Summarising Segall: Tracing the Cosmopolitical (iii – cosmopolitics)

This is ‘philosophy in a time of emergency’, Segall declares, the ‘old story is dying,’ and ‘we need as many hints about the new one’ as we can muster.

Emergency though it is, before we consider what some of those hints might be, let me reiterate that in this series I am summarising in my own words a talk by Matthew Tarnas Segall that I rather liked. I have done my best to provide a faithful rendering. I welcome all comments big and small.

You can link to the original talk here, or to an early transcript here if you would like more than the summary offered here.

And so …

For Segall, one vital hint about this new story is found within the theoretical framework of ‘cosmopolitics’. The cosmopolitical framework was introduced by chemist turned philosopher Isabella Stengers, over a couple of books at the turn of the decade: Cosmopolitics I (2010) and Cosmopolitics II (2011).

Here we will acquaint ourselves with this framework.

A protest against the bifurcation of nature

Cosmopolitics is primarily a protest against the ‘bifurcation of nature’, wherein, suggests Segall, we are left “having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality”.

For Whitehead, bifurcating nature into dream and conjecture is a fallacy, though one inevitable in the ‘reality’ that emerges with the scientific revolution, and one that has echoed through the conceptual landscape ever since.

An early exemplar, Descartes bifurcated nature into mechanical nature comprised of matter and human nature comprised of spirit. To resolve the obvious problem of causal interference between the two, he proposed that any influence of one upon the other necessitated an intervening God.

Later, Locke bifurcates nature along the lines of primary and secondary qualities: primary qualities being extension, mass and so on; secondary qualities, the sensuous qualities of colour, taste etc. The latter are properties that human nature traces over nature proper to make it comprehensible. They are not in nature itself, but in mind, in spirit.

Kant deepened this ontological rift, arguing all we can access in principle are appearances, or what he called phenomena – even space and time are activities of the mind. For Kant, things-in-themselves, or noumena, are forever beyond our grasp. Philosophers after Kant, the story went, should occupy themselves with considering how the mind conditions incoming intuitions (about which nothing at all can be said) so as to produce the dream of existence. After Kant, talk nature of Nature was – and still is for many – decommissioned.

A contemporary manifestation of the bifurcation is the notion of so-called mental representations: contentful symbolic structures the brain creates and manipulates, operating in the time between the light that turns red reaching your retina and you reaching for the break with your foot. Such representations are, so says Wikipedia, the “intermediaries between the observing subject and the objects … in the external world … [they] … stand for or represent to the mind the objects of that world”. Perception is a process of converting sensory stimulations into symbolic representations to produce sensory experience and guide action. What we perceive is not nature, but a mental representation of nature.

Common to these positions is the alienation of the human subject from Nature, and the idea that Nature is intrinsically devoid of meaning. Meaning is illusory, something added, and since Darwin, only as the exhaust fumes of the adaptive mechanisms that make genetic reproduction possible.

For Whitehead, Stengers and Segall, nature’s bifurcation has been disastrous. Our collective apprehension of nature as a submissive machine has played a star role in our current ecological emergency. “The city is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our projects.” Segall decries, continuing, “we must wake up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of an earth community”

Segall, like Whitehead, reminds us often that ideas matter. They shape our actions. Our failure as custodians can be traced directly to the ideas about nature that emerge during the scientific revolution. Today’s ideas matter for the activities of generations to come.

Cosmopolitics brings together a conceptual first aid kit. It helps us overcome the alienated philosophical position that the bifurcation of nature endows, but it also lights a path for future actives and helps us move forward with some confidence during a time of emergency.

It may be slower, faint, and even treacherous, but with casualties mounting on the highways and the full weight of the emergency soon to envelop many, its slowness will come to be cherished, much of its treachery circumnavigated, and its faintness lessened with every step taken upon it.

Redeeming the word politics

The word politics has become dirty. To be politicking is to be conniving, shady and unscrupulous; even politicians use the word pejoratively.

Stengers hopes to redeem the word.

Placing it in a cosmopolitical perspective, she forces politics beyond the domains it normally presumes itself to be concerned with; bringing together our cities – where politics is practised and tends to focus – with the rest of the cosmological community. Such redemption is a small but important move in overcoming our bifurcation. All of nature is political. To practice politics in a manner that ignores this is to succumb to and maintain the bifurcation. Cosmopolitics aims to bring a democratic framework to an unbifurcated and politicised nature. Retaining the word politics helps us extended existing intuitions to a broader set of relations, across all nature.

Cosmopolitics Conceptual Pillars

Stengers posits a couple of conceptual pillars at the core of the cosmopolitical effort: ontological pluralism, and ecology as the foundational science.

Ontological pluralism (explored in more detail in part ii of this series) rejects dualism and reductive materialism and instead embraces a panpsychist (or more precisely, panexperientialist) position. Experience and nature co-emerge; we are nature experiencing itself alongside the rest of the cosmos. There is a plurality of experience, of more or less overlapping and interpenetrating modes of existence, strung along, network like, each ‘grafting’ through their creative expression ‘onto the existing mass’.

As Segall has written elsewhere, “as ontology, pluralism asserts the irreducible creativity of the each-form”. No event in the cosmos is reducible to generic categorisation, nor is one ever reducible to another – creative potential always inheres.

This panexperientialist, pluralistic vision implies an organic ontology: all is both perceived and perceiving. Cosmos is an entanglement of existences that come into being in felt relation to one another.

Taking such a participatory cosmos seriously, ecology can be recognised as the foundational science, for it is the science of felt relations.

In bringing a democratic framework to the plurality of felt relations across all scales a cosmopolitics comes into view.


Two primary fronts will require significant reinvention if a cosmopolitical civilisation is to materialise: politics and science. Cosmopolitical reinvention requires reimagining politics and science in ways that take heed of all interested parties, grounding them on more democratic terms.

On the political front, Stengers points out that use of the prefix cosmos should not be confused with notions of the universal. Cosmopolitics is not the quest for a universal humanity, it is not cosmopolitanism.

For Stengers, an abstract humanity, from which a set of universal human rights is further abstracted, is jumping ahead. It assumes in advance what should be the revisable outcome of an ongoing process of negotiation and consensus building. In doing so, the claim goes, it causes as much harm as it does good.

The difficulty with the universal model is answering the question who gets to be human? Some will be congruent with the model, but others it will disqualify by default. Inspecting existing models we see that this is the case and that the models are motivated by market concerns.

The curse of tolerance

For Stengers, universal notions of human rights align closely with what she calls “the curse of tolerance”, the idea that we can ‘tolerate’ each other publically so long as our real differences are kept hidden, and reanimated only in the company of those who would enact comparable worlds.

You have your beliefs, I have mine, but we should repress them in public life, acting only in accordance with what Segall calls the “strange mononaturalist/multiculturalist double bind of modernity”. We acknowledge each other’s abstract ‘right’ to exist, but secretly deride that existence.

