Doing Your Mind

Research, comments and musings about active minds.

Relativity versus selectivity in the enactive approach

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given, and transmitted from the past.

While reading Harry Heft’s Ecological Psychology in Context I came across this quotation by Marx. The gist of this thought struck me as quite relevant to the enactive concept of reciprocal causation and what is sometimes called the “mutual dependence of agent and world”.

That’s basically a jargon-laden way of saying that the world we experience is the way it is because we are the way we are. If we were different, the world we experienced would be different. For some, this teeters uncomfortably on the verge of relativism, but with the moral of Marx’s quotation in mind, we can see that the enactive approach does not easily fall into a relativist trap.

From an enactive perspective, our worlds are the result of the bodies we have actively, skilfully coordinating its actions with the environment around us. The actions of which¬† we are capable and the activities we engage in structure our experience as much as the basic facts about the physical world around us. Such thinking makes a lot of people uneasy because we are much more at home with the idea that our perceptual systems take in information about the world and use it to piece together a realistic picture of what is going on. It might be incomplete, or sometimes mistaken, but in normal circumstances our ability to figure out what’s going on works very well, thank you very much. The idea that perception is less objective, and as much a product of our actions as it is of the way the world is seems to put us on the slippery slope to relativism or, worse still, solipsism.

But the pluralistic view that an enactive take on the world suggests is not unprincipled, or unaccountable to our environments. Like Marx suggests concerning history, but we apply in the domain of cognition, perception and action, the experience depends on our perspective, but is not wholly determined by it. There are constraints which must be included in any theory of what is going on and some of those constraints lie outside of the organism as we would describe it. Part of the project of the enactive approach is to try to elucidate those constraints, and it is in addressing this question that enactivist thinking fits with those related approaches which are tagged with some of the various ‘e’ terms – embodied, embedded, ecological.

Rather than claiming relativity, then, enactivist thinking emphasises the fact that cognitive activity is selective. There are other possibilities, numerous but not arbitrary. A fully worked out account of enaction will provide a description of this plurality of possible experiences in any given context, along with an explanation of why one experience rather than the others are had. Heft examines the idea of selectivity as the hallmark of experience at great length, following from William James’s later work.

I’m just coming to the end of Heft’s immensely impressive book, and will in due course give it a long and very positive review here.

Heft, H. (2001). Ecological Psychology in Context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the Legacy of William James’s Radical Empiricism. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.¬†

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