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Poortier, K.

Theoretical Philosophy

Sense of Self from an Enactive Perspective

In Embodied Mind. Cognitive Science and Human Experience, the authors Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch (1991) present an approach to cognitive science they call “enactivism”. They argue that the science of the mind should include an investigation of subjective, bodily experience. The authors explain that up until then, phenomenology or the experience of being rather than having a body has not had much influence in cognitive science. They feel this should change, because everyday life has been challenged by the results of cognitive science with regard to the search for a self. We often assume some sort of self as agent of cognition and consciousness. However, scientific research has not been able to find any such self. Varela et al. claim that this contradiction can be solved when we include a methodical investigation of experience in such scientific research. (xv-xvii)

The authors argue that such an investigation will show that a self is neither found in empirical research nor in subjective experience. I agree with the proposal to expand cognitive research to the domain of subjective experience. However, I argue that the search for a sense of self has not yet been satisfactorily and unambiguously concluded, contrary to the results Varela et al. deliver. I want to investigate how enactivist thinkers in the wake of The Embodied Mind propose to meet the challenge of considering experience in cognitive research.

The question is how we can employ an inward perspective to study subjectivity without losing scientific validity. In this thesis, I explore different methods that can be used to study experience. I inventory how philosophers associated with the enactivist or embodied cognition project have dealt with including subjectivity in scientific cognitive research. In order to do this, I have developed three categories of approaches to this issue, based on three tactics that Varela et al. briefly describe when discussing the tension between reflection and experience. While investigating how these three tactics deal with the challenge of studying experience scientifically, I want to show that they all work with different ideas about the self. Varela et al claim that scientific observation and investigation of experience alike show that there is no self to be found. My intention is to open up their notion of self and propose that different methods to explore experience can result in different ideas about what a self can be.

Last modified:04 September 2014 4.03 p.m.