NOË (2000) – Experience and experiment in art


NOË, Alva. Experience and experiment in art. Journal of Consciousness Studies, v.7, n.8–9, p.123–35, 2000.

  • The central thought of this paper is that art can make a needed contribution to the study of perceptual consciousness. The work of some artists can teach us about perceptual consciousness by furnishing us with the opportunity to have a special kind of reflective experience. In this way, art can be a tool for phenomenological investigation. p.123
  • experience as a mode of interactive engagement with the environment p.124
  • What matters is not how the world is, but how it presents itself to us in experience. p.124
  • For to capture in a picture how the world presents itself to us in experience — to make a picture of how things truly appear — is just to make a picture of that which is experienced, of that which appears, namely the world. The subject matter of art-making, then, is not experience itself, but the experienced world, and so art must direct itself to the world.  p.124
  • When we try to make perceptual experience itself the object of our reflection, we tend to see through it (so to speak) to the objects of experience. We encounter what is seen, not the qualities of the seeing itself.  p.124
  • To describe experience is to describe the experienced world. And so experience is, in this sense, transparent. p.125
  • The transparency of experience, it should be clear, poses a problem for any attempt to make perceptual experience itself the object of investigation in the way that has interested philosophers. But it is important to recognize that this problem of transparency arises no less for the empirical (psychological, neuroscientific) study of consciousness.  p.126
  • The puzzle of the transparency of experience results from thinking of experiences as like inner pictures and from thinking of reflection on experience as like turning one’s gaze inward to those pictures. But this is a false characterization of experience. In experience we are aware not of inner pictures, but of the things around us in the environment.  p.126
  • Consider an example from touch that illustrates this established problematic.(6) Suppose you hold a bottle in your hands with your eyes shut. You feel it. You have the feeling of the presence of the whole bottle even though you only make finger-to-bottle contact at a few points. The standard account of this phenomenon proposes that the brain takes the little information it receives (at the isolated points of contact) and uses it to build up an internal model of the bottle (one capable of supporting the experience).
  • But consider: this positing of a process of construction of an internal representation may be an unnecessary shuffle. For the bottle is right there, in your hands, to be probed as occasion arises. Why should the brain build models of the environment if the environment is present and so can serve as its own model, as an external but accessible repository for information (as has been argued by Brooks, 1991; O’Regan, 1992)? p.127
  • The basis, then, of the feeling of perceptual presence of the bottle is just this skill-based confidence that you can acquire the information at will by probing the world (O’Regan, 1992; O’Regan and Noë, under review). p.128
  • The upshot of this discussion is that perceptual experience, in whatever sensory modality, is a temporally extended process of exploration of the environment on the part of an embodied animal. This is the key that unlocks the puzzle of transparency and so the problem of phenomenology. If perceptual experience is in fact a temporally extended process, then to investigate experience we need to turn our gaze not inward, but rather to the activity itself in which this temporally extended process consists, to the things we do as we explore the world. p.128
  • I now propose that to study some works of art is to undertake precisely this sort of investigation. The study of such works of art can serve as a model of how to study experience and can also reveal how art can be, in the sense of Irwin’s quote given at the outset, not only concerned with the making of objects, but more significantly with the investigation of perceptual consciousness. p.128
  • What I shall argue is that Serra’s work (and also the work of these other artists) enables us to catch ourselves in the act of perceiving and can allow us thus to catch hold of the fact that experience is not a passive interior state, but a mode of active engagement with the world. p.128
  • The process of exploring the piece is a process of exploring the place. It is likewise a process by which we come to understand how experience can be, in this way, a form of openness to the environment. In light of the foregoing discussion of perceptual experience as a mode of active exploration of the world, it should be clear that the process of exploring the art work (and thus the environment in which it is situated), is at once a process of exploring one’s experience of the world. And the knowledge one thus attains is knowledge of the character of one’s experience. p.132
  • Perceptual experience is transparent to the world precisely  because experience is an activity of engagement with the world. To attend to the exploration of the world is thus to attend to the quality of experience. p.132-33
  • Dance improvisation is a first-person phenomenological investigation.


Artigo na íntegra


Prof. Harry Heft – The ecological approach to perception & action

The ecological approach to perception & action
Prof. Harry Heft, Psychology, Denison University

Presentation at the Enaction School conference series in 2010 at Mary Immaculate College, Ireland.

Prof. Heft deftly leads an audience through the arguments needed to understand the key insights and principles behind direct realism (aka ecological realism) and the ecological approach to perception as developed by Gibson and colleagues. Many important issues to the ecological approach are addressed and include the distinction between sensation and perception, information and relations, optic flow, and the importance of action for revealing the information for perception. Importantly, Heft develops the idea of information as fundamentally relational rather than “out there” (an oft-repeated misunderstanding).

Ecological psychology refers to the theoretical approach and research program in perceptual psychology developed by James J. Gibson beginning in the late 1950s and most fully articulated by the 1970s. The empirical discoveries and conceptual insights that led to the ecological approach to perception were proposed to address recurring shortcomings in the conventional formulation of perception that held sway in philosophy and then psychology for centuries. Any explanation of perceiving must offer an account of why individuals experience the world as it appears. The traditional view adopts a mechanistic “causal theory” of perception, which claims that physical energies (e.g., light) are imposed on the sensory receptors of a passive perceiver, giving rise to elementary, discrete sensations. From this starting point, nonperceptual processes (e.g., memory, inference) intervene to organize the neural products of sensation into the forms and patterns that constitute the perceived environment. For this reason, experience of the environment is assumed to be indirect. What one experiences immediately is not the environment itself but rather a mental construction of it built upon limited sensory stimulation—a position called indirect realism. In contrast, the ecological approach to perception attempts to provide grounds for direct realism. Research and theory within this tradition provide both empirical support and theoretical grounds for the long dismissed claim that the environment is directly perceived without mediation from nonperceptual processes.

The approach begins with a dual focus on (a) the nature of the environment to be perceived (the econiche to which organisms have adapted) and (b) the perception-action processes that have developed through phylogenesis and ontogenesis to facilitate the detection of the environment’s functionally significant properties (affordances).

In the case of vision, ecological psychology offers a rich account of the available higher-order, informational structures at an ecological level of analysis that are available to be perceived by individuals. Perception-action processes operate in the context of an information-rich environment; and while individuals may differ with regard to which information they detect, perceiving can be lawfully tied to specifiable information from an interpersonally shared world. Complementing this program is Eleanor Gibson’s ecological approach to perceptual learning and development. Following on the heels of the work of the Gibsons, psychological scientists have been explicating this approach over the ensuing decades, designing research to test its claims and developing the program in new ways. Recent decades has seen extensions of Gibson’s ecological psychology writings in several directions. Some have broadened ecological psychology’s foundations by examining it more fully in the light of biological, evolutionary thinking and sociocultural processes. Rich connections have also been drawn between ecological psychology and dynamical systems models of explanation, especially in the domain of developmental processes. Notably, Neo-Gibsonians at the Connecticut school of ecological psychology have been working fruitfully to formalize several theoretical aspects of ecological psychology, in part, by drawing on considerations of motor dynamics and the thermodynamics of physical systems.
Heft, H., & Richardson, M. (2013). “Ecological Psychology.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Psychology. Ed. Dana S Dunn. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ecological Psychology – Nonrepresentational Perception and Action

Michael Turvey ~ Ecological Psychology – Nonrepresentational Perception and Action
How should the perception and action capabilities of biological systems be understood?
Prof. Michael Turvey – Centre for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action, University of Connecticut
Society for Quantitative Analysis of Behaviour, May, 1999.

A discussion of the ecological approach to perception and action, illustrated by coordination asymmetries, resonance constraints on rhythmic movement, haptic perception, simplicity from complexity, and the awareness of the body by way of movement. Following an exploration of the emerging concept of “complexity”, emphasis is placed on the elementary coordination synergy – the best way to understand “synchronicity” in biological systems.

Life and movement

How does the study of evolution, coordination dynamics, sports, social interactions, and aesthetics help us understand movement and life? In this roundtable, we will explore: movement and objects as distinctively different “things” to study; coordination dynamics and intrinsic dynamics and tendencies; kinesthesia; the evolution of social coordination; how, in the living company of others, we are both challenged and supported; and the value of nurturing and pursuing a moving life with all its risks and challenges.
A well-balanced round-table discussion organised by the amazing 82-year old philosopher Prof. Sheets-Johnstone in which Prof. Kelso gets things moving around with an example of infant perception-action coordination. Wide-reaching discussion of movement follows, especially on the “motion in emotion”, and how a proper understanding of synergy might help with that.

The Helix Center for Interdisciplinary Investigation
of the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute

Friday, October 26th, 2013

Linnda Caporael
Jesús Ilundáin-Agurruza
J. A. Scott Kelso
Maxine Sheets-Johnstone

SHEETS-JOHNSTONE (2009) – Animation: the fundamental, essential, and properly descriptive concept


SHEETS-JOHNSTONE, Maxine. Animation: the fundamental, essential, and properly descriptive concept. Continental Philosophy Review, v.42, n.3, p.375-400, 2009.

  • Everything living is animated. Flowers turn toward the sun; pill bugs curl into spheres; lambs rise on untried legs, finding their way into patterned coordinations. The phenomenon of movement testifies to animation as the foundational dimension of the living. p.375
  • Animation encapsulates what is fundamental to life, the vibrant and spirited way living creatures come into the world and the vibrant and spirited way that is gone when they die; it engenders dynamics, the essence of life in all its varied and vital kinetic contours; it articulates in an exacting linguistic sense the living wholeness of animate forms and is thus properly descriptive of life itself. What is fundamental is that we are indeed animate forms of life, and as such, are necessarily and from the beginning subjects of a world, an Umwelt in von Uexku¨ll’s sense. The dynamics essential to our progressive sense-makings of ourselves and of the world are intrinsic to and inherent in our primal animation and in our being the particular animate forms we are. p.376

Basic realities of affectivity

  • Affectivity is a staple of life. In the most rudimentary sense, it is what motivates creatures to approach or avoid. In this sense, it is one aspect of what is biologically specified as a defining feature of life, namely, ‘responsivity’(Curtis, 1975) a feature affectively characterizable as interest or aversion, hence as movement toward or away from something in the environment. (Schneirla, 1959). As empirically and phenomenologically shown elsewhere, there is a dynamic congruency of affectivity and movement in the everyday lives of animate forms.(Sheets-Johnstone, 1999a, 2006). p.376
  • In the ordinary course of everyday human life, the affective and the kinetic are clearly dynamically congruent; emotion and movement coincide. If they did not normally coincide, there would be no possibility of feigning by kinetically enacting emotional dynamics. The word enacting is precisely correct in this instance, for it is a matter of putting something into a form of a specified kind, in this instance, a kinetic form, which means going through the motions of X, that is, putting a non-felt feeling into a performance, as in, for example, shaking hands with, and smiling at someone whom one actually detests. Grammatically, the word ‘enact’, as the etymology of its prefix indicates, means ‘‘to bring [something] into a certain condition or state,’’ precisely as in the word’s common usage: ‘to make into a law’. p.377
  • (note 10) Varela et al. (1991). The word enaction as defined originally by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch reads: ‘‘We propose as a name the term enactive to emphasize the growing conviction that cognition is not the representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs’’ (Ibid., p. 9). p.377
  • Indeed, the affective quiverings, tensions, lightnesses, shudderings, pressures, constrictions, extensions, heavinesses, and so on, that one feels in a thoroughly corporeal sense in anger, anticipation, compassion, worry, and shame, for example, are ongoing dynamic affective happenings. Hence, whatever the dynamic stirrings and informings, they are qualitatively distinct, which means they have a formally recognizable bodily-felt character. p.379
  • In sum, we are first and foremost animate beings who, in being animate, are alive to our animateness, which is to say that whatever affects us moves through us, permeating the whole of our being and moving us to move in ways dynamically congruent with the ongoing stirrings and commotions we feel. It might be noted that such understandings of our foundational animation anchor concepts such as pre-reflective self-awareness in the dynamic realities of kinesthesia and the affective/tactile-kinesthetic body. p.379
  • Rather than attending to the emotionally caught up corps engage´ as in the studies above, Thompson’s enactive analysis of emotion is skewed by being set exclusively within the framework of protentions, relying thus heavily on the notion of a movement disposition—‘‘the welling up of an impulse,’’ a ‘‘readiness to action.’’ (Thompson, 2007, pp. 361, 363–364) While that perspective approximates to the fact that emotions move us to move, it does not, as indicated above, elucidate the fact that emotions are themselves dynamic, moving through us in subtle and complex ways. p.380