Tolerance implies a vantage point, but the only view for sale is from atop the mound of late-modernity.

This is not sustainable. Segall writes, “this all too abstract form of peace would quickly dissolve if we concretely encountered one another’s differences”. Indeed, dissolution of peace is all too common when the veneer of tolerance grows sufficiently thin – something we have grown substantially more familiar with even since Segall’s writing.

A cosmopolitical civilisation will be one in which private and public are not distinct spaces. The public will have become a space for encountering difference; we will have found a way of living together. Unity, as Latour puts it, will be “the end result of a diplomatic effort; [not] … its uncontroversial starting point.”

Our cosmopolitical future will be one in which differences are recognised but we also recognise our shared earth community.


Beyond challenging the bifurcation and lobbying for a more democratic approach to public life, the cosmopolitical considers how economic interests interfere with the practices of science: our knowledge does not result from a detached, purely objective and disinterested ‘view from nowhere’, but from amid a constellation of individual and collective concerns, many socioeconomic in nature.

For the pluralist, Segall writes, “Knowledge is an ecological affair, an ongoing and risky process of building alliances and relationships between humans and nonhumans across wide distances.” Getting cosmopolitical and democratising science is considering its implications within a broader ecology of interested, though often voiceless, human and non-human others.

However, merely deferring to politics won’t do, for it takes shape amid the same assumptions and motivations as our science. We must appreciate that reality itself is a “planetary negotiation” – a matter of consensus building among interested parties. Science is political and must be recognised as such. The need to consider and engage all interested parties must be front and centre of its practices.

As Segall writes, “instead of in every case sending in the experts to tell local populations how to solve their problems, assuming in advance that scientific knowledge is universal and that only science has the right to produce knowledge, every issue is approached diplomatically under the very different assumption that knowledge is relational, its claims conditional, and its construction, risky.”

To appreciate the value of enacting a cosmopolitics, we need only stop for a second and imagine a world in which our science was more diplomatic from the outset … 

Of course, science has always taken shape amid a host of other concerns, and I am not suggesting that the same opportunities that present themselves today were always present, but as we project another couple of centuries into the future, we can imagine future generations reflecting on our efforts, and hopefully thanking us that we paid heed when we did.

Whitehead’s role

Whiteheads speculative philosophy not only supplies the grounds for the pluralism and ecologism essential to thinking cosmopolitically, it provokes what Segall describes as “a reimagination of modern subjectivity” and the “the transformation of the American Dream of human individuality and natural property into the Dream of the Earth”.

If I may digress briefly.

The notion of the Dream of the Earth is a reference to a book by the same name by Thomas Berry, the self-styled eco-theologian for whom planetary well being was the measure of all human activity, and the dream of an integral earth ecology was a perfectly realisable, and even imminent, future.

In The Dream of the Earth, Berry writes, ”Our secular, rational, industrial society, with its amazing scientific insight and technological skills, has established the first radically anthropocentric society and has thereby broken the primary law of the universe, the law that every component member of the universe should be integral with every other member of the universe and that the primary norm of reality and of value is the universe community itself in its various forms of expression, especially as realised on the planet Earth.”

Reading Berry now, more than 30 years later, his words land with what seems prescient insight, however, they are in fact a sad reminder that 1) the crises we currently face has a long history, and 2) what little action has been taken in the time since to avert it. Nevertheless, we can see Berry was sensitive to the kind of planetary negotiation that a cosmopolitics entails.

Whitehead is what Segall calls a “philosophical diplomat”. His work and his words help bridge many of the divisions our intellectual history bequeaths us.

Like James, he resists the rationalistic urge towards universalisation and unification, acknowledging a plurality of perspectives, and providing the conceptual support for us to do the same. Thinking with Whitehead, we come to appreciate our ecological embedding and that our contexts are primarily relations among concerned subjects.

For Segall, a future cosmopolitical civilisation requires us all to adopt the role of the philosophical diplomat. “We will all have become diplomats,” writes Segall, “willing to exist in the tension-filled space between worlds, to accept that our own identities are always risked in encounters with others, acknowledging that our own world must be unfinished so long as it leaves “others” outside of it”.

A cosmopolitical future, and maybe any future worth living, demands that we follow through on this.

A role for Awkwardness?

As a brief addendum to Segall’s writings I wanted to insert the following.

Our future depends upon the wide adoption of a ‘diplomatic’ mode of being. This cosmopolitical mode reminds me of the work of another author, Adam Kotsko, in his wonderful little book Awkwardness (2010). Kotsko proposes that the success of our multi-cultural society demands embracing a pervasive sense of awkwardness, what he calls ‘radical awkwardness’.

Radical awkwardness arises when there “doesn’t seem to be any norm governing a given situation” (2010, p.7). For Kotsko, this is not necessarily problematic. He wants to make a case in favour of awkwardness, suggesting that it “holds a certain promise”, as “something we can embrace” (2010, p.25). Embracing awkwardness makes possible a strategy of “assimilation”, wherein the weak are favoured – the dominant culture accommodating minorities and the disadvantaged.

Kotsko says “one might call this favouring the weak a style of interaction, a starting point for social improvisations. This improvisation doesn’t overcome the awkwardness of cross-cultural interactions, rather, by leaving everyone’s preexisting cultural expectations alone, it dwells in it” (ibid, p.98).

My sense is that Kotsko is illuminating a mode of being that I feel to be commensurate with the cosmopolitical project – proffering a welcome hint about the new story.

I have a metaphor that I think helps illustrate this cosmopolitical mode.

Metaphor of the knife

Consider this mode as analogous to walking on the sharp blade of a knife. The sides of the blade symbolising the plurality of perspectives. To live in the cosmopolitical mode is to be able to see both sides of the blade, all narratives. 

But walking on the edge you are uncertain, uneasy; leaning one way and then the other you feel unstable, your skin tears and bleeds. Realizing that if you lean one way long enough you can topple the knife, you lean until the knife lays flat on its side.

Walking along the side of the blade now, you’re comfortable: feet no longer bleed, it is stable, it is easy to find friends to join you.

Time passes and you settle in, more friends join, and the collective weight makes it almost impossible to stand the knife back on its spine. To chance getting your fingers under the edge now is to risk getting seriously hurt, and anyway, what would you do with all your new friends?

But what if you value perspective more than certainty and choose to walk along the blade?

It is unstable, painful, awkward, but only initially; feet toughen, and balance develops. Friends are not immediately abundant, but in the ones you find, you see a hard won stability and resilience. You learn to view all sides from the edge the blade, even climbing down one side or the other when needs be.

Over time you notice that it is not just your feet that suffer from the wear and tear, but the knife’s edge gets duller too, making it a little more comfortable for others to come and join you. And they do. And as they gather, they as well find their balance and grow resilient.

