Radical Enactivism: Theoretical Pluralism and Empirical Turn in Consciousness


The first to introduce this notion of embodied consciousness were Eleanor Rosch, Evan Thompson, Francisco J. Varela in their book The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience:

“By using the term embodied we mean to highlight two points: first that cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second, that these individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context.” (p. 172-173)

Their argument for an enactivist approach argues that cognition arises through a dynamic interaction between an acting organism and its environment. It claims that our environment is one which we selectively create through our capacities to interact with the world. “Organisms do not passively receive information from their environments, which they then translate into internal representations. Natural cognitive systems…participate in the generation of meaning …engaging in transformational and not merely informational interactions: they enact a world.”1

Yet, there are a few scientists who have pushed this notion into a more radical edge. Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds without Content, by Dan Hutto and Erik Myin would develop a non-representationalist theory of cognition: “We will have succeeded if, having reached the end of the book, the reader is convinced that the idea of basic contentless minds cannot be cursorily dismissed; that it is a live option that deserves to be taken much more seriously than it is currently” (xi).1 I want go over their work today since my friend R. Scott Bakker did a nice job of introduction in Just Plain Crazy Enactive Cognition.

theoretical pluralism following the early work of Feyerabend. He’ll begin by attacking what he’ll term Hegelian arguments: it is an argument that a class of scientific approaches is doomed to fail, based on theoretical posits and little or no empirical evidence. (KL 120) This is the notion that many philosophers will posit a theoretical, conceptual, or logical proposition with little or not basis in empirical fact to support the proposition, and then use this reasonable proposition to attach empirically based arguments. A circular program based on abstract propositional arguments rather than on the evidence of accumulated empirical facts of science, etc. He gives several examples: Hegel’s argument that no planets could exist between Mars and Jupiter; Michael Behe’s argument for an intelligent designer; and, Chomsky’s poverty of the stimulus argument for innate grammar. He shows how each of these are based on abstract posited propositions that go against any and all empirical based approaches, and that none of them give any supporting evidence for their suppositions. The old rabbit in the magic hat trick of all arguments stop and the proposition being posited. Either one accepts the logical or conceptual proposition are one doesn’t.

What he’ll argue instead is that the Hegelian arguments come about because of the immaturity of particular sciences and their fields of study. That is, both approaches to their subject matter lack a unifying set of conceptual principles and experimental methodologies, what Kuhn (1962) called a paradigm. (KL 227-230) A paradigm shift comes about when various sciences accumulate a variety of anomalous evidence that no longer fits into the current theoretical or empirical frameworks of the sciences. What happens then is that new experimental approaches open up and discover ways around the bottleneck of current theoretical limitations: paradigm shifts will typically be based on largely nonempirical arguments. As he’ll remind us in most cases, though, the arguments that lead to a paradigm shift will not be Hegelian in the sense described above. In particular, they will serve to energize a field around a set of new assumptions by laying out this set of new assumptions and showing what phenomena they promise to account for. The Hegelian arguments described above are negative: they argue from a set of assumptions that some existent theory cannot account for phenomena. We should, however, expect Hegelian arguments during times of crisis, as scientists begin to lose confidence in the dominant paradigm, and begin to question some of its assumptions. We should also expect rearguard Hegelian arguments defending the in-crisis paradigm, by attacking potential replacements. (KL 262-267)

This is why it is likely that experimentally discovered facts will largely determine the appropriate theoretical approach in cognitive science. We should let the facts on the ground do that. Indeed, my bet is that the empirical facts will ultimately show that we need more than one theoretical approach in cognitive science. So that what he recommends is a pluralistic competition among various approaches rather than following some negative Hegelian argument that would shut down experimental and empirical approaches that do not fit into the prevalent official view of the sciences. (KL 291)

Embodied Cognition and Radical Embodied Cognition

In part two of his book he’ll argue that for the most part the cognitive scientists are bound to a structural representationalism (this link should give you a good background on representational theories of mind). Radical enactivism being non-representationalist has been marginalized at best, yet has slowly found many scientists working within its experimental field.

Against the vast enclave of representational theories of mind, most succumbing to the computational model (rule-governed manipulations of internal representations), embodied cognition would emerge out of the work of an ecological theory of vision (Gibson 1979). In this view perception is seen to be direct, primarily for the guidance of action, and perception is of affordances. An affordance is typically a relation between an object or an environment and an organism, that affords the opportunity for that organism to perform an action. For example, a knob affords twisting, and perhaps pushing, while a cord affords pulling. As a relation, an affordance exhibits the possibility of some action, and is not a property of either an organism or its environment alone.

