Enactivism is the 2020’s Social Change Movement


The term ‘enactivism’ does not delineate a sole account of mind or cognition but a variety of distinctive perspectives that share core theoretical assumptions. The first systematic analysis of enactivism was outlined in ‘The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (TEM)’) in an effort to shift cognitive science away from representational accounts of the mind (typical of the dominant ‘cognitivist’ paradigm of the 1980s.

In this piece, it is argued that the operationalization of minds as brain-bounded problem-solving machines is a limited means of explaining the nature of agency. Cognitivists at the time were additionally struggling to account for specific elements of cognition, including context sensitivity and domain-general intelligence, while alternative theoretical trends were developing that would shape the development of an ‘enactive’ mind. Connectionist models, dynamical systems theory, ecological psychology, and situated robotics all emphasised the significance of interactional environmental factors in explanations of cognition. Synthesizing these emerging strands, enactive theorists propose that minds are best conceived as embodied and embedded.  

Embodied in this context refers to the notion that consciousness as we know it, necessarily depends on our neurobiological embodiment; cognition requires our possession of bodies with their particular sensorimotor capacities, which are themselves embedded in a wider socio-cultural environment. In this respect, cognition is inseparable from the body or environment and constitutes a type of action entwined with perception. By adopting this view, enactive theorists aimed to reconcile cognitive science with subjective experience, drawing additionally on principles of phenomenology and evolutionary biology. 

Much of the foundation of enactivism can be attributed to the earlier work of Maturana and Varela (1980) who aimed to account for the agency of organisms with their theory of autopoiesis. Autopoietic systems are characterized by the capacity to maintain and distinguish themselves from the environment. A cell for example is a network of constitutive biological processes that enable its continual regeneration. In order to survive, biological entities need to process energy one way or another. My cat needs to eat, breathe, and excrete or she will die; she does this by actively engaging with her environment.

Historically, the survival of cats as a species across millennia has been tethered to their capacity to implement an adaptive response to a variety of environmental conditions, enabling their sustenance and reproductive capacity. The pervasive illustrative exemplar in this case, is the bacterium, striving towards its glucose and away from harmful toxins. From an enactive view, this bacterium constitutes an autonomous self-regulating system by differentiating between the viable and sugary, or non-viable toxic conditions. Such distinction necessarily requires an evaluation of sorts and in this sense, the environment becomes ‘meaningful’ to the bacterium; toxic areas are to be avoided while sources of food should be celebrated. This type of evaluation is called ‘sense-making’, which describes the capacity to assess and engage with surroundings as motivated by precarious embodied experience, which for enactivists, is the benchmark of cognition. The mind is thus no longer something internal and detached but rather a type of interaction with the environment. In order to capture cognitive phenomena, enactivists therefore focus on the organism and environment as a complex dynamical system entailing a variety of tangled interacting processes.

If cognition is sense-making, and sense-making is the ability to distinguish between better or worse survivability conditions, a necessary connection emerges between cognition and life. Life and mind are therefore putatively continuous in enactive accounts. This notion is dubbed the life-mind continuity thesis, which emphasizes that life is minded and the mind is not fundamentally distinct from matter in the sense that Cartesian dualism regards. An enactive framework thus trades dualism for a ‘neo-Aristotelian hylomorphic’ account of mind, body, perception, and action. Hylomorphism originates with Aristotle’s theory of nature, literally translating to ‘matter’ and ‘form’, which within this view constitute the primary substances in the world. A hylomorphic ontology postulates that the world consists of individual objects that are constantly changing; a plant grows and withers and a young man becomes old and wrinkled.

Different kinds of things are naturally conferred with a variety of abilities, but all living things share a metabolism (chemical processes that enable the conversion of food to energy and maintenance of the organism). Such objects are themselves compounds of form and matter, which make them what they are. A candle for example is made of matter (wax), which becomes a candle only if molded to the form of a candle. In this way, the form of things provides actuality upon potentiality. Contemporarily, this is called a structural or organization realist approach, as deemed by its commitment to the significance and irreducibility of the organization of things when approaching ontology, explanation, and identity.

By this account, the essential cognitive, developmental, metabolic, reproductive, and perceptive abilities of humans are enabled by the specific organization of our constituent matter, as is the case for all life. Hylomorphism thus embodies the mind and sidesteps the issue of its physical connection. Instead, the mind and body respectively become the form and matter of living things. They are inextricable, with minds being the first principle of the natural living body, enabling the service of biological needs through a needful adaptive relationship with the environment.

‘Mindedness’ thus becomes an emergent constellation of phenomena, depending not only on constituent parts but the specific configuration of those parts, which depend on the service of the mind. Sense-making is therefore strongly connected to the living body; specific bodies confer particular needs according to their structures and thereby determine what is adaptive for a given organism. 

To return to the example of the bacterium, due to its organization its metabolism works in a specific way that demands the location in highly sugary environments. For such a system striving to maintain itself, the world is constantly perceived from a concerned perspective, “the organism’s ‘concern,’ its ‘natural purpose,’ is to keep on going, to continue living, to affirm and reaffirm itself in the face of imminent notbeing”. Our bacterium is not itself experiencing ‘concern’ as we might but is rather driven to meet the needs of its biological body and is consequently not indifferent to survival. Its world therefore is not perceived as a ‘neutral’ physiochemical environment, but an Umwelt, a reality balanced in relation to the needs of the perceiver. Cognition for the enactivist is thus not neutral or detached but rather, intrinsically affective. 