Choosing to walk on the edge of the blade is embracing the cosmopolitical mode, it is embracing radical awkwardness, it is becoming the philosophical diplomat.

Here also there are claims of a privileged vantage point, a meta-perspective. However, this is not the smug certitude of late-modernity, nor a perspective into which all others collapse, but the understanding that there are many ways of understanding, there are many wholes. And it is an acknowledgement that when we think about a shared future, no one understanding has privileged access to dictating how that future should unfold.

Moving slowly, with haste

An emergency is afoot. Distress is being signalled all about us and we must respond without further ado if casualties are to be kept to a minimum. What injuries we would incur from choosing to walk along the knife’s edge are but scratches in a future wherein we decided to settle for existing narratives.

Kotsko’s embrace, Whithead’s diplomacy, cosmopolotics – they need scaling up if our science and politics are to be faithful to the flourishing of a future earth community commensurate with Barry’s dream. If this is to be the new story, we must respond with as much haste as we can muster, but with haste for a cosmopolitical future that is slower. Poised as we are, walking back-first into an emergency, slowness is a virtue.

p.s. Stenger’s newest book, released only this month, is called Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for A Slow Science.

Please feel free to join in the conversation. Leave a comment below and I will do my best to get back to you.

You can link to Matthew David Segall’s website here.

I will be dedicating future posts to his notion of organic realism, and also, his attempts to synthesise what might be called an expanded enactivism, in which he attempts to unify the enactive approach to cognition with a Whiteheadian cosmological scheme. However, my next couple of posts will be focusing on dynamical/developmental systems theory, considering its potential for addressing questions of embodied interaction.


Summarising Segall: Tracing the Cosmopolitical (ii – ontological pluralism)


In this post we take up where we left off previously, considering ontological pluralism as an alternative to late modernity’s reductive monism.

However, let me first restate that in these posts I am summarising in my own words a talk by Matthew Tarnas Segall that I found particularly helpful. I have done my best to provide a faithful rendering, however, particularly in this post, and for the sake of those who might not be so familiar with this material, I have developed a couple of ideas quite a bit more than they show up in Segall’s original piece. And thus, I should add, if there is anything not on point here, it is likely my fault and not Segall’s, and I am absolutely welcoming of constructive comments.

You can link to the original talk here, or to an early transcript here if you would like more than the summary I offer.

The general idea of ontological pluralism – as the name would seem to suggest – is that there is more than one way of being. There are, what Segall has elsewhere referred to as, a “pluralism of actualities”; reality is the “ongoing composition of a multiplicity of more or less overlapping and interpenetrating modes of existence”. In other words, though we share a common cosmos, it is a fundamentally evolving one, comprised of many modes of being, which although overlapping and inter-penetrating are not necessarily commensurate.

Let us try and make some sense of this position.

William James referred to his epistemology, his so-called ‘radical empiricism’, as a ‘mosaic’ philosophy’. ‘Prima facie’, says James, revealing as much about his own lively imagination as about his philosophical position,

‘if you should liken the universe of absolute idealism to an aquarium, a crystal globe in which goldfish are swimming, you would have to compare the empiricist universe to something more like one of those dried human heads with which the Dyaks of Borneo deck their lodges. The skull forms a solid nucleus; but innumerable feathers, leaves, strings, beads, and loose appendices of every description float and dangle from it, and save that they terminate in it, seem to have nothing to do with one another. Even so, my experiences and your’s float and dangle, terminating, it is true, in a nucleus of common perception, but for the most part out of sight and irrelevant and unimaginable to one another. This imperfect intimacy, this bare relation of witness between some parts of the sum total of experience and other parts, is the fact that ordinary empiricism over emphasizes against rationalism, the latter always tending to ignore it unduly. Radical empiricism, on the contrary, is fair to both the unity and the disconnection. It finds no reason for treating either as illusory. It allots each its definite sphere of description, and agrees that there appear to be actual forces at work which tend, as time goes on, to make the unity greater” (1904, p.536).

For James, this beady, leafy, floaty, dangly position is a consequence of his commitment to a couple of principal ideas 1) any epistemology may only allow into its constructions what has been experienced, and 2) what has been experienced must be accounted for within any sufficient epistemology. Concerning the latter, James writes, “the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system. Elements may indeed be redistributed, the original placing of things getting corrected, but a real place must be found for every kind of thing experienced, whether term or relation, in the final philosophic arrangement.” (1904, p.543).

Experience is where the buck starts and stops for James, all of our experiences shall be accounted for in any sufficient philosophical scheme, and if they are not, it is not the experience but the scheme that is at fault. The justification for this is quite straightforward: experience is what we know most directly and thus constitutes the best kind of evidence and that which is most in need of explanation. Of course, this need not imply every weird and wonderful interpretation of every possible experience be justified, but rather, there will always be coherent experiences and interpretations that are nevertheless incommensurate.

Despite James’s powers of imagination, he does not engage in the kind of speculative imaginings to which Whitehead is so inclined, he is not typically a metaphysical thinker. He does, however, think the universe incomplete and perpetually unfolding in an always on-going creative evolution. “The universe” says James “continually grows in quantity by new experiences that graft themselves upon the older mass”. Whitehead adopts as commensurate view, as he puts it in Religion in the Making “[Creativity] prevents us from considering the temporal world as a definite actual creature. For the temporal world is an essential incompleteness.” Our knowledge, for both James and Whitehead, is not only incomplete but incompleteable, it is unfinalisable. How would one ever hope to have full knowledge of a cosmos that is itself never complete? Knowledge, on this account, is learning, it is knowing.

The manner in which James approaches such knowing is to resist the rationalistic urge towards unity, towards the reduction of parts to wholes, and to instead embrace the originality of the parts, to acknowledge what Segall elsewhere refers to as the ‘uniqueness that can’t be reduced to the universal’. For James, everything is connected to everything else, but in a network like fashion. Rather than an all at once unity, we live in a ‘strung along’ universe, one of overlapping nodes and complicated entanglements.

Despite their overlap – Whitehead being largely sympathetic to the pluralistic view that James’s proffers – Whitehead criticizes James for being “weak on rationalisation”. Whitehead’s own efforts can, in a way, be thought a corrective to such shortcomings. Whitehead’s ontological pluralism represents an effort to integrate the epistemological insights of radical empiricism with the rationalistic insights of his own imaginative generalizations, and thus, answer affirmatively Schelling’s call to “rise to an intellectual intuition of nature”. Whitehead’s is an experimental rationalistic adventure, though it is one tempered by concrete experience, one that must be revised when it “fails to include the practice”.

We can think about Whitehead’s philosophical method in terms of an ongoing conversation between the rationalist and empiricist poles of philosophical inquiry. Helping us to visualize such a methodological framework, Whitehead writes in Process and Reality, “the true method of discovery is like the flight of an airplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.” When both poles are held in concert they manifest a kind of self-stabilizing generative tension, this generative push and pull is evident in Whitehead’s analogy, for even when the airplane leaves the ground it is weighed down by its relation to it, and even when on the ground it is still in its nature to be apart from it. Nevertheless, I think it reasonable to say that, like James, Whitehead’s ultimate grounding is in experience. Throughout the first chapter of Process and Reality, he goes out of his way to communicate that our rationalism should be slave or handmaid to our empiricism.

