Context: The notion of “enaction,” as originally expounded by Varela and his colleagues, was introduced into cognitive science as part of a broad philosophical framework combining science, phenomenology, and Buddhist philosophy. Its intention was to help the researchers in the field avoid falling prey to various dichotomies (mind/body, self/world, self/other) bedeviling modern philosophy and science, and serve as a “conceptual evocation” of “non-duality” or “groundlessness: an ongoing and irreducible circulation between the flux of lived experience (being) and the search of reason for conceptual invariants (knowing. Problem: It seems that, within the burgeoning field of “enactivism,” these far-reaching dimensions of the original proposal are often either dismissed or simply ignored. For this reason, the article tries to answer the following questions: Does the move away from the original exposition of enaction matter? What, if anything, has been lost along the way? What are the implications of the elements that have been discarded? Method: By drawing on some of the less well-known works of Varela, we spell out and elucidate some of the more radical aspects of the notion of enaction and the broader philosophical framework into which it was originally embedded. Results: We argue that this broader philosophical framework is of utmost importance, as it shows that enaction is only one part of the multi-layered “change in the context” that Varela felt was needed to successfully instantiate a move towards the non-dual. This “change of context” involves not only a change in the way we think about dualities, but also a change in the way we experience them. The role of new scientific metaphors, such as enaction (but also autopoiesis, embodiment, etc.), is to function as conceptual evocations of this back-and-forth exchange between knowing and being. However, if this overall framework is discarded, as is often the case in contemporary accounts, enaction loses its radical impetus and becomes mellowed down to yet another version of naturalized epistemology. Implications: Taking the notion of enaction seriously implies a radical shift in our conceptions of science and knowledge, as it encompasses a theoretical and existential move away from a detached observer to embedded and engaged cognizer. Thus, our manner of thinking can no longer be considered in isolation from our manner of being, which indicates a deep interconnection between epistemology and ethics, and may entail profound changes in the definition of the aims, methods, and values of the research community: self-transformation as a consequence of, and condition for, understanding. Constructivist content: The target article advocates a critical approach to realist presuppositions in contemporary science and philosophy, and emphasizes a deep interrelation between being and knowing, between ethics and epistemology.
Enacting Enaction: A Dialectic Between Knowing and Being
Sebastjan Vörös & Michel Bitbol