Prospects of enactivist approaches to intentionality and cognition

Abstract

We discuss various implications of some radical anti-representationalist views of cognition and what they have to offer with regard to the naturalization of intentionality and the explanation of cognitive phenomena. Our focus is on recent arguments from proponents of enactive views of cognition to the effect that basic cognition is intentional but not representational and that cognition is co-extensive with life. We focus on lower rather than higher forms of cognition, namely the question regarding the intentional and representational nature of cognition found in organisms simpler than human beings, because enactivists do not deny that more sophisticated cognitive phenomena are representational and involve content. After introducing the debate on the naturalization of intentionality (Sect. 2), we briefly review different varieties of enactivism and introduce their central claims (Sect. 3). In Sect. 4 we turn to radical enactivism in order to focus on the arguments for a thoroughly non-representational, enactive account of perception and basic cognition. In particular, we discuss three major issues: First, what is supposed to replace the representational analysis of perception in a radical-enactive explanation of perception? How does the enactive explanation of perception compare to the best scientific work on the neuroscience of perception? Second, what is—on an enactive account—the function of neural processing in the brain for the generation of perception if not to produce representations? This question is especially pressing since one implication of autopoietic enactivism (accepted by radical enactivists) is that even the simplest organisms, i.e. single-celled organisms, have cognitive capacities (Sect. 5). Since they lack brains and nervous systems, enactivists must specify the (possibly) unique contribution of the brain and nervous system in those animals who have them. In Sect. 5, we evaluate the advantages of an autopoietic–enactive approach to the naturalization of intentionality and end with a suggestion how cognition may relate to intentionality and representation.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For recent updates see Montague (2010), Smortchkova et al. (2019) and Dolega et al. (2018).

  2. 2.

    Further work in this area includes Anderson (2014) and the collection of papers edited by Wilson et al. at https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/1713/radical-embodied-cognitive-neuroscience.

  3. 3.

    It is often stressed that Gibson shared with enactivists the hostility to mental representations in the explanation of perception. It should be said, however, that his theory did not address the mechanistic basis of perception in the brain at all.

  4. 4.

    According to the recently popular predictive processing accounts, perception itself is a highly inferential process (Clark 2016; Hohwy 2013). On such accounts, it makes no difference whether we called the process inferential or visual, of course, because this comes down to the same thing. See Gallagher (2017, ch. 6), for critical discussion.

  5. 5.

    This is true even if we take into account ‘soliciting affordances’ (Siegel 2014) which, so to speak, ‘pull’ actions out of us automatically.

  6. 6.

    Alternatively, if we do not understand the phrase in terms of rigidity, it does not seem to be at odds with classical cognitivism: Of course, in a very general sense, the brain is at any given time set up to be set off in some way. Understood in this loose way, however, classical cognitivism seems to be explanatorily stronger (given that explanatory power is understood as how good an explanation is under the assumption that it is true (see Ylikowski and Kuorikoski 2008), since it offers an account of what the brain is doing once it is set off: it computes representations which carry information about how things stand in the world.

  7. 7.

    One way to avoid this conclusion is to accept accuracy conditions that are not yet truth conditions. One obvious move could be to interpret these accuracy conditions in terms of non-conceptual content. Yet, given Hutto and Myin’s rejection of non-conceptual representations, it is not easy to see just how these accuracy conditions should be characterized within their framework.

  8. 8.

    Bruner (1964) introduced the term”enactive representation” (which today has an ironic ring to it) and distinguished such representations from “iconic” and “linguistic” representations. He conceived of enactive representations as “appropriate skills necessary for sensorimotor acts, for organizing percepts, and for organizing our thoughts” (1964, p. 1) and argued that all our cognitive acts “depend upon techniques rather than upon wired-in arrangements in our nervous system”. By an enactive mode of representing Bruner denotes a kind of representation that cannot be decoupled from an appropriate motor act directed towards some object. Several segments of our environment, like bicycle riding, tying knots, aspects of driving etc., Bruner argues, “get represented in our muscles” (1964, p. 2); these are cases of “representation by action alone” (1964, p. 3). A more recent example from the literature is Milner and Goodale’s (1995) patient D.F. whose posting action of a letter can be very well explained in terms of such action-oriented or “enactive” representations.

  9. 9.

    A problem we ignore here is that with respect to the metaphysics of perception (Drayson 2018), Hutto and Myin more or less face the choice between naive realism and the sense datum theory once they reject the intentional theory. Although they do not elaborate on this, passages indicating that perception is “world-involving” (Hutto and Myin 2017, pp. 60, 92) suggest they opt for naive realism. This would require them to provide a theory of illusory or non-veridical experiences, which is a notorious difficulty for proponents of naive realism. But such a discussion is beyond the scope of this paper.

  10. 10.

    See Thompson (2018) for a brief discussion of the differences between his thoroughly autopoietic enactivism and the radical enactivism defended by Hutto and Myin.

  11. 11.

    For a defense that also plants have cognitive abilities, see Maher (2017).

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Acknowledgements

This article was supported by the project “The structure and development of Understanding actions and reasons”, funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (SCHL 588/3-1) and by the Volkswagen Foundation’s funding for the project “Situated Cognition. Perceiving the world and understanding other minds” (Az. 87 105). We are grateful for this support and want to thank two anonymous reviewers for valuable comments on an earlier version.

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Schlicht, T., Starzak, T. Prospects of enactivist approaches to intentionality and cognition. Synthese 198, 89–113 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02361-z

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Keywords

  • Intentionality
  • Enactivism
  • Autopoiesis
  • Cognition
  • Representation