“The conclusion of the argument should then be confronted with circumstances to which it should apply.” P&R 9

“Metaphysics is nothing but the description of the generalities which apply to all the details of practice” P&R 13


“Speculative boldness must be balanced by complete humility before logic, and before fact” P&R 17

By keeping in mind that he must return to experience, Whitehead inoculates himself against at least the latter part of what he terms the “disease of philosophy” i.e. to be neither “bold nor humble”. One suspects protection against the former is simply part of Whitehead’s philosophical immunity. Whatever the case, Whitehead seems to have found a way to live in the midst of this tension and gather up the intuitions it yields.

To recap thus far, given that there is a multitude of modes of existing we should recognise some inevitability to a certain amount of incommensurability. As James puts is, though “terminating … in a nucleus of common perception,” our experiences of the world are “for the most part out of sight and irrelevant and unimaginable to one another”. Whitehead’s universe is somewhat more systematic than is James’s. Though he recognizes the plurality of experience, much of which may be incommensurable, he holds to the possibility for a logical rendering of the grounds of experience. The scientific intuition that there is an order to nature is one that Whitehead shares, though for him it is not a static pregiven order, but an evolving and creative one, flowering in the experience of all organic life that makes up the cosmos, and grafting itself to the older mass as it goes.

There are, of course, other forms of pluralism e.g. cultural relativism or multiculturalism. However, for Segall, and other Whiteheadians, multiculturalism amounts to a kind of disingenuous mono-naturalism. The multiculturalist grants that there can be a range of perspectives in any population, but while granting this perspectival pluralism (it would, of course, be inane to do otherwise) they always have in mind the idea that what stands on the object side of all gazes is one unified world. In such a view, the world can be seen through different lenses, yes, but the world if it is to be viewed as it is can only be seen through the modern scientific lens. Adopting such a view leads us to a rather intriguing and troubling crossroads. In what Latour calls the “double bind of modernity”, science promises liberation from the conflict that arises when we perceive each other through the incommensurate lenses of our cultural inheritance, however, liberation comes at a cost, for in the materialistic scientific picture we are bound most primordially by the fact that we share a meaningless existence, one which science can help us observe in all of its meaningless detail. No longer does the West proselytize liberation through knowledge of the one universal God, but of one nature.

Ontological pluralism – the Whiteheadian account Segall advocates – is not a multiculturalist account, but a multi-naturalistic one. According to Whitehead, neither science nor the universe it studies are ready-made unified wholes. There are as many natures as there are sciences. The methods of science allow us to dialog intimately with the universe, and it responds quite consistently to many of the questions we pose, but answers are dependent upon questions and how we pose them (including the apparatuses involved etc.), and the questions we ask are themselves dependent upon broader constraints, be they social, economic, metaphysical and so on.

Segall is not advocating for a relativistic account wherein we must accept the truth of a matter merely on the basis of someone holding it to be so, but rather, for the idea that all truth is dependent upon the conditions of its asking i.e. ‘not for the truth of relativity but the relativity of truth’. Our knowledge, as with reality itself, is a relational affair. For Segall, this pluralism is not in the business of denying wholeness, but rather, in recognising that wholes (relatively coherent and meaningful modes of existence) are brought into being relationally, they “must first be constructed, and thereafter maintained”. Whitehead generally adopted a panpsychist (or, more accurately, pan-experientialist) view of the universe, wherein ontology is the explication of forms of organism and their interrelations. For Whitehead, reference to an environment is actually reference a community of other organisms. To act in such an environment is to engage in a felt exchange with this community, hence Whitehead’s ontology sometimes being referred to as an aesthetic ontology: all is both perceived and perceiving. In Science and the Modern World he famously states “ Science is taking on a new aspect which is neither purely physical nor purely biological. It is becoming the study of organisms. Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms”. And so it is, in the Whiteheadian view, if any science is to qualify as one of wholes, it is ecology: the science of organisms and their environments. Even the most elementary of particles are what they are for the company they keep.

It is worth noting, for Whitehead even the ‘laws of nature’ are evolutionary achievements by the most basic forms of organism: the ‘laws’ are in fact something more akin to habits, the outcomes of billions of years of negotiations of organisms at all ontological scales. By reducing nature to its most elementary particles and removing them from the meaningful relations that make them what they are in the first instance, we bypass that which should be our most primary concern i.e. the meaningful and enduring relations of these entities. In a Whiteheadian account, any study of the natural world is the study of habit and habitat. Thus, suggests Whitehead, ecology is not only the science of wholes, but should replace physics as the foundational science.

For Stengers, ontological pluralism and the recognition of ecology as the foundational science provide the framework for what she refers to as a cosmopolitics. Cosmopolitics is primarily an objection to the so-called the bifurcation of nature: the division of nature into primary and secondary qualities in which value is an illusion that the mind traces over all that passes ‘through it’. The Whiteheadian response to this bifurcation is wholehearted. Rather than collapsing all into meaningless mechanism and explaining away meaning and value – as per the standard materialist account – Whitehead conceives of a nature that is ensouled and experiential all the way through. Such a view, if taken seriously, seems to call forth a sense of responsibility not previous evoked, as Segall puts it “the city is not just built and for us on a planet passive before our projects. We must wake up to our roles as creaturely citizens of an earth community”. A cosmopolitical effort attempts to re-imagine the practice of science in more democratic terms, by recognising science as one among a host of practices deployed in our coming into more intimate relations with nature, by recognising that science always takes place amid a host of socioeconomic motivations and by paying attention to the voices of all interested parties when pursuing our civilizational goals among our earth community.

In the final post in this series we will consider in a little more detail what Segall and Stengers have to say about this notion of cosmopolitics, and what kind of alternative it offers, as we grow weary of the reductive monism of late modernity and begin gathering the courage necessary for not only imagining, but bringing into being a new cosmopolitical era.

Summarising Segall: Tracing the Cosmopolitical (i – critiquing reductive monism)

In this series of posts I will summarise in my own words a talk by Matthew Tarnas Segall that I found particularly helpful. My intentions in writing these and uploading them here are to help me think through the ideas herein in a disciplined fashion and to inspire a conversation concerning their content.

I should say, if these posts strike you in any way coherent or insightful, it is doubtful the effects of my rendering. Indeed, it was largely the insight and coherence of the original talk that inspired my efforts here, so let me apologise in advance for any obfuscation I may cause. That said, I have done my best to provide a faithful rendering, though not everything said there is included here, nor is everything included here said there.

You can link to the original talk here, or to an early transcript here if you would like more than the summary I offer.