Primal animation

  • What is missing in Thompson’s account of ‘‘enactive emotion’’ is the basic reality of animation that defines the organism as a whole and that, in defining the whole organism, is the conceptual portal to understanding the dynamics of experience from top to bottom and bottom to top, i.e., in the full sense of animate being. Indeed, the ‘‘primordial dynamism’’ that Thompson takes as the defining nature of ‘‘emotion and valence’’ rests on animation. p.381
  • Patocˇka states, ‘‘Our primary experience of ourselves is … an experience of the primordial dynamism that manifests itself in our awareness of our existence as a moving, active being.’’ (Patocka, 1998 [1968–1969], p. 40). p.381
  • Primal animation, a descriptive term coined and used prior to the discovery of ‘‘primordial dynamism’’ in the writings of Patocka and Thompson, concretely links our sense of aliveness to movement, to kinesthesia and to our tactile-kinesthetic bodies. The descriptive term resonates along the lines of ‘‘primordial dynamism’’ but with the following significant differences: unlike Patocˇka’s ‘‘primordial dynamism,’’ which, ‘‘as we experience it, characterizes the spatiality of our physical presence,’’ (Patocka, 1998 [1968–1969], p. 41) primal animation derives most fundamentally from movement and is thus not simply a spatial but a spatiotemporal-energic phenomenon; analogously, unlike Thompson’s ‘‘primordial dynamism,’’ which is limned exclusively as a temporal phenomenon, notably, a matter of temporal protentions epitomized in emotion as a ‘‘readiness to action,’’ (Thompson, 2007, p 361) primal animation is a spatio-temporal-energic whole, a kinetic liveliness originally in the service of learning our bodies and learning to move ourselves in face of a surrounding world. (Sheets-Johnstone, 1999b, Chap. 5). p.382
  • That we come into the world moving means we are cognitively attuned in a sense making manner discovering ourselves and our surrounding world in and through our affective/tactile-kinesthetic bodies from the very beginning. p.382
  • Primal animation brings with it the most primitive form of consciousness, which is consciousness of one’s own movement, hence ‘‘kinesthetic consciousness.’’ This form of consciousness develops in the womb. Indeed, tactility and kinesthesia are neurologically the primary senses to develop. In a broader sense, this consciousness is a ‘‘kinetic consciousness.’’ It includes a developing consciousness of one’s movement as a three-dimensional happening ‘‘in space’’ and is intimately tied to a basic responsivity to movement in one’s surrounding world, most importantly to a distinction between the animate and the inanimate. p.383
  • Primal animation is furthermore the conceptual corollary of what Scott Kelso fittingly describes as ‘‘intrinsic dynamics,’’ dynamics that define ‘‘coordination tendencies,’’ including both subtending older patterns or habits and spontaneously arising patterns that arise in the formation of a new skill. These tendencies and the patterns themselves are intrinsic in the double sense of defining coordination dynamics at the level of both brain and behavior. p.383
  • A related question naturally arises regarding the thesis that pre-reflective selfawareness requires a nervous system, a thesis bolstered by Thompson’s earlier claim set forth in the context of specifying ‘‘the enactive approach’’ in cognitive science, namely, that ‘‘[t]he nervous system … creates meaning.’’ (53) The idea that meaning is created by the nervous system is rather odd. Oddness aside, we may surely affirm that intact living subjects, not nervous systems, create meaning, and in this context point out that a bacterium is a living subject. It initiates a change in direction because it finds the current environment unsuitable or ‘‘noxious.’’ (54) It is thus not simply counterintuitive but self-contradictory to say that a bacterium is unaware of itself turning away and making a directional change since the turning and change come about through its own self-movement. The lack of a nervous system does not therefore preclude meaning, neither in the sense of ‘‘creating’’ meaning nor in the sense of meaningful movement. (55) Indeed, evolutionary forms of life are living subjects of particular Umwelts, and as such create synergies of meaningful movement, (56) synergies that assure their survival. p.384
  • Of import in this context are the observations of renown physiological psychologist Roger Sperry: not only is the brain an organ of and for coordinated movement,62 but the function of consciousness or subjective experience is coordinated movement.63 The significance of self-movement and the consciousness of self-movement through the entire evolutionary spectrum of self-moving forms of life can hardly be ignored. In short, ‘‘animation of the body’’ is of singular moment to sentience, feeling alive, and consciousness, however much it conflicts with Thompson’s notion of ‘‘immanent purposiveness.’’ p.385
  • The empirical realities of animation are of moment in both an individual and evolutionary sense, and this because the realities naturally engender life, time, and affectivity as well as movement. These four dimensions are not just intimately linked but intermeshed, interwoven one with the other such that any one is not present without the others. (64) The concept of animation, a concept that derives from the realities of animation, is thus understandably a corrective to theoretical-linguistic band-aids, not just the band-aid of ‘‘enactive,’’ as in the awkward notions of ‘‘enactive emotion’’ and ‘‘enactive evolution’’ (65) and the band-aid of ‘‘embodiment,’’ but the band-aid of ‘‘embedding’’ in order that a subject, notably a human, is connected to a ‘‘world.’’ p.386
  • Humans alone, notably modern, present-day ones, languish, ensnared in a subject/world divide. It is no wonder that cognitive scientists and philosophers strive to alleviate their suffering by eradicating the dichotomy. In truth, the problem is one of their own making, a fabrication of thought, making necessary, in today’s cognitive science language, an ‘‘embedding’’ of ‘‘the subject’’ in ‘‘the world,’’ or in the language of some existentialist philosophers, a ‘‘chiasm’’ or intertwining of subject and world. (67) Animation is a corrective to such ‘‘embeddings’’ and ‘‘chiasmatic’’ solutions: it is the mot juste that properly describes living creatures as living and thus necessarily, that is, naturally, in the full sense of nature, links them inseparably to and within a spatio-temporal world distinctive to their ways of living, i.e., to an Umwelt. (68) It bears notice too that animation is of distinctive moment with respect to what is commonly termed ‘‘background consciousness.’’ Any form of life that moves itself—any animate form—knows itself to be moving not because there is a self in the verbal locution but because there is a kinetic consciousness of some kind, a consciousness subserving movement, hence not out of grammatical necessity, but out of biological necessity. Thus if ‘‘homeodynamic regulation of the body’’ is an indication of ‘‘background consciousness,’’69 then surely the motility of bacteria qualifies as ‘‘background consciousness,’’ and this in spite of the fact that background consciousness is aligned with ‘‘dynamic neural activity.’’70 Background consciousness’’ is indeed a perplexing locution, a linguistic camouflage of something needing explicit elucidation by way of empirical facts of life. p.386-87
  • In effect, the affective/tactile-kinesthetic body, the felt body, can hardly be ignored since it is precisely the experiential foundation of ‘‘the fundamental phenomenon of sentience,’’ ‘‘the feeling of being alive,’’ and hence definitive of ‘‘primal’’ or ‘‘core’’ consciousness.’’ In turn, and contrary to Thompson, all sensory modalities cannot be excluded in an elucidation of sentience, ‘‘primal,’’ ‘‘core,’’ or ‘‘background’’ consciousness: kinesthesia and proprioception are foundational from the beginning of life onward. p.387-88
  • Each recent piece of research confirms the need to look at the foundational phenomenon of animation and to wean ourselves away not only from the brain as if it were the oracle at Delphi, but away from a separation of brain from body as if the morphology of nature categorically and axiologically divided us into an elevated top and an inelegant bottom, away too, we might note, from a categorical separation of faculties such that one has virtually to plead the case for a non-separation of cognition and emotion, (Thompson, 2007, p. 371) and finally, away too from a separation of a philosophy of the organism from a philosophy of mind as if one could sever nature, creating a division between living and sentience and hence between living and sensemaking. (Ibid., pp. 236–237; see also Sheets-Johnstone, 2008, Chaps. V and VIII). Indeed, so long as one is wedded to the notion that the human mind–body or body–body problem (Hanna and Thompson, 2003 and Thompson, 2007).) will be solved when we can scientifically determine that ‘‘there is something it is like to be that body,’’ i.e., that body ‘‘whose organizational dynamic processes can become constitutive of a subjective point of view,’’ (Thompson, 2007, p. 237; see also Zahavi, 1999, 2000, 2005) one will remain closed to the dynamic realities of animation that, as indicated earlier, constitute the all-inclusive and spontaneously arising affective, tactile-kinesthetic, sense-making, subject/world nature of human life. p.389
  • Each experience is what it is. The challenge is not to determine scientifically ‘‘what it is like to be that body.’’ The challenge is to language experience, which, to begin with, quintessentially requires phenomenological attention to experience and a concomitant recognition of the fact that language is not experience. p.390
  • That we are first and foremost animate organisms is a truth Husserl consistently recognized. The truth merits highlighting if not accentuating. In his lifelong studies of sense-making—of constitution, be-souling, meaning-bestowing, sedimentations, horizons, protentions, retentions, and more—Husserl wrote not about active—or enactive—organisms; he wrote not about embodied organisms; he wrote not about embedded organisms; he wrote throughout about animate organisms.91 Animation is the ground floor of our being alive in all its affective, perceptual, cognitional, and imaginative guises, stages, practices, and surrounding worlds. In other words, animation grounds the full range of those intricate and varying dynamics that constitute and span the multiple dimensions of our livingness. Moreover it bears emphasizing that animate organisms are subjects of a world. Indeed, animate organisms, being subjects, are never without a surrounding world. p.390
  • In short, Husserl is at pains to underscore the fact that living bodies—animate organisms—are not entities in a vacuum but are kinetically, affectively, thematically— experientially—anchored to and engaged in meaningful ways in a surrounding world, i.e., engaged in synergies of meaningful movement that support their survival. p.391
  • The basic question that needs to be asked is: How is it that ‘doings’ become familiar? The answer is clearly rooted in dynamics, in the qualitative tactile-kinesthetically felt kinetic dynamics of hammering, of brushing one’s teeth, of sweeping, of typing, of playing a Bach prelude, and so on. Familiar dynamics are woven into our bodies and are played out along the lines of our bodies; they are kinesthetic/kinetic melodies in both a neurological and experiential sense. A melody to begin with is a qualitative phenomenon, qualitative in virtue of its spatio-temporal-energic character. p.393
  • When melody is a matter of movement in Luria’s sense—when the melody is being played by oneself, whether a matter of writing one’s name, playing the flute, dancing, brushing one’s teeth, ice skating, or running with the ball—creation and constitution of the kinesthetic/kinetic melody are phenomenologically concurrent. p.393
  • Motors have nothing to do with experience or with animate organisms. The qualitative affective-kinetic dynamics of grief that fold the body inward in spatially contorted and rhythmically writhing ways contrast strikingly with the qualitative affectivekinetic dynamics of joy, for example, that spatially expand the body outward and infuse it in a lightness and buoyancy that are spatially and temporally open-ended. p.395
  • A motorology furthermore precludes recognition of experienced corporeal-kinetic intentionalities that correlate with neurological corporeal-kinetic patternings. Such intentionalities are appropriately specified not in terms of sensorimotor processes but in terms of sensory-kinetic realities. p.396
  • Clearly, kinesthesia and the broader term ‘proprioception’ cannot be transmogrified into forms of ‘action’ or ‘embodiment’, or into a motorology and in any way retain their essential phenomenological qualities, qualities foundational to animate life. Indeed, tactile-kinesthetic invariants ground our basic speciesspecific human repertoire of movement possibilities and undergird our affective social understandings. A first step toward capturing these essential qualities and invariants is recognition of sensory-kinetic bodies, not sensorimotor ones. p.396
  • In sum, actually lived through experiences of emotion and movement that are dynamic through and through and whose dynamics resonate in bodily-felt spatiotemporal-energic experiences warrant full and assiduous attention and languaging. To bring this language to the fore is correlatively to bring a descriptively refined acuity to ‘‘emotion experience’’ such that the dynamics of affect and movement and their congruency that is present from the beginning of human life is manifestly evident. An enactivist approach, in passing over this history, is adultist. It takes familiarity for granted, the familiarity that allows ‘transparency’—a term that might well be qualified as the adult luxury of an ‘‘unreflected absorption’’ in the world—to be realized. We are not born with a ready-made transparency either of ourselves or of the world: we learn our bodies and learn to move ourselves.  In the course of this learning we become familiar with ourselves as animate beings in a surrounding world. We explore ourselves and the world about us and build up habits on the basis of our growing familiarities. We develop a repertoire of ‘I cans’. ‘Transparency’ is not only not a ready-made but is grounded through and through in experience, which itself is grounded in both our evolutionary heritage to explore and make sense of the world and in the actual explorations and discoveries we all made as infants. p.397
  • In contrast, animate beings come ready-made for living and for being described in their livingness without the need of lexical qualifiers or revivifications. They are already in and of the world because they are animate and animated: they are already living, and being already living, are already making sense of themselves and of the world in which they find themselves and of which they are a part. p.397

BARANDIARAN; DI PAOLO & ROHDE (2009) – Defining Agency. individuality, normativity, asymmetry and spatio-temporality in action


BARANDIARAN, Xabier. DI PAOLO, Ezequiel. & ROHDE, Marieke. Defining Agency. individuality, normativity, asymmetry and spatio-temporality in action. Journal of Adaptive Behavior,  (Special Issue on Agency), v.10, p.1-13, 2009.


