It may now appear, however, that enactivism aggravates the paradox with which we started our argument, rather than solving it. After all, the claim regarding the operational closure of ‘meaning producers’ leads to some obvious questions: How is social interaction possible between closed systems? And how can it be that systems that live in a world of their own experience nonetheless seem to share a certain reality? Enactivism provides an answer to those questions by again introducing a radical change of perspective. It claims that only the interactions between closed, or experiencing, systems can be considered as social interactions.
Interactions and Communication between Autonomous Systems
The assumption regarding the operational closure of cognitive systems has direct consequences for the way we can account for the interactions between cognitive systems. As was argued above, the domain of possible interactions in which an autonomous system can enter is specified by its own organization. From this it can be deduced that in an interaction between autonomous systems the conduct of neither one of the interacting systems can be instructive for the other system. Therefore, this kind of interaction can better be conceived of as a kind of mutual ‘tuning’; a process in which both systems regulate their own conduct with respect to each other, rather than being controlled or regulated by the other system.
Elsewhere (Baerveldt & Voestermans, 1996) we referred to this tuning process as ‘co-regulation’. The concept of co-regulation was introduced by Fogel (1993) in order to delineate a central feature of what he calls ‘continuous process communication’. Co-regulation is defined as ‘the dynamic balancing act by which a smooth social performance is created out of the continuous mutual adjustment of action between partners’ (p. 19). Because of this ongoing character of co-regulative communication, according to Fogel, it cannot be adequately depicted as a transfer of information from a sender to a receiver, through some kind of communication channel. In our view, it is important to notice that co-regulation presupposes the operational autonomy of the interacting systems. As long as the interaction lasts, the interacting systems trigger structural changes in each other but cannot coerce each other into a certain course of action.
The interaction between autonomous systems can again be characterized in both formal and phenomenological terms. From a formal perspective, it could be stated that each of the interacting systems is for the other ‘a source of compensable deformations that can be described as meaningful in the context of the coupled behavior’ (Varela, 1979, pp. 48–49). The interactions are deformations when they result in structural changes in the participating systems. Those deformations are compensable whenever they remain within the boundaries that are specified by the necessity for each system to maintain its identity. So although the operational closure of each of the structurally coupled systems prohibits any instructive interaction, they can nevertheless have a history of interlocked conduct.
From a phenomenological perspective, it can be stated that the communicating systems have no access to each other’s experience. Although this may be in defiance of the intuitive idea that communication involves the sharing of experience, on closer inspection it appears that it is exactly this inaccessibility of experience that necessitates the systems to coordinate their conduct with respect to each other. Experience can neither be accessed, nor instructed from the outside. This is of course something long known to teachers and educators: although we may try to explain something to somebody else, we cannot coerce somebody into understanding. Neither can we put the ‘right’ ideas into somebody’s head. Whether understanding is achieved ultimately depends on the cognitive constitution of the addressee.
Social Reality as a Consensual Coordination of Action
When the interactions between operationally closed systems acquire a recurrent character, Maturana and Varela (1984) speak of ‘structural coupling’. Structural coupling is an ‘ongoing mutual co-adaptation’ (Whitaker, 1997) of autonomous systems, which results in structural changes in each of the interacting systems, while at the same time the organization or identity of those systems is maintained. It can therefore also be defined as a history of interlocked conduct. When the conduct of two or more autonomous systems becomes structurally coupled, an observer can come to the conclusion that they have a ‘shared’ reality. Maturana and Varela call such a seemingly shared reality a consensual domain (Maturana, 1975, 1978, 1980; Varela, 1979). Of course the word ‘shared’ is misleading because it passes by the operational and experiential closure of the interacting systems. A consensual domain can therefore better be conceived of as a ‘cooperative domain of interactions’ (Whitaker, 1997).
It now becomes clear that, according to enactivism, a social interaction can only be an interaction between autonomous systems (Maturana, 1978, 1980; Maturana & Varela, 1980). A social interaction requires the autonomous contribution of all interacting partners. An interaction with a table or a computer can therefore not be considered a social interaction (although it is a social action just the same, because tables and computers belong to a consensual reality we help to constitute in our interactions with our fellow humans). Relations of power or persuasion, on the other hand, are social interactions because they require the autonomous contribution of both those who ‘exercise’ power and those who ‘undergo’ it. Likewise, when a mother puts an infant into an upright position, this should be considered a social interaction, because both mother and child autonomously contribute to the course of the interaction (Fogel, 1993). When we put a sack of potatoes into an upright position, this is not a social interaction because the sack of potatoes does not autonomously contribute to the course of the interaction. Although this may seem obvious, it has farreaching consequences for the way in which science should deal with social phenomena. It implies that no social phenomenon can be separated from the experience of those who constitute it. According to Maturana (1980), all social phenomena are constituted by the autonomy of their individual participants: ‘The individual is the center and motor of social phenomena; no society exists beyond the individuals that integrate it, and every society includes all the individuals that constitute it’ (p. 24). Or, to put it again in more phenomenological terms: each society is constituted by a community of experiencers.