Segall’s aim in this talk – substantially building upon the work of Whitehead and the contemporary Whiteheadians Issabella Stingers and Bruno Latour – is to outline what he refers to as a “cosmopolitical alternative to late modernities reductive monism”, a position that should become clear over the course of these posts.

According to Whitehead, one job of the philosopher is to imagine the future. This is not an inconsequential task, for – as Whitehead sees it – the type of civilisation we populate in any period is moulded by its dominant philosophies. In the jargon of Aristotle, the job of the philosopher is thus to supply the formal cause of a societies undertakings (in the broadest sense of the word). Whitehead captures this sentiment when he remarks, “as we think we live”, to which Segall adds, rather stirringly, “as we think we die”. I might add, if we share a goal as philosophers, it should be looking for healthy ways to die.

The goal of Segall’s own efforts is to ready the grounds for an ecological civilisation by first preparing the collective imagination. This is to be achieved, firstly, by highlighting some of the more egregious shortcomings that the reductive monism of late modernity necessarily entails; and secondly, by embracing the metaphysical possibilities – and thus the view of nature – that a Whiteheadian ontology of organism proffers. As with the readying of any ground, it is first necessary to clear it, and so, before explicating the characteristics of the Whiteheadian view, let us first consider the critique of late-modernities reductive monism as a viable template for our thinking a healthy way to die.

The early modern period was obviously one of great intellectual upheaval, Galileo, Newton and Descartes helped paint a picture of the world that was radically different from anything preceding it, their world was a new one, or, I should say, two: nature for these thinkers was bifurcated. To one side of this bifurcation was allocated all the percussive relations between stuff. This was the side housing the relations between extended objects, the side of mass and velocity, the side characterisable in mathematical terms and according to the laws of motion; this was the side of the natural world. The other side, on the other hand, was reserved for a more human nature. Here, will, meaning, and value found their purchase. Of course, many philosophical concerns arose in light of this bifurcation, not least the mind-body problem (a problem that continues to trouble philosophers to this day). To illustrate the rather absurd situation that these thinkers were bequeathed, we need only consider the absurdity of Descartes response. To resolve this problem of bifurcation, Descartes proposed that unification of mind and body was achieved as the result of a kind of parallelism. Human nature, or spirit, and the physical world were bifurcated, but they were both properties of God, who made sure that when volitional thoughts occurred that they did so coterminously with the relevant parts of the bodily machine.

Unsatisfying as such a philosophical account may seem now, as the thinking of these individuals – and the scientific ideas that came in their wake – permeated the popular culture of the centuries that followed, their inhabitants were to be moulded by these ideas, however consciously or unconsciously, to take up what Latour has referred to as the “double tasks of emancipation and domination”. Upon divided ground, civilised beings were, firstly, to end their own exploitation at the hands of there oppressors, for the human spirit must be emancipated; and secondly, to dominate the mechanism by turning it towards their own ends, by setting it up in ways that one could profit from its resources. These ways of thinking were enshrined, respectively, – in the late 19th and early 20th century – in the emergence and spread of communism, and the propagation of free-market economics as the dominant economic system in the greater part of the actively trading world.

Things in the late modern period did not fare better, in fact, they got much worse. A growing consciousness of Darwinian evolution and the realities of geological deep-time destabilised the previous dualism, collapsing it in upon itself until domination was the only remaining mode. For the Darwinian inspired neo-liberalist, survival of the fittest (i.e. market competition) and mastery and ownership of nature were the only sensible options left: human nature is selfish and the only means of regulating that nature is through the self-regulation of the market; the failure of communism in the 20th century stands as testament to our incorrigible selfishness and the only hope for a civilised future is through the domination of labour and resources within a monistic market system.

However, there is now a new threat to capitalism: the Cold War is over and the threat of socialism is all but eradicated (maybe this is a little less sure since Segall’s original writing), but the Warming War has just begun. On one side, a techno-scientific neoliberalist capitalism built upon the assumption of an endless supply of resources to feed an evermore hungry always expanding market; on the other side, Gaia, a carefully balanced ecology that is starting to strain under the pressure of one of its more thought-full inhabitants, whom it seems Gaia is intent on teaching some lessons in thoughtfulness. For Latour the reality is stark, “between modernising and ecologizing we must choose” (AIME, 8). As philosophers then, we are not without a task in light of this choice, nor is our job merely a critical one.

If it is true that – as Whitehead puts it – the dominant philosophy of every age “moulds our type of civilisation”, and that, ecologising our civilisation requires “reimagining the philosophical assumptions underlying the modern worldview”, well, there is much thinking to be done and philosophers will not be without a purpose – whatever about a job – for some time. Our Cartesian inheritance has been ecologically disastrous and its later collapse into a Darwinian inspired market monism even worse, and thus, in the words of Latour, “we have to fight trouble with trouble, counter a metaphysical machine with a bigger metaphysical machine”.

The requisite ‘metaphysical machine’ is what Segall calls an ontological pluralism, which will be the subject of the next instalment of this summary.

The habit ecology

In this post, I offer a detailed summary of Barandiaran’s account of sensorimotor autonomist agency. This is a long and technical read. Comments welcome.


Enaction harbours what at first blush might be construed as expansionary explanatory ambitions. These are not the ambitions one finds in a winner takes all game of explaining in the domains of behaviour and experience, but rather, ambitions purporting that the same conceptual set can render more intelligible phenomena at multiple scales of the living i.e. from cell to society. (Freose and Di Paolo, 2011; Cummins and De Jesus, 2016). As we pursue these ambitions and refine our vocabulary we sometimes find concepts with a more protracted philosophical history that work well within an enactive framework and can offer us a better intuitive grasp on how particular phenomena relate to core enactive concepts (e.g. sense-making, autonomy, emergence, agency and so on) or how those phenomena scale. A concept that seems to be successful on both these fronts is habit.  

Much recent theorising and formal modelling has been done to revitalise an organicist notion of habit that works well within an enactive framework (e.g. Di Paolo 2005, Barandiaran 2008, 2009, Egbert and Barandiaran 2014, Egbert and Cañamero 2014). The present post will focus on providing a detailed summary of one of the more recent and more substantive of these efforts; Barandiaran’s (2016) screed, Autonomy and enactivism: towards a theory of sensorimotor autonomous agency. Later posts will critically engage Barandiaran’s position and offer some thoughts on how his concept of habit might be developed and applied when thinking about social cognition and intersubjectivity.

In this account, Barandiaran has a few goals 1) to review some historical and ongoing tensions concerning autonomy within enactivism, and 2) to proffer an account of autonomy that can cater for what he calls the ‘sensorimotor constitution of cognition’. We will focus primarily on the latter of these goals, though for context it is also necessary to visit some historical exposition.

And so, we will take the following approach in summarising Barandiaran.  