  • We identify three conditions that a system must meet in order to be considered as a genuine agent: a) a system must define its own individuality, b) it must be the active source of activity in its environment (interactional asymmetry) and c) it must regulate this activity in relation to certain norms (normativity).
  • On this basis, we define agency as an autonomous organization that adaptively regulates its coupling with its environment and contributes to sustaining itself as a consequence. We find that spatiality and temporality are the two fundamental domains in which agency spans at different scales. p.1
  • The concept of agency plays a central role in contemporary cognitive science as a conceptual currency across different sub-disciplines (specially in embodied, situated and dynamical approaches—Brooks 1991, Beer 1995, Pfeifer & Scheier 1999). It owes this central role to its capacity to capture the notion of a behaving system while avoiding the endless discussions around alternative foundational terms such as “representations”, “intentions”, “cognitive subject”, “conscious being” or “mind”. While an insect-like robot already seems to be a minimal instance of agency, the concept is open enough to also cover humans or even collective organizations. p.1
  • Despite the difficulty to provide a clear and precise answer to these questions, a loose or metaphorical concept of agency has helped to re-conceptualize cognitive systems as inherently situated while grounding intelligent capacities on behavior-generating mechanisms (as opposed to abstract symbolic algorithms). p.1
  • Russell and Norvig in their classical AI handbook (1995: 33) propose that “an agent is anything that can be viewed as perceiving its environment through sensors and acting upon that environment through effectors”. Maes (1994), on the other hand defines an agent as “a system that tries to fulfill a set of goals in a complex, dynamic environment”; Beer (1995) considers an agent “any embodied system [that pursues] internal or external goals by its own actions while in continuous long-term interaction with the environment in which it is situated”, while Smithers (1995: 97) states that “agent systems are systems that can initiate, sustain, and maintain an ongoing and continuous interaction with their environment as an essential part of their normal functioning”. After an extensive review of different definitions of agency (including some of those previously mentioned), Franklin and Graesser (1996) conclude that “an autonomous agent is a system situated within and a part of an environment that senses that environment and acts on it, over time, in pursuit of its own agenda and so as to effect what it senses in the future”. Kauffman (2000) has defined an agent as a system that “can act on its own behalf in an environment”. Following his work, Ruiz-Mirazo and Moreno defend that minimal autonomous agents are those chemical systems capable of actively constraining their boundary conditions for self-maintenance (Ruiz-Mirazo & Moreno 2000). In a parallel manner, Christensen & Hooker (2000) state that “[a]gents are entities which engage in normatively constrained, goal-directed, interaction with their environment” (p.133). p.2
  • Abstracting away from the particularities of the above definitions we can generalize that agency involves, at least, a system doing something by itself according to certain goals or norms within a specific environment. p.2
  • From this description, three different though interrelated aspects of agency follow immediately: (i) there is a system as a distinguishable entity that is different from its environment, (ii) this system is doing something by itself in that environment and (iii) it does so according to a certain goal or norm. A generative definition of agency has to account, at least, for these three requirements. p.2


  • First of all, in order for a system to be an agent, there must be a distinction between the system and its environment. This we shall call the individuality condition. The identity of an agent as an individual distinguishable from its environment is often taken for granted or seen as trivially irrelevant. Any characterization of agency is then limited to the establishment of the kind of relationship (representational, informational, intentional, adaptive, etc.) between a pre-given “agent” and its world. However, neither a specific environment nor agentive relations with this environment can exist without the constitution of an agent as na individuated system. p.2
  • A concept of agency that cannot account for the way in which an agent defines itself as an individual requires another agent (the observer) to perform the system-environment distinction. If then we have to justify the identity of this observer agent by means of another one and so on, we enter an infinite explanatory regress. In contrast, an entity capable of distinguishing itself as an individual in the absence of an observer, like Jonas proposes for the case of living organisms, does not suffer from this problem (1 – This remark applies to agents once they are in full enjoyment of their agential character. But it does not preclude the possibility that the ontogeny and evolution of different forms of agency is not itself highly dependent on links to a community of other agents and environmental factors. A self-defined identity does not happen in a vacuum and is inevitably tied to a web of necessary relations to develop and survive.) p.3
  • Therefore, the first condition for the appearance of agency is the presence of a system capable of defining its own identity as an individual and thus distinguishing itself from its surroundings; in doing so, it defines an environment in which it carries out its actions. p.3

Interactional Asymmetry

  • Once an individual is in place, exchanges of matter and energy are inevitable at some level; the system is coupled to its environment. However, the concept of agency is intuitively associated with that of action, not mere system-environment coupling or exchange. An agent is a system that does something as opposed to other natural entities to which we attribute no specific actions except metaphorically (e.g., “The sun rises”). In other words, an agent is a source of activity, not merely a passive sufferer of the effects of external forces. Similarly, an agent is not driven to act by internal, sub-systemic modules, which subordinates the system to the triggering or isolated functioning of a local mechanism. In a sense yet to be properly disclosed, an agent as a whole drives itself, breaking the symmetry of its coupling with the environment so as to modulate it from within. We call this condition interactional asymmetry. p.3
  • One way to understand interactional asymmetry in terms of the causal origin of action events is to consider, as others have done, an agent as responsible for managing and gathering the energy resources for action. For this line of thinking, the asymmetry requirement is expressed in terms of the capacity of the system to constrain energy flows to sustain coordinated processes that are in turn re-used by the system in a circular manner (Kauffman 2000, Ruiz-Mirazo & Moreno 2000). p.3
  • However, being a source of activity does not imply trying to constantly avert the effect of environmental forces through the investment of internally channeled energy, but often, on the contrary, being able to “surf” these effects in a specific direction. p.3
  • An agent is a system that systematically and repeatedly modulates its structural coupling with the environment. We therefore define interactional asymmetry as the condition describing a system as capable of engaging in some modulations of the coupling and doing so at certain times, but not necessarily always (and, for extreme cases, just capable of halting a coupling). p.4


