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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. Notably Durkheim’s definition of social facts (see below). Recently Ehrenberg (2005, 2008), referring to Descombes (2004), has proposed a vigorous criticism of contemporary individualistic theories which tend to extol autonomy. Ehrenberg argues that the true autonomy of a social agent consists not in creating one’s own norm with a view to self-gratification, but rather in the capacity to follow an already existing norm. This amounts to saying that full-blown autonomy actually requires heteronomy (as we define it here).

  2. Various philosophers have recently insisted on this point, using “heteronomy” in the same sense as ours: see Brandom (1979) and Descombes (2004). Ricoeur for instance writes:« Autonomy (…) appears to be dependent on heteronomy, but in another sense of “other”: the other of freedom in the figure of the law, which freedom nevertheless gives itself; (…) this (…) otherness within the self joins the properly dialogic otherness that makes autonomy part and parcel of, and dependent on, the rule of justice and the rule of reciprocity. … The very idea of others bifurcates into two opposing directions, corresponding to two figures of the master: one, the dominator, facing the slave; the other, the master of justice, facing the disciple. It is the “heteronomy” of the latter that has to be integrated into autonomy, not to weaken it, but to reinforce Kant’s exhortation in What is the Enlightenment?: Sapere aude! » (1995, p.275). Kaplan summarises well the main point of this passage: « If the self is inseparable from other selves and institutions, we have to abandon a “self-sufficient autonomy” for a conception of autonomy that is dependent on various figures of otherness. The distinction between autonomy and heteronomy begins to disappear if autonomy means only that we are self-governing independently, free from control or influence of others, and heteronomy means that we are subject to another’s rules or laws, imposed from the outside. Ricoeur has shown how the self is mediated by others and the other than self, including rules, precepts, standards, and institutions, while, at the same time, insisting on preserving a form of autonomy affected by the other. » (2003, p.113).

  3. Saying that social life requires heteronomy from agents (and not parts or organs of them) is also a way of insisting on the relative epistemological autonomy of social science explanation in comparison with naturalistic explanations (referring to infra-individual and evolutionary factors, for instance, in order to explain the emergence and dynamics of social life).

  4. Simmel, Weber and Tarde are representative authors of this line of thought.

  5. Durkheim is maybe the most (in)famous author here. Parsons and Bourdieu, however different they are, are generally considered as being Durkheim’s bedfellows.

  6. Indeed, Giddens (1976, p.108) writes that “interactions actualize rights and enact obligations”.

  7. This topic of the interiorization of norms and values is arguably a very tricky one (the works of Michel Foucault are crucial here). Whether it be accomplished by education, enculturation, habits, body techniques, propaganda (mass media), imitation, publicity, terror or exclusion, the “interiorization of social structures” is generally a way for some power or authority to be naturally inscribed into the subjectivity of agents.

  8. The distinction between regulative and constitutive rules initially comes from Rawls (1955). See Haugeland (1998, chapter 13) for a discussion of its importance for philosophy of cognition.

  9. The “rules of the game” are not just grammatical and semantic; far more important are the “unwritten rules” that make a conversation viable, such as being interested in what the other person is saying, trying to make oneself understood, and so on.

  10. Reflexively, we may note that this sort of negotiation about the meaning of words is of course a typically … linguistic sort of activity!

  11. Animals in the wild, that is. The special case of domestic animals, particularly those that live in intimate proximity with humans such as cats and dogs—and maybe the very special case of language-trained chimps growing up with humans—can legitimately be cause for discussion.

  12. Obviously, this does not mean that our account of social cognition is totally incompatible with that of De Jaegher & Di Paolo. Both of them have common enactive purposes and roots. But that does not mean either that our respective accounts are simply and neatly complementary. In particular, the difference does not correspond to a distinction between macro- and micro-levels of social life.

  13. In De Jaegher and Di Paolo’s (2007) paper, it is nowhere mentioned that the medium of the interaction process is crucial in order to make the latter one a social process. Interaction is seen as an autonomous domain. Of course, the authors agree that interaction always happens in a certain place, and that this situation modifies the interaction process (2007, p.495–496). But this does not amount to saying that the environment is constitutive of the social character of the interactive process.

  14. As a referee of this paper remarked, one could think that the emergent autonomy of the interactional organisation De Jaegher and Di Paolo refer to entails that the agents entertain heteronomous relations with it—so that heteronomy as we mean it in this paper would already be present in their account. But De Jaegher and Di Paolo’s autonomy (and, consequently, heteronomy (even if they do not use that term!)) cannot be equated with ours. The heteronomy we mean here can only be exercised by agents in relation with a social order that is pre-existing to the interactional process agents co-construct. Conversely, the “autonomy” of the social order (although, as said above, we are reluctant to use this misleading expression) is not produced from here and now, from the resources of interactive processes between agents (as is De Jaegher and Di Paolo’s autonomy). Actually, in our view, it is because the social structures pre-exist with respect to the agents and their behaviours that they are not only constraining but enabling, genuinely constituting new cognitive powers for these agents (and thus expanding their autonomy).

  15. The work of Francisco Varela on both the immune system and the nervous system lead to an autonomy-perspective according to which the distinction between self/non-self is finally replaced by a distinction between self/non-sense (Anspach and Varela 1992, p.503–504).

  16. It is probably an accident, but if so it is a happy one, that Varela spontaneously coined the same metaphor: “to enact” (a scene) is a term from the theatre.

  17. For instance, proponents of enaction often engage in arguments with non-enactive theories such as mirror-neurons or Theory of Mind, concerning phenomena such as empathy, understanding, joint action, joint attention or mindreading. As long as they remain in tacit accordance with their opponents that these disputes crucially concern social cognition, both parties will share a basic presupposition we have criticised here: situating the core of social processes in dyadic interactional processes.

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Steiner, P., Stewart, J. From autonomy to heteronomy (and back): The enaction of social life. Phenom Cogn Sci 8, 527 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-009-9139-1

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Keywords

  • Social cognition
  • Autonomy
  • Heteronomy
  • Normativity