Volume 18 · Number 3 · Pages 351–364
Beyond Individual-Centred 4E Cognition: Systems Biology and Sympoiesis

Mads Julian Dengsø & Michael David Kirchhoff

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Context: A central motivation behind various embodied, extended, and enactive (4E) approaches to cognition is to ground our understanding of minds and cognition within the biological structures that give rise to life. Because of this, their advocates often claim a natural kinship with dynamical and developmental systems theories. However, these accounts also explicitly or implicitly privilege individual organisms in ways that contrast with many of the insights of systems and developmental systems approaches to biology. Problem: The prioritization of individual organisms within 4E approaches to cognition contrasts with the default entangled structure of biological systems associated with cognitive agency. We provide means for 4E cognitive science to move beyond an individual-centred view of cognitive agency. Method: We first identify and problematize individual-centredness within various predominant 4E approaches by comparison with biological research and developmental systems theory. Subsequently, we offer conceptual resources from the field of ecological research for understanding cognitive agency beyond the predominant focus on individual organisms. Results: Cognitive agency may be understood without privileging individual organisms by reading nonequilibrium maintenance in terms of a dynamic differentiation instead of individual organismic autonomy. This form of organizational structure corresponds to the notion of sympoiesis from ecological research. Implications: Approaching cognitive agency without privileging individual organisms should be invaluable to advocates of 4E cognition seeking to ground notions of cognition and mind within contemporary biological research. Constructivist content: We seek to expand upon existing constructivist perspectives on the organizing principles of cognitive agency, such as sensorimotor embodiment and autopoiesis, arguing that meta-organismic cognitive agents (including humans) embody distributed relations beyond the privileging of individual organisms. Key words: 4E cognition, autopoiesis, cognitive agency, developmental systems theory, enactivism, extended mind thesis, holobionts, sympoeisis.


Dengsø M. J. & Kirchhoff M. D. (2023) Beyond individual-centred 4e cognition: Systems biology and sympoiesis. Constructivist Foundations 18(3): 351–364. https://constructivist.info/18/3/351

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