Enaction Paradigm - Cognitive Science

RELATED TERMS: Body; Ontological Metalepsis; World-forming, world-making, world-building

Enaction, as a programme for understanding cognition, was initially articulated by Varela, Thompson and Rosch (1991). This programme breaks with the formalisms of the information-processing and symbolic representation approaches previously prevalent in cognitive science. Instead, cognition is taken to be grounded in the sensorimotor dynamics of the interactions between living organisms and their environments. In the perspective of enaction, living organisms enact the world they live in. The effective, embodied action of the living organism in the world constitutes its perception and thereby grounds its cognition.

In this paradigm, embodied action is relevant for all ‘levels’ of cognition, from basic processes of metabolism and movement to high-level human cognition, such as reasoning, planning and problem-solving. This follows from the assumption that we put the world together in a spatial sense through movement from the very beginning of our lives. Spatial concepts are born in kinaesthesia and in our correlative capacity to think in movement. The constitution of space, therefore, does not begin with adult thoughts about space but rather in infant experience. The kinaesthetic function, itself is rooted in proprioception, is foundational for the emergence of the prereflective experience of spatiality and distal objects.

In this way, enaction moves away from the representation-centred framework toward an action-oriented paradigm based on notions of situatedness and embodiment. For this reason, cognitive systems are understood always to be engaged in contexts of action which require fast selection of relevant information and continual sensorimotor exchange. Perceptual processing is seen to be active and highly selective. The basic capability of mind in the enactive paradigm is being and acting in the world, not information processing and symbol manipulation. The locus of cognitive activity takes place in the interface where organism and world meet (the complication being that the world itself is now, if it has not always been, replete with information and symbols and that much ‘action’ takes place through language and semiosis).

Enaction takes seriously both first-person lived experience and third-person natural science and adopts as a methodological principle the need for (chiasmic?) circulation between first-person experience and third-person scientific methods. It is therefore distinguished, on the one hand, from Gibsonian ecological psychology, which eschews the first-person point of view, and, on the other hand, from phenomenology, which, while being grounded in first-person experience, finds it difficult to take fully into account the perspective of third-person natural science.

Stewart (2010) explains the enaction perspective in the following terms:

“Without action, there is no “world” and no perception. This is the heart of the concept of enaction: every living organism enacts , or as Maturana (1987) liked to say brings forth the world in which it exists. This has important ontological consequences, as it means that ‘reality’ is not pregiven but co-constructed by the organism.”

Of particular interest to the design of narrative environments, enaction admits the issue of reflexivity as an interesting and valid question. Thus, the enactive topology, similarly to the topology of the narrative environment, is like a Mobius strip or a tangled hierarchy. In performing a full hermeneutic circle or hermeneutic ciculation, passing from the most simple to the most complex, we end up at the starting point but one marked by what might be termed a Derridean differance: the same simple starting point is seen through the lens of the (entangled) complexity to which it has given rise, generating a sameness that is nevetheless different from itself and deferred from itself. As Stewart, Gapenne and Di Paolo (2010: xvi) explain,

“we may start out with elementary forms of life; going through all the increasingly complex forms of life that have arisen on Earth, we end up with . . . the biologist studying elementary forms of life. … by going full circle, we end up at the starting point — but with the object of scientific study having changed sides on the subject-object relation, becoming itself the subject of scientific enquiry.”

There are some similarities here to the transgressive process described in ontological metalepsis, where the author, for example, the human genome which is said to determine, or should we say ‘afford’, human evolution and behaviour, becomes part of the narrated story, as the narratee (humanity) becomes the author: human scientists, through ‘editing’, begin to determine (partially) the direction of evolution of the human genome.

Discussion: Enaction and Narration

Might it be said that the value of the design of narrative environments, as a methodological approach, is that it recognises not only that human organisms enact their world but also that they narrate their world. This dynamic follows a double hermeneutic circulation in which both positive and negative feedback loops may emerge, such as when, for example, a process of environmental degradation is accompanied by a narrative of progress. Both terms used here, ‘degradation’ and ‘progress’, imply situated deictic value systems which point to parts of the environment for ‘evidence’, a usage which requires further justification.

One does not, then, simply have two terms, organism (O) and environment (E) but three when narrative (N) is included. This double hermeneutic dynamic (O - E and O - N) is accommodated by the design practice’s tripartite model. While this tripartite model focuses primarily on human organisms as people (P) in the organism role (O = P), it is nonetheless open to including other organisms, such as animals, viruses and digital avatars, as hybrid organic-inorganic or socio-technical forms of ‘cognition’, on the basis that life = cognition, as Stewart (2010: 4) contends. By implication, a third hermeneutic circulation emerges, N - E, one that affects O - E and O - N and which, when all are taken into account, constitutes a triple hermeneutic circulation.

Such a triple hermeneutic circulation ‘affords’ or makes possible complex cognition and learning, at play in any designed narrative environment.


Stewart, J., Gapenne, O. and Di Paolo, E. A. (eds) (2010) Enaction: toward a new paradigm for cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stewart, J. (2010) Foundational Issues in Enaction as a Paradigm for Cognitive Science: From the Origin of Life to Consciousness and Writing. In Stewart, J., Gapenne, O. and Di Paolo, E. A. (eds), Enaction: toward a new paradigm for cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.