Embodied Situated Cognition /Enactivism

Varela and colleagues build on Merleau-Ponty's work to develop a model of cognition as "embodied action", a process they call "enactive" (Varela et al., 1991: xx). They concur with the principle above that cognition is embodied and factor in the wider "biological, psychological, and cultural context" (Varela et al., 1991: 173). By emphasizing action they highlight that cognition is an aspect of the sensory body (Varela et al., 1991: xx) and that “knower and known, mind and world, stand in relation to each other through mutual specification or dependent coorigination” (Varela et al., 1991: 150). The enactive approach to cognition “is based on situated, embodied agents” (Varela, 2001: 215) and explicitly rejects representationalism, bypassing the "logical geography of inner versus outer” by understanding cognition as embedded in a total “biological/ psychological, and cultural context” (Varela et al., 1991: 172-173). They conclude that “organism and environment enfold into each other and unfold from one another in the fundamental circularity that is life itself” (Varela et al., 1991: 217).

Varela presents four "fundamental insights" of enactivism which he claims to be "established results" (Varela, 1999: 71). The first fundamental is that the mind is embodied and therefore "[t]he mind is not in the head" (Varela, 1999: 72; authors emphasis) and what we conventionally think of a 'subject' and 'object' are co-arising. Because the mind is embodied and arises out of "an active handling and coping with the world", then "whatever you call an object ... is entirely dependent on this constant sensory motor handling". As a result an object is not independently 'out there', but "arises because of your activity, so, in fact, you and the object are co-emerging, co-arising" (Varela, 1999: 71-72). The mind "cannot be separated from the entire organism" (Varela, 1999: 73; authors emphasis) or the "outside environment" (Varela, 1999: 74). Varela's second point focuses on the emergence of complex cognitive processes from much simpler sub-systems. The global process of cognition emerges from a huge number of simple interactions between "neural components and circuits" (Varela, 1999: 76). The relationship between local and global processes creates a "two-way street"; just as simple systems give rise to the complexity of conciousness, so what we consciously think impacts those local components (Varela, 1999: 76). From this stance it is no surprise that Varela introduces intersubjectivity, though he notes that this area is "not well charted yet". Our everyday assumption - reinforced by older "cognitive and brain science" - is that "a mind belongs inside a brain, and hence that the other's mind is impenetrable and opaque". However, he claims that recent research shows "that individuality and intersubjectivity are not in opposition, but necessarily complementary" (Varela, 1999: 79). Varela points to consistent evidence that "all cognitive phenomena are also emotional-affective" and that affect is a "pre-verbal" and "pre-reflective dynamic in self-constitution of the self". Thus our pre-reflective sense of self is "inseparable from the presence of others" (Varela, 1999: 80-81). Varela's final point is "far less consensual than the preceding ones" and concerns issues of the philosophy of a "neurophenomenology" that lie beyond the scope of this review (Varela, 1999: 82; authors emphasis).

Johnson's pursuit of the enactivist approach leads him to conclude that the way we conceptualize and reason depends on "the kinds of bodies we have, the kinds of environments we inhabit, and the symbolic systems we inherit, which are themselves grounded in our embodiment” (Johnson, 1987: 99) In short, reason is embodied (Johnson, 1987:100) and grounded in an environment that includes "our history, culture, language, institutions, theories, and so forth" (Johnson, 1987: 207).

Both Csordas and Gendlin suggest that Johnson's cognitive approach fails to engage with our existential being-in-the-world. Csordas claims that Johnson misses the phenomenological dimensions of embodiment, and comments in a footnote that he is concerned with ”the body as existential ground of culture" whereas Johnson (1987) "analyses the body as cognitive ground of culture" (Csordas, 2002: 289, fn#2). Gendlin writes that he and Johnson are engaged in a "friendly discussion" but criticizes Johnson's emphasis on "spatial movements" rather than considering the priority of the body "living-in its environmental situation" (Gendlin, 1997c: 169; authors emphasis). Csordas and Gendlin's criticisms are not directed at enactivism per se, but at Johnson's particular approach. In fact the core conclusions of enactivism - that key aspects of cognition are embodied, situated and grounded in practical activity - are widely accepted within cognitive science, and we see correlations with the work of Clark, Damasio, Merleau-Ponty and many others in this review.

Johnson joined cognitive linguistics researcher Lakoff to develop a theory of language and reasoning based on embodied metaphors. They claim that we reason using metaphorical concepts that are based on our embodied experiences. The way we use the metaphor 'more is up' provides a simple example: Because in health we stand up and sickness brings us down, we tend to think metaphorically of 'more' as being 'up' ('price rises') and less as down ('stocks plummeting'). These conceptual metaphors are learnt, and can be expressed in grammar, gesture, art or ritual. Lakoff and Johnson conclude that "[b]ecause our ideas are framed in terms of our unconscious embodied conceptual systems, truth and knowledge depend on embodied understanding" (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999: 555). Their conclusions lead them to propose an ecological, embodied spirituality that recognises that the “[e]nvironment is not an 'other' to us … it is part of our being" (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999: 566).

Steen (Steen, 2000) is critical of Lakoff and Johnson's approach because they rely so much on linguistic evidence and so, he claims, fail to account for the deeper complexity of thinking. I conclude that Gendlin's work, which correlates with that of Csordas in many ways, currently goes deeper into pre-conceptual and extra-verbal experience, and provides a fuller account of the relationship between language and thought than either Johnson or his joint project with Lakoff. However, embodied metaphor theory is not incompatible with Gendlin's approach, and Gendlin values Johnson's "beautiful work" on metaphor (Gendlin, 1997c: 174), suggesting they could "cooperate in a 'third generation' cognitive science" (Gendlin, 1997c: 169).

Despite these criticisms, Lakoff and Johnson's work has potential and others have already developed it. According to their original model we primarily use embodied metaphors as the source to makes sense of a target domain beyond the body. The process is one-way – the embodied source to the conceptual target. Other theorists, notably Faucounier and Turner (1995: 2002), argue for greater feedback between target and source and propose a more sophisticated theory, “conceptual blending”. This recognizes the frequent situations where we blend an embodied cognitive metaphor with cultural, emotional and conceptual elements. Imagine, for example, that "you are watching the rain fall, responding emotionally and intellectually to what you see". We cognitively blend different ways of relating to such an experience, "a film version, a sketch of the rain, a verbal description", and these are "all connected by vital relations" (Turner, M, 2006: 17).


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