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Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet

2013-09-12

Enactive Philosophy, the Mind/Body Problem, and Mental Health

Joel Parthemore (Centre for Cognitive Semiotics, Lund University)

In enactive philosophy, everything keeps coming back to interaction: in particular, the interaction of an agent with its environment, with much talk of the "co-creation" of both out of that interaction. Agent does not cleanly separate from environment; in more formal terms, the distinction between cognitive agent and physical environment -- self and other, self and non-self -- is a conceptual
distinction, not a prior ontological one, however useful or even necessary that conceptual distinction might be. Enactive philosophy is averse to most boundaries understood as clear and fixed, but especially this one. Sometimes attention will be more on the cognitive agent, to the exclusion of physical environment; sometimes more on the physical environment, to the exclusion of cognitive agent. Either way, the observer is always to be accounted for; and either way, that observer is always embodied in a particular physical form and embedded in a particular physical environment.

The so-called mind-body problem does not arise in enactive philosophy not because mind and body amount to the same thing, as the reductionists or eliminativists would have it, or are otherwise resolvable with one another, as the emergentists would claim, but because enactive philosophy lets go of the assumption that there must be one right answer, one correct perspective. Mental and physical are neither distinct substances nor different kinds of properties but competing perspectives on one and the same world: perspectives that cannot be resolved into one single perspective on pain of contradiction, but which are nevertheless equally valid -- indeed, equally necessary to anything
like a "complete" picture.

By presenting the so-called mind-body problem this way, enactive philosophy allows one to see mental disorders and physical illnesses as, in many ways, quite different things, their conflation a product of serious misunderstanding. In particular, although both are physically realized (a point that enactive philosophy does not contest), physical illnesses are typically physically localized in a way that mental disorders are not -- for enactive philosophy shares with the extended-mind hypothesis of Andy Clark and Dave Chalmers the idea that mind extends in substantive ways into world.

By its embrace of competing perspectives, enactive philosophy allows one to see the same mental health issues now as disorders -- albeit disorders that are not disorders of the isolated agent but may in equal measure be disorders of the agent's social environment; now as diversities -- that is, what validly was a disorder can become a diversity by provision of the appropriate environment. It allows one to see the same mental health issues both as physically grounded in the biological agent and as inseparably interwoven with the agent's wider cognitive and social environment. It allows one to focus now on practical solutions, now on underlying, interacting, environment-engaging causal factors. In place of dogmatism, it counsels pragmatism, with quality of life as key. Instead of pathologizing, it promises empowerment: for, as an increasing number of mental health professionals acknowledge, in order for any treatment plan to work, the patient needs actively to embrace it.