and the enigma of culture: Towards an enactive account of cultural
Paper presented the NCPG on the 8th conference of the International
Society for Theoretical Psychology (ISTP), April 25-28, 2000, Sydney
Cor Baerveldt, Paul
Voestermans, & Theo
why bother about experience?
In this paper we are concerned
with some compelling questions regarding the way cultural psychology
should deal with experience. We claim that an adequate view of culturally
patterned human action requires a fundamental revision of the way
we think about experience. Although cultural psychology has always
been concerned with human experience, up to now the common approach
has been to consider 'culture' as something which is already known
and to evoke cultural norms, models, stories and ideologies as an
explanation for the observed patterns in human conduct. In our view
this approach runs the risk of producing post hoc explanations.
One of the main things to be understood by cultural psychology is
why human conduct appears to be culturally patterned especially
when the people in question act on the basis of their own 'authentic'
experience (Baerveldt & Verheggen, 1999a, 1999b). Apparently there
is something about culture itself that has to be explained in experiential
terms. Cultural norms, for example, are norms because of a particular
configurations of feelings involved, so we have to be careful not
to uncritically use those norms as an explanation for the cultural
forms of feeling (Voestermans, 1991). Moreover, norms, models, stories,
and ideologies cannot explain their own force and persuasiveness.
The fact that some stories are more forceful or than other stories,
or that they are compelling to some groups, while being meaningless
or reprehensible to other groups, demonstrates that they rest on
experiences that are already culturally orchestrated (ibid.).
belief that the idea of culture as a pre-existing symbolic order
that needs to be internalized or appropriated by its participants
denies both the inherently social character of human psychological
processes and the psychological or experiential character of cultural
entities. The human mind does not become social only after swallowing
certain culturally fabricated meanings (Baerveldt, 1998; Baerveldt
& Verheggen, 1999a, 1999b). Instead, the mind is always social because
it evolves in dialogical relations to other minds right from the
beginning. As we have elsewhere claimed, "the basic question
of cultural psychology should therefore not concern a presumed dialectical
or dialogical relation between personal sense and ready made cultural
meanings, but the issue of how personal sense becomes coordinated
in such a way that it gives rise to cultural meanings" (Baerveldt,
1998, p. 9). So, 'culture' in the sense of an already established
symbolic order cannot be an explanation of meaningfully patterned
actions, because culture itself asks for a psychological explanation.
We maintain that instead of taking for granted the meaningfulness
of already produced cultural entities, cultural psychology should
investigate how cultural meanings are actually produced. The notion
of 'production' brings to our attention the need for an adequate
theory of 'action' or 'agency'. What is it that enables human beings
to act in meaningful ways? What constitutes their actions as social
actions? How is it that people's actions become culturally patterned,
while those people nevertheless act on the basis of their own personal
experience? Of course these are profound problems, which will not
be solved overnight. However, one of the mainsprings of cultural
psychology in the past ten or fifteen years has been the perceived
need within the social sciences to ask such old questions in renewed
In order to meet the challenge
of accounting for culturally patterned meaningful action, we have
tried to sketch the outlines of an 'enactive' cultural psychology
(Baerveldt, 1998; Baerveldt & Verheggen, 1999a, 1999b). The enactive
paradigm has an important part of its roots within the epistemological
work of the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela
(Maturana, 1978, 1980; Maturana & Varela, 1980; Varela, 1979). The
word "enactivism", however, was introduced more recently
by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1991) in their attempt to apply
those epistemological insights to cognitive science.
central claim of enactivism is that the neural system, like any
other architecture embodying some kind of cognition, is 'operationally
closed'. An operational closed system is a system that is capable
of maintaining it's own internal coherence, which means that we
cannot not sufficiently account for its operations by reference
to its environment . The notion of operational closure has often
raised confusion, especially among those cognitive theorists who
uncritically assume that the brain is some kind of computational
machine that operates on the basis of informational input from its
environment. Paradoxically, however, it is exactly the notion of
closure that brings this environment into focus again, not as just
a source of neutral information, but as a lifeworld charged with
significance. According to Maturana a system is operationally closed
when its operations are not instructed by its environment, but determined
by its own structure and organization (Maturana & Varela, 1980).
