Lecture One: Enaction 1.1

1.1 Introduction


The self is a constitutively relational hermeneutic construction aimed at mastering, in one way or another, the uncertainty that is inherent in its conditionality. This theme provides a synoptic outline of the upcoming lectures. The theme can be broken into three elements: (i) ‘the self is a constitutively relational hermeneutic construction;’ (ii) ‘aimed at mastering, in a way or another;’ (iii) ‘the uncertainty that is inherent in its conditionality.’ In this first group of lectures, we focus on the first and second element. In this lecture, in particular, we try to better clarify what it means for something to be ‘constitutively relational,’ and in Lecture Two we will investigate more closely the sense in which the self is a ‘hermeneutic construction.’ Lectures Three and Four will then turn to the ways in which the self is associated with mastery of uncertainty.

Claiming that something is constitutively relational has to do with the way in which something is or can be experienced. In order to clarify this point, we should thus begin from experience. ‘Experience’ is a broad and general term that can be used to encompass the whole spectrum of events, encounters, phenomena, objects, subjects, relations, and anything else (this list is open-ended) that somehow appears and is available to us. Whatever one does, perceives, thinks, acts, that is part of their experience. To use a more concise formulation, experience is the appearing of (some, whatever) content.

The fact that it is possible to engage with experience cannot be controversial, since debating this point would also be part of experience. However, what is controversial is to understand experience and articulate its basic constituents. A very broad, widespread, and historically affluent family of approaches to this issue is based on an adversarial attitude. Despite the range of variations, adversarial approaches share a common structure, which can be summarized in four basic points: (i) experience is divided into two poles; (ii) each pole is not the other, or it is understood to be fundamentally different from it, and irreducible to it; (iii) one pole tends to be more fundamental than the other in some significant way; (iv) experience is the result of the way in which the two poles come together. Notice that this family of adversarial approaches entails both some form of dualism (i-ii), and some form of hierarchy in the structure of experience (iii-iv).

The history of Western thought can offer many examples of how adversarial approaches have been instantiated. Aristotle’s account of cognition, for instance, posits that a perceiving subject or soul receives inputs from an objectively given external world. Calling this position ‘realism’ (because it stresses the givenness of an objective world external different from the cognizing subject), one can identify at its opposite extreme the sort of ‘idealism’ defended in the early modern period by Berkeley, who denies that there can be any objectively given material world. The whole of experience is made just by ideas and spiritual subjects who think those ideas. In between these two poles, one can posit Descartes’s ‘representationalism:’ the thinking subject and the external world are two genuinely different and mutually independent entities. Pace realism, all that a subject can know is their own representations of the world (the subject’s ideas). One cannot cognize beyond the veil of ideas, since anything that one cognizes will be in the form of having some idea of it. Pace idealism, though, some ideas at least must come from an objectively given external world, and its existence can be proved by reason, even if the world in itself cannot be cognized directly and in an immediate way. Within a few centuries, Kant developed and refined the representationalist approach, German idealists the idealist approach, while positivists took up the realist view. Many more nuances, hybrids, and intermediary views are possible, including the possibility of establishing a contrast between the domain of experience that is immediately accessible to the senses, and an inferred (metaphysical, or meta-experiential) domain of reality that can be accessed only via reason.

Despite contradicting each other, none of these accounts contradicts the basic structure shared by all adversarial approaches. If one steps outside of this whole millenarian debate, the genuine question that arises is whether there is any alternative to this whole family of approaches. Would it be possible to understand experience in a non-adversarial way?

Answering this question requires finding a way of conceiving of experience and its structure that does not split it into opposite poles. Hasting in this direction, one might simply dismiss all differences, by resorting to some form of absolute monism, in which experience is just undifferentiated ineffable oneness (Bradley’s view of the Absolute might provide an instance of this approach). However, this is still an adversarial approach, since now experience is understood based on the dichotomy between oneness and manifoldness. The switch that is required by a non-adversarial approach does not concern primarily the sort of poles that are considered to be crucial in understanding experience (subject-object, internal-external, individual-world, one-many, and so on), but rather the question of whether those poles (however defined) are prior to their relation (and thus whether they ground that relation), or rather they are the result of their relation (which is then the groundless basis of them). In other words, the genuine alternative to any adversarial approach has to be gained via addressing the following issue: what does come first, relations or relata? Any adversarial approach takes it for granted that relata come first, while a non-adversarial approach must instead take relations to be prior. A relation can be prior to its relata not in the sense that the relation itself is a ground for the relata, but rather in the sense that the relational interplay of the relata is groundless. Here, the long history of Western thought does not offer as many examples of how this view might be developed.

In 1991, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch published a visionary and groundbreaking book, entitled The Embodied Mind. Cognitive Science and Human Experience. This book defends an account of human cognition in which both the subject and its world are ‘enacted’ in their mutual interaction. Varela, Thompson and Rosch defend enaction as a way of making sense of the (then) most recent developments in cognitive science, and square them with first person human experience. Enaction provides a example of a non-adversarial approach to experience, while at the same time offering a new approach to addressing a number of key questions, including how to think about experience as groundless.

Enaction is based on two main claims. The first claim is that subject and object, individual and world, co-determine each other in their mutual interaction. In his previous works, Varela called this process ‘autopoiesis,’ which literally means ‘the bringing forth of oneself.’ Autopoiesis is the process, fundamental to all forms of life, through which an organism bring forth its world through the very activity of interacting with it. The polarity individual-world is thus constructed within the (more or less complex) process of defining and negotiating both.

The second claim is that enaction offers a better way to live in the world. Understanding experience through the lenses of enaction provides a viable alternative to the more standard and traditional adversarial approaches, which ultimately lead to some form of conflict between their contrasting poles. From a more contemporary point of view, this problem is made more urgent because the actual groundlessness of natural and cognitive processes is observed, explored and demonstrated by science itself, which represents one of the crucial cultural authorities in today’s world. At the same time, though, scientific results pointing to groundlessness are at odds with the deeply rooted affection towards grounded-ness, which informs most of daily and social life. Our daily first-person experience seems (and it is assumed) to be based on a central and unitarian character, the self, ourself. How could this possibly not be the case? And yet, when this first-person perspective is explored through the lenses of a scientific investigation into the nature of cognition, no enduring core seems to be identifiable in experience—the self vanishes away. Not being able to reconcile these two poles can lead one to ignore the tension (by preventing it from being fully understood and hopefully resolved) or create a new opposition between scientific views and ordinary life, theory and practice, first-person and third-person perspectives.

To gain a deeper understanding of enactivism and of its implications, we shall now look at each of these claims and how they are defended. Before getting into details, it is important to locate our departing point on the spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self outlined in Lecture Zero. Approaching enactivism and its rooting in today’s cognitive science, we move near the immanent pole of the spectrum. Discussing Taylor, we observed how today’s Western culture is profoundly affected by a form of disbelief towards the more transcendent pole. Taking up enaction first, we thus begin to explore the spectrum from the place where our secularized culture had led us up to this point. As we shall see, a scientific attempt at understanding the self also raises problems for how science itself is constructed and interpreted, and encourages us to investigate the extent to which the phenomenon of the self can be explained is we remain strictly confined within the domain of the natural sciences.


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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.