Enactivism: [Description] [Math Ed][Reading list]


As described by David A. Reid

"Enactivism" is used by Bateson, Maturana, Rosch, Thomson, and Varela to label their theories. The "Experientialism" of Lakoff and Johnson is closely related to Enactivism, and I will not distinguish them here. Enactivism is a theory of mind, but, as Bateson (1987) notes, from an Enactivist perspective "epistemology and theories of mind and theories of evolution are very close to being the same thing" (p. 38) so discussions of Enactivism range through the traditional disciplines of philosophy, psychology, and biology. Elements of the psychology of Piaget and Vygotsky are compatible with Enactivism, and I will draw on their writings occasionally, especially in considering Enactivism in relation to learning. The philosophical basis of Enactivism can be found, with some effort, in the writings of Wittgenstein on the philosophy of psychology, and I will make connection with his work wherever possible.

 A good starting point to understanding Enactivism is the problem of the relationship between an entity and its surroundings. The first part of this problem is specifying what it is that makes us see the entity as separate from its surroundings. The term organization is used to describe those features of an entity which allow an observer to distinguish it from everything else. Note that this implies that an entity's organization varies from observer to observer.

 Some entities have an organization that is complex. Complexity is a term borrowed from complexity theorists (e.g., Kauffman, 1993). A system is complex if "a great many independent agents are interacting with each other in a great many ways" (Waldrop, 1992, p. 11). Complex systems create themselves, in the sense that they come into being and remain in existence through their own internal interactions.

Systems that continually create themselves are referred to in Enactivism asautopoetic. The components of autopoetic systems "must be dynamically related in a network of ongoing interactions" (Maturana & Varela, 1992, pp. 43-44). That is, the components interact in ways which are continually changing, but which at the same time allow for the continuation of interactions so that the system continues to exist. In addition, the interactions of the components of an autopoetic system are responsible for the production of the components themselves. In summary, an autopoetic system is an emergent phenomenon arising from the interaction of components which, by way of these interactions, give rise to new interactions and new components, while preserving the system's autopoetic character.

 Adapting involves changes to a system's structure. It is important to distinguish between the structure of a system and its organization. A system's organization includes the invariant features without which it would cease to be what it is. An autopoetic system must maintain its organization. The structure of a system includes all its features at a given moment. Interactions with its environment and within the system itself result in a continuous modification of a system's structure.

The problem is how to handle the problem of structural change and to show how an organism, which exists in a medium and which operates adequately to its need, can undergo a continuous structural change such that it goes on acting adequately in its medium, even though the medium is changing. Many names could be given to this; it could be called learning. (Maturana, 1987, pp. 74-75)

 Living systems achieve autopoesis by acting in some way to adjust to local conditions. It is this acting that indicates cognition, so in Enactivism, cognition is a feature of all living systems. This idea is encapsulated in the phrase "Knowing is being is doing." The word "enactivism" is derived from this idea of knowing in action. The way a living system comes to know about the medium it is in is through interaction with that medium. This implies that the system's knowledge of its world depends not only on the medium, but also on the actions the system is capable of.

An autopoetic system is "an active self-updating collection of structures capable of informing (or shaping) its surrounding medium into a world through a history of structural coupling with it" (Varela, 1987, p. 52). As noted above, a system only knows about those aspects of its medium with which it can interact in some way. This means that in being, doing, and knowing, a system defines the world in which it lives.

The activity of coming to know, of learning, is a modification of structure. At the same time it is the system's structure that limits what actions it can take in the environment, and therefore what it can come to know. This limitation of a system's possible actions is called structure determinism. What a system does in response to a trigger from its medium is determined entirely by its structure.

If I have a living system ... then this living system is in a medium with which it interacts. Its dynamics of state result in interactions with the medium, and the dynamics of state within the medium result in interactions with the living system. What happens in interaction? Since this is a structure determined system ... the medium triggers a change of state in the system, and the system triggers a change of state in the medium. What change of state? One of those which is permitted by the structure of the system. (Maturana, 1987, p. 75)

 In this passage Maturana introduces a central idea of Enactivism: co-emergence. The interaction between a system and a medium (which may include other autopoetic systems) is the mechanism by which both the system and the medium change. As long as a system and a medium continue to be able to interact they are said to be structurally coupled and they co-emerge. It should be emphasized that co-emergence does not imply that the system and the medium are becoming more fully adapted to each other. All that is certain is that their structures allow them to interact. It is possible that a history of structural coupling may lead to a situation in which the system and the medium are no longer able to interact. In this case they cease to be structurally coupled. This may be because the system migrates to another medium or because the interaction between the medium and the system disrupts the organization of one or the other, and it dies.

In describing the relationship between an entity and its environment, the mistake is sometimes made of seeing the environment as prescribing the structure of the entity. For example, in the popular understanding of Darwin's theory of evolution animals are seen as having certain features because their environment requires that feature. So polar bears are white, unlike most other bears, because they live in snowy surroundings. The enactivist view of evolution is one of natural drift, based on an animal's environmentproscribing certain features. This proscription is simply another way of looking at the breakdown of the structural coupling between the animal and its environment. If the animal's structure does not allow for interaction with its environment, then it dies. In effect it is not allowed to have that structure. This is not the same as the environment requiring that it have a certain structure, and in fact many different structures are possible within the constraints imposed by the need to remain structurally coupled. The full range of possible structures defines a sphere of behavioral possibilities within which animals can act.

For references, see the Enactivism reading list.

This page maintained by David A. Reid.   email: david.reid@acadiau.ca

Enactivism: [Description] [Math Ed][Reading list]