Biology of Cognition
Santiago Theory 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:
  • Autonomous – from Greek autosnomos “self-ruled,” a term that is understood among most Coherence Discourses as roughly synonymous with Structure Determined (see below). That is, the laws governing the behaviors of an Autonomous agent/system arise at the level of the agent’s/system’s emergence.
  • 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. Examples of such engaging include:
    • Joint Attention – the coupling of attentional systems – which occurs, for example, when an infant follows a parent’s gaze or when members of a group cease individual activity to attend to a compelling sound. In some instances, Joint Attentionis associated with levels of synchrony or coupling of brain activity.
  • 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.
  • Consensual Coordination of Action (Francisco Varela, 1990s) – dynamical interactions that unfold moment-by-moment as agents influence and co-regulate one another through actions that are improvised in the situation, but typically drawn from repertoire of familiar possibilities (e.g., a conversation is a Consensual Coordination of Action in which shared language is the principal source of those possibilities)
  • Languaging – a variously defined term. In Enactivism, it is used to describe a mode of structural coupling that involves more than symbolically mediated communication (i.e., language). In this context, Languaging refers to the recursively elaborative process of using language to understand language – an iterative layering that seems to be critical not just to one’s knowledge-generation abilities, but to one’s particular mode of consciousness. Withing education, the term is also used to refer to the dialogic process of making meaning together, especially in relation to complex problem solving.
  • Perceptually Guided Action (Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, 1970s) – the suggestion that perception and action are co-emergent phenomena – that is, that perception develops as one moves, and one’s movements are conditioned by perception. Associated constructs include:
    • Action-Specific Perception (Perception-Action) – a muted version of Perceptually-Guided Action with at least one key difference: Only intentional action is seen to significantly influence perception.
    • Sensorimotor Theory of Perceptual Consciousness (Sensorimotor Contingency Theory) (Kevin O’Regan , Alva Noë, 2001) – a perspective on consciousness based on the principle Perceptually Guided Action, suggesting that perception and consciousness are tethered to what one is doing. That, for example, seeing is asserted to be a way of acting.
  • Proscription – a set of rules that specifies what must not be done rather than what must happen (e.g., the Ten Commandments; the rules of a hockey game). A system defined by Proscription is characterized by emergent possibility, as it is more about what might happen than what must happen. Associated constructs include:
    • Enabling Constraint (Brent Davis, 1990s) – a proscriptive condition placed on a task or situation that is intended to enable creativity, based on the realization that too much choice or too little direction can be disabling
  • Structure – within Embodiment Discourses, Structure refers to the embodied (and constantly unfolding) history of a complex agent. The Structure of a living system is understood to be influenced by both biology and experience. (Note: This definition is consistent with the usage of “structure” in biology and related sciences. Derived from the Proto-Indo-European *streu- “to spread,” the word has has been used to describe phenomena that evolve much longer than it has been applied to buildings and other, more static forms.) (Contrast: Structure, under Sociology.)
  • 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 is the principle that the response of a living/learning form to an external influence/trigger/perturbation is not determined by that influence, but by the agent’s own Structure (see above) – that is, its embodied history.
Precursors to Enactivism include:
  • Perspectivism (Friedrich Niezsche, 1880s) – the principle that one’s convictions about what is factual and true are tethered to one’s perspectives. Anchored to a “knowing is seeing” metaphor, Perpectivism asserts that every observation has a point of view, no one can have a god’s-eye view of reality, and there are no observerless observations. Varieties include:
    • Individualist Perspectivism (Individual Perpectivism) – the conviction that every individual has a unique point of view, and so one’s personal truths are necessarily unique
    • Collectivist Perspectivism – the conviction that truth and facticity are culturally dependent, rooted in consensus and/or power dynamics
  • Perceptual Cycle Hypothesis (Ulric Neisser, 1970s) – the suggestion that perception and cognition operate together in an iterative cycle. That is, perception is not about “taking things in.” Rather, it is determined neither by the external nor the internal, but by a continuous entanglement of situated experience and subjective interpretation.
Extensions of Enactivism include:
  • Autopoietic Systems Theory of Social Communication (Theory of Autopoietic Social Systems) (Niklas Luhmann, 1980s) – an extension of Autopoeisis from biological to social systems, concerned with the self-creation and self-maintenance of societies and social institutions
Pragmatic consequences of Enactivism and associated discourses include:
  • Living Educational Theory (Living Theory) (Jack Whitehead, 1970s) – the embodiment/enactment of one’s explicit theoretical commitments in one’s learning and teaching practices. Such living of one’s theory usually entails self-critical awareness and persistent deliberate effort.


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.


  • Action-Specific Perception (Perception-Action)
  • Autonomous
  • Autopoiesis
  • Autopoietic Systems Theory of Social Communication (Theory of Autopoietic Social Systems)
  • Co-Emergence (Structural Coupling)
  • Co-Ontogenic Structural Drift
  • Collectivist Perspectivism
  • Consensual Coordination of Action
  • Enabling Constraint
  • Individualist Perspectivism (Individual Perpectivism)
  • Joint Attention
  • Languaging
  • Living Educational Theory (Living Theory)
  • Perceptual Cycle Hypothesis
  • Perceptually Guided Action
  • Perspectivism (Perspectivalism)
  • Proscription
  • Sensorimotor Theory of Perceptual Consciousness (Sensorimotor Contingency Theory)
  • Structure
  • Structure Determinism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Enactivism” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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