The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Toward an Enactive Anthropology

Posted in General, Resources by Tom Froese on October 27, 2010

For a while now I’ve been thinking about how the enactive approach in the cognitive sciences needs to get a better grip on anthropology. In particular, it seems that with the notion of ‘participatory sense-making’ we have converged on a similar description of our modus operandi as the anthropologists’ notion of participatory observation. If we want to make the enactive approach more relevant to specifically human cognition, then it seems this is the best place to look.

Still, part of the problem is to find some anthropologists whose approach is amenable to become integrated into the enactive framework in a mutually enriching way. While discussing this idea with various people I’ve received a number of suggestions of books that would be good starting points. I list them here, as best as I can remember, for the benefit of others.

John Stewart has been arguing for a long time for the relevance of anthropology for the enactive approach. Thus, we had Ed Hutchins give a talk at the first enaction summer school in France, for example. More recently, he has been suggesting that Emile Durkheim may help us to better understand the notion of the ‘social’.

Marek McGann has recommended that I take a look at the work of Terrence Deacon if I want to better understand the origins of symbolic forms of cognition. He has also suggested that the different stages of cognition identified by Merlin Donald are useful to enactivists. For a more recent approach inspired by Gibsonian psychology, Marek pointed out the work by Tim Ingold.

Joerg Fingerhut recommended that if I’m interested in symbolic forms of cognition then I should take a look at the work of Ernst Cassirer, especially one of his essays on man as a ‘symbolic animal’.

I’m sure this reading list could be extended. If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment.


Cassirer (1944) – An Essay on Man
Deacon (1997) – The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain
Donald (1991) – Origins of the Modern Mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition
Durkheim (1912) – The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
Hutchins (1995) – Cognition in the Wild
Ingold (2000) – The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill


2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Ezequiel said, on October 27, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Absolutely agree. There’s definitely lots of interesting work in anthropology (broadly construed) for enactivits – and interesting in different senses: for the ideas, the methods, the implications, and so on.

    Off the top of my head…

    Thomas Csordas has written and organised several special issues on the importance of embodiment in anthropology. See for instance: Csordas, T. (1990) “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology”, Ethos, 18(1), 5-47.

    The vast work of André Leroi-Gourhan on technicity, aesthetics and human evolution is in many ways enactive-friendly. See his “Gesture and Speech”.

    Same goes for Gregory Bateson of course (“Naven”, “Steps Towards an Ecology of Mind”, “Mind and Nature”, etc.).

    Moving towards ethnography and sociology and following on the paths of Marcel Mauss (see his “Techniques of the Body”) and Pierre Bourdieu (“The Logic of Practice”), there’s the very nice work of Loïc Waquant. In particular his book “Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer”. In it he uses the “embedded” participatory method (he literally becomes a boxer) to examine the various institutional factors that regulate the apprentice’s body (e.g., training timetables, scales of proficiency) and how social practices become incarnate.

    Several other things for sure, not to mention feminist takes on the body (Iris M. Young, Gail Weiss, Elizabeth Grosz), these are less anthropology oriented, but in many cases the approach is very compatible in the way that certain practices are studied – thinking of Young’s “Throwing Like a Girl” in particular.

    • Tom Froese said, on October 27, 2010 at 1:19 pm

      Thanks, Ezequiel! Lots of interesting things to read…

      The notion of technicity has reminded me of another one of John’s suggestions:

      Stiegler (1998), Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: