Date: 3rd November 2021

Speaker of the day: Hanne de Jaegher

Article: Varela, “Steps to a Science of Inter-being”

Keywords: enactivism, embodied mind, intersubjectivity, self and other, inter-being



Hanne de Jaegher presents the paper Steps to a Science of Interbeing, focusing on key notions that inspired and were further developed by subsequent enactivist cognitive science. The presenter points out, that she will not be going into too much depth on the topic of Buddhist philosophy, as that is not her area of expertise, but chooses to focus on the other major themes of the paper, namely, Varela’s overview of the state of cognitive science of his day, and his reflections on potential future developments of the discipline and his ideas. As de Jaegher is one of the authors at the forefront of just such developments in enactivist cognitive science, she takes this opportunity to critically reflect on Varela’s approach and his aspirations for future research in light of recent attempts to expand on or rethink his ideas.

The paper presented is written as an attempt to provide an account of the findings and implications of the cutting edge of cognitive science for the general public. It formulates four key points as its most significant recent findings. The first states that the mind is necessarily embodied, i.e., it involves active coping with the world, and not mere symbolic computation. The second key point is that the mind emerges from local elements as a global whole – the (neural) parts determine the properties of the whole (person) to some extent, but the emergent whole also has reciprocal influence on the constitution of its parts. The third point is that of intersubjectivity – individuals are co-determined through interaction. The fourth point states the circular relation between experience and scientific research, and calls for a mutual enrichment of the 1st and 3rd person perspective on cognition.

In the conclusion, Varela draws out a schema of the major subsequent stages of cognitive science, and points out how they each correspond to a particular conception of other minds. The first, cognitivist stage, corresponds to the perspective which treats the other as a problem, a fundamentally solipsist position, which has no direct evidence of the others existence. The second stage corresponds to the enactive co-determination of self and other. Varela proposes a potential future third stage, which builds on neuro-phenomenological principles of circularity and conceives of the other as inter-being. De Jaegher points out that recent research did not proceed in the direction proposed by Varela here, but instead inquires into the problematic relation between individual selves and the domain of inter-being. According to de Jaegher, Varela does not recognize that this relation may in fact be problematic for the individuals involved, and that it includes strife and assertions of difference more so than harmonious co-determination.


1) Hanne de Jaegher: Have the key points been accepted by mainstream cognitive science today?

Evan Thompson: To some extent. Embodiment is recognized to a limited extent but has not yet led to a rethinking of intersubjectivity. This has been taken up by research on collective sense-making, which however is not considered mainstream yet.

2) Gabor Karsai: Can you elaborate on the stress on conflicts and differences within recent research on intersubjectivity?

Ezequiel Di Paolo: This is one of the developments that comes out of Varela’s work and runs parallel to the one involving neuro-phenomenology that is presented in the text. The two are not antithetical and might become woven together. Our research on intersubjective tensions proceeded from considering interactions of multiple sense-makers. The tensions we are describing are not ones of hostile conflict, but those of different norms and potential misunderstandings. Tension in this context is not something bad, it is what drives the process of interaction forward, and it accounts for the depth of intersubjective relations, i.e. the fact that the other is not given to me at once, but has to be continually made sense of.

3) Gabor:  How does this line of thinking relate to neuro-phenomenology?

Natalie Depraz: We find the four key points reflected very well in the method of microphenomenology.

4) Andreas Weber: The domain of inter-being is not something smooth but is inherently problematic and paradoxical. Mutual co-determination here is not based on fusion but on difference. This is an important point, however I do not think that Varela failed to recognize this. I agree with de Jaegher’s criticism, in that the paper does not do justice to these issues, however it does not preclude these issues, but passes over them because it’s focus is somewhere else (the relation of Buddhism and cognitive science).

Hanne: I acknowledge that by taking Varela’s perspective and working within the enactive tradition, that one may have a sense of mutual-codetermination, i.e. that we are all a part of the same larger whole. But there is also always a sense of struggle and tension, through which we necessarily move as living beings. If we were all simply one (harmonious whole), then we would not move, that would be the end of it.

