The Implications of Embodiment: Enactive, clinical, social

I will give a talk at the 17th Herbstakademie, which will take place at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, October 1-3, 2012. This year’s theme is “The Implications of Embodiment: Enactive, clinical, social”. Here are the title and abstract of my talk:

Beyond the ‘social brain’: intersubjectivity as a complex system

After decades of research about how our social understanding is enabled by the processes inside our ‘social brain’, there is increasing interest in the role of social interaction and intersubjective experience. Two explanatory approaches can be identified. Orthodox cognitive science insists that relational and transpersonal structures serve as nothing but external scaffolding and/or external input for cognitive processes that are strictly internal to an isolated brain. Alternatively, enactive cognitive science proposes that relational and transpersonal structures can be constitutive of social understanding.

The orthodox account has criticized the enactive account for committing the so-called ‘coupling-constitution fallacy’, a criticism that has been previously used to counter the extended mind debate. I will argue that the enactive approach rests on a relational conception of the mind that makes it immune to this criticism. In addition, by considering a dynamical systems account of embodied interaction and intersubjective experience, I show that the force of this criticism actually runs the other way. The orthodox account is implicitly committed to a ‘coupling-reduction fallacy’, as epitomized by the idea that our entire life world could be reduced to the operations of an isolated brain in the vat. This impoverished theory of human existence has failed to take the lessons of complex systems and phenomenology into account.

Fortunately, there is a growing community of researchers who are developing an alternative account of social understanding to rectify these shortcomings. A crucial test for this enactive approach is whether it can improve clinical practice.


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