Tutorial on Embodiment

5.1.3. Embodied dynamicism and enactivism


"Since the early 1990s the computationalist orthodoxy has begun to be challenged by the emergence of embodied-embedded cognitive science (e.g. Clark 1997; Wheeler 2005; Varela et al. 1991). This approach claims that an agent's embodiment and situatedness is constitutive of its perceiving, knowing and doing. Furthermore, the computational hypothesis has been challenged by the dynamical hypothesis that cognitive agents are best understood as dynamical systems (Van Gelder and Port 1995). These developments can be broadly grouped together under the heading of embodied dynamicism (cf. Thompson 2007, pp. 10-13). While this approach has retained the connectionist focus on self-organizing dynamic systems, it incorporates this emergentist perspective into a non-computationalist framework which holds that cognition is a situated activity which spans a systemic totality consisting of an agent's brain, body, and world (e.g. Beer 2000)." (Froese, 2009)

"The paradigm of enactive cognitive science originally emerged as a part of the embodied dynamicist approach in the early 1990s with the publication of the influential book The Embodied Mind by Varela et al. (1991). However, while the enactive approach also emphasises the importance of embodiment, situatedness and dynamics for our understanding of mind and cognition, it has stood out from the beginning by promoting the cultivation of a principled phenomenological investigation of lived experience as a necessary complement to a standard scientific inquiry of the mind (e.g. Varela et al. 1991; Varela 1996, 1999). Moreover, it has recently set itself apart even further by placing a systemic biological account of autonomous agency at the heart of its theoretical framework (e.g. Weber and Varela 2002; Thompson 2004; Di Paolo et al. 2008). This complementary focus on biological (living) and phenomenological (lived) subjectivity clearly distinguishes the enactive approach from the rest of the competing paradigms in the cognitive sciences (cf. Thompson 2007)." (Froese, 2009)

For those who want to look more closely at the enactive approach, apart from the references mentioned, we recommend an online lecture by Ezequiel Di Paolo (see below).

Online Lecture:

Ezequiel Di Paolo
University of Sussex, UK
Shallow and deep embodiment: Reasons for embracing enactivism 29.10.2009


Beer, R. D. (2000). Dynamical approaches to cognitive science. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(3), 91-99.
Clark, A. (1997). Being there: Putting brain, body, and world together again. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
Di Paolo, E. A., Rohde, M., & De Jaegher, H. (2008). Horizons for the enactive mind: Values, social interaction, and play. In J. Stewart, O. Gapenne & E. A. Di Paolo (Eds.), Enaction: Towards a new paradigm for cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT, in press.
Froese, T. (2009), "Hume and the enactive approach to mind", Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 8(1), pp. 95-133.
Thompson, E. (2004). Life and mind: From autopoiesis to neurophenomenology. A tribute to Francisco Varela. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 3(4), 381-398.
Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in life: Biology, phenomenology, and the sciences of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
Van Gelder, T., & Port, R. F. (1995). It's about time: An overview of the dynamical approach to cognition. In R. F. Port, & T. van Gelder (Eds.), Mind as motion: Explorations in the dynamics of cognition (pp. 1-43). Cambridge, MA: MIT.
Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
Varela, F. J. (1996). Neurophenomenology: A methodological remedy for the hard problem. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3(4), 330-349.
Varela, F. J. (1999). The specious present: A neurophenomenology of time consciousness. In J. Petitot, F. J. Varela, B. Pachoud, & J.-M. Roy (Eds.), Naturalizing phenomenology: Issues in contemporary phenomenology and cognitive science (pp. 266-314). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Weber, A., & Varela, F. J. (2002). Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1, 97-125.
Wheeler, M. (2005). Reconstructing the cognitive world: The next step. Cambridge, MA: MIT.