FROESE & DI PAOLO (2011) – The enactive approach: theoretical sketches from cell to society


FROESE, Tom. DI PAOLO, Ezequiel A. The enactive approach: theoretical sketches from cell to society. Pragmatics & Cognition v.19, n.1, p.1-36, 2011.


  • The framework of the enactive approach is centered on a core set of ideas, such as autonomy, sense-making, emergence, embodiment, and experience. p.1
  • A new operational definition of social interaction is proposed which not only emphasizes the cognitive agency of the individuals and the irreducibility of the interaction process itself, but also the need for jointly co-regulated action. It is suggested that this revised conception of ‘socio-cognitive interaction’ may provide the necessary middle ground from which to understand the confluence of biological and cultural values in personal action. p.1
  • Of course, the enactive approach is still a very young research program, and certainly no claims of relative completeness can yet be made. p.2
  • The enactive approach was initially conceived as an embodied and phenomenologically informed alternative to mainstream cognitive science (Varela et al. 1991). p.2
  • What is meaning and where does it come from? What defines cognition? What is the relationship between life and mind? What defines agency? What is special about social forms of interaction? What is the role of culture for human consciousness? p.2
  • In other words, it is because the enactive approach starts with the concept of autonomy in embodied systems that it can speak about the non-mysterious emergence of non-reducible domains of activity, which are typically associated with qualitative shifts in experience. This  re-enchantment of the concrete (Varela 1995) is the common denominator of the enactive approach, and it does not matter whether this approach is employed to investigate social, individual, or sub-individual phenomena. p.3
  • Even a discussion of the biological foundations of minimal agency cannot ignore how it is possible for metabolic values to give rise to detrimental but selfsustaining behavioral patterns (habits), or the way in which arbitrary socio-cultural norms can shape our metabolic constitution (Di Paolo 2009c). p.3
  • The term ‘agency’ refers to the ability of an autonomous system to achieve adaptation not only via internal re-organization, but also by adaptive regulation of its sensorimotor interactions. p.4
  • The notion of agency is introduced as the most basic form of autonomous existence that can become part of a multi-agent system, namely a system in which the relational dynamics of inter-individual interactions can themselves take on an autonomous organization. p.5
  • adaptive autonomy is the minimal form of life, and that living is essentially a process of sense-making. p.5

Biological autonomy: Identity, asymmetry, and normativity

  • Arguably the most foundational concept of the entire enactive approach is the notion of autonomy. This notion can be traced back to the seminal work of the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela who proposed a description of the minimal organization of living systems, called autopoiesis, by reflecting on the metabolic self-production of single-cell organisms (Varela et al. 1974; Maturana and Varela 1987). p.5-6
  • We shall say that autonomous systems are organizationally closed. That is, their organization is characterized by processes such that
  1. the processes are related as a network, so that they recursively depend on each other in the generation and realization of the processes themselves, and
  2. they constitute the system as a unity recognizable in the space (domain) in which the processes exist (Varela 1979: 55). p.6
  • This definition of autonomy as organizational closure applies to living systems, such as single-cell and multi-cellular organisms, but moreover to a whole host of other systems such as the immune system, the nervous system, and even to social systems (Varela 1991). The self-reference inherent in the process of self-production, which forms the core of this definition of autonomy, has important implications: it allows us to talk about the interrelated notions of identity, precariousness, and the enaction of a meaningful world for the autonomous system.  p.6
  • Without the autonomy afforded by organizational closure the system is incapable of defining its own identity as an individual; it remains an externally defined collection of components that we have merely chosen to designate as an ‘agent’ by convention. An autonomous system, on the other hand, is organized in such a way that its activity is both the ‘cause and effect’ of its own autonomous organization; in other words, its activity depends on organizational constraints, which are in turn regenerated by the activity itself. This gives it an essentially self-constituted identity because its own generative activity demarks what is to count as part of the system and what belongs to the environment.
