Chapter on the enactive philosophy of embodiment

imagesMog Stapleton and I collaborated on a chapter that has just been published by Springer in Biology and Subjectivity: Philosophical Contributions to Non-reductive Neuroscience, edited by García-Valdecasas, Murillo, and Barrett.

The enactive philosophy of embodiment: From biological foundations of agency to the phenomenology of subjectivity

Mog Stapleton and Tom Froese

Following on from the philosophy of embodiment by Merleau-Ponty, Jonas and others, enactivism is a pivot point from which various areas of science can be brought into a fruitful dialogue about the nature of subjectivity. In this chapter we present the enactive conception of agency, which, in contrast to current mainstream theories of agency, is deeply and strongly embodied. In line with this thinking we argue that anything that ought to be considered a genuine agent is a biologically embodied (even if distributed) agent, and that this embodiment must be affectively lived. However, we also consider that such an affective agent is not necessarily also an agent imbued with an explicit sense of subjectivity. To support this contention we outline the interoceptive foundation of basic agency and argue that there is a qualitative difference in the phenomenology of agency when it is instantiated in organisms which, due to their complexity and size, require a nervous system to underpin their physiological and sensorimotor processes. We argue that this interoceptively grounded agency not only entails affectivity but also forms the necessary basis for subjectivity.

Keynote at “The sensorimotor foundations of social cognition”

I have been invited as a keynote speaker to an autumn school on “The sensorimotor foundations of social cognition” organized by the Horizon 2020 project Socializing sensorimotor contingencies (socSMCs).

The event will take place in Boltenhagen by the Baltic Sea, Germany, October 11-17, 2015. My title and abstract are as follows:

Enactive and phenomenological approaches to social cognition

Tom Froese

One of the most central and also controversial claims of the enactive approach is that embodied social interaction is constitutive of social cognition. Evolutionary robotics modeling and dynamical systems theory demonstrate that at least in principle there is nothing mysterious about this claim. But can it also be verified experimentally? The most promising results so far are based on the “perceptual crossing” paradigm, in which pairs of participants interact haptically in real-time via a minimalist human-computer interface. They try to locate each other in the virtual space while avoiding distractor objects. It has repeatedly been shown that individuals’ actions become interactively self-organized in a way that collectively enhances task success. However, until recently there was no evidence that this sensorimotor self-organization was also experienced from the point of view of the participants, thereby calling into question whether it constitutively affected their social cognition. I will present the latest studies in which an accompanying phenomenology of intersubjectivity was clearly reported and quantified, thereby enabling us to identify the specific pattern of sensorimotor coupling underlying the emergence of a consciously shared moment of experience. This is some of the first evidence supporting the concept of a genuine and irreducible second-person perspective that is mutually enacted via joint actions. Intriguingly, the process of its emergence shares similarities with the first stages that are hypothesized to occur during the development of social awareness in pre-verbal infants.

Beyond neurophenomenology: A review of Colombetti’s The Feeling Body

My review of Giovanna Colombetti’s book The Feeling Body has been accepted for publication in New Ideas in Psychology. Title and abstract are as follows:

Beyond neurophenomenology: A review of Colombetti’s The Feeling Body

Tom Froese

I review The Feeling Body: Affective Science Meets the Enactive Mind by Giovanna Colombetti (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2014, 288 pages, $40.00 hardcover). In this book Colombetti draws on the enactive theory of organismic embodiment and its key concept of sense-making in order to critically evaluate various aspects of mainstream affective science, including basic emotions and alternative constructionist approaches, as well as the cognitivist approach to emotion and appraisal theory. She defends and develops a dynamical systems approach to emotions and emphasizes the need for including more first-person methods of consciousness science in mainstream affective neuroscience. These are valuable contributions to affective science, and they also advance enactive theory. Colombetti’s proposal goes further than standard neurophenomenology in that she appeals to the bodily basis of feeling, thereby requiring a new sort of neuro-physio-phenomenology. Even more radically, she allows that all living beings are essentially affective beings, even those without a nervous system, and that emotional forms could be co-constituted by more than one person.

The direct perception hypothesis in comparative psychology

After 4 years of effort, my take on comparative psychology has finally been published. Many thanks to my colleague Dave for his expert guidance and endless patience.

The direct perception hypothesis: perceiving the intention of another’s action hinders its precise imitation

Tom Froese and David A. Leavens

We argue that imitation is a learning response to unintelligible actions, especially to social conventions. Various strands of evidence are converging on this conclusion, but further progress has been hampered by an outdated theory of perceptual experience. Comparative psychology continues to be premised on the doctrine that humans and non-human primates only perceive others’ physical “surface behavior,” while mental states are perceptually inaccessible. However, a growing consensus in social cognition research accepts the direct perception hypothesis: primarily we see what others aim to do; we do not infer it from their motions. Indeed, physical details are overlooked – unless the action is unintelligible. On this basis we hypothesize that apes’ propensity to copy the goal of an action, rather than its precise means, is largely dependent on its perceived intelligibility. Conversely, children copy means more often than adults and apes because, uniquely, much adult human behavior is completely unintelligible to unenculturated observers due to the pervasiveness of arbitrary social conventions, as exemplified by customs, rituals, and languages. We expect the propensity to imitate to be inversely correlated with the familiarity of cultural practices, as indexed by age and/or socio-cultural competence. The direct perception hypothesis thereby helps to parsimoniously explain the most important findings of imitation research, including children’s over-imitation and other species-typical and age-related variations.

Getting interaction theory (IT) together

Together with Shaun Gallagher I have published a position paper, which tries to draw together various strands of evidence in support of an enactive approach to social cognition:

Getting interaction theory (IT) together: Integrating developmental, phenomenological, enactive, and dynamical approaches to social interaction

Tom Froese and Shaun Gallagher

We argue that progress in our scientific understanding of the ‘social mind’ is hampered by a number of unfounded assumptions. We single out the widely shared assumption that social behavior depends solely on the capacities of an individual agent. In contrast, both developmental and phenomenological studies suggest that the personal-level capacity for detached ‘social cognition’ (conceived as a process of theorizing about and/or simulating another mind) is a secondary achievement that is dependent on more immediate processes of embodied social interaction. We draw on the enactive approach to cognitive science to further clarify this strong notion of ‘social interaction’ in theoretical terms. In addition, we indicate how this interaction theory (IT) could eventually be formalized with the help of a dynamical systems perspective on the interaction process, especially by making use of evolutionary robotics modeling. We conclude that bringing together the methods and insights of developmental, phenomenological, enactive and dynamical approaches to social interaction can provide a promising framework for future research.

You can download the paper by clicking on the title above.