Autopoietic theory, enactivism, and their incommensurable marks of the cognitive

Abstract

This paper examines a fundamental philosophical difference between two radical postcognitivist theories that are usually assumed to offer (more or less) the same view of cognition; namely the autopoietic theory (AT) and the enactive approach. The ways these two theories understand cognition, it is argued, are not compatible nor incompatible but rather incommensurable. The reason, so it is argued, is that while enactivism, following the traditional stance held by most of the cognitive theories, understands cognitive systems as constituting a (sort of) natural kind, the autopoietic theory understands them as constituting only a conventional kind. Additionally, the paper shows that AT’s conventionalist stance about cognition, far from being an undesirable or useless position, offers some methodological virtues that might be timely and welcome in the agitated and revolutionary climate of current cognitive science.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The kind of enactivism that we have in mind in this paper is the canonical version developed by Varela and collaborators (Varela et al. 1991; Weber and Varela 2002; Thompson 2007; Di Paolo 2005; Froese and Stewart 2010), sometimes dubbed “autopoietic enactivism”, but perhaps better called “autonomist enactivism”. Other versions of enactivism, such as the sensorimotor theory of O'Regan and Noë (2001), and the “radical” branch of Hutto and Myin (2013), will not be considered here.

  2. 2.

    Notice, however, that this prescription does not come as an axiomatic or a priori judgment. AT’s Strict Naturalism is a methodological stance that follows the lead of the natural sciences and that, therefore, remains open to be informed and updated by their progress and discoveries. If the natural sciences demonstrate, at some moment, that living beings do have teleology and normativity as natural properties, AT should update its conception of living beings accordingly. The point for the present discussion is that, lacking such a demonstration, AT's Strict Naturalism currently dictates the rejection of such properties.

  3. 3.

    Here we address and discuss only some potential methodological implications of conventionalism in the field of cognitive science. There are, however, other and deeper implications of conventionalism, such as those that arise at the metaphysical level. One of the main worries at this latter level is that if cognition is taken to be something we merely ascribe to certain systems, then it is not easy to see how we could explain our own (and real) ability to ascribe cognition (or anything) in the first place. This is an interesting and important problem for any conventionalism about cognition, but one that unfortunately we cannot address here. See, however, Villalobos and Silverman (2018), and Abramova and Villalobos (2015), for some clues on how AT might deal with this kind of metaphysical worry.

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Acknowledgements

Mario Villalobos wants to thank the fantastic audience at the III International Colloquium on Colours and Numbers “Ways of Enaction”, Federal University of Ceará, Fortaleza, Brazil 11–13 September 2017, where the initial draft of this paper was presented, and the Santiago Mind & Cognition Research Group (Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Santiago, Chile) for helpful discussions. He also wants to thank Marcos Silva and Francicleber Ferreira for their support, and to David Silverman and Joe Dewhurst for helpful comments on previous versions of this paper. Finally, both authors want to thank the anonymous referees for their constructive observations.

Funding

Funding was provided by Universidad de Tarapaca (Grant No. Proyecto de Investigación para Estudiantes de Pregrado UTA 2018 Code 3751-18).

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Villalobos, M., Palacios, S. Autopoietic theory, enactivism, and their incommensurable marks of the cognitive. Synthese 198, 71–87 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02376-6

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Keywords

  • Autopoietic theory
  • Enactivism
  • The mark of the cognitive
  • Conventional kind
  • Pluralism
  • Strict naturalism