Enactive psychology: Is there a crack in the pillar of autonomy?

Enactive psychology is a new approach to the study of cognition which explicitly rejects the computational paradigm. Rather than considering internal representations of an external reality and how these are processed to achieve an output, enactive psychology asserts that our understanding of the external world is entirely due to internal processes and structure; that it is the structural re-organisation of our nervous system (and body) in reaction to environmental conditions. Structural re-organisation occurs in order to maintain the cohesion of a given system. It is the focus on exclusively internal processes of a system and the maintenance of a cohesive entity which leads to it being considered autonomous; separate and self reliant. This is not to say that it is unresponsive; it does indeed alter in response to an altered environment, but that response results from internal efforts of self-maintenance rather than an inclusion of any new external relations. In order to sustain the complexity of living systems which ‘exist far from equlibrium’ (Di Paolo, 2005) there are material and energy requirements. In this respect the system is open and processes may occur to replenish and sustain the organisation of the system. With respect to this sustained organisation, however, it is described as organisationally closed; that it maintains its particular relational structure as distinct from its surroundings.

The five pillars of enactive psychology can be understood as respectively incorporating skilful activity, experience, embodiment, a dynamical systems approach and autonomy. Quite apart from the fact that four pillars are more aesthetically pleasing and historically sufficient for a solid foundation, this posting, drawing largely from Di Paolo (2005), questions the status accorded to the concept of autonomy; that apart from its indubitable importance within the interpretation of the other elements of enactive psychology, as a conceptual foundation it is insufficiently complete to remain a distinct ‘pillar’ (no pun intended).

The pillar of autonomy is built upon the theory of autopoeisis as conceived by Maturana and offered by Valera (1979);

 “An autopoietic system is organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components that:

  1. through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and
  2. constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they [the components] exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.” (p. 13)


This can be seen to be very similar to Valera’s (1981) definition of autonomous systems which are 

 “…defined as a composite unity by a network of interactions of components that

(i) through their interactions recursively regenerate the network of interactions that produced them, and

(ii) realize the network as a unity in the space in which the components exist by constituting and specifying the unity’s boundaries as a cleavage from the background…” (p. 15)

Given the similarity of concepts, we continue by focusing on the nature of autopoeisis. Autopoeisis concerns the self-replicating ability of a distinct system. It is related to the structural organization of the system rather than the material constitution of the system (as the distinction of open and closed highlighted earlier). The structural relations which support the ongoing entity may be temporarily disrupted through interaction with environmental conditions but the nature of autopoeisis is such that the system is able to re-adjust, retaining its distinctiveness and a sense of an enduring entity. These re-adjustments are understood as perturbations within the system and the extent to which the system can accommodate (integrate) them without irreparable change (disintegration) is understood as its robustness; its range of possible change before autopoeisis fails. Some systems, due to their structural organisation may be more robust than others; the extent to which they can remain viable is described as their ‘viability set’. The important omission in the concept of autopoeisis as a foundational explanation within cognitive psychology is that of discrimination. As Di Paolo (2005) perceptively argues;

“There is no room for concepts such as lacks, minor or major breakdowns in autopoiesis: either organization is conserved or it isn’t – being partially autopoietic is senseless and any notion of the system being at risk of disintegrating would be a remark made by the external observer and plays no operational role. “(p.436)

Enter the example of the bacterium; self-sustenance requires energy which this simple organism metabolises from sugar molecules. Given an environment lacking in sugar, the bacterium moves towards an environment which is more sugar rich, thus enhancing its likelihood of remaining an autopoeitic system. Just as the movement of the flagella represent the need for sugar only to an outside observer rather than constituting an internal representation, so, too, does the behaviour enhance the viability of the bacterium only from a perspective outside of the autopoeitic system itself.

Effective behaviour requires a discrimination of possible viability. Autonomous systems, though responsive to the environment, remain unable to discriminate and can neither choose to approach nor withdraw. That the bacterium moves up a sugar gradient is not due to its autopoeitic nature, rather, the observed autopoeisis is a result of its ability to discriminate useful aspects within its environment.  In discussing the structural coupling of an organism to its environment, Maturana (1975) comments;

  “If one of the plastic systems is an organism and the other its medium, the result is ontogenic adaptation of the organism to its medium: the changes of state of the organism correspond to the change of state of the medium.” (p. 326)

This ‘ontogenic adaptation’ fails to account for the difference between useful or detrimental mediums, the adaptation may equally prove fatal as life enhancing. Regarding cognition, Maturana recognizes the need for life-enhancing choices but fails to account for how the discrimination may be achieved; (added emphasis)

“A cognitive system is a system whose organization defines a domain of interactions in which it can act with relevance to the maintenance of itself, and the process of cognition is the actual (inductive) acting or behaving in this domain.” (Maturana, 1970: reprinted in Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 13)

And Whitaker (2001) states,

  “…cognition is what we attribute to systems exhibiting flexible and effective changes during structural coupling. A living system’s organization circumscribes a domain of interactions within which activity relevant (and appropriate) to maintaining its autopoiesis is manifested.”