Language and the Consensual Coordination of Action
Language can be considered as a human consensual domain par excellence. As such, the same principles apply to language as to consensual domains in general. Language is a praxis that originates in the consensually coordinated activities of embodied human agents, rather than in an abstract symbolic or propositional system. According to Maturana (1978, 1980), linguistic behavior emerges when the ‘shared’ reality that is the product of our own consensual interactions becomes itself consensually coordinated. The basic function of language is not to transfer information, nor to denote independent entities, but to mutually orient the linguistic agents within their cognitive domain (Maturana, 1978, p. 50). As a dynamical system of meaning, language works without any externally determined truth conditions (Winograd & Flores, 1986, p. 63). It is the foremost domain of human meaning, not because it reveals the properties of a pregiven world, but because in our linguistic interactions we continuously regenerate the consensual domains in which we can recognize or acknowledge others.
Language and the Emergence of Objective Reality
According to Maturana and Varela, linguistic behavior tends to conceal the actions it coordinates. It is within language that ‘objective’ reality can emerge (Maturana, 1978, 1980; Maturana & Varela, 1984). Reality becomes objective as it is detached from the experience of real embodied persons. Nevertheless, objective reality is something that emerges from consensual experience rather than something that precedes this experience. This claim can be clarified by an example. Take a common object, like an apple. A na¨ıve realistic position pictures the apple to be an object that has an existence of its own, independent of our perception. However, when we are enumerating the properties of the apple, we are in fact specifying ways in which we can interact with the apple, that is, ways in which we can orient our own behavior towards this apple. Seemingly independent qualities like edibility, tastefulness and juiciness, but also more abstract features like yellowness and sphericality, only exist for an organism that has the perceptual and cognitive apparatus to ‘acknowledge’ them.
Apples become part of a consensual domain, or a cooperative domain of interactions, when we learn not only to orient our behavior towards those apples, but also to coordinate our orientations with respect to other persons. As such, apples belong to a domain of consensual experience. When a consensual domain is sufficiently complex, parts of it can be used in order to coordinate other parts. We can, for example, consensually specify certain sounds, gestures or even patterned spots of ink on a smooth surface in order to indicate or coordinate other aspects of our consensual reality. Maturana and Varela call such a domain of second-order coordinations a linguistic domain (Maturana & Varela, 1980, pp. 28, 120; 1984, p. 165). Language can therefore be considered as a ‘consensual coordination of a consensual coordination of action’. In theory, the possibilities for secondor higher-order coordinations are infinite. Once the apple is established as an object, it can for example be used to indicate ‘youthful beauty’ or ‘sin’. Although through the recursive coordination of action a continuous production of new meanings is possible, those meanings retain their roots within the experience of embodied persons. Lakoff and Johnson claim that all cultural meanings, including the most abstract ones, originate within preor nonconceptual bodily experience that is metaphorically extended or transferred to other cognitive domains (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Johnson, 1987). The preconceptual experience of hunger, for example, can be transferred to loneliness, as is expressed in sayings like: ‘I’m starving for your love.’ However, enactivism stresses that apart from being an embodied affair, reality is also a matter of consensually coordinated experience. As such, it is a product of our own social interactions. Therefore, we live in what Shweder (1991) calls ‘multiple objective worlds’.
Language and the Recognition of Others
Linguistic interaction is often considered as the prototypical example of human communication. According to Varela (1979), the proper paradigm for our interaction with a heteronomous system is ‘instruction’ and unsatisfactory results are ‘errors’. The appropriate paradigm for our interaction with an autonomous system, on the other hand, is ‘conversation’ and unsatisfactory results are ‘breaches of understand-ing’. Therefore, conversation is the kind of interaction we have with those systems we recognize as others.
Because of the operational closure of autonomous systems, we can never know the ‘true’ experience of others. To recognize a person as other is to grant this person her or his own experience about a world we ‘share’. Others are those systems we acknowledge as subjects, instead of subjecting them to our knowledge. The recognition or acknowledgment of others can only exist within a domain of secondorder coordinations, that is, in a linguistic domain. It is within language that human beings can address themselves to others, while simultaneously being addressed by others. As Shotter (1993) notes, human reality is above all a conversational reality.
