Sentient beings are not understood as heteronomous, mechanical input-output systems, but rather as dynamic, autonomous systems that regulate their ongoing coupling with the environment. Autonomous systems, then, involve emergent processes. As Thompson describes, “An emergent process belongs to an ensemble or network of elements, arises spontaneously or self-organizes from the locally defined and globally constrained or controlled interactions of those elements, and does not belong to a single element” (Thompson, 2007, 60).
Emergent processes, and the systems in which they arise, exhibit two forms of determination. Local-to-global determination involves the emergence of novel macro-level processes and structures based on changes in the system components and relations. Global to-local determination involves macro-level processes and structures constraining local interactions. Thus, self-organizing systems display circular causality: local interactions give rise to global patterns or order, while the global order constrains the local interactions (Haken, 2004).
The type of self-production and self-maintenance found in living systems goes beyond the type of self-organization seen in non living systems. A Bénard cell, as a dissipative system, will display self-organization and self maintenance to a degree, but the key boundary conditions that keep the system away from equilibrium are exogenous.
In contrast, in truly autonomous systems, “the constraints that actually guide energy/matter flows from the environment through the constitutive processes of the system are endogenously created and maintained” (Ruiz-Mirazo and Moreno, 2004, 238). Thus the degree of autonomy found in living beings is, according to the enactive approach, a form of dynamic co-emergence.
Dynamic co-emergence best describes the sort of emergence we see in autonomy. In an autonomous system, the whole not only arises from the (organizational closure of the) parts, but the parts also arise from the whole. The whole is constituted by the relations of the parts, and the parts are constituted by the relations they bear to one another in the whole. Hence, the parts do not exist in advance, prior to the whole, as independent entities that retain their identity in the whole. Rather, part and whole co-emerge and mutually specify each other (Thompson, 2007, 65).
The enactive account of human intersubjectivity [essentially] rests on two central ideas:
The first idea is that self and other enact each other reciprocally through empathy. One’s consciousness of oneself as a bodily subject in the world presupposes a certain empathic understanding of self and other.
The second idea is that human subjectivity emerges from developmental processes of enculturation and is configured by the distributed cognitive web of symbolic culture. For these reasons, human subjectivity is from the outset intersubjectivity, and no mind is an island (Thompson, 2007, 382-383).
A reclamation of embodiment and subjectivity involves changing the social landscape— including harmful values, enforced embodied practices, and incorporated oppression—that produce damaged subjects. While we typically consider social change in terms of a modification of law or social policies, this method is limited if not also accompanied by a concurrent change in embodied attitudes and practices.
In line with Meyers, we argue that, “corporeally attuned strategies are pivotal to emancipatory transformation” (Meyers, 2004, 86). This focus on corporeally attuned strategies, or, in the words of enactivism, embodied and embedded strategies, is bolstered by our cross-disciplinary analysis. The enactivist analysis enables us to articulate forms of liberation from oppressive socio-cultural patterns in ways that go beyond merely envisioning such possibilities to actualizing them.
Social change needs also to be enacted at the ground level—in the embodied values, affective engagements, and activities we assume. Thus, recognizing the extent to which social meaning and value is encoded in the body, that is, the way (even social) sense-making is constitutively embodied, can contribute to the emergence of new domains of truly participatory sense-making and flourishing.