First, we will review what is meant by the notion of autonomy as it is deployed within enactive theory before considering the historical controversy alluded to, distilling Barandiaran’s take on the tensions between autonomist and sensorimotorist accounts within enactivism i.e. the overemphasis on the life-mind continuity thesis, and the difficult relationship between structural coupling and operational closure. After that we will consider Barandiaran’s positive account of sensorimotor autonomist agency in which he attempts to resolve the historical tensions concerning autonomy by arguing for the sensorimotor constitution of ’neurodynamic patterns’. This set of relations are then transformed using the notion of habit into the basis for a theory of mental life, wherein a self-equilibrating habit ecology brings forth (enacts) the autonomous agent and its habitat.  

A Brief History of Autonomy

What is autonomy?

In The Embodied Mind (Varela, Thompson and Rosch, 1991)typically considered the founding enactive text – autonomy, or operational closure, is central to theorising within an enactive register. However, the concept finds its original explication as operational or organisational closure in an earlier work by Varela (1979), which for its clarity is worth reproducing here.

“We shall say that autonomous systems are organisationally closed. That is, their organisation is characterised by processes such that (1) the processes are related as a network, so that they recursively depend on each other in the generation and realisation of the processes themselves, and (2) they constitute a unity recognisable in the space (domain) in which the processes exist (Varela 1979, p.55).

A system is autonomous – or operationally/organisationally closed – when its processes are interdependently organised so as to produce a dynamic identity concerned its own self-maintenance. Barandiaran adds to this claim, suggesting “autonomous systems are capable of maintaining their very organisation homeostatic (that is, keeping a higher order organisational stability in the face of continuous lower order variations and perturbations)” (2016, p.5). And so, under Barandiaran’s view, the autonomous dynamic identity is also an agentive one, capable of responding adaptively to environmental variation.


A basic form of autonomy within the chemical domain is autopoesis, a prime instantiation of which is found in the living cell. By regulating its behaviour and exchanging matter and energy within a particular environment, the cell operates within its self-generated bounds of viability and consequently sustains its own autonomous organisation, and thereby its life.

But it is the cell itself that specifies what constitutes its relevant environment, it specifies what it requires to sustain its autonomous organisation. For instance, the cell determines the temperature necessary for its proper functioning, the chemical exchanges it requires for proper metabolisation and so on. Of course, the cell can only come into being in the first place if the environment possesses such energetic and material resources, and thus, it is more accurate to say that the cell and the environment co-determine the conditions necessary for its being.

Barandiaran suggests this co-determination of the conditions necessary for the autonomous system’s maintenance constitutes the bringing forth of a world, and this enacting a world is tantamount to “cognition in its most encompassing sense” (Varela et al. 1991, p.205). In other words, autopoesis provides the necessary and sufficient conditions for cognition in its most encompassing sense i.e. enacting a world.

However, the form of autonomy that provides the sufficient conditions for this more ‘encompassing sense’ of cognition – i.e. autopoesis – is problematic for Barandiaran when it comes to accounting for cognition in a more particular sense: mental life is underspecified by autopoesis; or, autopoesis does not provide sufficient conditions for the specification of all mental life. This brings us to the first tension Barandiaran highlights concerning autonomy within enactivism, a tension present in the very term used to denote the position he takes issue with i.e. ‘mind = life’.

Does mind = life?

As I read it, Barandiaran’s concern with this account boils down to the following. The mind = life folks view autopoesis as sufficient for specifying all cognition, however, if we are to take this seriously we must also include “epileptic attacks, or human vegetative life, breathing, digestion or falling down a cliff (right until the bottom is reached)” in our cognitive taxonomy, for they all meet the desiderata necessary to qualify as such under the mind=life thesis, they are all instances of ‘‘structural coupling of a living system without loss of autopoesis’’ (6). Having observed this reductio ad absurdum, we learn that the overextension that results from this characterisation of cognition has been recognised by some within the mind=life camp and efforts have been made to deflect such embarrassments. Barandiaran points in particular to Bourgine and Stewart (2004) in which they introduced the idea that cognition = autopoesis + adaptive interaction. But this does not satisfy Barandiaran either, for it leaves intact automatic breathing, plant roots growing towards moist ground or the regulation of body temperature as cognitive phenomena. Moreover, a question left adrift within the mind=life position is whether cognitive activity that has no adaptive biological relevance is even feasible under such an account; what then might we do with surfing, backgammon or learning how to kill yourself (if you actually kill yourself, autopoesis can account for that)?

Barandiaran wants us to accept that biological identities and norms are not necessarily co-extensive with cognitive ones. Normative failure in cognition, for instance, does not necessitate biological failure in a way that threatens the organisms autopoetic organisation. Thus, it is often difficult to see the explanatory gains from the identity thesis of mind=life, and consequently it is all too easy for sensorimotor enactivists to shun autonomy. Simply acknowledging ‘yes, cognition takes place in living things’, the metabolic details need not impinge on their understanding of the acquisition of sensorimotor skills and so on.

Ending this section, Barandiaran reflects on a possible alternative. He contends that a particular level of biological organisation might play host to the autonomous organisation necessary for the specifying cognition in particular i.e. the nervous system. In fact, says Barandiaran, even for Varela – as we will see later, – it is the autonomy of the nervous system, and not autopoesis, that is most relevant to enactivism.

But such a claim does not come without its own problems.

Operational closure and structural coupling

There is an issue with the ‘autonomy of the nervous system’ account. Autonomy, as operational closure – whereby the nervous system is a closed system in which all activity is internal to the system, activity in one neuron always leads to activity in other neurons – seems at odds with a central enactive claim i.e. that “cognitive structures emerge from the recurrent sensorimotor patterns that enable action to be perceptually guided” (Varela et al. 1991, 173). In other words, the question Varela et al. leave unanswered, and what seems to have led to a willingness of more recent efforts within enactivion to put autonomy aside, is how a cognitive system can simultaneously be ‘operationally closed’ whilst cognition can be constituted through its sensorimotor interactions (structural coupling). In other words, in an operationally closed system is all constitution not internal to the system itself?

Structural coupling – as with autonomy – is a concept central to enactive theorising, it’s aim is to make explicit the historical contingencies of the living system in its relations to its environment. Varela writes, for instance, “the changes that the nervous systems structure can undergo without disintegration … are fully specified by its connectivity and the perturbing agent only constitutes a historical determinant for the concurrence of those changes” (1979: 242). But is the environment determining anything at all not precluded by the notion of operational closure? For Barandiaran, what these tensions represent is what he refers to as an “irreconcilable marriage”, claiming either the coupling between the environment and the nervous system does integrate environmental regularities into the nervous system’s activity (as sensorimotor coordination patterns), or it does not. We simply cannot have it both ways.

It is in attempting to resolve the problems the mind=life thesis and the apparently irreconcilable marriage engender that Barandiaran develops his positive account of autonomist sensorimotor enactivism. What he contends, basically, is certain forms of autonomous organisation – i.e. those instantiated by nervous systems – are sensorimotorly constituted. They do not exist prior to engagements between the living system and its environment but are born and survive within these relations.