Finally, it is also and only within a linguistic domain that an observer can emerge. Language enables human beings to relate to their consensually constituted reality as if it were a reality independent of their own conduct. In other words, it enables them to make operational distinctions within the consensual domains they help to constitute. Such second-order distinctions are called descriptions, and a system that makes such distinctions is called an observer (Maturana, 1978, p. 31). Within the enactive paradigm, an observer is therefore formally defined as a cognitive system that operates within the realm of its own descriptions (Whitaker, 1997). Although this may seem a bit cryptic, it is exactly here that enactivism becomes a truly reflexive theory. After all, it starts and ends with the activities of an observer. A maxim of enactive theory that can be found throughout the work of Maturana and Varela reads: ‘Anything said is said by an observer.’ There is no true or objective reality beyond the descriptive domain of an observer. However, the existence of an observer necessarily entails the existence of other observers. We can only operate as observers within a consensual domain that is constituted by our conversational interactions with others. Recognizing the autonomy of other human beings is not only a moral but also an epistemological imperative. Therefore, we ally with von Foerster’s (1979) addendum to the abovementioned maxim: ‘Everything said is said by an observer to an observer.’ Or, as Maturana (1978) phrased it: ‘Everything said is said by an observer to another observer, who can be himself or herself’ (p. 31).
Language, Consensual Experience and Non-Discursive Forms
Since enactivism aims to provide a reflexive or self-referential theory of cognition, it is not surprising that it assigns a central role to language. Nevertheless, we want to point to two important aspects in which enactivism differs considerably from the kind of social constructionism that declares all human reality a matter of language. First, although enactivism concurs with, for example, discursive psychology about the importance of description in the social constitution of reality, it considers description to be rooted within consensually validated forms of life from which it cannot be detached without losing the ability to understand description – or discourse in general – as an experiential affair. This is in close agreement with Wittgenstein, who noticed that the river of language always flows through a non-conceptual bedrock of embodied practice (Shotter, 1995; Van der Merwe & Voestermans, 1995). What we want to argue is not so much that there is a mode of expression which precedes language but can nonetheless be articulated. It is rather that the truthfulness and genuineness of what we say, its virtuality and verisimilitude, our power of persuasion, our authority and ultimately all meaning that is included within our words, is both judged and determined against a background of largely nonarticulated, consensual experience. As Maturana (1978) emphasizes, the denotative use of language always ‘requires agreement – consensus for the specification of the denotant and the denoted’ (p. 50). Discursive forms do not suffice as an explanation for the patterning of experience, because those forms themselves call for an explanation in terms of the consensual coordination of experience.
A second point of consideration is not explicitly mentioned by Maturana and Varela, but can already be found in the work of Gregory Bateson, who had a large influence on the enactive paradigm. Bateson (1972) demonstrated that behavioral patterns that involve secondorder coordinations or a ‘consensual coordination of a consensual coordination of actions’ can also be observed within higher mammals like monkeys, cats and dogs. Behavioral phenomena like ‘play’ and ‘threat’, for example, require a second-order or ‘meta’-level of communication that coordinates the communication at a lower level. A monkey that playfully bites a congener is somehow able to communicate the message: ‘This is play’ (Bateson, 1972, p. 177). Likewise, two dogs that want to communicate that they do not want to fight perform a ritualized sham fight in order to achieve this multi-layered mode of communication (notice that the connotation ‘not’ already implies a second-order coordination of behavior). Apparently, a second-order coordination of behavior does not necessarily depend on the utilization of a full-fledged symbolic system. Again, our argument is not that mammals (or human infants for that matter) already demonstrate some pre-linguistic behavior which is later developed in full linguistic competence, but rather that complex forms of behavioral stylization are possible without the explicit need for a linguistic system. This observation should make us more aware of all kinds of stylized expressive forms that can be found within the realm of human social reality. Our assumption is that style, ritual and play are as important in understanding the social patterning of human conduct as is language.