As Chemero will tell us an affordance is neither an objective property nor a subjective property; or it is both if you like. An affordance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us to understand its inadequacy. It is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. An affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer. (KL 419) From Gibson’s early work the work of Barwise and Perry developed their situation semantics in order to account for meaning without reference to mental representations. In it they would provide a solid theoretical foundation for reasoning about common-sense and real world situations, typically in the context of theoretical linguistics, philosophy, or applied natural language processing. Situations, unlike worlds, are not complete in the sense that every proposition or its negation holds in a world. According to Situations and Attitudes, meaning is a relation between a discourse situation, a connective situation and a described situation.4

As Chemero states the current work in embodied cognitive science that arose from these sources (among others, of course) is a broad-based movement, incorporating work in robotics, simulated evolution, developmental psychology, perception, motor control, cognitive artifacts, phenomenology, and, of course, theoretical manifestos. (KL 451) Most cognitive enactivists utilize what they term as a dynamical systems approach, that is in itself not completely antirepresentationalistic. Instead they follow what Andy Clark would term “action-oriented representations” (KL 477). Action-oriented representations differ from representations in earlier computationalist theories of mind in that they represent things in a nonneutral way, as geared to an animal’s actions, as affordances. Action-oriented representations are more primitive than other representations in that they can lead to effective behavior without requiring separate representations of the state of the world and the cognitive system’s goals. That is, the perceptual systems of agents need not build an action-neutral representation of the world, which can then be used by the action-producing parts of the agent to guide behavior; instead, the agent produces representations that are geared toward the actions it performs from the beginning. (KL 477-482).

Because of the complexity involved in embodied forms of consciousness humans over time have learned to “off-load” some of their intelligence into the body and the environment. (KL 486) Because of this off-loading of computational complexity onto the environment Clark (2001) would call for a dynamic computationalism in which we can see that certain of the entities of dynamical models are representations in computational systems that span brain, body, and environment. (KL 501) Clark went so far as describing us as cyborgs, both technological and dynamic systems whose intelligence was both internal (brain-body) and external (environment). In his own book Radical Embodied Cognitive Science Clark would define cognition:

Thesis of Radical Embodied Cognition Structured, symbolic, representational, and computational views of cognition are mistaken. Embodied cognition is best studied by means of noncomputational and nonrepresentational ideas and explanatory schemes, involving, e.g., the tools of Dynamical Systems theory. (Clark 1997, 148; 2001, 129) (Chemero, KL 511)

Chemero in his work would add “I hereby define radical embodied cognitive science as the scientific study of perception, cognition, and action as necessarily embodied phenomenon, using explanatory tools that do not posit mental representations. It is cognitive science without mental gymnastics.” (KL 524) He’ll go on to report:

In particular, embodied cognitive science embraces the necessity of embodiment and the value of dynamical explanation, but combines them with the computational theory of mind. It is the claims that embodied cognitive science rejects that are of interest here. Situated, embodied cognitive scientists typically reject the antirepresentationalism of Gibson, Barwise and Perry, and Brooks, while antirepresentationalism (which implies anticomputationalism) is the core of radical embodied cognitive science. Radical embodied cognitive science is a form of eliminativism, one that has its historical roots in American naturalism. I would suggest, then, that radical embodied cognitive science is not a radicalization of embodied cognitive science. Instead, embodied cognitive science should be seen as a watering down of radical embodied cognitive science, and an attempt to combine a theory that is ultimately American naturalist and eliminativist in origin with the computational theory of mind.(KL 528-536).

Ultimately he’ll argue that radical enactivism is part of a tradition of nonrepresentational psychology that includes American naturalism, behaviorism, and ecological psychology. This tradition is separate from the representationalist tradition that runs from Augustine through Descartes to today’s computational cognitive scientists. This indicates that radical embodied cognitive science is not just a radicalization of today’s situated, embodied movement. Instead, embodied cognitive science is an attempt to combine American naturalism with computationalism. Secondly he tried to show that radical embodied cognitive science can explain cognition as the unfolding of a brain-body-environment system, and not as mental gymnastics. (KL 785-791).

Chemero goes in to more detail, but I’ll leave that to the reader to investigate. For those interested in the current state of the cognitive sciences this short work would be a good place to begin in understanding the radical enactivist program. One could then move on to Hutto and Myin Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds without Content and Chemero’s Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. Also a group of essays brought together in Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science.  

  1. Ezequiel A Di Paolo, Marieke Rhohde, Hanne De Jaegher (2014). “Horizons for the enactive mind: Values, social interaction, and play”. In John Stewart, Oliver Gapenne, Ezequiel A Di Paolo, eds. Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science. MIT Press. 33 ff.
  2. Hutto, Daniel D.; Myin, Erik (2012-12-14). Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds without Content (Kindle Location 96). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Chemero, Anthony (2014-01-10). Stage Setting: A BIT of Radical Embodied Cognitive Science (MIT Press BITS) (Kindle Location 294). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
  4. Jon Barwise and John Perry, Situations and Attitudes, 1983. MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-02189-7

2 thoughts on “Radical Enactivism: Theoretical Pluralism and Empirical Turn in Consciousness

  1. Affordances as a notion are incomplete without an account of how successive heuristic applications themselves canalize the reinforcement of probable pathways of affordability (Riegler) in preferred directions. I wish scott would find the three papers from japanese researches dedicated to characterizing heuristic application in terms of the second law. Does anyone have those papers?


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