Although an operationally closed system can be perturbed by its
environment, its environment cannot force the system into a particular
course of action. The environment has only a triggering role in
the realization of cognitive acts, which means that it can not be
conceived of in terms of pre-existing information. The world in
this sense has no prefixed properties. Instead, a cognitive system
enacts its own domain of significance, or its own domain of distinctions.
As such a cognitive system is necessarily an experiencing system.
the enactive paradigm 'cognition' and 'experience' are two sides
of the same coin. It should be stressed again that the properties
of this experience cannot be derived from what an observer claims
to know about a world preceding this experience. Any representational
account of cognition and experience falls short, since it confuses
the descriptive domain of an outside observer and the phenomenal
domain of the acting system. Instead of representing or mapping
the informational properties of a pregiven, 'out there' world, a
cognitive system enacts its phenomenal domain on the basis of its
own closed organization. Therefore the notion of operational closure
has a phenomenological counterpart in what could be called 'experiential
closure'. Each cognitive system is a system that lives in a world
of its own experience, a phenomenal world to which an external observer
has principally no access. A cognitive agent is a meaning-producer
rather than an information processor (Baerveldt & Verheggen, 1999a,
enactive notion of operational and experiential closure has far
reaching implications for the way we look upon social interaction.
Since the conduct of neither of the interacting systems can be 'in-structive'
or 'in-formative' for the other, enactivism conceives of social
interaction as a constant mutual co-adaptation, or a consensual
coordination of actions between meaning-producers. When such interactions
acquire a recurrent character, the interactors may create a domain
of interlocked conduct, or what Maturana an Varela have called a
"consensual domain". Contrary to one of the most prevailing
intuitions with regard to the social enactivism claims that such
consensual domains do not involve a sharing of experience. Countering
individualistic trends within dominant social psychology some social
psychologist have come to use the notion of 'sharedness' in order
to indicate what is thought of as a central feature of social phenomena.
It is assumed that the intrinsically social or cultural dimension
of the mind has something to do with mental representations that
are shared by the members of a certain community. The paper of Verheggen
and Baerveldt elsewhere on this site deals with the epistemological
and psychological problems associated with such a notion of 'sharedness'.
It demonstrates that not 'sharedness' is the defining property of
social phenomena, but the fact that people come to coordinate their
own actions with respect to each other. Since each social actor
acts on the basis of her or his own personal experience, in a sense
all social phenomena can be said to involve a coordination of interpersonal
differences rather than correspondences.
is no brain
Although enactivism is thoroughly
rooted within biological insights in the origin of meaning and cognition,
it entails in no way a kind of biological reductionism, neither
does it comprise a view that is antagonistic with regard to culture.
In our view it is exactly the radical opposition of nature and culture
that has proved to be rather counterproductive for the scientific
study of meaning. As our insight in the biological foundations of
the mind advances, the biological and cultural psychological view
seem to converge in many respects, for example in their rejection
of the essentialism and objectivism contained within present day
cognitive functionalism, and in their shared concern with meaning
as opposed to a merely formal 'syntax of mind' (Bruner, 1990; Edelman,
1992). Now, forty years after the cognitive revolution it is becoming
more and more clear that 'die hard' cognitivism falls hopelessly
short as a theory of meaning, since it passes by both the embodiment
and the social embeddedness of the human mind (Bruner, 1990; Edelman,
1992; Lakoff and Johnson, 1998; Baerveldt, 1998; Baerveldt & Voestermans,
1996; Baerveldt & Verheggen, 1999a. 1999b).