  • In sum, when we are referring to na autonomous system we are referring to a system composed of several processes that actively generate and sustain their systemic identity under precarious conditions. p.7
  • Since autonomous systems bring forth their own identity by actively demarcating the boundary between ‘self ’ and ‘other’ during their ongoing self-production, it follows that they also actively and autonomously determine their domain of possible interactions, i.e., the potential manners in which the system can relate to its environment without ceasing to persist. p.7
  • This process of meaning generation in relation to the concerned perspective of the autonomous system is what is meant by the notion of sense-making (Weber and Varela 2002). It is important to note that the significance which is continuously brought forth by the endogenous activity of the autonomous system is what makes the lived world, as it appears from the perspective of that system, distinct from its physical environment, as it can be distinguished by an external observer (Varela 1997). In sum, sense-making is the enaction of a meaningful world by an autonomous system.(note 3 – Note that the notion of sense-making could serve to formulate a partial response to the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness because it is supposed to account for the lived quality of being-there, i.e., that there is ‘something it is like to be’ that system. Of course, a full response would need more unpacking, including a deeper appreciation of the first-person perspective (e.g., Hanna and Thompson 2003). Still, what should be clear already is that in this respect the enactive approach differs significantly from a mere sensorimotor approach: the former begins with an account of meaningful situatedness in terms of the enacted world as a totality, whereas the latter is only concerned with establishing why there is a differentiation in perceptual quality according to sensorimotor contingencies. It is doubtful, however, whether the concept of worldhood can be recovered from this latter position because a mere summation of distinct qualities does not by itself constitute a meaningful totality. Of course, the enactive approach must still explain how such a totality, once brought into existence, could become differentiated.) p.7
  • The enactive approach to autonomy and sense-making entails that meaning is not to be found in the external environment or in the internal dynamics of the system. Instead, meaning is an aspect of the relational domain established between the two. It depends on the specific mode of co-determination that each autonomous system realizes with its environment, and accordingly different modes of structural coupling will give rise to different meanings. However, it is important to note that the claim that meaning is grounded in such relations does not entail that meaning can be reduced to those relational phenomena. p.7
  • in order for an autopoietic system to actively improve its current situation, it must (i) be capable of determining how the ongoing structural changes are shaping its trajectory within the viability set, and (ii) have the capacity to regulate the conditions of this trajectory appropriately. These two criteria are provided by the property of adaptivity. Similar to the case of robustness, the notion of adaptivity also implies that the autonomous system can tolerate a range of internal and external perturbations. p.8-9
  • The adaptive regulation is an achievement of the autonomous system’s internally generated activity rather than merely something that is simply undergone by it. It is therefore appropriate to consider adaptive autonomy as the most basic form of life, and sense-making as the most basic process of living (Thompson 2004). A living being does not only determine its own possible domain of interactions, as is the case for any kind of autonomous system, it also actualizes this domain of possibilities in a meaningful manner by means of adaptive behavior. p.9
  • Barandiaran, Di Paolo, and Rohde (2009) identify three conditions that a system must meet in order to be considered as a genuine agent: (i) a system must define its own individuality (identity), (ii) it must be the active source of activity in relation to its environment (interaction asymmetry), and (iii) it must regulate this activity in relation to certain norms (normativity). Accordingly, they put forward a definition of agency which holds that an agent is an autonomous system that adaptively regulates its interaction with its environment and thereby makes a necessary contribution to sustaining itself under precarious conditions. How does agency differ from adaptive autonomy? p.9-10
  • It is only when the mechanisms of regulation operate by modulating structural coupling, such that adaptation is achieved through recursive interactions with the environment (interactive adaptivity), that we speak of adaptive agency. p.10
  • In the case of a solitary embodied agent the sensory stimulation of the agent is largely determined by its own structure and movements, thus giving rise to a closed sensorimotor loop. This closed loop makes it possible for the agent to engage in sensorimotor coordination so as to structure its own perceptual space (see Pfeifer and Scheier 1999: 377–434). However, in the case where two adaptive agents share an environment, one agent’s movements can affect that environment in such a way that this results in changes of sensory stimulation for the other agent, and vice versa. Moreover, when these changes in stimulation for one agent in turn lead to changes in its movement that change the stimulation for the other agent, and so forth in a way that recursively sustains this mutual interaction, the emergent result is a special configuration of coordinated behavior. More precisely, the inter-individual interaction process itself can now be characterized as being na autonomous structure in the relational domain that is constituted by the interacting agents (De Jaegher and Di Paolo 2007). p.11-12
