Enaction and Dialectics – Part I

6 October 2022

The enactive approach is a rich perspective on the big questions of life and mind originating in the work of Francisco Varela and colleagues. [1] It is a perspective in continuous development, which makes it difficult to condense in a brief text.

Enaction is a way of looking at life and mind as continuous. This way of looking at nature follows the movement of Varela’s thinking both in theme and style to try to arrive at novel proposals concerning our mental and affective life in community with others. Enaction is a very active field of research with     an increasing and encouraging number of young people contributing to it, as can be witnessed by the growing number of articles, books, conferences and doctoral theses focused on the open questions of this approach.[2]

I believe that many people, particularly in the humanities and social sciences as well as in various fields of practice, such as different kinds of therapy, and the arts, find interest in the fact that enaction presents itself as alternative to the guiding metaphors of contemporary cognitive science and neuroscience. These metaphors make us see the mind as the activity of the brain, and the brain as a computer. Instead, the enactive way of thinking puts bodies, with their history, relations, and experiences, at the center of any serious theorizing about mind and life.

Enaction offers a philosophy that rejects the reductive individualism of the computational mainstream view. Several reasons justify this rejection and I will not dwell on them, but they include scientific reasons that criticize the misapplication of technical concepts to phenomena beyond their scope of validity, to ethical and political reasons that reject the view of human beings as individual self-sufficient islands that engage with communities and with the Earth in an incidental or optional manner, instead of actually being constituted by their communities and by the Earth. For enaction, we must be much more rigorous in our science and much more ethically aware of what we do when we engage in constructing a framework to ask and answer questions about ourselves and our world.

The main tenet of the enactive approach is that we are always already biological, sensorimotor, and social bodies engaged in the ongoing adventure of making ourselves and our world together with others and together with our material environment. It is through our participation, our acting in the world, that we can be in the world and a world comes into being. Rather than having a detached relation to our world, one in which we must model it as best we can and then make decisions based on such models, enaction is about being-in-the-world and actively participating in it, before any attitude of contemplative detachment is even possible. This is summarized in the enactive slogan: “Laying down the path in walking”, which reminds us that the path (the world of meaning, our bodies, our history, our future) is not out there to be deciphered but is always under construction in the meeting of our practice and the sociomaterial conditions of the world.[3]

These lofty statements must be translated into the idioms of science (for instance, hypotheses about the role of active movement in the constitution of perceptual experience[4]), the idioms of practice (for instance, the centrality of intersubjectivity in therapeutic processes[5]), and the idioms of politics and ethics (for instance, the generative role of difference in orienting our open ways of human becoming[6]).

The enactive approach (I prefer not to use the term “enactivism”) is concerned with questions, such as what are living organisms? how do they relate to their environment? what makes them agents with points of view, concerns, and affective life? How do we relate and build a world of meaning together with other organisms, both human and non-human?

Philosophically speaking, the enactive approach rejects the pervasive dualisms that currently dominate science and philosophy: dualisms between subject and object, body and mind, self and other, humanity and nature, observer and observed, descriptive and prescriptive knowing, and so on. This rejection, however, must be properly understood. It is not as simple as stating that we should not draw artificial barriers between these terms, for instance, between body and mind, which is, on the one hand, a defensible claim and has been voiced repeatedly over the last centuries but, on the other hand, falls short of moving our understanding forward. The criticism of modernity is as old as modernity. As is often the case, most philosophers and scientists today nominally, even vociferously, reject dualisms, and yet dualistic thinking remains dominant, which is an indication that there is much work to be done underneath the surface.

It is imperative, therefore, to criticize dualisms and in addition to this to establish a positive account both of the continuity and the difference between opposed terms, such as subject and object, body and mind. Why does it seem so “natural” to think of them as distinct, even opposed? An embodied approach to the mind, if successful, must achieve two goals: to show us how exactly our minds are embodied, how “dichotomous” terms are in fact continuous, but also to show us why it is so easy to think of these terms as separate, even as belonging to metaphysically distinct realms, in short, why do they invite in us thinking and affective processes that highlight their difference rather than their continuity.

This is the idea of dissolving barriers without erasing difference. In some cases, accepting boundaries but learning about the flows that cross them and how to see through them.

In this crucial aspect, enactive thinking differs sharply both from reductionism and from holism. It is neither. It is neither deflationary nor mystical. It is strongly and definitely anti-mysterian and rejects the faith in reductionism as well as in non-naturalism.

