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Enactive intersubjectivity: Participatory sense-making and mutual incorporation

Abstract

Current theories of social cognition are mainly based on a representationalist view. Moreover, they focus on a rather sophisticated and limited aspect of understanding others, i.e. on how we predict and explain others’ behaviours through representing their mental states. Research into the ‘social brain’ has also favoured a third-person paradigm of social cognition as a passive observation of others’ behaviour, attributing it to an inferential, simulative or projective process in the individual brain. In this paper, we present a concept of social understanding as an ongoing, dynamical process of participatory sense-making and mutual incorporation. This process may be described (1) from a dynamical agentive systems point of view as an interaction and coordination of two embodied agents; (2) from a phenomenological approach as a mutual incorporation, i.e. a process in which the lived bodies of both participants extend and form a common intercorporality. Intersubjectivity, it is argued, is not a solitary task of deciphering or simulating the movements of others but means entering a process of embodied interaction and generating common meaning through it. This approach will be further illustrated by an analysis of primary dyadic interaction in early childhood.

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Notes

  1. The combination of these perspectives fits well with the enactive approach as envisaged by Varela and Thompson (see for instance Thompson 2005, 2007).

  2. This is beautifully illustrated in, for instance, Reddy’s studies of humour and teasing in infancy (Reddy 2001, 2008; Reddy et al. 2002).

  3. Approaches to intersubjectivity have linked scientific and phenomenological stances before but have not used dynamical systems theory. Stawarska, in her forthcoming book, for instance, combines the dialogical, developmental and sociolinguistic stances (Stawarska 2009). Like Stawarska, we do not subscribe to the project of “naturalising phenomenology” when understood literally because this seems to presume that phenomenological terms could be redescribed in terms of natural science. Instead, we believe that both approaches can mutually enlighten each other (see also Gallagher 1997).

  4. In such situations of a coordination to, it may happen that two people are coordinated to a third event (e.g. another worker to the assembly line). From a certain perspective (e.g. when the assembly line is out of view), it may look like Charlie and his colleague are coordinating with each other, whereas actually they are each coordinated through a third element. This can be called external coordination. Sharing a train journey, then, also is not an interactional coordination, but an external one. External coordination alone does not make an interaction social.

  5. This is not to deny that patterns of interaction can also have a restrictive effect on the degrees of freedom of the participants.

  6. Von Weizsäcker (1940) called this ‘prolepsis’, by which he meant the capacity of living beings to anticipate the goal and outcome of their action and, what is more, to take into account the effect of their own behaviour on the object or event they are interacting with. Thus, the snake does not catch the mouse by spotting where the mouse sits but by anticipating where the mouse will move as a reaction to its presence and pushing there. To put it more generally: Through its embedding in the sensorimotor gestalt cycle, living movement anticipates and adjusts to its own outcome.

  7. This way of thinking has meanwhile been empirically corroborated in sports research; see e.g. Michaels and Oudejans (1992), McLeod and Dienes (1993) and Kistemaker et al. (2009).

  8. Although there may be an element of imitation, fascination does not imply simulation. We certainly do not create a pretend state of the swinging acrobat and then project it onto him. Rather, we are immediately tied to him, out of ourselves, so to speak. We therefore do not agree with Theodor Lipps who used the example of watching an acrobat as evidence for his theory of empathy as being based on analogy or simulation (Lipps 1903, p. 122).

  9. We do not endorse Meltzoff and Moore’s representationalist approach here.

  10. See for instance Gurwitsch (1977: 77), Scheler (1954: 23), Merleau-Ponty (1962), Sheets-Johnstone (1999), Varela (1991, 1997), Thompson (2007) and Di Paolo (2005).

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank an anonymous reviewer, Sanneke de Haan, Ezequiel Di Paolo, Monika Dullstein, Sonja Rinofner, Beata Stawarska and the Arbeitsgruppe Phänomenologische Psychopathologie at the University of Heidelberg for their suggestions for this article. This article was supported by the EU Marie Curie Research Training Network 035975 “DISCOS—Disorders and coherence of the embodied self.”

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Correspondence to Thomas Fuchs.

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Authors Thomas Fuchs and Hanne De Jaegher contributed equally to this work.

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Fuchs, T., De Jaegher, H. Enactive intersubjectivity: Participatory sense-making and mutual incorporation. Phenom Cogn Sci 8, 465–486 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-009-9136-4

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Keywords

  • Coordination
  • Enaction
  • Infancy
  • Intercorporality
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Participatory sense-making
  • Phenomenology
  • Social interaction