  • In fact, since the theoretical framework of the enactive approach is an extension of general systems theory, its insights are not limited to the concrete domain from which they were originally derived. Even some properties of thesocial interaction between human beings can be accounted for in terms of a multiagent system. p.14
  • multi-agent systems can be a potent source of interactive scaffolding. p.16
  • A simple multi-agent system might not provide as much scaffolding as a well developed social interaction, yet the effects of either kind of interaction process are similarly irreducible to individual capacities alone, and either can significantly shape an individual’s behavioral domain (De Jaegher and Froese 2009). p.16
  • The operational definition of multi-agent system has provided us with a general systemic way of characterizing interactions between adaptive agents that result in the emergence of autonomous structures in their own right. Moreover, a multiagent system can radically alter the behavioral domains of the interactors in terms of its own normativity, either in accordance with or despite of the goals of those individuals. However, in many contexts as it stands the notion of a multi-agent interaction is too broad to capture what is specific about social interactions. p.16
  • The meaning of sense-making and adaptive behavior is strictly related to the viability range of the autonomous identity by which they are enacted. This limits the adaptive organism’s normativity to self-related values that are based on the individual’s metabolic requirements alone. However, in order to make sense of another agent as another agent it is a necessary for there to be a capacity of sense-making based on non-metabolic other-related values: the presence of the other agent must be perceivable as a foreign locus of goal-directed behavior, i.e., as another self with its own self-related values.8 The necessary conditions for adaptive agency are by themselves not sufficient to accomplish such a decentralization of significance. p.16-17
  • failure to regulate a social interaction does not necessarily imply a direct failure of self-maintenance and metabolic self-production. The values governing the unfolding of social interactions preserve a relative independence with regard to the norms of physical realization and regeneration. However, for an adaptive agent the constitution of relatively independent norms for social purposes is impossible because its capacity for regulating its interactions is, while partially decoupled from constructive processes, still too closely tied to its own metabolic existence. To be sure, the realization of the norms that are constitutive of its regulatory activity can be constrained by the autonomous dynamics of a multi-agent system, but they cannot be simply transformed into specifically social norms because their success is largely determined by basic energetic and material needs. p.17
  • in our bodies there are several such partially decoupled systems, the most famous being the immune system and the nervous system. Both of themare involved in making self-other distinctions in their own way (Varela 1991). But it is the nervous system which is of special interest to us here, because it governs the sensorimotor interactions which are essential for social interaction. Moreover, the nervous system also enables the emergence of autonomous dynamics that are relatively decoupled from metabolic processes such that the regulation of sensorimotor behavior is freed from the strict confines of self-related normativity and can instead be about something other. We argue that this kind of other-related ‘aboutness’ or mentality is a prerequisite to sociality: only a cognitive agent can be a social agent. p.17
  • Ultimately, the process of cognition must be flexible enough so that it can be shaped into abstract thought, the phenomenon which has been the target of investigation by the mainstream cognitive sciences. p.18
  • Barandiaran and Moreno (2006, 2008) who have been refining the biological foundations of the enactive approach so as to better account for what is unique about cognition. Effectively, they have focused on the relative independence of the operation of the nervous system with regard to the rest of the living body as the basis for the emergence of a novel domain of autonomous structures. They argue that cognition consists in the adaptive preservation of a dynamical network of autonomous sensorimotor structures sustained by continuous interactions with the environment and the body. More precisely:
    • The hierarchical decoupling achieved through the electrochemical functioning of neural interactions and their capacity to establish a highly connected and nonlinear network of interactions provides a dynamic domain with open-ended potentialities, not limited by the possibility of interference with basic metabolic processes (unlike diffusion processes in unicellular systems and plants). It is precisely the open-ended capacity of this high-dimensional domain that opens the door to spatial and temporal self-organization in neural dynamics and generates an extremely rich dynamic domain mediating the interactive cycle, overcoming some limitations of previous sensorimotor control systems (Barandiaran and Moreno 2008: 338).