  • When considering agency we presuppose that the interaction is not random or arbitrary but makes some “sense” for the agent itself. Agents have goals or norms according to which they are acting, providing a sort of reference condition, so that the interactive modulation is carried out in relation to this condition (2 – We shall use the terms “norm” and “goal” interchangeably. Despite the notion of “norm” is generally applied to a procedure or a limit condition that must be respected whereas that of “goal” refers to specific reference states (get to position X, grasp object Y, attain result Z), for minimal cases both terms might be treated equivalently since both capture a necessary or desired condition that a process must achieve. Explicit distinctions between norms, rules, goals, intentions, desires, plans, etc. would demand reference to more elaborate forms of agency that remain out of the scope of this paper.) p.5
  • We can only make sense of norms as the result of a specific set of conditions that both enable and demand a system to distinguish between different physical outcomes of its coupling with the environment. Normativity is an essential component of agency, even if its presence can be stronger or weaker, as a degree of improvement, of increasing/decreasing adequacy, of gradual functional achievement, etc. This is the case independently of whether norms are linked directly or indirectly to vital requirements (the self-maintenance of the agent’s biological infrastructure) or are acquired and embodied in other self-sustained forms of life (psychological, cultural, etc.). Again, it is insufficient that we, as observers, make judgments on behalf of the agent about the “adequacy” of its behavior in relation to some of our own norms, standards or goals (epistemic, artistic, ethical, functional or otherwise). p.5
  • The first thing to note is that the three requirements are necessary conditions for agency but none of them is sufficient on its own (neither any two of them without the third). Yet, not all of them stand in the same relationship to each other. The individuality condition appears as a precondition for the other two. Neither asymmetry nor normativity would make much sense in the lack of an individualized system to which these properties can be attributed. p.6
  • The picture that comes out of this tradition is that the required minimal living organization is that of a far-from-thermodynamic- equilibrium system, a metabolic network of chemical reactions that produces and repairs itself, including the generation of a membrane that encapsulates the reaction network while actively regulating matter and energy exchanges with the environment. From this point of view, organisms are integrated and active systems that must continuously interact with their environment to self-generate and maintain their own dissipative organization. This minimal (or proto-cellular) living organization comes to capture the essence of life, for even complex multicellular organisms ultimately respond to the same logic of networked self-regeneration and self-regulation through its openness to the environment. These minimal models already provide a first empirically addressable sense of individuality and normativity without having to invoke abstract mentalistic entities such as “propositional beliefs” and “motivations” or without having to reduce the phenomenology of agency to the “selfishness” of a replicating molecule (Dawkins 1976). p.6-7
  • The satisfaction of the individuality condition is almost straightforward: the very organization of a living system is self-asserting, by continuously regenerating itself and its boundary, living systems are demarcating themselves from their surrounding as unified and integrated systems. In doing so they also carve an environment out of an undifferentiated surrounding: the organization of the system (the way in which components processes are nested with each other building up a whole) determines which environmental features are “relevant” to it, i.e., which chemical components in the environment can affect it or are needed for its continued existence. In this way, the environment is not just what lies outside the system as demarcated from the observer’s point of view but is specified by the system through the set of boundary conditions that affect it. p.7
  • In turn, this is where living individuality naturally leads to normativity: component reactions must occur in a certain manner in order for the very system to keep going, environmental conditions are good or bad for the continuation of the system, the system can fail to regain stability after a perturbation, etc. This normative dimension is not arbitrarily imposed from the outside by a designer or external agent that monitors the functioning of the system and judges according to her interests. It is the very organization of the system that defines a set of constraints and boundary conditions under which it can survive (Christensen & Bickhard 2002, Barandiaran 2007, 2008 and Mossio et al. 2009). In this sense, living systems are subject to a permanent precariousness (Di Paolo 2009) that is compensated by its active organization. This precariousness implies that whatever the organism is doing (i.e. whatever its factual functioning is) there is something that it ought to do; not for an external observer but for itself, for the continuation of its very existence.  p.7
  • The permanent need for external matter and energy and the fragility of living systems, sooner or latter, leads to interactional asymmetry: any organism must actively seek for energy gradients and regulate its relation with the environment in order to compensate or avoid potentially destructive perturbations. So, over the most minimal metabolic network endowed with a membrane, even very simple life forms posses adaptive mechanisms that operate detecting and regulating internal and interactive processes. p.7
  • an agent is an autonomous organization capable of adaptively regulating its coupling with the environment according to the norms established by its own viability conditions. p.8
  • It is the deep circularity and entanglement between networked processes, the self-maintaining conditions they generate and the interactions that the system establishes with the environment what makes agents so challenging to model and understand. p.8
  • Our definition of autonomy (much in the line of Varela 1979) can be applied to other domains. For instance, networked interdependent processes can be chemical reactions, molecular structures, physiological structures (like tissues or organs), neurodynamic patterns at the large scale, sensorimotor loops, social habits, etc. This way, agency does not have to be subordinated to biological/metabolic organization but can appear at different scales responding to a variety of autonomous pro-cesses. p.8-9
  • What remains central to our definition is that for any agentive engagement of a system with its environment its identity must be jeopardized at the proper level and that the interaction must involve a process of compensation for deviations from a norm that is generated from within (both, the norm and the compensation). It is in this sense that the interaction becomes meaningful for the agent, that the agent makes sense of a situation: actions are guided by the need to compensate the threatening deviation from a norm and environmental processes are integrated into the interaction as relevant for the achievement of such compensation. We call this process sense-making (Di Paolo, 2005, Thompson 2004) for what would otherwise be a mere event or occurrence becomes valued. The threat must not be interpreted exclusively in terms a direct challenge to the continuation of the agent. It can take the form of a tension or imbalance that, without directly challenging the identity of the system, still provokes an involvement of the whole system in its attempt to counteract the imbalance with the effect that more direct threats are consequently averted. p.9
  • While capturing those features that are essential to minimal forms of agency, the definition remains open to further conditions, interdependencies, hierarchies of modulation, forms of coupling, etc. that might account for more complex types of agency. Similarly, we should not expect natural agents to operate at a single level of organization. Most will involve different scales of autonomy (metabolic, immune, neuro-dynamic, social, etc.) forming nested hierarchies of adaptive regulation (like metabolic monitoring mechanisms modulating behavioral responses or neuro-dynamically induced psychosomatic disorders in the immune system). But leaving aside the sophisticated cases that involve different scales of autonomy it is fundamentally through the spatial and temporal dimensions that agency expands in complexity. p.9
  • Agency is inherently a temporally and spatially extended process. When we say so, we mean not only that the processes described have an essential temporal or spatial extension in the eye of the observer, but also that an agent’s own perspective has temporal and spatial structure and that this depends on its form of agency. p.9
  • The time span of the interdependencies between such processes and their precariousness (their extinction outside the organization that sustains them) is also crucial to understand the self-maintenance of the system and its margin to compensate decay and perturbations. In addition, different rhythms, temporal scales and phenomena of synchronization and co-variation might be found at the core of constitutive processes (Buzsáki 2006). Secondly we also notice that the adaptive modulation of a coupling makes agency unfold temporally: in order for a system to regulate itself there must be some buffering or distance between the immediate perturbation and the possibility of compensating for it. p.9
  • There is also a sense in which spatiality turns out to be relevant for many forms of agency (certainly for living systems), that is, the spatial or topological properties of the processes that constitute the autonomous organization of the system and also its coupling. On the one hand constitutive processes (and interdependent relationships between them) might crucially rely on spatial aspects; for instance the formation of spatially structured patterns in self-organized processes such as convection flows (Hanczyc et al. 2007). p.9
  • A sensorimotor coupling is, primarily, a coupling between a geometrical space and a dynamical system. This implies, first of all, that behavior cannot be taken to be exclusively the result of extracting statistical properties or patterns from a string of predefined sensory inputs and the production of an adequate response output. Situatedness provides much more complex and flexible possibilities for action. p.9
  • Poincaré (1895) has argued that the Euclidean geometrical properties of an agent’s world are due to its sensorimotor situatedness in a spatial environment and to its capacity to enact invariant properties (such as continuity of space, dimensionality or homogeneity) through sensorimotor structuring of its experience (like active visual tracking, reversibility of perceptions and invariance of shape upon movement around an object). Even when he was not directly concerned with the nature of agency Poincaré conceptualized spatial properties as arising from the possibilities and regularities of bodily actions. Motility in a spatial environment equips an agent with the possibility to cope recurrently with the perturbations it encounters and to span them onto a domain of interactions and flexible sensorimotor correlations. With such a way of recurrent modulation, an agent has the possibility to restore situations at will, exploiting the structural invariants of the sensorimotor coupling with the environment that it thus creates. Therefore, the challenge is to reconstruct the spatio-temporal dimensions of the environment of the agent not from the point of view of the observer scientist or the modeler, but from the frame of reference of the agent itself. p.10
  • Some insects, mammals and birds clearly exploit not just the orderly, but also the metric properties of their couplings with the environment. Their rich sensorimotor inventory, afforded by the nervous system’s fast and flexible way of linking sensors and actuators, allows them to further increase the degree of mediacy between the surface effect of the stimulus and its meaning for the system by adding another layer of abstraction to its perspective on the spatio-temporality of its coupling with the environment. This transition in spatio-temporality coincides with a transition in agency. p.10
  • The reality of our embodied behavior shows, by contrast, that our interactions with the world in the vertical dimension are strongly influenced by the vestibular sense (due to gravity), which makes them very different from our interaction with the world in the horizontal plane (e.g., Gibson 1952). Similarly, we make an explicit spatial analogy of time as an arrow in thinking and language (cf. Lakoff & Johnson 2003, Rohde 2008). Such symbolic spatio-temporality, that lumps together a diverse set of sensorimotor couplings with the world pushes the stimulus and its meaning even further apart. p.10
  • Other questions have to do with the relationship of co-dependence between system and environment. Although a first approximation to the problem required distinguishing the system from its environment, agency (especially when considering recurrent sensorimotor situatedness) leads to a deep entanglement of an agent with its environment. Yet, despite its “being-in-theworld” an agent does selectively couple with environmental features asymmetrically integrating them on its behavioral organization. A number of questions follow: How does niche construction (for example) relate to agency? Should those environmental features that recurrently depend on the agent be considered as part of the agent? What is the status of tools as mediators between agents and environments? p.11
  • And yet, despite the fact that our definition is, admittedly, not yet complete there are concrete and practical consequences that can be extracted for the study of adaptive behavior: a) mere sensorimotor coupling on its own is too weak a condition for agency, modulation of interactions need also be considered; b) systems that only satisfy constraints or norms imposed from outside (e.g. optimization according to an externally fixed function) should not be treated as models of agency; and, c) the identity of an agent cannot be divorced from its behavior, therefore, some kind of feedback between the agent’s behavior and the selfmaintenance of its organization should be included in our models (i.e. the agent must “benefit” or “suffer” the consequences of its action in a manner that is relevant for its continued activity). Finally, it must be stressed that models of agency can explore different aspects of our definition without the system fully satisfying the three requirements. p.11
  • The adaptive regulation of behavior needs not be exclusively subordinated to the viability constraints imposed from biological “survival conditions”. Instead, it can be equally governed by the need to maintain neuro-dynamic and behavioral organization in terms of self-maintenance of habits, coherence of behavior, “psycho-dynamic” stability, etc. (Di Paolo 2003, Barandiaran & Moreno 2006, Barandiaran & Di Paolo 2008). p.12


Artigo na íntegra

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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BUHRMANN & DI PAOLO (2015) – The sense of agency: a phenomenological consequence of enacting sensorimotor schemes


BUHRMANN, Thomas. DI PAOLO, Ezequiel. The sense of agency – a phenomenological consequence of enacting sensorimotor schemes. Phenomenology & Cognitive Science,  doi: 10.1007/s11097-015-9446-7, online first, p.1-30, 2015.

