Enaction and Dialectics – Part II

11 October 2022

In the first part I have claimed that dialectical thinking is part and parcel of the enactive approach. I will now try to substantiate this claim.

In the 1991 book The Embodied Mind, Varela, Thompson, and Rosch draw on developmental and evolutionary biology to prepare the reader for the idea of embodied action as a form of path-making. They take their time to introduce a definite conception of what they mean by enaction. And getting close to this point, they suddenly start discussing evolution. I believe this is because they had in mind a suitable way of thinking that could be transposed by analogy from evolution to the study of the mind.

Varela and colleagues look in particular a Richard Lewontin’s claim that organisms are both the subjects and the objects of evolution. Lewontin (together with Richard Levins) explicitly embrace dialectical thinking in making sense of the empirical evidence to defend their claims. Their book The Dialectical Biologist is a classic and their thinking not a rarity among naturalists.

To say that an organism is both subject and object of evolution is to acknowledge that the fate of an evolving lineage is indeed in good measure a consequence of the environmental conditions that put selective pressure on evolving populations. But also to acknowledge that organisms are not merely passive receivers of these conditions but actively select them and often change them. This idea has led to the modern perspective of niche construction, one that sees organisms as ecosystem engineers that influence (sometimes indirectly) patterns of selection in their own and in other species.

My reading of why Varela and colleagues preface the main positive thesis of the book with this discussion on Lewontin’s dialectical view on evolving organisms is that they want to tell us something like: “And now we will see how the same ideas re-appear analogously when we look at the embodied mind.”

Let us see another example of dialectical thinking at work in enaction.[1] Consider the important idea of autopoiesis as the organization of living systems that Varela developed together with Humberto Maturana in the 1970s.

An autopoietic system is defined as a network of molecular processes undergoing material transformations (including production and destruction) with the following organizational conditions:

(1) Self-production: the network realizes the relations that give rise to the production of its constitutive processes, and

(2) Self-distinction: the processes constitute the network as a concrete unity in space and define its topological relations.

Autopoietic theory makes no further claims about the relation between these two conditions. But if we study them dialectically, however, we encounter a tension. What do each of these conditions imply in terms of how an organism relates to its environment?

Realizing the relations of self-production in the real world implies establishing the conditions by which the flows of matter and energy present in the environment can be used in the regeneration of metabolic processes.

What would be the ideal way to realize these relations? Ideally, self-production would be perfectly realized if every possible encounter of the organism with the external world produces a positive contribution to autopoiesis and none produces a negative contribution. If we take self-production on its own, the ideal condition would be one of total openness or indistinction, such that every possible flow of matter and energy is taken advantage of.

Consider now the self-distinction condition: the autopoietic system constitutes itself as a well-delimited unity with specific topological relations. What would be the relation with the environment that would most ideally realize self-distinction? One of total robustness to any environmental influence, i.e., perfectly shielded boundaries protecting the system. In this case, no interaction with the world could possibly put at risk the condition of being a distinct unity, simply because no interaction with the world would have any effect on the system.

Analysed dialectically we uncover a primordial tension in the definition of autopoiesis: the ideal realization of one condition negates the other condition. This is no accident. Philosopher Hans Jonas arrives at a similar conclusion when he claims that metabolism bears a relation of dependence and independence to the world that surrounds the organism. It is free from the external world in a sense, but also must rely on it to survive. He describes this primordial tension by saying organisms bear a “dialectical relation of needful freedom” (Jonas 1966, p. 80) to their worlds.

What is the next dialectical move when we uncover these tensions? We have been oblivious of the temporal dimension. Once we bring it into the analysis we can spread the primordial tension of life over time. An organism that behaves adaptively can open up to certain flows of organized matter (e.g., nourishment) and put a barrier to other flows (e.g., toxic chemicals). Each condition enables now the other (e.g., the energy that enters the system allows self-production to continue for some time, while closing the boundary to toxins). For this to also be framed in operational terms we must use the enactive concepts of adaptivity and sense-making (see Di Paolo, 2005).

