Biology of Cognition


The impossibility of parsing what one knows, what one does, and who one is

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … the scope of possible action and interpretation
  • Knowing is … doing, being
  • Learner is … a perceiver/interpreter (a system; any learning agent)
  • Learning is … creating; bringing forth (to meet to demands of a situation)
  • Teaching is … coupled participation




Enactivism positions the knower as an integral and active aspect of grander dynamical systems. That is, the knower is coupled with other knowers. The knower affects while being affected by systems that include the more-than-human environment. Enaction is seen as a process in which a perceiving knower acts creatively to meet the requirements of a situation. Enaction is thus about systemic transformation rather than processing of information. Hence, the assertion that knowers enact a world is a suggestion that they participate in generating meaning and form – which entails ongoing, context-dependent, viability-maintaining dynamics. Conceptions of self are seen to arise as knowers develop understandings of the extent of their immediate influence and control through their interactions in the world. Core principles of Enactivism include:
  • Autopoiesis (Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela; 1970s) – From the Greek αὐτo- “self” + ποίησις “creation,” Autopoiesis is used to describe any system that is able to self-reproduce and self-maintain
  • Co-Emergence (Structural Coupling) – “Emergence” has to do with how systems transcend the summed possibilities of their parts (see Emergent Complexity Discourses). Co-Emergence thus has to do with the entangled adaptations/learnings of multiple systems – that is, the entangling of one’s emergent activity with another’s.
  • Co-Ontogenic Structural Drift (Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, 1980s) – similar in meaning to Co-Emergence (see above), with a particular emphasis on the mutually specifying actions of a living system and its environment. The two must either live/learn together or part company.
  • Structure Determinism – based on a distinction between mechanical systems that obey Newtonian (cause–effect) dynamics and living systems that obey Darwinian (adaptive) dynamics, Structure Determinism state that the response of a living/learning structure to an external influence/trigger/perturbation is not determined by that influence, but by the agent’s own structure – that is, its embodied history.
Precursors to Enactivism include:
  • Perspectivism (Friedrich Niezsche, 1880s) – a rejection the popular constructs of objective truth and knowerless knowledge – that is, of the notion that truths stable and essential realities that can be precisely and neutrally represented. Perspectivism asserts that truths arise and evolve as one engages with/in one’s world.


Enactivism explicitly rejects a broad swatch of deeply entrenched assumptions and practices – and thus sets itself up for a wide array of criticisms from commentators who are either unaware of or refuse to let go of one or another popular beliefs about knowing, doing, or being. In the realm of justified and informed criticisms, the meaning of “knower” within Enactivism tends to oscillate, sometimes referring to any perceiving agent and sometimes used in reference to just individual humans. Proponents attentive to the explicit assertion tend to conflate Enactivism and Complex Systems Research, whereas proponents attentive to the latter then to conflate Enactivism and Radical Constructivism. Within education, the latter sensibility prevails.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Francisco Varela; Evan Thompson; Eleanor Rosch

Status as a Theory of Learning

Enactivism is a theory of learning. In fact, it’s a trans-systemic theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Enactivism is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Enactivism meets all our criteria for a scientific theory.


  • Autopoiesis
  • Co-Emergence (Structural Coupling)
  • Co-Ontogenic Structural Drift
  • Perspectivism
  • Structure Determinism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Enactivism” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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