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Self–other contingencies: Enacting social perception

Abstract

Can we see the expressiveness of other people's gestures, hear the intentions in their voice, see the emotions in their posture? Traditional theories of social cognition still say we cannot because intentions and emotions for them are hidden away inside and we do not have direct access to them. Enactive theories still have no idea because they have so far mainly focused on perception of our physical world. We surmise, however, that the latter hold promise since, in trying to understand cognition, enactive theory focuses on the embodied engagements of a cognizer with his world. In this paper, we attempt an answer for the question What is social perception in an enactive account? In enaction, perception is conceived as a skill, crucially involving action (perception is action and action is perception), an ability to work successfully within the set of regularities, or contingencies that characterize a given domain. If this is the case, then social perception should be a social skill. Having thus transformed the question of what social perception is into that of what social skill is, we examine the concept of social contingencies and the manner in which social skills structure—both constrain and empower—social interaction. Some of the implications of our account for how social and physical perception differ, the role of embodiment in social interaction and the distinction between our approach and other social contingency theories are also addressed.

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Notes

  1. Even approaches that stress the interactive and embodied nature of social cognition (e.g., Gallagher 2004, 2008) are in need of further elaboration, specifically with regard to the precise role of interacting in intersubjectivity (De Jaegher 2009). The present paper is also in part motivated by these discussions.

  2. The principal analysis of the concept of skill in the literature is a debate over the use of the distinction between “knowing that” and “knowing how” used by O'Regan and Noë (2001). This distinction appears to have produced more heat than light on the matter, however, and its use has been questioned by several authors (e.g., Hutto 2005; Rowlands 2007). The particular form of the distinction has also been a source of confusion and criticism for Noë's (2004) dynamic sensorimotor account.

  3. This theoretical proposal about coordination in social interaction needs empirical corroboration. Certain is that dynamical systems analysis will be part of the toolkit and that we need to find a way to delineate the relevant “units” to be correlated. The dynamics of coordination in the interagent domain are already being studied, for instance, by Di Paolo (2000), Vallacher et al. (2005), and Auvray et al. (2009). Although discussion of such work would take this paper beyond its scope, we emphatically agree with our reviewer who suggested that more work is needed in this direction.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their detailed reading and insightful suggestions. HDJ 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 Marek McGann.

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McGann, M., De Jaegher, H. Self–other contingencies: Enacting social perception. Phenom Cogn Sci 8, 417–437 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-009-9141-7

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Keywords

  • Autonomy
  • Cognition
  • Cultural psychology
  • Embodiment
  • Enaction
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Participatory sense-making
  • Perception
  • Social interaction
  • Self
  • Skill