In the transformation or rather in the navigation of the primordial tension of life, we encounter again the enactive theme of laying down the path in walking. Because in each act of sense-making (of evaluating the implications of an encounters for the continuation of a way of life) the organism transforms itself and leaves a trace in the world.[2]

This is the enactive conception of life. We arrive at how it differs from the classical autopoietic view through a dialectical exercise.

There are other examples of dialectical thinking in the enactive literature. I will just mention two more without going into detail.

The primordial tension of life analysed dialectically. The enactive conception of life (right) is the overcoming of the tensions inherent in the concept of autopoiesis (left).

We see dialectical operations in the coupling of social interaction and sensorimotor development, particularly in the dynamics of mother-infant interaction, where social engagement inadvertently pushes the developing infant into dialectical differentiations of their initially very integrated sensorimotor repertoire. Another example coming from psychoanalysis is due to Jessica Benjamin who describes the development of autonomy in the child as the result of a dialectical way of resolving the conflicts desire and satisfaction in child-caregiver interactions.[3]

In the recent work on Linguistic Bodies, a book written together with Elena Cuffari and Hanne De Jaegher, we elaborate an explicitly dialectical model that moves from the most general concept of participatory sense-making (when we make sense together with others) to languaging through a series of dialectical moves as shown in the diagram. Each of these opening and closing moves corresponds to an argument like the one on the primodial tension of life presented earlier. Here we go from abstract to increasingly concrete situations. A metaphor we may use to describe this process is the complexification (concretization) of a developing organism during embryogenesis.

Diagram of dialectical model moving from participatory sense-making to languaging, adapted from (Di Paolo et al 2018)

To close I would like to say a few things about the idea of a Dialectics of Nature in relation to enaction. This is relevant for orienting our knowing towards the various crises that confront us, from climate emergency to pandemics to mass displacements and mass extinctions. What we may call the crises of care.

Friedrich Engels famously wrote about the dialectics of nature in terms not just of our way of thinking about history and changing social relations, but also in terms of natural processes being themselves dialectic.[4] Nature develops. There has been a lot of discussion about this, with the idea for a long time being rejected in the West but now gaining new interest precisely because of the challenges I’ve mentioned (see various current books on these topics, from historical treatments to the convergence of Eastern and Western scholarship around the banner of Ecological Civilization[5]). Actually, I will not really go very deep into the question of whether nature itself is dialectical because we have already answered it by enactive understanding that there is not nature-mind dichotomy to begin with.

In this way it is important to reconsider the idea of laying down the path in walking in terms of what a path is made of. For this we must return to the concept of the Earth as hinted at in unpublished writings by Husserl (“the Earth does not move”) and commentaries on these writings by Merleau-Ponty.[6] I will not do this now; I’m merely signalling this as a task for the enactive approach.[7]

Earth (including lands and seas, atmosphere and sub-soil) is both the totality of paths and simultaneously the no-path, i.e., the conditions for laying down paths. Earth contains both our Umwelt and what envelops and exceeds our Umwelt. Earth is ground for participation; Earth is itself participation.

To ethically orient our relation towards Earth we must explore the notion of Laying down no-path while inevitably we cannot stop walking and laying down paths; life has not quiet mode due its primordial tension. This is a profound contradiction.

Jakob von Uexküll conceived of the organism as always already related to its Umwelt. But he also, dangerously in my opinion, highlighted relations of harmony between organism and Umwelt. This, from an enactive perspective, is a fantasy. A dangerous, reactionary fantasy that keeps us from conceiving how to act to change our world. (In today’s context, I must say I find Romantic views of Nature way more perilous than scientific reductionism.)

Organisms and Umwelt are a dialectical pair, that is, their relations move constantly and are often in contradiction. Otherwise, organisms could not be simultaneously objects and subjects of evolution as Lewontin claimed.

In harmony, like in chaos, there is no room for sense-making nor any need for it. But the primordial tension of life inevitably escapes harmony, because life always changes something.

