From autonomy to heteronomy (and back): The enaction of social life


DOI: 10.1007/s11097-009-9139-1

Cite this article as:
Steiner, P. & Stewart, J. Phenom Cogn Sci (2009) 8: 527. doi:10.1007/s11097-009-9139-1


The term “social cognition” can be construed in different ways. On the one hand, it can refer to the cognitive faculties involved in social activities, defined simply as situations where two or more individuals interact. On this view, social systems would consist of interactions between autonomous individuals; these interactions form higher-level autonomous domains not reducible to individual actions. A contrasting, alternative view is based on a much stronger theoretical definition of a truly social domain, which is always defined by a set of structural norms; moreover, these social structures are not only a set of constraints, but actually constitute the possibility of enacting worlds that would just not exist without them. This view emphasises the heteronomy of individuals who abide by norms that are impersonal, culturally inherited and to a large extent independent of the individuals. Human beings are socialised through and through; consequently, all human cognition is social cognition. The article argues for this second position. Finally, it appears that fully blown autonomy actually requires heteronomy. It is the acceptance of the constraints of social structures that enables individuals to enter new realms of common meaningfulness. The emergence of social life marks a crucial step in the evolution of cognition; so that at some evolutionary point human cognition cannot but be social cognition.


Social cognition Autonomy Heteronomy Normativity 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CRED / COSTECHUniversité de Technologie de CompiègneCompiègne CedexFrance

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