Abstract: The sensorimotor approach to perception addresses various aspects of perceptual experience, but not the subjectivity of intentional action. Conversely, the problem that current accounts of the sense of agency deal with is primarily one of subjectivity. But the proposed models, based on internal signal comparisons, arguably fail to make the transition from subpersonal computations to personal experience. In this paper we suggest an alternative direction towards explaining the sense of agency by braiding three theoretical strands: a world-involving, dynamical interpretation of the sensorimotor approach, an enactive description of sensorimotor agency as contrasted with organic agency in general, and a dynamical theory of equilibration within and between sensorimotor schemes. On this new account, the sense of oneself as the author of one’s own actions corresponds to what we experience during the ongoing adventure of establishing, losing, and re-establishing meaningful interactions with the world. The meaningful relation between agent and world is given by the precarious constitution of sensorimotor agency as a self-asserting network of schemes and dispositions. Acts are owned as they adaptively assert the constitution of the agent. Thus, awareness for different aspects of agency experience, such as the initiation of action, the effort exerted in controlling it, or the achievement of the desired effect, can be accounted for by processes involved in maintaining the sensorimotor organization that enables these interactions with the world. We discuss these processes in detail from a non-representational, dynamical perspective and show how they cohere with the personal experience of agency.

  • Embodied accounts of motor control and perceptual experience fall within one of two categories according to the explanatory role they give to the agent’s body and to the world. In-the-head approaches put the emphasis on computational processes occurring in the agent’s brain that instantiate internal models of body and world. Such models can be affected by environmental events, sensorimotor regularities, and body dynamics in a limited way: either in the form of informational inputs or via the ‘formatting’ of internal representations. In-the-head explanations are subpersonal and internalist. Worldinvolving approaches, in contrast, see brain, body, and world as part of an entangled relational network of processes in which both neural, non-neural, and non-biological elements can play strong causal and constitutive roles – not just informational or developmental ones – in action and perception. The explanatory strategy in such cases require establishing links between the personal-level relation between agent and environment as well as the dynamic coupling of subpersonal processes in the agent and in the environment. p.1
  • Our objective in this paper is to introduce a world-involving alternative account based on O’Regan and Noë’s (2001) sensorimotor (SM) approach to perception; more specifically based on recent formalizations of this proposal (Buhrmann et al. 2013; Di Paolo et al. 2014). This alternative does not see the sense of agency as just an epistemological problem, but rather assumes that it is an intrinsic aspect of how sensorimotor schemes are organised and enacted in the world. p.2
  • A sense of the bodily self as an agent, in this view, corresponds to what we experience during the ongoing adventure of establishing, losing, and reestablishing meaningful relations between ourselves and the world. p.2
  • We propose that the various aspects of the phenomenology of the sense of agency relate to both the intrinsic and the relational (meta)stability of the action/perception schemes that together constitute the sensorimotor level of agency. These intrinsic and relational aspects always involve the world in some non-trivial sense and do not require internal comparison between neural signals as the epistemic signature of a controlled act. Instead, the enacted schemes Bbelong^ to the agent to the extent that they assert her agency in the first place. This is manifested in different forms: as feelings of action initiation, of action control, of effort and control exertion by the various ways and degrees in which an enacted scheme is met with, and surpasses (or not), obstacles and resistance both internally within a given act and relationally between acts. p.2-3
  • In everyday life, when I engage in intentional actions, these are usually accompanied by an experience that I am their author or initiator, in other words, by an awareness that the actions are mine, and that I have caused them. Upon reflection, and based on empirical data which we summarize below, this sense of agency is not a unique and unified sense. Rather, one can distinguish different levels of action awareness, and various aspects of one’s agency at which this awareness can be directed. p.3
  • At a general level we can distinguish between a pre-reflective and a reflective selfawareness in action (Gallagher 2007, 2012). The former, also referred to as the feeling of agency (Synofzik et al. 2007, 2008), is the experience of agency that accompanies my actions when I’m immersed in my activity, without paying particular attention to or consciously reflecting on the details of what I’m doing at the moment or why. At this level, my agency is not given to me explicitly as an object of experience, it is rather implicit in the unperturbed flow of my action and the egocentric perspective underlying it. It is the basic, diffuse feeling that it is I who is carrying out an activity, but the I here is implicit in the non-transitive experience of myself as the locus of agency. It is phenomenologically recessive in the sense that in normal circumstances I am primarily aware of what I’m doing, rather than the fact that it is I who is doing it. Often we become consciously aware only of the absence of the feeling of agency when being interrupted while immersed in a task, or when unexpectedly failing in some way.
  • We can also experience ourselves reflectively as agents when taking an introspective stance that is detached from our ongoing activity. For example, when deliberating and planning actions we are about to take, or when explicitly monitoring the success of our actions, we may judge ourselves to be responsible when the actions are consistent with our personal beliefs, or when the task results in the achievement of a goal I have set to myself. This sense of agency is usually conceived as a higher-order, conceptual attribution, and a transitive experience of myself as object, i.e. as he who is acting. p.4
  • Before elaborating on the different aspects of actions that one can be aware of, and which may contribute to the overall feeling of agency, we should separate the sense of agency as described above from the sense of ownership (Gallagher 2000; Synofzik et al. 2008). The latter is the pre-reflective experience that it is me, i.e. my body, that is moving, or more generally, that a given body part belongs to me. In everyday voluntary activity these two aspects contribute to a unified, minimal self-awareness for action. p.4
  • Gallagher (2007, 2012), for example, distinguishes intentional aspects involved in the sense of agency from those related to the initiation of movement. The distinction is motivated by the observation that in the case of involuntary movements I have a sense of ownership only (but not agency), which is based on afferent sensory feedback (e.g. proprioceptive and kinaesthetic). What is different in the sense of agency during voluntary movements, is the presence of efferent signals sent to the motor systems. p.5
  • Another element of agency experience that is related primarily to bodily movement rather than the intentional aspect of action, is the sense of being in control of ongoing movements, as distinct from the sense of having initiated them. De Vignemont and Fourneret (2004) describe pathological cases where the two aspects are differentially affected. For instance, patients with anosognosia for plegia (unawareness or denial of paralysis) may believe that they have raised their hand, even though they suffer from a condition preventing them from voluntarily initiating any movement with the affected limb., i.e. their sense of initiation is disrupted. In contrast, deafferented patients who do not receive any tactile or proprioceptive feedback have no sense (other than visual) of their own movement or body position, yet they know perfectly well whether or not they are moving. p.5
  • Intentionality enters into the phenomenology of agency awareness in two ways. The first is the feeling that not only have I initiated a certain action, but that my  initiating it is in accordance with my intention to do so. p.5
  • A second intentional aspect of agency awareness relates to the desired outcome of na action. An inherent property of intentional actions is that they are directed at achieving a meaningful effect. The extent to which I am successful in achieving this effect can enter as another element in my agency experience. Since the success of my action usually requires certain outcomes in the world, it is not surprising that this experience depends to a greater extent on the ability to monitor distal action effects, rather than internal processes and signals. p.6
  • As long as the action outcome is consistent with one’s intention, follows the intention within a certain time window, and there is no other conspicuous cause, then the action can be experienced as intended and effectuated by oneself. p.6
  • Despite its appeal, in proposing a simple computational mechanism underlying sensorimotor self- awareness, which moreover seems to fit naturally into the growing ecology of predictive brain theories (Friston 2010; Clark 2013; Seth 2014), the comparator model is likely neither sufficient nor necessary to explain the feeling and judgement of agency. Synofzik et al. (2007) present a range of arguments to this effect. Firstly, subjects can attribute the same comparator mismatch in some cases to themselves and in others to the world. In other words, any potential mismatch itself has to be registered and appropriately categorized by another process different from the comparator. Also, in order to learn the required internal models, i.e. to learn the effect of its own movements, the system already has to somehow know which of its movements are caused by itself and which are not. Based on cases of pathological loss of action awareness, as well as neuroanatomical lesions in areas supposed to be involved in the comparator, the authors reach the conclusion that a much less specific congruence between efferent and afferent signals in general (e.g. between an action intention and a distal sensory effect, see comparator C3 in Fig. 1), alone or in combination with certain intermodal congruencies, suffices to explain the feeling of agency. p.8
  • Synofzik et al. conclude that it is not a specific, unique and accurate prediction that underlies different forms of action awareness. Rather, all kinds of action-related perceptual and motor information, like efference copies, sensory feedback modalities and their congruence, are combined in a multifactorial weighting process at different levels of cognitive processing, where the importance of the different authorship cues may vary with task, context, and person. p.8
  • The comparator model on its own does not offer an answer as to the experiential nature of agency awareness. To do that, it needs to go a step further, and explain how it is that we have these first-person, subjective experiences at all, accompanying (and conditioned by) the proposed subpersonal computations. p.9

