Dr Dave Ward
The University of Edinburgh


I outline two different, but related, approaches to studying mind and cognition that have been termed 'enactive'. First, a biologically-inspired approach to understanding cognition, according to which cognition is a dynamic relationship between organism and environment that aims at sustaining the organism's biological viability. I introduce and explain the key concepts of autopoiesis, adaptivity and sense-making that are at the heart of this approach, and summarise why these properties have been thought to ground cognition. Second, a 'sensorimotor' form of enactivism that understands cognition - in particular, visual perception - in terms of a skillful grasp of patterns linking sensory stimulation and movement. These patterns are known as sensorimotor contingencies​. I summarise some arguments for thinking that a grasp of sensorimotor contingencies plays an essential role in perception, and consider some different ways in which sensorimotor contingencies might be understood. Finally, I briefly consider the extent to which both kinds of enactivism are committed to an anti-representationalist understanding of cognition, and the relationship between enactivism and the hypothesis of extended cognition.


Further questions

  1. Cognition is often understood in terms of capacities for inference or 'offline' reasoning. The biological structures to which 'autopoietic' enactivists appeal do not seem to support, by themselves, such capacities. Are 'autopoietic' enactivists right to think that the simple biological structures to which they appeal are sufficient for cognition?

  2. Is 'autopoietic' enactivism's appeal to biological structures in tension with a conception of cognition as extended or distributed?

  3. 'Sensorimotor' enactivists focus on the way in which (they argue) perception depends on a skillful relationship with one's environment. Could their approach be generalised to non-perceptual instances of cognition?

  4. Does endorsing 'sensorimotor' enactivism give us good reasons to think that cognition is extended or distributed?


Essential readings

J. Kevin O'Regan & Alva Noë (2001). A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24 (5):883-917.

Susan L. Hurley & Alva Noë (2003). Neural plasticity and consciousness. Biology and Philosophy, 18 (1):131-168.

Ezequiel Di Paolo. (2005). Autopoiesis, adaptivity, teleology, agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 4 (4):429-452.


Secondary readings

Clark A. (2009). Spreading the joy? Why the machinery of consciousness is (probably) still in the head. Mind, 118 (472):963-993.

Di Paolo E. (2009). Extended life. Topoi, 28 (1):9-21.

Hurley S. L. (2001). Perception and action: Alternative views. Synthese, 129 (1):3-40.

Thompson E. (2005). Sensorimotor subjectivity and the enactive approach to experience. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 4 (4):407-427.

Ward D. (2012). Enjoying the Spread: Conscious Externalism Reconsidered. Mind, 121 (483):731-751.