The Enactive Approach

Authored by: Ezequiel Di Paolo , Evan Thompson

The Routledge Handbook of Embodied Cognition

Print publication date:  May  2014
Online publication date:  April  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415623612
eBook ISBN: 9781315775845
Adobe ISBN: 9781317688662


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Embodied approaches to cognition hold that the body is crucial for cognition. Yet despite many decades of research, 1 what this “embodiment thesis” 2 (Wilson and Foglia, 2011) amounts to still remains unclear, as the present volume with its diverse range of contributions indicates (see also Shapiro, 2011). How to interpret the embodiment thesis depends on how to interpret the meanings of its key terms, “body” and “cognition,” as well as on what it means exactly to say that the body is “crucial” for cognition (Kyselo and Di Paolo, in press). In recent years, the term “embodied” has been used elastically to refer to anything from conservative ideas about how bodily action provides a format for neuronal representations (Goldman and de Vignemont, 2009; Gallese, 2010; Goldman, 2012) or helps to reduce computational load (Clark, 2008; Wheeler, 2005, 2010; Wilson, 2004), to a variety of “radical embodiment” (Clark, 1999; Thompson and Varela, 2001) proposals—for example, that kinesthetic body schemas are a constitutive part of mental skills (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999; Núñez, 2010), that sensorimotor know-how is a constitutive part of perceptual experience (O’Regan and Noë, 2001; Noë, 2004), that bodily life regulation is a constitutive part of phenomenal consciousness and its extended neurophysiological substrates (Thompson and Varela, 2001; Thompson and Cosmelli, 2011), and that social sensorimotor interaction can be a constitutive part of social cognition (De Jaegher, Di Paolo, and Gallagher, 2010). In some cases, these radical embodiment proposals are based on the “enactive” view that cognition depends constitutively on the living body, understood as an autonomous system (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, 1991; Thompson, 2007; Di Paolo, 2009; Froese and Ziemke, 2009). Our aim in this chapter is to explain this key enactive notion of autonomy and why it is needed if embodied cognitive science is to offer a genuine alternative to more traditional functionalist and cognitivist views.

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