Enactive sensorimotor theory

  • As we have argued above, cognitivist models aim at a view of action awareness in which the experience of agency arises as an intrinsic aspect of action itself (at least in the case of the pre-reflective feeling of agency). It is arguable whether this attempt could be successful, given that it relies on the explicit construction of internal representations from brain-side computations that may or may not be required for the sense of agency. We propose here an alternative that synthesizes three different theoretical developments, each of which views the cognitive agent essentially as an integrated ecology of sensorimotor skills. The starting point is a dynamic interpretation of the sensorimotor approach, which points the way towards a world-involving and nonrepresentational account of experience. This is enriched by the enactive notion of minimal agency, which we argue is required to explain how subjectivity can arise at the sensorimotor level. Lastly, a dynamical reinterpretation of Piaget’s theory of equilibration will allow us to account for the different aspects of the sense of agency. p.9-10
  • We agree with the premise that the co-occurrence of actions and their typical sensory consequences (i.e. sensorimotor contingencies), as well as a sensitivity to non-typical consequences, are necessary preconditions for the sense of agency, as they may enable a momentary and implicit distinction between self and environment. However, this idea can be developed in a non-dualistic and non-representational manner, in which agency experience is truly intrinsic to the performance of actions themselves as they form part of self-asserting sensorimotor structures and relations, rather than derived through verifications and inferences using pre-given criteria as to what does and does not belong to the self. p.10
  • According to the sensorimotor approach (O’Regan and Noë 2001; Noë 2004), perceptual experience, such as seeing an object, does not derive from internal representations in the brain, but is constituted by the skilful use of the regularities governing active exploration of the world. More specifically, perceiving consists in the exercise of practical mastery of the laws of sensorimotor contingencies (SMCs), i.e. of the lawful regularities in the sensorimotor flow that govern intentional interaction with the environment. Both the Bcontent^ and form of experience, i.e. what is perceived and how, is constituted by the embodied know-how of the relevant SMCs put into practice. The experiences associated with the various sensory modalities, or with distinct aspects of the environment (e.g. colours or sounds) differ, because there are different sensorimotor regularities involved in, say, seeing and hearing. p.10
  • Our proposal is to extend the sensorimotor approach to the experience of oneself as an agent. On this account, the sense of agency is not something derived from  internal representations of our own action-related processes. Rather, it is essentially another dimension of our relation with the world, and derives from the ways in which we establish, lose, and re-establish meaningful interactions between ourselves and our environment. p.10
  • Sensorimotor coordinations describe particular sensorimotor patterns that are reliably used in performing a task. These can be cycles or transients in sensorimotor space and depend on an agent’s environment, body, inner activity, and the task-related context. Sensorimotor strategies or schemes are organizations of several sensorimotor coordinations that the agent deploys to achieve a given task and which are subject to some normative framework (for instance, considerations of efficiency). p.10
  • Crucial for the development of our proposal is that individual SM structures do not exist in isolation. Rather, they are integrated in a complex network of  interdependence. p.10
  • In a general sense, the enactment of a particular SM scheme depends in normal circumstances on a resonance between external and internal conditions related to the agent’s desires and needs. p.11
  • We propose that the origin of a first-person perspective, a prerequisite for talking of a system enjoying experiences, is the emergence of sensorimotor agency. By this we mean an entity whose constitution implies a unique and intrinsic perspective on the world; or rather, an entity that, through its self-constitution, brings forth its own domain of relevant interactions, or Umwelt in von Uexküll’s (1934) terms. This is most easily understood in analogy to biological agency. From an enactive perspective, the simplest living organisms already exhibit a form of agency. Unicellular organisms, for example, are complex networks of precarious, co-dependent chemical reactions, in which the activity of the whole network is necessary to prevent the component processes from running down. These cells are agents in the sense that they can regulate interactions with their environment in a way that support their continued existence (e.g. by regulating osmotic pressure). Otherwise neutral external affairs thus gain a valenced status with respect to the cell. What is good or bad for it is not arbitrarily defined by na external observer, but is intrinsically determined by its processes of self-constitution. Thus, unicellular organisms can be said to enjoy a certain subjectivity or perspective in the sense of Bsentience, the feeling of being alive and exercising effort in movement^ (Thompson 2007, p. 161, see also Jonas 1966; Sheets-Johnstone 1999; Margulis 2001). p.12
  • In summary, a minimal agent is “an autonomous organization capable of adaptively regulating its coupling with the environment according to the norms established by its own viability conditions” (ibid, p. 376). We argue that the nature of agents as selfasserting systems, able to evaluate external affairs in terms of their own viability, is the origin also of a minimal subjectivity.(1) p.13
  • However, when we talk about human-level agency, much of our everyday behaviour, while taking place within the constraint of biological viability, is underdetermined by it. Many of our actions, for example, acquire intrinsic value Bon top^ of their organic functionality: movements can be dexterous, postures awkward, a walk elegant, and so on. The question is whether a new form of autonomy and agency may arise at the behavioural level, not fully determined by biological constraints. p.13
  • We should clarify at this point that the experiences we propose a sensorimotor agent is able to enjoy differ from the minimal sentience that (mere) organic agency entails. In particular, we claim that sensorimotor agents may experience their actions as their own, and that we can derive the qualities and aspects of how such systems experience their own agency from the way in which they exercise adaptive regulations to maintain a stable sensorimotor repertoire. Piaget has developed exactly such an account of how sensorimotor skills are developed and coherently maintained via adaptive transformations. p.15
  • According to Piaget, and in agreement with the sensorimotor approach, the environment is not a set of pre-existing stimulus conditions that impact on the organism to produce a perceptual or cognitive effect. A subject can rather perceive—in the sense of understanding for what it is, or what it is for—only those environmental aspects or events that she can actively assimilate (integrate or absorb) into already existing sensorimotor schemes. The maturing subject, moreover, faced with an ever changing world (and body), will constantly be challenged by not-yet-assimilated aspects of her environment, which create internal sources of tension and conflict in her cognitive organization. Through adaptive processes of accommodation, Piaget proposes, the existing repertoire of sensorimotor schemes is modulated or transformed over time such as to address new behavioural challenges. The subject is thus continuously poised at the edge between assimilation and accommodation, in a process of equilibration through which she reaches new forms of organizational (meta)stability. p.15
  • Piaget suggests, for instance, that reciprocal processes of accommodation and assimilation may also occur between schemes, as well as between schemes and the system’s totality (involving a hierarchical dimension of relationships among schemes). Note that the conservation of self-sustaining sensorimotor schemes, and the stability of the SM repertoire as a whole, play the role of adaptive regulations in the definition of minimal agency, and as such may already ground aspects of normativity at the sensorimotor level. What is good or bad for the subject as a sensorimotor agent is, respectively, what can be equilibrated or what provokes tensions or instabilities in his cognitive organization. p.16