Autopoeisis requires the additional concept of adaptation in order to allow the exhibition of ‘flexible and effective changes’ during structural coupling and to usefully inform cognitive science. Adaptation is not usefully distinguished as producing discriminatory abilities by Maturana or Valera but is addresses by Di Paolo (2005) and defined as;

“A system’s capacity, in some circumstances, to regulate its states and its relation to the environment with the result that, if the states are sufficiently close to the boundary of viability,

1. Tendencies are distinguished and acted upon depending on whether the states will approach or recede from the boundary and, as a consequence,

2. Tendencies of the first kind are moved closer to or transformed into tendencies of the second and so future states are prevented from reaching the boundary with an outward velocity” (p.438)

 ‘Making-sense of’ the environment thus crucially requires the recognition of beneficial or detrimental environmental stimuli in order to effectively maintain the living system. Although this recognition is in terms of effects within the system it is essentially external to that system so that it can monitor whether it is approaching the limits of viability and thus instigate action to withdraw from such stimulation. It is this crucial ability within cognition which remains external to the autopoeitic system (although perhaps internal to the organism). Reliance on the most brutal natural selection and knowledge as purely instinctual is the only way to account for purely autonomous/autopoeitic cognitive abilities. I would argue that the adaptation exhibited in ones own life history relies on a discriminatory ability which implies an additional extra-system ‘observer’ mechanism. Organisms exhibiting such cognitive abilities can not, strictly, be considered as exclusively autopoeitic and, by extension, purely autonomous either materially or organizationally. There is no contention that autopoeisis is an extremely useful and productive concept and specifies the interpretation of other important concepts within enactive psychology. However, the clear lack of determination of value or ability to discriminate between autopoeitic preserving and destroying environments within a theory so concerned with cognition highlights an inherent insufficiency. This then challenges the status of ‘autonomy’ as a distinct, foundational element of enactive psychology and demands the question, ‘is there a crack in the pillar of autonomy?’


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

Maturana, H. R. (1970) Biology of Cognition, Biological Computer Laboratory Research Report BCL 9.0., Urbana IL: Univ. of Illinois

Maturana, H. & Varela, F. (1980), Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science [ Cohen, Robert S., and Marx W. Wartofsky (eds.) ], Vol. 42, Dordecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co.

Maturana, H. (1975). The organization of the living: A theory of the living organization, International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, Vol. 7, pp. 313-332.

Valera, F.J. (1979), Principles of Biological Autonomy, New York: Elsevier (North Holland)

Valera, F.J. (1981) Autonomy and autopoiesis, in Roth, Gerhard, and Helmut Schwegler (eds.) Self-organizing Systems: An Interdisciplinary Approach, Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, pp. 14-23.

Whitaker, R. (2001). Concepts and structures, Enolagaia retrieved on April 20, 2010 from http://www.enolagaia.com/Tutorial2.html#Autopoiesis&Autonomy


~ by lisajoyce on April 23, 2010.

4 Responses to “Enactive psychology: Is there a crack in the pillar of autonomy?”

  1. I think you make some really interesting points in this article. What seems clear though, is that this approach to psychology is still in development (afterall we would have had more exposure to enactive psychology if it was generally accepted). So while it may seem that there are cracks in the role of autonomy, evidence is growing in support of it.
    In order to make the steps necessary for an enactive approach autonomy must stand on its own. In my opinion, the evidence contradicting autonomy is not entirely convincing. Autonomy is supported by the other pillars of the enactive approach. If we consider the emphasis on experience, we can see at a basic level in which autonomy may occur. An individual creates their own ‘reality’ based on his or her perceptions of the world (through a lived body). Throw in to the mix severely complex enculturation and we have evidence for explaining shared agreement and mutual construction. Beings are still autonomous as the influence of others does not contradict the notion of a self-generating existence. It is a process based on environmental interactions and may be able to answer how experience can become socially patterned in the first place through autonomy. Overall, the notion of an embodied being supports autonomy.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree regarding self generating existence, mutual construction and socially patterned experience. Enactive psychology is an interesting approach. I suppose the necessity of argument has led me to an obscure corner of this theory. The point I make is really fairly small (hence crack-like) and I suspect that there are answers already formulated, published, reviewed and old-hat for many people out there. I haven’t yet uncovered a satisfactory explanation for value judgements within an autonomous system and the foundational nature of this concept within a cognitive science would, to my mind, require it to be more comprehensive regarding this issue. Anyone willing to enlighten me?

  3. And how come you get a pink square icon while I get a crummy grey one?!

  4. Actually, I just re-read your last post about emotion within enactive psychology and that certainly seems to offer some level of value; good feelings and bad feelings guiding further cognition although this is expressed as external to the nervous system and impinging upon it in an ‘extended mind’ paradigm….The nervous system as autonomous and the extended mind encompassing a number of interacting systems such as the hormonal and nervous systems. It can make sense to me that each system is autonomous but the interaction of systems seems to be the very essence of an extended mind approach. The very concept of an organism is that of a collection of organs, each autonomous in their own way yet relying on each other for mutual support in order to exist at all (the lungs need the heart needs the brain needs the veins…etc) I think, as an organism, that my cognition relies upon the entire interaction of my parts. At what level do we delineate the cognitive part of me? And why stop at my skin, If I am to understand something then there is necessarily something external to me to be understood and this understanding might be formed from an ‘internal’ re-arrangement but that re-arrangement is due to the external object and fits it in some way that it wouldn’t fit another object and so, in some sense, does it not represent that thing?….even if only from an observer’s point of view? Ah, its been a long day.

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