participatory sense-making

the enactive approach to intersubjectivity



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.

Carol Gilligan: “To care is to be present, it’s to have a voice, it’s to be in relationship.”

This is so important, I have to share it.

Below is a video of Carol Gilligan, giving a talk at MIT about relationship, love, and voice in developmental psychology, ethics, and politics.
Title: “Learning to See in the Dark: The Roots of Ethical Resistance” (April 24, 2009).
You can also find it here:

Some extracts from Gilligan’s talk (I transcribed them from the video):

An adolescent girl interviewed by Gilligan said: ‘If I were to say what I was feeling and thinking, no-one would want to be with me. My voice would be too loud.’
And then she said, ‘but you have to have relationships.’
Gilligan: ‘if you’re not saying what you’re feeling and thinking, then where are you in these relationships?’ Gilligan: ‘In other words, she was facing a psychological incoherence: having to choose between having a voice and having relationships. And girls were noting that either way they were going to lose relationship, and basically they were going to silence a voice within themselves [in order not to lose relationship].’

“We have been wedded to a false story of human nature. And it’s a falsely gendered story. It’s a wrong story about men, and boys, it’s a wrong story about girls and women. And if you think about it for one nanosecond, you know it’s wrong. Because to say that men think and women feel -in other words that men don’t feel and women don’t think, or that men have selves, and women have relationships… Because if you don’t have a self, then who is in relationship? Or that our minds are separated from our bodies.. In other words it’s something that’s so obviously wrong as a description of human experience, that the interesting question is: How come people keep talking about it?”

Gilligan talks about how both boys and girls are firstly, in development, very relational beings, and how they later learn, in the case of boys, to start to become less related in favour of being autonomous individuals, and in the case of girls, to give up their voice and their sense of self in order to maintain relationships. “I wanna give you a five-year old boy’s reading of his world, namely his family. His father -the parents were in the midst of a divorce, and on christmas, the father as he would say ‘lost it’, and hit his five-year-old, and then was overcome with remorse because he had been hit by his father and he had vowed to break the cycle. So the next day he says to his five-year-old “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to do this, I don’t ever want to do this again.” And the five-year-old said to him: “You are afraid that if you hit me, when I grow up, I’ll hit my children.” That’s a five-year-old boy.
Now if that’s where we all start, this is very hopeful, I think, in terms of ethics and transformational values. Because the problem happens when we lose that capacity”

“We are fundamentally relational, responsive beings as human beings, men and women alike. But there’s an initiation driven by gender that leads to a series of inner splits that happen, that boys are pressured to make, and resist, around the ages of five to seven, and girls later.”

“Patriarchy is an order of living that’s based on a gender-binary and a gender-hierarchy. The gender-binary is that to be a man means not to be a woman. So whatever is gendered feminine is thought of as therefore qualities that are not associated with being a man. And the hierarchy is that the qualities associated with masculinity are elevated.”
“If you think of the splits -reason/emotion, mind/body, self/relationships, you know how they’re gendered. Mind, self, thought, is gendered masculine and elevated. Emotion, relationships and body are gendered feminine and like women idealized and devalued.”

“So a discussion of ethics that elevated reason and the autonomous self at the expense of emotion and relationship was reading patriarchy as ethics, just as psychologists were reading patriarchy as nature.”

“There’s a convergence now of findings from developmental psychology and neuroscience that puts in place a very different story about us as humans and says that when these splits occur, they are signs of injury or trauma.”

“We are born with a voice and into relationship. And if those capacities are encouraged, not traumatized, then we are able to register within ourselves the feeling of what happens and that’s the ground -I think there’s a growing consensus- for ethical action, to be in touch in that sense.”

“The optimism that is at the core of this work, and that is actually riveting to me at the present moment, is that the very capacities of our nature, the capacity -we have a voice- to communicate with other people, and to live in relationship, to resolve conflicts in relationship, are the grounds both, they are the requisites of love, but they are also the requisites of democratic citizenship. So, our human nature, qualities that are ours as humans are aligned with love, and aligned with democratic forms of living. So if you are going to set up a patriarchal structure, you have to break those capacities, you have to traumatize them, and the result is dissociation.”

“I want to say in conclusion that what patriarchy precludes is love between equals. And therefore it precludes democracy, which is founded on such love, and the freedom of voice that it encourages.”

“There’s a patriarchic so-called notion of care, which is care as self-sacrifice and selflessness. And there’s a democratic notion of care, which is: To care is to be present, it’s to have a voice, it’s to be in relationship.”

Later, I will write something here on why I find this so important…

Blog at

Up ↑