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 Interactive Brain Hypothesis

A new paper is now available exploring the implications of participatory sense-making for social neuroscience.

The Interactive Brain Hypothesis

Ezequiel Di Paolo & Hanne De Jaegher

Abstract. Enactive approaches foreground the role of interpersonal interaction in explanations of social understanding. This motivates, in combination with a recent interest in neuroscientific studies involving actual interactions, the question of how interactive processes relate to neural mechanisms involved in social understanding. We introduce the Interactive Brain Hypothesis (IBH) in order to help map the spectrum of possible relations between social interaction and neural processes. The hypothesis states that interactive experience and skills play enabling roles in both the development and current function of social brain mechanisms, even in cases where social understanding happens in the absence of immediate interaction. We examine the plausibility of this hypothesis against developmental and neurobiological evidence and contrast it with the widespread assumption that mindreading is crucial to all social cognition. We describe the elements of social interaction that bear most directly on this hypothesis and discuss the empirical possibilities open to social neuroscience. We propose that the link between coordination dynamics and social understanding can be best grasped by studying transitions between states of coordination. These transitions form part of the self-organization of interaction processes that characterize the dynamics of social engagement. The patterns and synergies of this self-organization help explain how individuals understand each other. Various possibilities for role-taking emerge during interaction, determining a spectrum of participation. This view contrasts sharply with the observational stance that has guided research in social neuroscience until recently. We also introduce the concept of readiness to interact to describe the practices and dispositions that are summoned in situations of social significance (even if not interactive). This latter idea links interactive factors to more classical observational scenarios.

Download your free PDF here:


Di Paolo E and De Jaegher H (2012) The interactive brain hypothesis. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 6:163. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00163

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).

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