Affective here need not mean highly emotional states like anger or fear but is used in the sense that something strongly ‘affects’ and appears meaningful and salient for organisms inherently concerned with their survival. Surrounding environments are worlds of particular significance for living creatures. An earthworm may seem less appealing to most than a cappuccino, but for the sparrow, it is infinitely more delectable. Note that the claim is not that we need to make such comparisons explicitly. Appetitive elements of our surroundings do not become so as a consequence of consciously evaluating all the benefits and possibilities they offer. Sense-making is submitted as a felt experience, a preconscious bodily-affective evaluation that depends neither solely on the organism nor the environment, but both in tandem.

What is present in the environment will have specific properties that interact with the short and long-term needs of an organism as determined by its biology, all of which underly the consequent valence of the object for the organism. It thus challenges the distinction between emotion and cognition, which traditional cognitive science has maintained; anger, for example, has tended to be modeled in terms of neurological processes and representational operations that ‘cause’ the felt experience of anger, which itself distorts an otherwise typically ‘rational’ cognitive system.

An enactive account reframes these conceptions and the boundaries they entail; anger becomes an evolved response of dynamic patterns of processes that cascade throughout the body and prime organisms for hostile situations. It does not, therefore, deviate from a ‘clearer rationality’ but operates consistently with the balanced experience of living creatures, who actively orient themselves in the world to survive. Perception is part of this action, itself a means of exploration dependent on organismic movement.

To perceive we need to move our heads, our eyes, our muscles, and our limbs: we squint to perceive a distant face and feel the smooth handles of our mugs with our fingers. Our senses allow us to explore the boundaries of the things in the world using our bodies configured as they are and in doing so cultivate particular sensorimotor patterns; a term derived from the sensorimotor theory of perceptual consciousness, which aims to explain the nature of phenomenal experience (e.g., the feeling of textural ‘roughness’). Representational accounts have historically faced an explanatory gap when attending to phenomenology, otherwise called the hard problem of consciousness.

For example, how might the association between states of the visual cortex and the experience of ‘redness’ in consciousness be explained? The link is immediately obscured by the clashing vocabularies used to describe neurological and subjective aspects of experience, resulting in apparent absurdity. Sensorimotor theory (ST) alternatively incorporates sensorimotor patterns that shape our engagement with the environment to explain subjectivity. Because experience itself always implies some form of bodily-environmental engagement, ST accounts for phenomenological experiences with the application of particular sensorimotor capacities. To illustrate, the feeling of a soft sponge has been traditionally described solely in terms of brain-bound processes while ST would recruit the ‘softness’ of the sponge, referring to the way it is being squeezed and thereby incorporating bodily engagement as a vital explanatory aspect of sensory experience.

By continually acting within the world, living organisms become naturally attuned to their sensorimotor regularities, which are necessarily shaped by the nature of their bodies. My laptop offers me a range of action possibilities (e.g., typing, speaking) highly distinct from those offered to my cat (e.g., sitting, destroying). Perception in this sense is action-oriented in that in objects we perceive affordances: possibilities of action afforded by a given object. Such affordances are motivated by current concerns: if an organism is hungry, it will likely attend to affordances that involve eating. The demands and shapes of our bodies thus motivate and physically delineate respective possibilities of action, placing organisms of distinctive bodies in distinctive.  

For humans of course, sense-making is not exclusively or even emphatically focused on biological necessity. It has been distinguished between basic and evaluative sense-making in this respect. Basic sense-making is based on biological survival and fully immersed in the present moment, predominantly underlying the agency of most non-human animals. Evaluative sense-making depends on the capacity to transcend the present, as the consciousness of humans normally does. Consequently, we inhabit a socio-cultural world of values such as courtesy, dignity, and friendship. Sense-making is thus not necessarily based on mere survival, but rather, on living a ‘good life’ in accordance with a particular socio-cultural context when applicable. 

To conclude this overview, since the publication of ‘The Embodied Mind’ three distinct branches of enactive theorising have been identified: 

• Autopoietic enactivism as we have mainly outlined, focuses on the project of grounding cognition in embodied organisms, positing a necessary relationship between consciousness and the biodynamics of living beings. 

• Sensorimotor enactivism usually aims to account for perceptual and intentional aspects of experience and largely downplays the emphasis on life-mind continuity, and coupling of organism and environment. 

• Radical enactivism is characterized by its goal of improving and unifying antirepresentationalist approaches to cognition consistent with sensorimotor and autopoietic enactivism.

Though the term ‘enactivism’ does then refer to diverse accounts or projects, these apply in the context of a shared conception of cognition as emergent from our “engaged, bodily lives”. It is an alternative to the popular conception of the mind as linear, representational, or purely neurological and posits mindedness as dependent on the brain, body, and world. Enactive explanations of agency thus emphasize the environmental and social attunement required of living beings; how these aspects are more precisely managed on the basis of enactivism.

__Maturana H, Varela F (1980) Autopoiesis and cognition: the
realization of the living
. Reidel, Boston

__O’Neill, S. S. (2021). Enactivism and Correctional Science: An Analysis of Forensic Treatment of Agency in a Neoliberal Climate (Doctoral dissertation, Open Access Victoria University of Wellington| Te Herenga Waka). Retrieved from Google Scholar.

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