To produce a science and a philosophy of mind, life, and nature in this mode is a difficult goal, but one that I think we are on the way to achieving, with lots of work still to be done. To be able to say both why some accounts of the mind must be rejected and at the same time why they do make some kind of sense is to engage in the simultaneous adoption of multiple perspectives, to face the complex circularities that loop through bodies and world, through biochemistry and gestures, through gestures and thinking, through thinking and practices, through practices and traditions, through traditions and biochemistry.

So, it is proper to say that our goal requires us to be active participants rather than disengaged observers in some academic ivory tower. And it also requires us to become familiar with a way of thinking that is not commonly taught in academic circles, even if it has accompanied human thought for centuries and in many different traditions throughout the planet. I am speaking of dialectics.

We see dialectics at the root of enactive thinking. In 1976, a young Francisco Varela published a paper called “Not one, not two”, which is a fitting summary of the attitude I am trying to describe, the attitude we should adopt towards any pervasive dualism. (A way of exercising our dialectical muscles is to look at any strongly contrasted ideas always with a “not-one, not-two” lens and see what happens). His dialectical engagement continued with the publication in 1979 of Principles of Biological Autonomy, where he lists as an important influence dialectical treatises such as Karel Kosík’s Dialectics of the Concrete, and Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason.

While enaction draws from many sources, such as cybernetics and dynamical systems theory, theories of biological organization, embodied approaches to cognition, phenomenology, pragmatism, psychoanalysis, and mindfulness traditions, it is far from being simply a pluralism that states that all of these perspectives are relevant to any given question. It says something else; it brings different sources together in concrete syntheses applicable to the particular issue at hand. Enaction is a thinking community with a particular, if diversely manifested, think-style, to better translate philosopher of science Ludwik Fleck’s notion of Denkstil in his Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (often rendered more passively as “thought style”).

Enaction’s think-style is dialectic. It’s always been.

This is, in my opinion, what’s different between enaction and systems theory, cybernetics, embodied cognitive science, phenomenology, biology, and other traditions from which it nourishes itself. These traditions have had their own encounters with dialectics, but often a bit at their fringes.[7] Dialectics is the way with which we circle around questions from multiple vantage points in dialogue, often in tension and in development, and the acceptance that in the movement, our ideas change, our concepts, evolve. This is at the heart of a dialectical attitude.

Now, I must give you some idea of why I say this, give you some examples, and hopefully try to make this claim as clear as possible.

I will state various aspects of dialectical thinking, which in itself is not a monolithic or dogmatic approach with rules written in stone (as it has sometimes been claimed) but a recognition that our thinking is historical and it evolves in interaction with nature and a multiplicity of perspectives that more often than not are different from ours.

The first paramount aspect of dialectical thinking is that it aims at directing our thinking back towards the concrete. All productive thinking is a process of concretization. It is a process of producing thoughts, and using them.

Abstractions are operations of our bodies and our minds. When we isolate a faulty part from a machine, for instance, we are abstracting it; when we separate the idea of beauty from those things we see as beautiful we are abstracting. This is fine; we often need to do this. But dialectics is the reminder that we need at some point to go back towards the concrete, to put things together so we can see how the abstracted relations are not merely incidental, how parts are not the same when isolated as when put to operate in relation to other parts, and so on. Dialectics’ goal is the “ascent of the abstract to the concrete”, a notion that goes back to Hegel, but acquires a different significance in Marx. And we see this stated explicitly in Varela’s work, in his insistence of the re-enchantment of the concrete manifested in how we must always cope with breakdowns and contradictions, these being at the basis of the enactive conception of sense-making.[8]

Many think of dialectics as a series of rules. And indeed there are often recurring dialectical motifs, such as the synthesis between ideas in opposition, the transformation of quantity into quality, and so on. But these are always to be understood as applicable when they are relevant. And how can we know if they are relevant: the concrete situation must tell us (i.e., we must also listen).

This is something Merleau-Ponty states very clearly in the epilogue to Adventures of the Dialectic, Merleau-Ponty (1973, 203). The appropriate dialectical tool must refer always to a concrete constellation we are confronted with.

Put differently, to think dialectically is to let the world (the question, the system, the phenomenon) guide us and direct how our thinking needs to move. In that sense, we cannot be detached observers. Two epistemic virtues that underlie dialectics are engaged participation and criticism, being always conscious that our knowledge is incomplete, always in becoming.

This is not taught in school! At least not in Western academia. But it is a way of thinking that is particularly suited for understanding complex systems, especially biological, ecological, and historical systems.

To contrast dialectics with analytical/reductionist thinking and with holism, it is useful to appeal to a metaphor based on our senses, bearing in mind that as a metaphor it also has its limitations.