think that one of the main obstacles for a psychology of meaningful
action lies in the persistent inclination to play off biology against
culture. After all, even the human brain evolved most dramatically
in a period of time that human beings lived in close-knit social
communities. This is a point largely overlooked by many self-proclaimed
evolutionary psychologists, who trivialize culture in favor of a
uniform human mind (see Voestermans
& Baerveldt, this site). Evolutionary psychologists consider
the human mind a complex computational machinery that was designed
by natural selection to solve the kind of adaptive problems our
ancestors had to face (Cosmides & Tooby, 1994). Voestermans and
Baerveldt argue, however, that in its attempt to dispute a rather
outdated metaphysics of meaning, evolutionary psychology submits
itself to the same limited notions of causality that keeps traditional
Turing machine functionalists from dealing with meaning in an adequate
way. In our view an enactive approach to psychology inevitably leads
to an inherently social or dialogical account of meaningful action.
Although a full account of human conduct does indeed involve the
biological study of the body and the brain and their evolutionary
development by selective pressure, Voestermans & Baerveldt suggest
that distinct psychological phenomena which are related to meaning,
intentionality, consciousness, and self-awareness can only emerge
within consensual domains that comprise the socially coordinated
actions occurring within 'communities of experiencers'.
constitution of reality
A cultural psychology that
radically starts from experience will have to indicate how a consensual
coordination of actions can give rise to certain 'frames' of action
which appear as independent contexts for those actions. Gregory
Bateson was probably the first to realize that the framing of social
interactions contains a paradox analogous to the kind of paradoxes
that has been bothering logicians for centuries (Bateson, 1972).
The best-known paradox is the classical paradox of Epimenides, also
known as the 'paradox of the liar'. In its modern form this paradox
is most often represented in the statement "this statement
is not true". The problem is of course that if this statement
were true, it should be untrue and if it were untrue, it should
be true. In their classical work on the logical foundations of mathematics
Whitehead and Russell (1910-1913) tried to demonstrate that such
paradoxes emerge as a consequence of confusing different logical
types. A statement belonging to a certain 'class' of statements
can not simultaneously contain a truth about this class. In other
words, a statement can not tell the truth about itself, without
creating a paradox, and rendering itself senseless.
Bateson demonstrated is that in spite of this logical prohibition
these kinds of paradoxes emerge time and again in the communication
between people and even between social animals¹.
The expressive style involved in complex behavioral phenomena like
'play', or 'threat', or 'deceit' seems to violate the Whitehead
and Russell prohibition of self reference. A monkey that playfully
bites a congener, or two dogs showing off fangs while keeping clear
of an actual fight are somehow able to communicate a message of
the kind: "the actions I perform do not mean what they mean".
In other words, those animals are capable of interacting with their
own interactions, thereby setting a 'context' or a 'frame' in which
those actions can be understood as meaningful. This is why Bateson
uses the word 'framing'. Framing is the creation in the interaction
of a context for that very same interaction.
communication is characterized by endless possibilities for second
and even higher order coordinations of actions. We can signify things
like "this is not a joke" or "don't you think I'm
not serious" or "stop lying to me" to mention only
a few examples. What those higher order consensual coordinations
of action have in common is that they are, what could be called,
'reality constituting practices'. By interacting with their own
interactions people are able to consensually establish what ought
to be taken as real. A central claim of the enactive paradigm is
that objective reality, that is, a reality consisting of 'objects',
does not precede human interaction, since objects can only emerge
within a domain of coordinations of coordinations of actions (Maturana,
1978, 1980, 1988; Maturana & Varela, 1980; Baerveldt & Verheggen,
1999a, 1999b). Words are of course the means par excellence to perform
such higher order coordinations of actions. The word "table",
for example, does not only coordinate the possible ways in which
we can interact with an entity in the world, but it also coordinates
those possible interactions with respect to other actors. Calling
something a table presupposes the existence of other actors, of
whom we assume that they experience the table in somewhat comparable
ways. This implies that the table is already part of a consensual
domain, a co-operative domain of interactions which we ourselves
help to constitute. The table as an objective entity does not exist
apart from our own conduct, neither does it exist apart from the
way we coordinate our conduct with respect to other actors.
and the discursive thesis
Although objective reality
is socially constituted it would be a mistake to conceive of all
reality as only a matter of free floating discursive construction.