Concluding Remarks
We started our argument by observing that cultural psychology contains a paradox with respect to experience. This paradox has been the rationale for the central question we discussed in this paper: how can cultural psychology account for the culturally patterned character of human conduct, while doing justice to the experience of real embodied persons? The enactive view we propose not only restores experience as an important domain for the social and cognitive sciences, but places experience at the center of those sciences. It is this radical twist that enables enactivism to solve the paradox. Because it claims that the formal conditions of experience are to be found within the autonomous organization of a cognitive system itself, enactivism is able to give a non-referential, non-relativistic account of meaning. A cognitive agent is considered to be a system that operates within a closed phenomenal domain, that is, within a world of its own experience to which an observer fundamentally has no access. Nevertheless, its operational and experiential closure does not keep such a system from having social interactions. Moreover, the closure of autonomous agents is the precondition for having social interactions, because a social interaction is exactly the mutual tuning of cognitive domains. Social interaction is necessary because cognitive systems have no access to each other’s experience.
We can now rephrase the paradox of experience with respect to its empirical consequences. For it proves to be impossible to give an adequate description of the closed phenomenal domain of a human actor. It is true that meaning is rooted within experience, but we cannot open up the experiential world of a person in order to account for meaning. Therefore, our aim is not to disclose the idiosyncrasies of actual persons, but to study how the experience and actions of different persons are attuned. So, although we take the cognitive and experiential domain of embodied human agents as our analytical starting point, it turns out that our empirical domain can only be the way in which meaning is consensually coordinated. Thus, psychology becomes the study of cultural life forms, or consensually coordinated embodied practices, rather than the investigation of a world of inner experience. This is in line with the recent call within cultural psychology to focus on the dialogical structure of meaning. Hermans and Kempen (Hermans & Kempen, 1993; Hermans, Kempen, & Van Loon, 1992) claim that our experience is dialogically structured, because it unfolds as an inner dialogue with imaginary others. However, enactivism claims that in addition to this, dialogue requires the autonomous contribution of different dialogical partners, and, furthermore, a mutual acknowledgment of ‘otherness’. There is a fundamental difference between others who are part of our self narratives and others to whom we tell our stories. Being unable to make this distinction with regard to one’s own experience is generally not considered as a proof of mental health. It is precisely when we, as psychologists, fail to make these analytical distinctions that we confine human actors within their own solipsistic universes. Moreover, it is then that we might lose the only criterion with which to distinguish between ‘reality’ and ‘delusion’. For our sense of reality is first and above all our capability to coordinate our experience and actions with respect to others.
References
Baerveldt, C., & Verheggen, T. (1997). Towards a psychological study of culture: Epistemological considerations. Paper presented at the 7th conference of the International Society for Theoretical Psychology (ISTP), Berlin, Germany.
Baerveldt, C., & Voestermans, P. (1996). The body as a selfing device: The case of anorexia nervosa. Theory & Psychology, 6, 693–713.
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine.
Billig, M. (1987). Arguing and thinking: A rhetorical approach to social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Billig, M. (1991). Ideology, rhetoric and opinions. London: Sage.
Boshouwers, S. (1996). In-formare: De wereld van het kensysteem [In-formare: The world of the cognitive system]. Utrecht: Unpublished doctoral thesis. Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice. Cambridge: Polity.
Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Cole, M. (1995). Culture and cognitive development: From cross-cultural research to creating systems of cultural mediation. Culture & Psychology, 1, 25–54.
Cole, M. (1996). Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Douglas, M. (1973). Natural symbols: Explorations in cosmology. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Edwards, D. (1995). A commentary on discursive and cultural psychology. Culture & Psychology, 1, 55–65.
Edwards, D. (1997). Discourse and cognition. London: Sage.
Edwards, D., & Potter, J. (1992). Discursive psychology. London: Sage. Fischer, A. (1991). Emotion scripts: A study of the social and cognitive facets of emotions. Leiden: DSWO Press.
Fogel, A. (1993). Developing through relationships: Origins of communication, self and culture. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Fogel, A., Lyra, M.C.D.P., & Valsiner, J. (Eds.). (1997). Dynamics and indeterminism in developmental and social processes. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Gergen, K. (1985). Social psychology and the wrong revolution. European Journal of Social Psychology, 19, 463–484.
Harré, R. (Ed.). (1986). The social construction of emotions. Oxford: Blackwell.
Harré, R. (1993). The second cognitive revolution. American Behavioral Scientist, 36, 5–7.
Harré, R., & Gillet, G. (1994). The discursive mind. London: Sage.
Heelas, P. (1981). Emotion talk across cultures. In P. Heelas & A. Lock (Eds.), Indigenous psychologies: The anthropology of the self. London: Academic Press.
Hermans, H.J.M., & Kempen, H.J.G. (1993). The dialogical self: Meaning as movement. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Hermans, H.J.M., Kempen, H.J.G., & van Loon, R.J.P. (1992). The dialogical self: Beyond individualism and rationalism. American Psychologist, 47, 23–33.