The implication of this is that the idea of harmony when thinking about our relations to the environment is problematic even if one can understand it as a yearning. As such, it is merely a reaction to what we find wrong in the world. Therefore, it remains determined by these wrongs. A longing for a harmonious relation to the Earth, at the expense of the contradictions and perils that are introduced by our own path-making, is not just idealistic, it also blinds us to the actual processes by which the world could be changed for the better. Our difficulties, our problems, our dilemmas are the engines that drive our sense-making, what drive us to be minded as well as the means, the stuff by which we enact a world together with others, human and other-than-human.

Aim to erase our contradictions by seeking an impossible harmony and we either change nothing or things continue to worsen. If we don’t understand their dialectic nature contradictions simply re-emerge in a different form. Erase the contradictions and we eventually erase ourselves. Work through and with our contradictions, instead, both within and outside our Umwelt, and change will occur. Find the wisdom to know when our changing values and changing world “work well together” (better contradictions, in lieu of harmony) and this will indicate at least one good path to walk (because they are many). If there is an ethical direction the enactive approach is pointing to is the direction of cultivating care and walk paths whose traces become fertile material for further path-making, for ourselves and for other walkers on the planet.


[1] First introduced in Di Paolo (2018).

[2] On the historicity of biological systems see Longo & Montévil (2014). And from an enactive perspective Di Paolo, Thompson, and Beer (2022).

[3] We elaborate this example in Di Paolo et al. (2017). See also Benjamin (1988).

[4] Engels (1940).

[5] Examples of interventions from eco-socialism and eco-anarchism leaning strongly on dialectical thinking (with some differences): Moore (2015), Foster (2020), Bookchin (1996). On Ecological Civilization, see, e.g., articles in a special section edited by Ma & Wei (2021).

[6] See Merleau-Ponty (2002), which includes the text by Husserl often referred to as “The Earth does not move” and notes by Merleau-Ponty.

[7] For recent interventions bridging enaction and environmental ethics see Werner & Kiełkowicz‐Werner (2022) and Candiotto (2022).


Benjamin, J. (1988). The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books.

Bookchin, M. (1996). The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays on Dialectical Naturalism. AK Press.

Candiotto, L. (2022). Loving the Earth by loving a place: A situated approach to the love of nature. Constructivist Foundations, forthcoming.

Di Paolo, E. A. (2005). Autopoiesis, adaptivity, teleology, agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 4(4), 429–452. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097- 005- 9002- y

Di Paolo, E. A., Buhrmann, T., & Barandiaran, X. E. (2017). Sensorimotor Life: An Enactive Proposal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Di Paolo E. A., Cuffari E. C. & De Jaegher H. (2018) Linguistic bodies: The continuity between life and language. MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Di Paolo, E. A. (2018). The enactive conception of life. In A. Newen, S. Gallagher, & L. de Bruin (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of cognition: Embodied, embedded, enactive and extended (pp. 71–94). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Di Paolo, E. A., Thompson, E., and Beer, R. D. (2022). Laying down a forking path: Tensions between enaction and the free energy principle. Philosophy and the Mind Sciences, 3. https://doi.org/10.33735/phimisci.2022.9187

Engels, F. (1940). Dialectics of nature. (translated by C. P. Dutt, Preface and Notes by J. B. S. Haldane). London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Foster, J. B. (2020). The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology. Monthly Review Press.

Longo, G., & Montévil, M. (2014). Perspectives on organisms: Biological time, symmetries and singularities. Springer.

Jonas, Hans (1966): The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, New York: Harper and Row.

Ma, K. and Wei, F. (2021). Ecological civilization: A revived perspective on the relationship between humanity and nature, National Science Review, 8(7), nwab112, https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwab112

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Husserl at the Limits of Phenomenology: Including Texts by Edmund Husserl. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Moore, J. W. (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, London: Verso.

Werner K. & Kiełkowicz‐Werner M. (2022) From shared enaction to intrinsic value: How enactivism contributes to environmental ethics. Topoi 41(2): 409–423.

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