Since the consensually coordinated actions that give rise to reality
remain firmly rooted within human experience, we should be careful
not to derive the whole world from what we claim to know already
about discourse. Our argument against such discursive relativism
is not that it passes by a real world that precedes human discourse,
but rather that it passes by experience. So, far from intending
to evoke some naïve realistic argument again, our focus concerns
the way in which experiencing human agents coordinate their actions
such that it gives rise to objective reality. This becomes particularly
important when the 'reality' concerned is not that of tables, rocks
and trees, but that of cultural entities like 'marriage' or 'motherhood'
or 'the constitution'. Such entities obviously belong to what Shweder
(1991) has called "intentional worlds". Their reality
is assembled out of the elements of people's very own experience,
as Von Glasersfeld (1991) has phrased it.
to Shweder, our socio-cultural environment is intentional "(…)
because its existence is real, factual, and forceful, but only as
long as there exists a community of persons whose beliefs, desires,
emotion, purposes, and other mental representations are directed
at, and thereby influenced by, it" (Shweder, 1991, p. 74).
But in spite of his eloquence, Shweder skirts around the central
question rather than elucidating it. After all, we call something
'marriage' or 'motherhood' because of a particular configuration
of beliefs, desires, emotion, and purposes that is involved. It
therefore hardly makes sense to maintain that such intentional realities
influence those same beliefs, desires, emotion, and purposes. As
soon as we ask the empirical question how those beliefs, desires,
emotion, and purposes acquire their particular form, Shweder's assertion
appears to be no more than a tautology. The observation that all
mothers gave birth to one or more children is not an empirical observation,
because the fact of having given birth to children is already included
in the word "mother". Likewise, the assertion that people
do certain things because they are influenced by, for example, the
institution of marriage or motherhood is not an empirical assertion,
because 'marriage' and 'motherhood' are themselves no more than
words for what people do in apparently patterned ways. As such,
cultural entities like 'marriage' and 'motherhood' can not function
as explanations of patterned conduct. They are realities that have
themselves to be cultural psychologically understood. An empirical
account of meaningful human actions asks for an explication of the
principles that are involved in the coordination of those actions,
that does not already include the outcome of those very same actions.
we have argued that a consensual coordination of actions is not
necessarily discursive in nature (Baerveldt 1999a, 1999b). Although
discourse is certainly most conspicuous in this respect, discursive
patterns are themselves to be understood in terms of the mutual
tuning processes by which 'personal' experience becomes consensually
validated. Most discursive psychologists are mainly concerned with
the way people account for their own and other people's actions,
but remain neutral with respect to the experiential basis of such
accounts. An enactive cultural psychology tries to do justice to
experience while avoiding the pitfalls of essentialism. It's main
focus is the way in which experiencing persons coordinate their
actions with respect to other experiencing persons. Neither 'true'
experience nor a pre-established cultural world can provide us with
a substantial ground for understanding patterned conduct. As for
culture, our aim is to study how persistent patterns in human action
are brought about in a dynamical process that involves nothing else
than action itself.
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In fact, the Whitehead and Russell theory of logical types is a
prohibition of self-referential statements. This is particularly
interesting because self-reference is a core concept in the theory
of autopoiesis. However, rather than proving their theory, Whitehead
and Russell posed it as a rule. As such, it was later contested
by several mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics, among
who were eminent thinkers like Wittgenstein and-less well known-G.
Spencer Brown. Spencer Brown developed a calculus of distinctions
(Spencer Brown, 1969) which is the basis for a calculus of selfreference
further developed by Varela in his 'principles of biological autonomy'