Andreas: This idea is at the basis of the notion of autopoiesis, namely that there is conflict and struggle which is resolved by building oneself up again. So, the notion of tension is very fundamental to Varela’s thought. The way you develop this idea is original, but your contribution is not in conflict with the basic principles of Varela’s thought.

5) Amy Varela: How does Varela’s notion of breakdown come to bear on the questions concerning tensions and conflict? Another question that arises concerns imagination, that Varela held in central concern, which is manifested for example in clinical practice, where a certain tension arises between projection and readjustment.

Hanne: I am fascinated by imagination, but have trouble grasping it clearly at the moment, so I leave this question to potential responses from others. As for the question regarding breakdowns, this notion is indeed central to our work. It comes into play when studying coordination of e.g., neural patterns, or coordination between multiple individuals. Especially important to our approach is the idea that one may get locked into a bad coordination, and so a breakdown actually enables a transition between different kinds of coordination and opens up a space for new meaning to be made.

John Protevi: We certainly see productive breakdowns in communication, e.g., when someone has trouble finding the right words, the other might step in and help constitute the meaning. Another thing to point out is Wexler’s conception of cross-generational conflict in Brain and Culture.

6) Liam Kavanagh: We should keep in mind the idea of not-one-not-two. The idea of inter-being of the minds thus does not imply simple identity, or even similarity of different minds. When a Buddhist asserts to be one with the earth for example, this does not mean that he possesses a detailed model of the earth, or that he can understand the earth completely through empathy. He rather means that there is a deep interdependence between the two of them.

7) Primož Vidovič: I am interested in the lack of mention of Tree of Knowledge in this discussion, as there are whole chapters devoted to the relation between autopoiesis and intersubjectivity. Does the research on participatory sense-making touch upon the ideas presented in this book?

Ezequiel: We have looked into that, and these ideas have been very helpful, although lacking in some regards. Namely, the Tree of Knowledge works with a systemic framework that deals with how systems maintain their autopoiesis, but the notion of cognition of social agents has not been adequately introduced yet. Our point of departure was with the notion of sense-making, which we took as a basis of social cognition and social interaction.

John: Varela states that he refuses to apply autopoiesis to the social level, as opposed to Maturana, or sociologists such as Luhmann. His alternative to the conception of social realm as a domain of warring factions with zero-sum gain, is a view that we share a common world, but with a fallibilism regarding our political notions of cohabitation of this shared world. This perspective may confront the notion of collective sense-making with insurmountable limits.

8) Florian Klausser: Given that the enactive approach is usually connected to Buddhist and similar traditions, do you happen to know to what degree does Ubuntu philosophy play into enactive thinking on intersubjectivity?

Hanne: I think Ubuntu does not simply imply the identity of self and other, but also involves complex ethical implications involving intersubjective tensions and struggle. These issues have been worked out by e.g., Michael Eze or Abeba Birhane.

9)  Andreas: I find the topics of this paper extremely interesting and relevant. I have worked on related issues myself, which are dealt with to a greatest extent in Enlivenment, my book which develops the idea of the biosphere as a commons.

10) Viktorija Lipič: I am interested in de Jaegher’s take on Sufi mystic poets’ understanding of love in comparison to your own conception of love and loving as participatory sense-making. In the Sufi tradition love is understood as a basic expression of one’s inner self, so it encompasses the whole personality of the lover. The principles governing love are different from those of logical thought, and the experiential differentiation between the subjective and objective is minimized. What similarities or differences would you point out regarding your own understanding of love, particularly from the experiential point of view, i.e., how love is experienced?

Hanne: I am not an expert on Sufi poetry, however I do see a similarity with regard to the notion of love as an expression of one’s inner being. This is what I strive to point to as well in the context of epistemology of loving, namely what drives us to bring our deep bodily structure into contact with the world.