  • A paradigmatic example of such autonomous structures are habits, which encompass partial aspects of the nervous system, physiological and structural systems of the body, and patterns of behavior and processes in the environment (Di Paolo 2003). p.18
  • Only an agent that is capable of regulating its sensorimotor cycles in this non-metabolic manner can be characterized by a form of cognitive agency. p.18
  • Cognition is the regulated sensorimotor coupling between a cognitive agent and its environment, where the regulation is aimed at aspects of the coupling itself so that it constitutes an emergent autonomous organization in the domains of internal and relational dynamics, without destroying in the process the agency of that agent (though the latter’s scope can be augmented or reduced).  (Barandiaran and Moreno 2008). p.18
  • Nevertheless, the behavioral domain of adaptive agents is severely limited because the regulatory goals are largely determined by metabolic needs, rather than by the activity that is generated via sensorimotor interaction and within the adaptive mechanism itself. Cognition, on the other hand, is based on an almost open-ended domain of potential behavior. It only becomes possible when the bulk of adaptive mechanisms are hierarchically decoupled from the rest of the living body in such a way that novel autonomous structures can arise via recurrent dynamics (cf. Barandiaran and Moreno 2006: 180). p.18
  • Thus, only a cognitive agent can give rise to a social domain that is defined by its own specific normativity. p.18
  • If regulation of social coupling takes place through coordination of movements, and if movements — including utterances — are the tools of sense-making, then our proposal is: social agents can coordinate their sense-making in social encounters. […] This is what we call participatory sense-making: the coordination of intentional activity in interaction, whereby individual sense-making processes are affected and new domains of social sense-making can be generated that were not available to each individual on her own. De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007: 497) p.21
  • Nevertheless, even though new and otherwise unattainable domains of sense-making can be opened up in this mutually interactive manner, thereby establishing participatory forms of sense-making, they do not necessarily involve any sense of the other agent as such. This is the case, for instance, in bacterial colonies, ecosystems, and even in much of our globalized culture. We can only buy a book online because we are embedded in an extensive multi-agent system, but all the underlying coordination and interaction is actually anonymous and hidden from view. An individual’s interaction with a shopping website is not a social experience. The enaction of social quality in relation to others requires a special form of participatory sense-making, namely social cognition: regulated sensorimotor coordination whereby the other is recognized as such. p.21
  • In essence, in order for the social action to be completed successfully, it requires acceptance from the other agent. p.22
  • The regulation involved in social interaction between cognitive agents is indeed of a special kind: one cognitive agent’s regulation of interaction creates an opening for an action that can only be realized through the complementary regulation of interaction by another. In other words, social interaction between cognitive agents is realized by the coordination of regulation of mutual interaction whereby the success of regulation essentially depends on appropriate coordination. p.23
  • Socio-cognitive interaction is the co-regulated sensorimotor coupling between at least two cognitive agents, whereby the regulation of each agent is aimed at aspects of the mutual coupling itself such that:
  1. A new autonomous organization emerges from the interaction process spanning at least two internal and a shared relational domain of dynamics, and
  2. The cognitive agency of at least two of the individuals is not destroyed in the process (though their scope can be augmented or reduced), and
  3. A cognitive agent’s regulation of sensorimotor coupling is complemented by the coordinated regulation of at least one other cognitive agent. p.23
  • The essential factor is that the unfolding of the sensorimotor interaction is co-regulated, because it is this interactively coordinated regulation of interaction that imbues the situation with a social quality (Froese 2009: 69–70; De Jaegher et al. 2010). p.23
