In the debate about the nature of social cognition we see a shift towards theories that explain social understanding through interaction. This paper discusses autopoietic enactivism and the we-mode approach in the light of such developments. We argue that a problem seems to arise for these theories: an interactionist account of social cognition makes the capacity of shared intentionality a presupposition of social understanding, while the capacity of engaging in scenes of shared intentionality in turn presupposes exactly the kind of social understanding that it is intended to explain. The social capacity in question that is presupposed by these accounts is then analyzed in the second section via a discussion and further development of Searle’s ‘sense of us’ and ‘sense of the other’ as a precondition for social cognition and joint action. After a critical discussion of Schmid’s recent proposal to analyze this in terms of plural pre-reflective selfawareness, we develop an alternative account. Starting from the idea that infants distinguish in perception between physical objects and other agents we distinguish between affordances and social affordances and cash out the notion of a social affordance in terms of “interaction-oriented representations”, parallel to the analysis of object affordances in terms of “action-oriented representations”. By characterizing their respective features we demonstrate how this approach can solve the problem formulated in the first part.
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An anonymous reviewer doubted that our interpretation of de Jaegher et al.’s interactionism in terms of joint action is adequate. The main reason for this doubt seems to be differences between social interaction and participatory sense-making on the one hand and paradigm cases of collective intentionality on the other (as analyzed by Searle, Bratman, and others). Yet, it is far from clear that these cognitively sophisticated examples rule out more primitive forms of joint cognitive processes (Tollefsen & Dale 2011) and that cognitive processes, in order to count as joint, must amount to collective intentionality in the full-fledged sense. Moreover, it is not clear what else this strong anti-individualism should amount to which is important for the purposes of this paper. De Jaegher et al. always put this forward in conjunction with an emphasis on the joint and active character of social understanding. In another passage, Jaegher, H. de et al. (2016) write, with a focus on social neuroscience: “The hypothesis we discuss here concerns an occurrent instance of social cognition. We claim that a normal adult human brain in isolation is insufficient for a typical instance of social cognition.”
De Jaegher and Di Paolo do not make clear in what sense their social enactivism is autopoietic. The feature of autopoiesis seems to be difficult to translate into the social domain since it refers to a process of self-production but neither the agents can be said to produce themselves, nor can we consider the interaction itself to produce itself. While it is clear what the autopoietic elements in biological organisms are, this is not so clear in the case of social phenomena. As far as we know, the only account attempting to translate the notion of autopoiesis literally to social phenomena is Niklas Luhmann’s social autopoiesis (Luhmann 2008). But on this view, a) systems are importantly isolated, and b) Luhmann considers the elements of social systems not to be agents but communications, independent from agents. Therefore, this view cannot be of any use for de Jaegher and Di Paolo’s enactivism.
It should be noted that the increased interest in the notion of affordances has produced a number of different interpretations of the notion (e.g. Turvey 1992; Reed 1996; Chemero 2009, Rietveld and Kiverstein 2014). Yet, over and above the minimal definition given in the text we do not intend to commit ourselves to any particular account of affordances. Where our interpretation differs from the mainstream usage in ecological psychology is that we aim at providing a representationalist account of affordances and social affordances in particular.
A focus on the social dimension of affordances is not new. Recently, Abramova and Slors (2015) presented their idea on direct social perception in terms of affordances. Their view, however, differs in an important way from ours. They argue that coordination happens as a result when the actions of and/or affordances for one agent shape the field of affordances for another agent. But this is only the case given a shared intention. This means that for Abramova and Slors affordances play a role once two agents are involved in a (social) interaction. The affordance is about seeing the other in their world-context. Although this is obviously important, and might be compatible with our ideas on social affordances, Abramova and Slors are not looking for an understanding of the ‘sense of us’ in any way.
Jacob and Jeannerod (2003, 180ff) provide a further yet different representational analysis of affordances. They point to the fact that Gibson did not consider the bifurcation of functions for vision: next to visual perception vision can be for action. They argue that the latter should be associated with affordances while the former should not.
Raczaszek-Leonardi, Nomikou, and Rohlfing (2013) propose that early forms of intentionality arise from “initial, perhaps automatic, ‘moving with others’, which is sculpted in multiple social episodes to become ‘acting with others’” (Raczaszek-Leonardi et al. 2013, 211). That is, the structure of activities emerges (is made evident) through repetitive behaviors by the caretakers. From repetition expectations may emerge enabling conventionalized behaviors. The main mechanism for this shaping is the education of action-perception-cycles to enable the child to pick up and create interactive affordances.
The authors' project on Situated Cognition is generously funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.
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Martens, J., Schlicht, T. Individualism versus interactionism about social understanding. Phenom Cogn Sci 17, 245–266 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-017-9499-x
- Social cognition
- Joint action
- Sense of us
- Sense of the other