Monday, 10 April 2017

Enaction as a core connective concept: is non-reducible naturalism the way into consensus?

Brian D. Cohen "Strata" watercolor on paper

“Naturalism” is the doctrine that all can be explained via science – in contrast to anti-realism, among other prevailing philosophies of mind. However, the term “naturalism” has a long history of shifting meanings, and may or may not be a useful term for the current argument. According to the SEP, “the term 'naturalism' has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy.” (Papineu, 2016)

Historically, the term was employed by John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars, who sought to connect philosophic discourse to what was emerging as so-called “hard science” in the mid 1900s. As the disciplines of physics, biology, sociology, and psychology came to use more sophisticated “scientific methods”, these thinkers urged that human experience be situated within the natural world rather than outside it. Believing that “reality is exhausted by nature, contain[s] nothing “supernatural”, and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality” (Papineu, 2016), the self-identified followers of Naturalism were, essentially, Naturalists in the old-fashioned meaning of the term. That is, those individuals who knew the names of biotia, understood weather patterns, and knew their granite from their basalt. There was a long tradition of “gentleman and lady” naturalists, those who were stamp collectors of butterflies, beetles, and pressed flowers; who sought solace in the hyper-organizing stratagem of cataloging the world via Linnaeus’ taxonomy. Also, Naturalists who were writers, such as Henry David Thoreau in New England, and John Muir in the western US, were instrumental in politicizing the landscape in order to drive the public towards conservation.

Which brings me to the curious assertion from DeJeagher and Di Paolo (2007) that the current hot topic in cognitive science to explain cognition is enaction.
“Rather than being a set of all radically novel ideas, the enactive approach is better construed
as a synthesis of some new but also some old themes. Overall, the enactive perspective is a
kind of non-reductive naturalism. It sees the properties of living and cognitive systems as
part of a continuum and consequently advocates a scientific program that explores several
phases along this dimension.” (p.3)

I have traced the idea of Naturalism above (and admitted that there does not seem to be a consensus among philosophers as to its current usage), now for the term “reduction.” Reduction is the idea that facts (or entities) needed to make “true” a certain proposition about an area of discourse can be superseded – or are preceded – by other facts, and therefore the principle topic is reduced (simplified or explained only by) other facts or entities e.g.: biology goes to chemistry goes to physics.

So, a non-reductive naturalism is a construct that links science and the natural world in meaning, while being a whole in itself – De Jeagher and Di Paolo use the term paradigm. Enaction is descried with five core ideas that are mutually supported (as in non-reducible) autonomy, sense-making, embodiment, emergence, and experience. The authors introduce enaction in this sense, in order to “…sketch an enactive account of social understanding that takes the properties of the interaction process as its point of departure.” (p1) The paper continues with cogent and coherent arguments to support the basic notion that organisms (and here they insist that issues for non-human life are equally as relevant as for human life) exist within social dimensions, and it would behoove the new cognitive science to embrace such a framework as progress continues for understanding cognition.

Em-bedded in the world and time; em-bodied throughout the organisms’ soma—that is, not exclusive to the brain; emergent through processes of interaction; experienced phenomenologically: En-active cognition is the connecting paradigm which may set out a way for disparate disciplines, perspectives and philosophies to engage with the troubling question, the ultimate human quest for understanding of our own cognition. Will it work?

De Jaegher, H  and Di Paolo, E. (2007). Participatory Sense-Making: An Enactive Approach to Social Cognition. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 2007.

Papineau, David, "Naturalism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

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