Enactive sense of agency

  • We are now in a position to synthesise the three theoretical strands – the dynamical sensorimotor approach, the enactive notion of sensorimotor agency, and the dynamical theory of sensorimotor equilibration – to offer an enactive account for  the sense of agency. According to our proposal, a basic experiencing agent is constituted by a selfasserting network of mutually enabling precarious sensorimotor schemes; a network whose stability is constantly challenged by environmental and internal requirements, and which undergoes adaptive processes of equilibration to counter these challenges. Such an organization satisfies the three requirements for minimal agency and may thus be said to constitute an identity that emerges at the sensorimotor level, bearing its own concerns, acting on its own behalf, entertaining its own perspective; in short, a sensorimotor subject. What and how this agent experiences perceptually, according to the sensorimotor approach, is determined by her sensorimotor repertoire. Crucially, we  propose that how the agent experiences her engagements with the world, i.e., whether as owned and self-driven or not, is determined by different modes of equilibration both within and between SM schemes, and by how these modes of equilibration re-assert the individuation of the sensorimotor subject.  p.16-17
  • To be more specific, our proposal states that the different aspects of the sense of agency cohere with the different aspects of assimilation and accommodation in a sensorimotor agent and not with specific relations between sensory signals. For example, we consider the diffuse and attentively recessive feeling of agency to be the experiential consequence of a network of SM schemes successfully assimilating the current environmental context. In other words, the absence of any perturbations to my dynamic equilibrium, is the feeling that “everything is going according to (my) plan”. Since SM schemes are always enacted by the sensorimotor agent owning them and their enactment in turn re-constitutes the organization that constitutes the sensorimotor agent, the “first-person givenness” is already implicit in the process that asserts a SM scheme within the precarious network, i.e., its enactment. In other words, whether or not I am the agent of my actions, at this level of equilibration, is not a question of verification based on comparisons between signals, since it always is and can only be I who enacts a SM scheme whose outcome is to contribute to re-affirm my own agency. The enactment of the act asserts the agency of the agent. p.17
  • It is thus not a congruence between internal signals in the brain, but an appropriateness of the chosen scheme given the current situation in agent and environment. The agent does not need to “find out” whether a SM scheme equilibrates by comparing signals. It is the enactment of the SM scheme itself that results in success or failure to various degrees (see discussion on intrinsic normativity in SM schemes in Di Paolo, et al. 2014). An obstacle or a lacuna are manifested directly in the failure to equilibrate within an SM scheme or between one SM scheme and another. The manifestation is world-involving and also personal since it implies the agent as a whole. p.17
  • The agent’s sensitivity to the selected scheme thus constitutes a kind of awareness of processes and events about to ensue, and we identify this sensitivity as coherent with the intentional aspect of action awareness (the awareness of having the intention to move). For example, when a tennis player forms the intention to return his opponent’s serve, he is already prepared to move in a certain way (e.g. by setting up required motor primitives and synergies). But at the same he is still sensitive to the different ways the ball may be served, as well as to the different options for his opponent’s reaction to his upcoming return. The particular manifold of possibilities associated with the selection of a specific return scheme is experienced by the player as his intention to enact that return. p.19
  • In general then, the distinction between the sense of being the initiator of an action (associated with intentions and premotor activity), and the sense of being in control (on-going motor-sensory matching) can be neurophenomenologically matched to processes of accommodation and assimilation respectively. Note, that in terms of equilibration, the initiation of a new SM scheme is already an adaptive regulation, i.e. a response to a new external or internal challenge to stability. The feeling of being the initiator of an action would thus not be limited only to cases of prior losses of control over one’s actions. p.20
  • For instance, equilibration occurring to address incongruence between a SM scheme and the environment here and now may underlie the instantaneous feeling of agency. In contrast, adaptive processes aiming to resolve mutual conflicts between SM schemes, or between a SM scheme and the repertoire as a whole, may underlie the general feeling of being reliably effective in one’s actions, and of possessing the necessary sensorimotor skills to deal with one’s everyday life. In this sense, the higher forms of equilibration may be necessary for the experience of oneself as a unified, persisting and coherent source of intentional activity over time. p.21
  • From our enactive perspective there is no need for central predictors to account for the awareness of action initiation. (That is not to say that sensorimotor behaviours or schemes cannot be anticipative in nature, but rather that each scheme, if required, may be intrinsically anticipative rather than relying necessarily on detailed internal models – see Stepp and Turvey 2010). As we have argued, awareness of intention and action initiation results from the real but covert effects that the selection and activation of SM schemes have on the rest of the agent’s cognitive organization. In particular, the activation of a specific SM scheme places the agent in a state of “commitment” that may constrain future actions by differentially modulating other SM schemes that usually follow. p.21
  • Our hypothesis fulfils several requirements that we believe should apply to any enactive account of the sense of agency. Firstly, the experience of agency, like any other experience in the enactive approach, is relational in nature, i.e. fundamentally world-involving, rather than internal to the brain. It is constituted by structures or processes present in our active exploration of the world, by properties or modes of the relation between agent and environment. p.22
  • Secondly, the prereflective sense of agency, in our account, is an intransitive experience. It is not an experience of ‘me’ as an object of perception (as defended e.g. by Bayne 2011) or introspection, but rather the basic feeling of my intentional directedness at the world; i.e. the feeling of (re-)asserting myself as an agent in meaningful interactions with the world. Thus, our proposal does not reduce the sense of agency to an epistemic issue (accessing information to verify authorship) but also accounts for the ontological question of how a SM scheme participates in the ongoing constitution of the agent; the epistemic issue comes out in the wash. p.22
  • our proposal accounts for the fact that the sense of agency phenomenologically presents itself as a heterogeneous collection of different ways or aspects of feeling in control that depends on context, the task, the person’s history and capacities, and so on. Since individual SM schemes are by definition task-specific, and therefore vary for example in terms of the sensory modalities involved, the balance of contributions from agent-internal and environmental processes etc., it follows that the sense of agency should vary from situation to situation and, when it breaks down, it does so in accordance with the specific demands and properties of the task and person. p.22
  • Lastly, by satisfying the three requirements for minimal agency, our proposal solves the problem of who is experiencing by positing that there exists a well-defined subject that is experiencing its own agency, namely a sensorimotor agent constituted by a selfsustaining network of precarious sensorimotor schemes. Such an agent is invested in interactions with its own intrinsic norms, and its very constitution brings forth a domain of self-relevant interactions, and therewith an intrinsic subjectivity and perspective on the world (Di Paolo 2005; Jonas 1966; Thompson 2007). In this sense, our account spans both the subpersonal level of sensorimotor processes, as well as the personal level of the experiencing subject, something the comparator model fails to do satisfactorily. p.23
  • In our view, all actions are by definition intentional; equally there is no such thing as an abstract intentional ‘state’ as divorced from the action that it requires for its realization, even if for whatever reason such action is not fully actualised. The intentional aspect of an action derives from the dispositions that the agent exhibits when a SM scheme is selected from the greater repertoire; and from the fact that the selection itself involves the agent’s needs and desires. p.23
  • We believe that our enactive proposal shows how in everyday skillful behavior, the sense of agency does not (only) play this epistemological role, but is rather an intrinsic aspect of how meaningful sensorimotor schemes are organised and enacted in the world. Propositional beliefs need not be involved at all according to our proposal. p.25
  • The view we defend in this paper is best described as a telic model: the sense of agency is understood as an intransitive experience that is implicit in intentional action itself, i.e. such actions are considered to be enjoying experiential character, or phenomenal properties themselves (see, e.g., Searle 1983). Telic states have a world to mind direction of fit. Their aim is to bring about certain changes in the world. They are satisfied when an intentional action is successfully realized (assimilation), or otherwise fail and remain unsatisfied or frustrated (requiring accommodation). According to our proposal, the prereflective feeling of agency is of this kind. It is tightly linked with the reaffirmation of an agent as an agentive system through its actions. p.25
  • Social agency is characterized by what McGann and De Jaegher (2009) call Bself-other contingencies^. Action and perception in the social domain are a matter of coordinating the behaviours, emotions, and intentions of the agents involved, in and through the coordination of movement (including utterances). Self-other contingencies are different from SMCs in a number of ways. Social interactions are interactions between agents, each of whom is maintaining their own autonomy. The condition of asymmetry between agent and environment is more complex (able to change over time along different dimensions), since the regulation of social interactions is not completely down to either individual (De Jaegher and Froese 2009). As a consequence, interactions with other social agents are far less predictable than those with (most) objects. In this way, the equilibration of SM schemes in interactive situations may not obviously arise from a single agent but could in principle be co-authored, leading to ambiguities, for instance, like controlling one’s actions without exerting control (like we described above for the case of repetitive tasks). p.26
  • We have interpreted the sensorimotor approach as a world-involving perspective on action and perception. Lacking a theory of agency, this approach needed to be supplemented by extending the requirements for agency proposed by enactive theory – individuality, asymmetry, and normativity – to a new enactive concept of sensorimotor agency.We have combined this concept with recent formalizations of the notions of sensorimotor contingencies and their mastery. The latter, based on a dynamical account of equilibration, furnishes the enactive approach with a proposal for explaining the sense of agency. Aworld-involving, non-representational, meso-level account based on how actions and dispositions are organized as a network of precarious, mutually stabilizing sensorimotor schemes. A given act contributes to the ongoing regeneration of this organization to different degrees or fails to do so. It is the self-asserting logic of this network that determines whether an act belongs to the agent or not. Conversely, it is the ways in which an agent acts in the world that individuate her as the agent she is constantly becoming. p.26

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