Sensorimotor autonomous agency

Resolving the tensions in autonomy

There is, suggests Barandiaran (quoting Varela at length), some precedent for arguing for autonomous forms with more explicit consequences for a enactive sensorimotor account than what is implied by autopoesis.

“I speak of “closure” to highlight the self-referential quality of the interneuron network and of the perceptuo-motor surfaces whose correlations it subsumes. The qualification “operational” emphasises that closure is used in its mathematical sense of recursively, and not in the sense of closedness, or isolation from interaction, which would be, of course, nonsense. More specifically, the nervous system is organised by the operational closure of a network of reciprocally related modular sub-networks giving rise to ensembles of coherent activity such that: (I) they continuously mediate invariant patterns of sensory-motor correlation of the sensory and effector surfaces; (ii) give rise to a behaviour for the total organism as a mobile unit in space. The operational closure of the nervous system then brings forth a specific mode of coherence, which is embedded in the organism. This coherence is a cognitive self: a unit of perception/motion in space, sensory-motor invariances mediated through the interneuron network”. (Varela 1992, p.10)

Despite Varela’s obvious conviction in the above statement he did not pursue this line in any later work. Thus, although appearing sympathetic to the idea of an autonomous form bound up with patterns of sensorimotor activity, he never goes quite so far as to say (though the above quote does seem to suggest it) such autonomy could be sensorimotorily constituted. Barandiaran, on the other hand, does, claiming forms of operational closure within the nervous system (cognitive autonomy) are constitutively sensorimotor, wherein “the nervous system achieves its closure … through embodied interaction i.e. through fine grained coordinations between neurodynamic and sensorimotor correlations” (11) One might say then (although the language vexed), the nervous system in embodied interaction with an environment provides the necessary conditions for emergent forms of autonomy that are constituted and maintained primarily through activity in the sensorimotor domain.

Modelling the sensorimotor constitution of neurodynamic patterns

Barandiaran et al. (Aguilera et al. 2013; Santos et al. 2012) have devised a model – referred to as the Situated HKB Model – to formally support the claim that so-called ‘neurodynamic patterns’ can be sensorimotorly constituted. As I read it, by ‘neurodynamic patterns’ Barandiaran means something like activity patterns within the nervous system that play functionally distinct roles in the regulation of particular behaviours; he is not speaking about representational activity but pointing us towards something getting biologically organised when sensorimotor correlations are enacted.

The model is a simulated two wheel robot moving towards a light gradient (demonstrating phototaxis) and controlled by the extended HKB equation (Kelso et al. 1990) representing the phase difference between a pair of oscillatory components Barandiaran interprets as the motor and sensory cortices of a very simple brain.

The experiment involved recording the sensory input of a freely behaving robot (A) that was sensorimotorly coupled, and playing it back as input into an otherwise identical robot B. In other words, in B the sensory input was not contingent upon motor activity. They then compared the resulting neurodynamic patterns to see if they could distinguish the constitutive role of sensorimotor coordinations from the merely causal role of the input.

For A sensory stimulation results from the effects of motor variations, which affect its position relative to the light source, producing further motor activity and correlated sensory stimulation in a closed loop. Even though the partially coupled robot receives the same sensory stream, slight fluctuations and small variations in the initial conditions engender neurodynamic patterns that are qualitatively different. The coupled robot carves out a distinct pattern in the state space, whereas the partially-coupled robot makes a relatively homogenous exploration of the entire space. Barandiaran claims this pattern – which is constituted by the situated robot’s sensorimotor dynamics – is the neurodynamic signature of phototaxis, a functionally distinct “form” within the space of possible oscillatory relationships, one which only the fine coordinations between sensorimotor contingencies and oscillatory brain activity can sustain.

The model is taken to illustrate the necessity of fine-grained SM coordination in constituting functionally distinct neural signatures i.e. the sensorimotor constitution of neurodynamic patterns. As Barandiaran puts it “the way in which motor neurones drive, through the environment, the activity of sensors is part of the pattern formation process”. (12) What qualifies these patterns as sensorimotorly constituted is that they simply cannot exist without their sensorimotor enactment.

These models are seen to represent a significant development concerning the relations between operational closure and structural coupling. The environment is no mere source of perturbation to a closed network, but a requisite condition for engendering and maintaining patterns of neurodynamic activity characteristic of particular behavioural capacities. And, moreover, closure is not describing a configuration of pre-existing network states but relations between particular neurodynamic patterns and their temporal unfolding, only brought about when particular sensorimotor correlations are enacted.

For Barandiaran, here we have a form of autonomy relevant to a sensorimotor account of enaction, and it is the circularity this account implies – the mutual dependencies between neurodynamic patterns and particular sensorimotor correlations – that resolves the tensions between operational closure and structural coupling. The closed network is brought into being and maintained when the organism acts in particular ways with its environment, and it acts in particular ways largely because of this network.


We have not yet got at the sensorimotor autonomous agency at which Barandiaran is aiming. For that, he contends, a theory must satisfy three necessary and sufficient conditions:  

‘‘(a) there is a system as a distinguishable entity that is different from its environment [individuality condition], (b) this system is doing something by itself in that environment [interactional asymmetry condition], and (c) it does so according to a certain goal or norm [normativity condition]’’ (Barandiaran et al. 2009 , p. 369).

For Barandiaran, enactivists have previously failed to make explicit how the above conditions can be naturalised in terms of sensorimotorly constituted neurodynamic organisations. In an effort to do just this, Barandiaran suggests we need to move beyond individual neurodynamic patterns to “an organization of such patterns in interaction with the environment”, and habit might prove helpful as a building block for such an organisation, a building block for ‘mental life’.

Referring to an earlier work, in what he calls a first approximation, Barandiaran defines habit in the following manner.  

A habit is a ”self-sustaining pattern of sensorimotor coordination that is formed when the stability of a particular mode of senseorimotor engagement is dynamically coupled with the stability of the mechanisms generating it” 13 (Barandiaran 2008, 281).

The habit, under this account, demonstrates the same circular self-production as other autonomous forms. However, a habit is not merely another name for the autonomous organisation found in the relations between neurodynamic patterns and sensorimotor correlations, rather, it develops these relations further by introducing plasticity: repeating a particular sensorimotor correlation reinforces the organisation that supports it, which in turn reinforces the probability of that correlation being enacted in self-similar circumstances the next time around.

A single habit, contends Barandiaran, provides “a first analogy with life and a first approximation to a sensorimotor conception of identity and normativity”, whereby “through repetition … a habit can can take on a life of its own: it is both the cause and the consequence of its own enactment”. (13). In other words, what emerges within such a dynamical organisation, within the habit, is a very minimal sense of identity in the sensorimotor domain, a focal point concerned with its own maintenance. And, given that habit relies on certain conditions – rate of repetition, particular environmental affordances etc – boundaries of viability are enacted, stipulating certain actions as necessary if the habit is to be kept alive i.e. the norms of its own self-regulation.  

