An enactive perspective on language (Finally!)

After more than one and a half years, our work on enactivism and language (co-authored with Elena Cuffari and Hanne De Jaegher) has finally been published.

The enactive approach has often been criticised for not offering a clear story about high-level human cognition. It’s been said that it is often ok to think in enactive terms for simple, environmentally-guided performances (such as walking, even dancing) but that traditional computational stories will be necessary to bridge such “low-level” performances with “high-level” mental function, such as human linguistic capability. The endgame of such stories is a return to some form of representationalism.

We show in this paper that there are concrete alternatives to this way of thinking and that dichotomies such as high and low-level cognition, “online”/”offline” performance, etc. are the first to go when we consider the activity of languaging enactively.

We offer two models linking participatory sense-making and languaging. One is dialectical (figure below), the other describes the development of linguistic sensitivities and linguistic bodies diachronically.


Find the open-access article here:

Cuffari, E. Di Paolo, E., De Jaegher, H. (2014) From participatory sense-making to language: There and back again, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, doi 10.1007/s11097-014-9404-9.

AVANT Interview, 2012

Hanne De Jaegher and I have been interviewed on our work on enactivism by the open access journal AVANT Volume III, Issue 2/2012 (October-December), ISSN: 2082-6710.

You can download the interview here and Tom Froese’s introduction here.


Several other interesting things in this issue. It can be downloaded as a whole.

The social invisible

Some work takes time to see the light. I’ve decided to post here a series of ideas that remain work in progress, some of them still burning slow while more urgent commitments get the most of my attention.

Here’s the abstract and the slides of a talk I gave in Oct 2010 at a conference on Embodiment, Intersubjectivity and Psychopathology at the University of Heidelberg. This should eventually be worked into a proper publication soon.

The social invisible

Ezequiel Di Paolo,

The enactive approach to life and mind examines the systemic conditions for autonomy, agency and (inter)subjectivity. As defined in this approach, engagement in social interaction is what happens when encounters between autonomous agents acquire a form of autonomy in themselves. However, it is not required yet that I recognise the other as an other. Indeed, it has been empirically demonstrated that social coordination can happen without interactors being aware of each other’s presence. The processes that allow us to interact with others do not all pass through the bottleneck of strictly interpretative acts. What are the phenomenological implications of this?

Interaction dynamics show the same kind of organisational self-reference that defines the autonomy of a single organism and the normativity of its sense-making (its world). In other words, the processes of intra-bodily and inter-bodily coordination are intersecting systemic cousins. I claim that 1) the intersection of intra- and inter-bodily coordination is a condition of possibility for intersubjectivity, 2) this intersection is not, in the first instance, manifest intentionally but (if at all) as forms of “self-other-affection” (feelings of togetherness, isolation, fluidity, tension, etc.), 3) precarious individual autonomy can develop systemic dependencies on inter-individual engagement, thus making the conditions for self-affection dependent on a history of social encounters.

The latter possibility implies that there is no zero-level of human experience that is itself not already social, that our experience is not only enabled by a corporeal invisible (the interiority and self-affection of life according to Henry or the flesh of the world reversed on itself according to Merleau-Ponty) but also by a social invisible.

Among the varieties of the social invisible, the enactive approach has begun to investigate the sensitivity to social norms in processes that range from the self-structuring of normativity by a history of unintended interactive breakdowns and recoveries, to institutionalised practices of socialisation of the body and its habits. Moreover, participatory sense-making may in part retroactively construct the very objects of social interpretation via non-intentional routes. In other words, my understanding of the other may result from processes already operative on the other’s intentions and it may feed back on those processes. Assuming a non-static and open notion of intentions, the understanding of social acts may run simultaneously to, or even precede, the intention behind the acts themselves.

Slides of the talk (pdf)

Note: Since I was trying to show the ‘topological’ similarities between two lines of argument, one phenomenological linking self-affection and hetero-affection, the other enactive/scientific, linking autonomy and social interaction, I decided to colour-code some of the concepts and slide headings (orange = phenomenology, green = science).

Copyleft under the Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike license. Feel free to copy for non-commercial purposes, but please, do not re-use any of content without attribution.

Two recent papers looking at the micro and macro aspects of enaction

Egbert, M. D., Barandiaran, X. E., & Di Paolo, E. A. (2012). Behavioral metabolution: The adaptive and evolutionary potential of metabolism-based chemotaxis. Artificial Life, 18(1), 1-25. doi:10.1162/artl_a_00047.


We use a minimal model of metabolism-based chemotaxis to show how a coupling between metabolism and behavior can affect evolutionary dynamics in a process we refer to as behavioral metabolution. This mutual influence can function as an in-the-moment, intrinsic evaluation of the adaptive value of a novel situation, such as an encounter with a compound that activates new metabolic pathways. Our model demonstrates how changes to metabolic pathways can lead to improvement of behavioral strategies, and conversely, how behavior can contribute to the exploration and fixation of new metabolic pathways. These examples indicate the potentially important role that the interplay between behavior and metabolism could have played in shaping adaptive evolution in early life and protolife. We argue that the processes illustrated by these models can be interpreted as an unorthodox instantiation of the principles of evolution by random variation and selective retention. We then discuss how the interaction between metabolism and behavior can facilitate evolution through (i) increasing exposure to environmental variation, (ii) making more likely the fixation of some beneficial metabolic pathways, (iii) providing a mechanism for in-the-moment adaptation to changes in the environment and to changes in the organization of the organism itself, and (iv) generating conditions that are conducive to speciation.

Froese, T. and Di Paolo, E. A. (2011). The enactive approach: Theoretical sketches from cell to society. Pragmatics and Cognition, 19, 1-36.


There is a small but growing community of researchers spanning a spectrum of disciplines which are united in rejecting the still dominant computationalist paradigm in favor of the enactive approach. The framework of this approach is centered on a core set of ideas, such as autonomy, sense-making, emergence, embodiment, and experience. These concepts are finding novel applications in a diverse range of areas. One hot topic has been the establishment of an enactive approach to social interaction. The main purpose of this paper is to serve as an advanced entry point into these recent developments. It accomplishes this task in a twofold manner: (i) it provides a succinct synthesis of the most important core ideas and arguments in the theoretical framework of the enactive approach, and (ii) it uses this synthesis to refine the current enactive approach to social interac- tion. A new operational definition of social interaction is proposed which not only emphasizes the cognitive agency of the individuals and the irreducibility of the interaction process itself, but also the need for jointly co-regulated action. It is suggested that this revised conception of ‘socio-cognitive interaction’ may provide the necessary middle ground from which to understand the confluence of biological and cultural values in personal action.

Keywords: adaptivity, autonomy, cognition, enaction, sense-making, social interaction

And watch out for a couple of forthcoming papers in the participatory sense-making saga!