Analytical thinking can be said to be based on visual epistemology, an epistemology of images,[9] whereby we stand and look, we isolate parts, draw boundaries on the model of spatial zones, and think in terms of pictures that map relations between entities. It’s a way of thinking with a local, differential spatiality. We see what’s out there. And we can focus entirely on parts independently of their relation (the same way we can, if we wish, focus on a patch of colour in a painting).

Holism, by contrast, is guided by a feeling epistemology, driven by the dissatisfaction provoked by the results of analysis when confronted with lived experience. It transcends the analytical gaze and brings forth patterns of connection and cohesiveness that manifest as wholes. This perspective is exemplified by the Romantics from Goethe onwards up some branches of organicism and contemporary abusers of the “eco-” prefix. The whole is predominant and it is given in experience as a presence, a bearer of coherence and interiority. We relate to it by a feeling of what’s “in here,” what’s most undeniable. It is also a spatial way of thinking, but its spatiality is integral rather than differential. Instead of focusing, holistic knowing encompasses and brings together.

In both cases, we knowers are allowed to keep our object of knowledge at arm’s length and risk over-determining it from our own particular perspectives, rather than letting it speak for itself. How far down should the analytical gaze go? How far up the holistic feeling?

Dialectics, and here I want to say enaction, is primarily a listening epistemology. We move and listen, attending to sounds, we hear not only what’s visible and what’s inner, we hear, moreover, what’s multiple (e.g., voices, the sounds of a city; we literally can hear the inside and outside of multiple beings simultaneously, like the grumbling stomach of a hungry friend impatiently waiting for a dinner toast to be over). Listening is the attitude of a present knower in dialogue with what she wishes to understand and its context, which makes its own noises. We listen to what’s out there and what’s in here, but more importantly, to what’s around and in-between; we engage in order to know and knowing thus become a movement of dialectical transformation between what we see, what we feel, what we listen to, the world, our experience, our practice, and an attitude of being participants in knowing. Both time and space are involved in listening, but they are different from the spatiality of vision or feeling in that we are inevitably involved ourselves while the scales are in flux, a flux precisely that gives dialectical thinking is temporal character (we cannot retain sound in place, it is evanescent; sometimes the loudest sound comes from the very small, sometimes a thunder from the very large imposes itself). Since it involves us directly, dialectics is a mode of thinking that can never be detached, we must develop both the intuition and the rigour to listen to contradictions, and the story they tell us, as well as our need to accommodate ourselves in time accordingly.

Enaction is neither analysis, nor holism. And, paradoxically, it nourishes itself both from analysis and holism. Neither, nor. Both, and.

Let’s not dwell too much on this metaphor as the point is not to argue that the different attitudes are thoroughly described by our visual, intuitive, or listening modes of relating to the world. But it serves to provisionally approach the differences between modes of knowing. To be more concrete, in the next part of this post, we will see how dialectics, understood in this broad sense, has been part of the enactive approach from the start.


[1] It is an accepted convention to date the start of the enactive approach to the publication by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch of the book The Embodied Mind (Varela et al 1991). Earlier sketches of some of these ideas, however, appeared in Varela’s 1979 book Principles of Biological Autonomy (Varela 1979) and in several publications in the decade between the two books. See also Thompson (2007).

[2] See for instance, Colombetti (2014), Noë (2004), Gallagher (2017), Hutto & Myin (2017), Di Paolo et al. (2017, 2018), de Haan (2020).

[3] This slogan comes from a line from a poem by Spanish poet Antonio Machado. See Varela (1987) for an early use of this phrase.

[4] See, e.g., the enactive theory of sensorimotor equilibration developed in the book Sensorimotor Life (Di Paolo et al. 2017) or the development of the enactive approach to social cognition (De Jaegher et al. 2010) into The Interactive Brain Hypothesis (Di Paolo & De Jaegher 2012).

[5] See, e.g, Fuchs (2018), de Haan (2020).

[6] On becoming, see e.g., Di Paolo (2021), on enactive epistemology based on difference, see De Jaegher (2021). A special issue of the philosophy journal Topoi gathers 14 articles on the relation between enaction and ethics, see, Dierckxsens (2022).

[7] For example, in phenomenology Merleau-Ponty (1968, 1973), Tran Duc Thao (1986). In biology, Levins & Lewontin (1985). In embodied cognitive science, Reed (1996), Lave (1988). In developmental psychology, Leontev (1978), Riegel (1979), Holzkamp (1983). See chapter 6 of Di Paolo et al. (2018) for other examples.

[8] Varela (1992). For sense-making in relation to breakdowns in action and social interaction see Di Paolo (2005) and De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007).

[9] A point made by various philosophers including Martin Heidegger (1976) and more recently Charles Taylor (2005).


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