To summarise, habit offers an intuitive grasp on the relations between what are otherwise fairly abstract concepts, it extends the notion of sensorimotor constituted neurodynamic patterns to include plasticity, and this combination of autonomously organised processes and plasticity, in turn, opens us onto a naturalised account of identity and normativity. But it doesn’t end here for Barandiaran, to get to an account of sensorimotor autonomous agency we need to move beyond a single self-reinforcing habit to a bundle or ecology of habits (wherein habits compete, cooperate, nest, sequence etc.), that both depends upon and makes possible a habitat (a sensorimotor environment).

The bundle of habits

For Barandiaran the habit ecology is partly meshed within the brain, where much of the plasticity and selection lies, and, within a relatively complex brain the self-maintenance of habits needn’t be reduced to mere recurrent self-reinforcement, but might rely on more “relationally complex, interdependent architectures”. (14)

The general contention is this, if the ecology’s plastic interconnectedness is complex enough sensorimotor regulations will engender large scale equilibrating tensions within the ecology, and, a sense of autonomous sensorimotor agency comes into being when the “sensorimotor compensations … take place to maintain the capacity of the agent to keep behaving coherently” (14). In other words, when the bundle has gained sufficient complexity, it’s self-conservation becomes its basic operational norm and it is motivated to act in ways that sustain its identity as coherent. To help illustrate his point, Barandiaran points us towards the emergence of new normative domains, for instance, the successful accommodation to a prosthetic limb.

We are left with a view of a sensorimotorly constituted operational closure primarily instantiated at the level of the nervous system, and which despite being resistant to perturbation is nevertheless open, pursuing a general dynamic of coherence whilst making accommodations to establish new normative domains when necessary.

For Barandiaran, this activity can be framed as a ‘non-representational dynamic sensorimotor coherence’, however, he suggests, this is not an entirely new claim (15). Thelen and Smith (2003) proffer a similar account elsewhere.

“Through learning, a complex schema network arises that can mediate first the child’s, and then the adult’s, reality. Through being rooted in such a network, schemas are interdependent, so that each finds meaning only in relation to others. ( ) Each schema enriches and is defined by the others ( ). Though processes of schema change may affect only a few schemas at any time, such changes may ‘‘cohere’’ to yield dramatic changes in the overall pattern of mental organization. (Arbib et al. 1998 , p. 44) At multiple levels of analysis at multiple time-scales, many components open to influence from the external world interact and in so doing yield coherent higher order behavioural forms that then feedback on the system, and change that system”. (Smith and Thelen 2003)

The habit ecology permits a ‘neuro-sensorimotor coherentism’ in which a notion of autonomy ‘centres a perspective and co-defines a world that is constitutively sensorimotor’. (15) By arguing that sensorimotor correlations play a constitutive role in the organisation of cognitive processes Barandiaran believes he evades the charge of solipsism levelled at Varela et al. Autonomy, or operational closure, is not characterising mere neuronal activity (a la early Maturana and Varela), but rather sensorimotor coupling and coordinated neuronal activity in combination.

Another model

Barandiaran and colleagues (Aguilera et al. 2015) have naturalised and illustrated some aspects of this account using another simulated robot model in which they explored a basic neurodynamic organisation involving a network of emerging patterns of oscillatory coordination and the plastic transformations between them during a simple phototactic task. (15) In this model a robot spontaneously switches between two preferences in its behaviour: approaching a blue or a green light source. During phototactic episodes, the robot is controlled by three oscillators that switch between different relative phase patterns. Depending on the robot’s activity, transformations occur within the network (plasticity) giving rise to different patterns. The robot was then run under two conditions – analogous to the previous modelling – one in which the robot was coupled and one in which a twin robot was fed the sensory input from the coupled robot. What they found is what one might expect, “the closed network that results from the freely behaving agent compared to the partially-coupled agent is not only composed of different patterns, but also displays a different topology” (15). In other words, despite having the exact same input, there was a marked difference in the habits (the patterns of activity) of the robot and the transitions the robot made between different patterns. So as to make these differences clear, these patterns and their transitions were illustrated using graphs in the form of nodes and edges.

In support of their original position Aguilera et al. concluded a couple of things 1) operational closure is not specifiable as merely interconnected neurons, but as a network of habits and their transitions i.e. transitions between neurodynamic patterns, (both of which, transitions and patterns, are sensorimotorly constituted); and 2) the network’s homeostatic robustness and the possibilities afforded to regulate and recast the network through its interactions furnish the theorist with what Barandiaran calls “formal (unambiguous and operational) criteria to depict coherency and the emergence of norms as the equilibrating conditions of an ecology of patterns (or habits)”. 16 For instance, in the foregoing model if the network were to loose its organisation such that patterns and transitions perish and are lost, so too is its autonomous sensorimotor agency, and its capacity to behave. And so, one can operationalise for the ecology of habits a specific normative dimension i.e. the limits of viability outside of which the system’s autonomous organisation is irretrievable. As Barandiaran puts it, “a norm emerges, taking the form of a Kantian imperative or regulatory principle: behave so as to maintain your capacity to behave”. (16) Norms thus, function as goals of systemic self-regulation, specifying the rightness or wrongness of specific sensorimotor correlations for maintaining some capacity (e.g. the capacity to behave at all), some prevailing order, some cohering identity etc.


In concluding the paper Barandiaran preempts some possible criticisms from enactivists who might deride his autonomist account and his naturalised account of agency and normativity. Indeed, there is much here to be discussed and in another piece I will consider some of these objections, primary amongst them the apparent negation of the observers role in ascribing agency, and the potential charge that Barandiaran has slipped back into a somewhat Cartesian frame.

In summary, Barandiaran argues for a form of autonomy – primarily instantiated at the nervous system level – that is sensorimotorly constituted and plastic. This form of organisation is captured in the notion of habit (and more broadly with the notion of a habit ecology) whereby repeated enactments of particular sensorimotor correlations reinforce the organisation that generates them. It is these autonomous plastic forms that provide the basis for a naturalised account of agency, identity and normativity in the sensorimotor domain, which, stated as a proposition, might go something like the following. Act (in this way) so as to maintain your ability to act (in this way).

I believe Barandarian’s account of habit is aligned with enactive ambitions to circumscribe a set of concepts that can be applied at multiple scales of the living. Indeed, this is the project I am presently undertaking: leveraging a notion of habit – that leans heavily on Barandiaran’s – into the social domain. There is some sense in which all that is necessary here is to recast the boundaries of our ecology, wherein habits are not merely the property of individuals in interaction with their environment, but of interactions, of dyads, of groups, of collectives.

I will be writing about these matters a great deal in future posts.