Pragmatism, enactivism, and ecological psychology: towards a unified approach to post-cognitivism

Abstract

This paper argues that it is possible to combine enactivism and ecological psychology in a single post-cognitivist research framework if we highlight the common pragmatist assumptions of both approaches. These pragmatist assumptions or starting points are shared by ecological psychology and the enactive approach independently of being historically related to pragmatism, and they are based on the idea of organic coordination, which states that the evolution and development of the cognitive abilities of an organism are explained by appealing to the history of interactions of that organism with its environment. It is argued that the idea of behavioral or organic coordination within the enactive approach gives rise to the sensorimotor abilities of the organism, while the ecological approach emphasizes the coordination at a higher-level between organism and environment through the agent’s exploratory behavior for perceiving affordances. As such, these two different processes of organic coordination can be integrated in a post-cognitivist research framework, which will be based on two levels of analysis: the subpersonal one (the neural dynamics of the sensorimotor contingencies and the emergence of enactive agency) and the personal one (the dynamics that emerges from the organism-environment interaction in ecological terms). If this proposal is on the right track, this may be a promising first step for offering a systematized and consistent post-cognitivist approach to cognition that retain the full potential of both enactivism and ecological psychology.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    As we will see in Sects. 3.2 and 4.2, there are key pragmatist ideas at the basis of both enactivism and ecological psychology, although the reason why they are at the basis is different. While we can trace back in history the influence of the work of William James and Edwin B. Holt for Gibsonian psychology (Gibson 1967; Heft 2001), there is no explicit mention to the classic pragmatists in the early works of the enactive approach. Nevertheless, Varela et al. (1991) mention the work of some pragmatists in their book, such as Richard Rorty (p. 137), Richard Bernstein (p. 269) or Hilary Putnam (p. 217). Also, Gallagher (2017) discusses the importance of the work of Dewey as an antecedent of enactivism, although always from a conceptual and not form a historical point of view.

  2. 2.

    A more detailed view of these processes will be provided in Sects. 3.2 and 4.1. However, the wide variety of particular cognitivist approaches do not necessarily share all elements of the general picture often associated to cognitivism. Since a careful analysis of all varieties of cognitivism is beyond the scope of this paper, I will only focus on some key ideas.

  3. 3.

    ‘Functional’ in this context does not refer to philosophical functionalism, but to psychological functionalism, which is the Jamesian view on cognition. Contrary to philosophical functionalism, psychological functionalism claims that cognitive abilities are the result of biological adaptations to the environment. Within this view, organisms’ cognitive skills cannot be studied as separated from the environments in which those skills developed. The name ‘functionalism’ was a mocking expression invented by Titchener, according to Chemero and Käufer (2016: pp. 61–62).

  4. 4.

    For a concise but detailed summary of different sources for James’ notion of habit, see Blanco (2014).

  5. 5.

    It is important to emphasize that, according to Dewey, all habits are socially constituted. This may sound strange, since there are habits (like breathing or walking) that seem purely physiological subpersonal processes that do not need to be constituted by the social environment. However, Dewey claims that they are modified by the social context and that, in the case of social animals (like humans), there cannot be habits without the social environment (Dewey 1922/2007: p. 16). I think these are two very different statements that amount to a different role of the social in the constitution of habits, and that Dewey was not entirely clear in his writings about the degree of constitutivity that the social dimension has for the establishment of individual habits.

  6. 6.

    It is fair mentioning that the enactive approach as it is explained here is not only a framework for understanding perception and action, but it expands to many other processes. There is an enactive approach to social cognition and intersubjectivity known as participatory sense-making (De Jaegher and Di Paolo 2007), an enactive approach to emotions (Colombetti 2014), an enactive approach to language (Cuffari et al. 2015), or an enactive approach to psychiatry (Fuchs 2005), among others. The enactive approach is, then, quite vast and its applications are expanding for understanding different phenomena, from basic to non-basic cognition (Gallagher 2017). In this sense, it does not reduce to the concepts of autopoiesis, adaptivity, and sense-making explained here. I only focused on these ideas because they are useful to emphasize the common aspects of enactivism and ecological psychology (this is, aspects related to perception and action, since the ecological approach has not been fully developed so as to explain non-basic cognitive processes). In this sense, it is worth mentioning that the sketch for a post-cognitivist approach that reunites the enactive and the ecological approaches (see Sect. 5) should be expanded and enriched in the future to contain all these developments provided by the enactive approach in all the above-mentioned fields, like social cognition or affectivity.

  7. 7.

    This process was based on the general scheme of stimulus–response mechanism sketched by behaviorism. Cognitivism, instead of rejecting it, inherited and enriched it by introducing the information-processing mechanisms between stimulus and response. In this sense, cognitivism and behaviorism are not rival theories, but complementary views that emphasize different parts of a single whole framework for understanding the mind (Reed 1991).

  8. 8.

    It is important to highlight that the term ‘information’ should not be confused with the information of information-processing mechanisms defended by cognitivism. As Gibson argues, the idea of information within the information-processing view is based on Shannon’s notion of information, which works in a framework proposed for explaining how communication works. According to Gibson, this approach may work for communication, but not for perception (1979/2015: pp. 230–232). Gibson explicitly claims that ecological information is closer to the idea of meaning or value (understood as possibilities for action from an embodied and situated perspective) than to the idea of information as a signal for communication (Gibson 1979/2015: pp. 130–132, 160). As he claimed, “[t]he term information cannot have its familiar dictionary meaning of knowledge communicated to a receiver. This is unfortunate, and I would use another term if I could. The only recourse is to ask the reader to remember that picking up [or detecting] information is not to be thought of as a case of communicating” (Gibson 1979/2015: p. 231).

  9. 9.

    The idea of specificity or unique correspondence between ecological information and perception was established by Gibson (1979/2015) and later developed by the so-called Connecticut School (Heft and Richardson 2013) as the bedrock for the scientific study of perception from an ecological approach. This view has been key in the experimental development of the ecological approach from the 1980s until now. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that there have been recent criticisms of the specificity framework within ecological psychology (Withagen and van der Kamp 2010; van Dijk et al. 2014).

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to the audience at the Ways of Enaction Conference held in Fortaleza (Brasil) in September 2017 for their comments, and to Manuel de Pinedo and Ezequiel Di Paolo for their fruitful comments and suggestions to an earlier version of this paper.

Funding

This paper has been funded thanks to a 2018 Leonardo Grant for Researchers and Cultural Creators, BBVA Foundation (The Foundation accepts no responsibility for the opinions, statements and contents included in the project and/or the results thereof, which are entirely the responsibility of the authors), the Project FFI2016-80088-P funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science, and the FiloLab Group of Excellence funded by the Universidad de Granada, Spain.

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Heras-Escribano, M. Pragmatism, enactivism, and ecological psychology: towards a unified approach to post-cognitivism. Synthese 198, 337–363 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02111-1

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Keywords

  • Pragmatism
  • Enactivism
  • Ecological psychology
  • Affordances
  • Cognitive science