Hochchild, A.R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Johnson, M. (1987). The body in the mind: The bodily basis of reason and imagination. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Langer, S.K. (1951). Philosophy in a new key: A study in the symbolism of reason, rite and art. London: Oxford University Press.
Lutz, C. (1988). Unnatural emotions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Maturana, H. (1975). The neurophysiology of cognition. In P. Garvin (Ed.), Cognition: A multiple view. New York: Spartan.
Maturana, H. (1978). Biology of language: The epistemology of reality. In G.A. Miller & E. Lenneberg (Eds.), Psychology and biology of language and thought: Essays in honor of Eric Lenneberg. New York: Academic Press.
Maturana, H. (1980). Man and society. In F. Benseler, P.M. Hejl, & W.K. Köck (Eds.), Autopoiesis, communication and society: The theory of autopoietic systems in the social sciences.. Frankfurt: Campus.
Maturana, H. (1988). Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. The Irish Journal of Psychology, 9, 25–82.
Maturana, H., Lettvin, J., McCulloch, S., & Pitts, W. (1960). Anatomy and physiology of vision in the frog. Journal of General Physiology, 43, 129–175.
Maturana, H., Uribe, G., & Frenk, S.G. (1968). A biological theory of relativistic colour coding in the primate retina: A discussion of nervous system closure with reference to certain visual effects. Archiva de Biologia y Medicina Experimentalis, 1, 1–30.
Maturana, H., & Varela, F. (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Dordrecht: Reidel.
Maturana, H., & Varela, F. (1984). The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Boston, MA: Shambala.
Potter, J., & Wetherell, M. (1987). Discourse and social psychology. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Prigogine, Y., & Stengers, I. (1984). Order out of chaos: Man’s new dialogue with nature. New York: Bantham.
Radley, A. (1991). The body in social psychology. New York: Springer.
Ratner, C. (1996). Activity as a key concept for cultural psychology. Culture & Psychology, 2, 407–434.
Rogoff, B. (1994). Developing understanding of the idea of communities of learners. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 1, 209–229.
Shannon, C., & Weaver, W. (1949). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Shotter, J. (1993). Conversational realities: Constructing life through language. London: Sage.
Shotter, J. (1995). Wittgenstein’s world: Beyond ‘the way of theory’ toward a ‘social poetics’. Paper presented at the conference ‘Social Construction, Culture, and the Politics of Social Identity’, New School of Social Research, New York.
Shweder, R.A. (1991). Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Strauss, C. (1992). Models and motives. In R. D’Andrade & C. Strauss (Eds.), Human motives and cultural models. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Thelen, E., & Smith, L.B. (1994). A dynamic systems approach to the development of cognition and action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Valsiner, J. (1994). Culture and human development: A co-constructivist perspective. In P. van Geert & L. Moss (Eds.), Annals of theoretical psychology, Vol. X. New York: Plenum.
Van der Merwe, W.L., & Voestermans, P.P. (1995). Wittgenstein’s legacy and the challenge to psychology. Theory & Psychology, 5, 27–48.
Varela, F. (1979). Principles of biological autonomy. New York: Elsevier North Holland.
Varela, F.J., Thompson, F., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Voestermans, P. (1991). Alterity/Identity: A deficient image of culture. In J. Leerssen & R. Corbey (Eds.), Alterity, identity, image: Selves and others in society and scholarship. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
von Foerster, H. (1979). Cybernetics of cybernetics. In K. Krippendorff (Ed.), Communication and control in society. New York: Gordon and Breach.
von Glasersfeld, E. (1991). Knowing without metaphysics: Aspects of the radical constructivist position. In F. Steier (Ed.), Research and reflexivity. London: Sage.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman,Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Whitaker, R. (1997). Self-organization, autopoiesis, and enterprises. Retrieved June 12, 1997 from the World Wide Web: http://www.acm.org/sigois/ auto/Main.html.
Wierzbicka, A. (1995). Emotion and facial expression: A semantic perspective. Culture & Psychology, 1, 227–258.
Winograd, T, & Flores, F. (1986). Understanding computers and cognition: A new foundation for design. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Endnotes
1
Autopoiesis is a specific kind of self-organization that involves selfproduction. Although in the remainder of this article we use the words ‘autopoiesis’ and ‘autonomy’ synonymously, we leave open the question whether the productive aspect of autopoiesis is necessary for an understanding of experience and cognition.
Found a mistake? Contact corrections/at/cepa.infoDownloaded from http://cepa.info/2414 on 2016-05-01 · Publication curated by Alexander Riegler