Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet


Putting Forward a Sensorimotor++ Account

Joel Parthemore (Centre for Cognitive Semiotics, Lund University)


Kevin O’Regan, Alva Noë, Stevan Harnad, and others have claimed that all mental content, conceptual or otherwise, must be grounded in specific sensorimotor engagements, making sensorimotor engagements at least partly constitutive of that content. I agree. Mental content is not fixed but contingent: if I do this, then I will experience that; if the agent does this, then the agent’s mental content will be that. Mental content is part-and-parcel with interaction: input is logically inseparable from output, and even talking of input and output is, in many if not most contexts, deeply misleading. This is why the sensorimotor theorist talks not of a sensory system and a motor system, but of a sensorimotor system. The sensorimotor movement in philosophy is consistent with – indeed, should be seen as a refinement and renewal of – classical empiricism, whereby cognition is grounded not in reason, as the rationalists would have it, but in experience.

This paper revisits territory I first explored in (Parthemore & Morse 2010), where I proposed a sensorimotor++ approach. My target is (Noë 2004), though I will also address (O’Regan & Noë 2001). Much of what I had to say then and now is consistent with Noë’s brand of enactivism; nevertheless, I take issue with Noë’s account at a number of points:

  •  Noë favours a more linearly structured account; I opt for a circular causality. Noë’s attention in (2004) is on how cognition consists of or is built upon continuous sensorimotor engagement; perception is never truly passive. This is important, and either downplayed or missed entirely in many other accounts of cognition, which are fairly criticized for over-intellectualizing matters. However, one can equally turn the perspective around to see how sensorimotor engagement consists of or is built upon conceptually filtered perceptions: how, as a matter of principle or practice, the mind constrains the world.
  • Noë’s account is much more forward than backward looking. Noë has a lot to say about where expectations take us but relatively little about where they come from. This might be in part a consequence of Noë’s strong externalism; the enactivism I advocate eschews the extremes of both internalism and externalism. Affordances are not, as Gibson (1986) is often read, in the environment; neither are they in the agent; rather – as a more nuanced reading of Gibson might allow – they are (metaphorically speaking) in the interaction.
  • Noë’s account is strongly anti-representationalist, whereas I favour a qualified representationalism in the spirit of Inman Harvey. What makes something a representation is the perspective one takes toward that thing; while the problem with representationalist language is not representations per se but so-called “internal” or mental representations, at least when they are taken to be ontologically distinct from so-called “external” representations.

Sensorimotor engagements are necessary but not sufficient for conceptually structured thought (contra e.g. Gallese & Lakoff 2005). The sensorimotor++ approach adds two things in particular to O’Regan and Noë’s account: sensorimotor++ is sensorimotor engagements plus somatic and other bodily information (per e.g. Damasio 2000 and Morse & Ziemke unpublished), plus a representationally predisposed cognitive mechanism, as explained within a conceptual spaces framework (Gärdenfors 2004).


Damasio, A. (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness. Vintage.

Gallese, V. & Lakoff, G. (2005). The brain’s concepts: The role of the sensory-motor system in conceptual knowledge. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 22(3-4):455–479.

Gibson, J.J. (1986). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gärdenfors, P. (2004 [2000]). Conceptual Spaces: The Geometry of Thought. Bradford Books.

Morse, A. & Ziemke, T. (unpublished manuscript). The somatic sensory hypothesis.

Noë, A. (2004). Action in Perception. MIT Press.