participatory sense-making

the enactive approach to intersubjectivity


cognitive science

Towards a humane science of intersubjectivity

The theme of this year’s Mind and Life Summer Research Institute (June 6–11) was “Intersubjectivity and Social Connectivity”. It was an amazing meeting. What struck me most were, first, the great diversity and interest of the people there and their research and humanitarian work. And second, the most important theme in my view, which unfolded over the course of the week: inclusivity and social justice.

The meeting helped me realize once more how invisible an issue this still is in cognitive science and philosophy of mind. The question isn’t only: who gets to do the research, who has a voice in the world of knowledge, but it is also: which kind of cognition, which kind of subject, which kind of body, who is our science about?

In cognitive science and philosophy of mind we still often—and mostly without realizing it—start from the idea that there is one cognition, one body, universal and for all. This goes for traditional cognitive science, but also for embodied approaches, and also for enaction. Even though enaction, I think, has the keys in hand to crack open the hegemony of the white, Western and mostly male body. We do this by asking: Why does something mean something for someone, in this situation? What is at stake for this person or creature here?

This someone is the someone we are interested in, the someone we are studying, the someone we engage with as researchers, and to whom we have a responsibility—a responsibility of true recognition: whether a basic living system like a cell or a plant, menstruating women, a piano student-teacher pair, a person with autism in their different social circles, a group of rowers, an addict, a client and therapist, indigenous people attempting to be heard by government, and so on.

We are only beginning to see that cognition, nor embodiment are universal and that, in fact, there are billions of different bodies.

Here is an interview with me on the occasion of this meeting, where I spoke about my new work(-in-progress) on love and enaction, which—I increasingly realise—has to be inclusive too.

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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