  • In the previous section we have suggested that what used to be the foundational problem of social cognition, i.e., the so-called problem of other minds, can be dissolved once we realize that the ‘self-other’ distinction can crystallize out of the mutual interactions in a multi-agent system. In other words, it turns out that individuation and socialization are essentially two complementary sides of the same developmental coin. One crucial aspect of this proposal, which we have neglected so far, is the constitutive role of culture. p.25
  • An important problem that still remains for the enactive approach is to explain how an agent capable of socio-cognitive interaction is turned into one capable of socio-cultural interaction by being shaped by ‘external’ cultural values. How can we account for the incorporation of heteronomous norms? How does common sense arise out of participatory sense-making? p.27
  • If we want to know how culture can continue to shape our behavior even outside of an immediate social context, then we first need to better understand how an agent involved in a socio-cognitive interaction, faced with the heteronomy of another agent and the heteronomy of the interaction process itself, can undergo a change in behavior that we would call learning. There is also the question of pedagogy which needs to be addressed. One case of socio-cultural interaction that especially deserves further consideration in this regard is the acquisition of language. p.27
  • A final question to consider is whether the constitutive impact of cultural values is not a problem for the enactive approach. Do we not have to provide a biological foundation for these values? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that these values can only exist for certain kinds of sense-making agents, and these agents are biological in that they are alive (autonomous and adaptive). No, in the sense that this is not a reduction of cultural values to their biological conditions of possibility; the socio-cultural domain retains its own relatively independent autonomy. As such, the emergence of the heteronomy of culture is the appearance of another discontinuity in the system of discontinuities which constitutes life, mind, and sociality. More specifically, a coherence of discourse is preserved because the heteronomy of culture turns out to be mutually interdependent with the heteronomy of sociality, and the same conceptual framework of autonomy that forms the foundation of the enactive approach is applicable to both. p.28
  • It is already clear that, like the previous transitions along the ‘life-mind continuity’, a cognitive agent’s entrance into a cultural domain is both enabling and constraining. It is constraining because taking part in shared practices requires the alignment of an individual’s autonomy with a pre-established normativity. But despite this constraining, or rather because of it, there is also an expansion of possibilities. A good example of this is play, the freedom of which lies in a players’ capability to create new meaningful constraints by which it can steer its sensemaking activity and set new laws for itself and others to follow (Di Paolo et al. 2011). Moreover, by inaugurating a historical trace of shared individual and social practices that can go beyond an individual’s lifetime, cultural interaction provides the foundation for cumulatively building on previous more or less viable ways of living. This is important because every increase of autonomy also has the effect of an increase in arbitrariness, which tradition helps us to fill in a meaningful way. p.28
  • In conclusion, this paper has demonstrated that the enactive approach has the potential to constitute one systematic theoretical framework that retains its conceptual continuity from life to mind and from cell to society. p.30
  • (Note 5) Here we have another crucial difference between the enactive approach and the sensorimotor approach: the former attempts to provide operational criteria to distinguish between mere physical change (e.g., your hair moving in the wind), living (e.g., your body regulating internal temperature), and behavior or action (e.g., walking home). Moreover, both living and action are forms of sense-making, so they are inherently meaningful, with their lived quality depending on the particular form of regulation. The sensorimotor approach, on the other hand, lacks a proper definition of action, even despite its insistence on the role of ‘action in perception’ (e.g., Noë 2004). This is a significant shortcoming because this insistence on the role of embodied action is what essentially distinguishes it from Gibson’s ecological sensorimotor approach to perception (Mossio and Taraborelli 2008). p.31

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