How to understand our interactions with social institutions?

Will cognitivist, functionalist theories of mind be able to capture how we interact with institutions?

In this paper, I argue that they cannot. I propose that functionalism is inherently restricted to dealing with rule-based, hierarchical structures, and cannot deal with the democratic, fluid, embodied, and horizontal aspects of society.

The paper puts Carol Gilligan’s work in developmental and cultural psychology in a critical conversation with Shaun Gallagher’s work in the philosophy of mind, to argue that we need an enactive approach to social interaction to account for the full complexity of our interactions with social institutions. I think Gilligan’s work is of interest to cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind because of the connection she makes between certain societal structures and aspects of human psychology. The division between patriarchy and democracy (anthropological terms as described by her) and that between aspects of human psychology that Gilligan associates with each societal structure, seem to resonate with a division between cognition defined functionally, and cognition defined as meaning-for-a-subject rooted in his or her self-organization, embodiment, context, affect, and experience. Just like patriarchy and democracy, and mind, body, self, relation, affect, experience, and reason are difficult to disentangle in practice, so it is hard to maintain a functionalist understanding without understanding the underlying fluidity—the resistance, the messy meaning-making, the gurgling underbelly of society and mind. On the enactive view, in society as well as in psychology, there exist both patriarchal and democratic tendencies. These categories are not opposites, but lie on a spectrum, and are often intricately intertwined.

The framework of participatory sense-making can capture this spectrum and this interrelation, because it views individuals as essentially related and at the same time as self-organizing, self-maintaining, and in this sense distinct subjects. This is why I have proposed in this paper that enaction can best deal with this complex picture, better than a piece-wise combination of the extended mind view and enaction.

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