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Enactivism is a theoretical approach to understanding the mind proposed by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch.[1] It emphasizes the way that organisms and the human mind organize themselves by interacting with their environment. It is closely related to situated cognition and embodied cognition, and is presented as an alternative to cognitivism, computationalism and Cartesian dualism. The most important recent publications in the field are arguably Evan Thompson's (2007) Mind in Life,[2] Daniel Hutto and Erik Myin's (2013) Radicalizing Enactivism,[3] the edited volume Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science,[4] and Alva Noë's (2011) Varieties of Presence.[5]

Accounts of enactivism[edit]

A book reviewer, Jeremy Trevalyan Burman, in reviewing Consciousness & Emotion, vol 1.,[6] concluded:[7]

...the importance of this first book was not immediately clear: future volumes will need to telegraph their implications more explicitly if they are to be successfully received.

However, in a review of the book Consciousness & Emotion Book Series 2 edited by Richard Menary, Evan Thompson, the book reviewer, stated the view:

Enactivists criticize representational views of the mind and emphasize the importance of embodiment and action to cognition.
-Evan Thompson, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Toronto.[8]

At a fundamental level, enactivism is anti-dualist. The self arises as part of the process of an embodied entity interacting with the environment in precise ways determined by its physiology.[1] In this sense, individuals can be seen to "grow into" or arise from,[7] their interactive role with the world. The self does not represent the world, but produces it through the nature of its unique way of interacting with its environment, stated the authors of The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience.[1]

Francisco Varela, in 'The Tree of knowledge'[9] proposed the term enactive "to designate this view of knowledge, to evoke the view that what is known is brought forth, in contra-position to the more classical views of either cognitivism or connectionism." Within the book, the analogies of The Razor's Edge and the Between Scylla and Charybdis are used to describe the "epistemologic Odyssey" between the notions of solipsism and representationalism. Enactivism, therefore is the middle ground between the two extremes [Tree of Knowledge, pgs. 133,134,253]. Maturana and Varela use this term to "confront the problem of understanding how our existence-the praxis of our living- is coupled to a surrounding world which appears filled with regularities that are at every instant the result of our biological and social histories.... to find a via media: to understand the regularity of the world we are experiencing at every moment, but without any point of reference independent of ourselves that would give certainty to our descriptions and cognitive assertions. Indeed the whole mechanism of generating ourselves, as describers and observers tells us that our world, as the world which we bring forth in our coexistence with others, will always have precisely that mixture of regularity and mutability, that combination of solidity and shifting sand, so typical of human experience when we look at it up close."[Tree of Knowledge, pg. 241]

Specific implications of enactivism for psychology have been summarized in a recent article on Enaction and Psychology[10] by Marek McGann, Hanne De Jaegher and Ezequiel Di Paolo. They argue that enactivism attempts to equalize the explanatory role of the coupling between cognitive agent and environment with the traditional emphasis on brain mechanisms found in neuroscience and psychology. This move can be witnessed in the enactive approach to social cognition developed by De Jaegher, Di Paolo and others where the dynamics of interactive processes can play significant roles in coordinating interpersonal understanding, a view that they describe as Participatory Sense-Making.[11][12] Recent developments of enactivism in the area of social neuroscience involve the proposal of The Interactive Brain Hypothesis[13] where social cognition brain mechanisms, even those used in non-interactive situations, are proposed to have interactive origins.

Similar Theories of the Growth of Knowledge[edit]

Another current of biology-inspired theories of the growth of knowledge that are even more closely tied to Universal Darwinism in comparison to enactivism are those of evolutionary epistemologists, such as Karl Popper and Donald T. Campbell.[14] In common with enactivism is their emphasis on both action and embodiment as sources of that knowledge which must reflect the environment well enough for the organism to be able to survive in it and which makes them competitive enough to be able to reproduce at sustainable rate in their environment.

Scholars with sympathetic ideas[edit]

Other related scholars[edit]

Yet other authors of similar "Natural Growth of Knowledge" theories[edit]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • De Jaegher, H., and Di Paolo, E. A. (2007). Participatory sense-making: An enactive approach to social cognition. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6(4), 485 – 507.
  • Di Paolo, E. A., Rohde, M. and De Jaegher, H., (2010). Horizons for the Enactive Mind: Values, Social Interaction, and Play. In J. Stewart, O. Gapenne and E. A. Di Paolo (eds), Enaction: Towards a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 33 – 87. ISBN 9780262014601
  • Hutto, D. D. (Ed.) (2006). Radical Enactivism: Intentionality, phenomenology, and narrative. In R. D. Ellis & N. Newton (Series Eds.), Consciousness & Emotion, vol. 2. ISBN 90-272-4151-1
  • McGann, M. & Torrance, S. (2005). Doing it and meaning it (and the relationship between the two). In R. D. Ellis & N. Newton, Consciousness & Emotion, vol. 1: Agency, conscious choice, and selective perception. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. ISBN 1-58811-596-8


  1. ^ a b c Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind: cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  2. ^ Thompson, Evan (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press. ISBN 0674057511. 
  3. ^ Hutto, D., & Myin, E. (2013). Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds Without Content. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. ISBN 0262018543. 
  4. ^ Stewart, J., Gapenne, O., & Di Paolo, E., ed. (2010). Enaction: Towards a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. ISBN 9780262014601. 
  5. ^ Noë, Alva (2012). Varieties of Presence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674062146. 
  6. ^ Ellis, R. D., & Newton, N. (2005). Consciousness & emotion: agency, conscious choice, and selective perception. Amsterdam [etc.: Benjamins.
  7. ^ a b Burman, J. T. (2006). [Review of the book Consciousness & Emotion, vol. 1: Agency, conscious choice, and selective perception.], Journal of Consciousness Studies, 13(12), pp. 115-119. Full-text
  8. ^ Radical Enactivism
  9. ^ Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1992). The tree of knowledge: the biological roots of human understanding (Rev. ed.). Boston: Shambhala ; p255.
  10. ^ McGann, M., De Jaegher, H., & Di Paolo, E. A. (2013). Enaction and psychology, Review of General Psychology, 17(2). http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0032935
  11. ^ De Jaegher, H. and Di Paolo, E. A. (2007) Participatory Sense-Making: An enactive approach to social cognition, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6(4), 485-507. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11097-007-9076-9
  12. ^ De Jaegher H, Di Paolo E, and Gallagher S (2010). Can social interaction constitute social cognition? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(10), 441-447. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.06.009
  13. ^ Di Paolo, E., De Jaegher, H. (2012) The Interactive Brain Hypothesis, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6:163. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00163
  14. ^ Gary Cziko (1995) Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution (MIT Press)
  15. ^ Hanne De Jaegher
  16. ^ Daniel Hutto
  17. ^ Riccardo Manzotti
  18. ^ Erik Myin
  19. ^ Marek McGann
  20. ^ Teed Rockwell