Publication 2291

Thompson E. (2011) Living ways of sense-making. Philosophy Today 55(Supplement): 114–123. Fulltext at
My title – “Living Ways of Sense Making” – comes from the title of a paper that Francisco Varela gave in 1981 to the Stanford International Symposium on “Disorder and Order.”1 Building on his work on autopoiesis or the self-producing organization of living beings,2 Varela spoke as a neurobiologist concerned with the biology of mind. His paper is notable both for being an early critique of the representationist view of the brain and cognition, and for being an early statement of an alternative view informed by phenomenology – a view we were later to call the enactive view of cognition.3 According to the enactive view, living beings are sense-making beings; they enact or bring forth significance in their intimate engagements with their environments. Here is how Varela put this idea at the outset of this early paper: “Order is order, relative to somebody or some being who takes such a stance towards it. In the world of the living, order is indeed inseparable from the ways in which living beings make sense, so that they can be said to have a world.”4 “The ways in which livings beings make sense” – these words have a double meaning. On the one hand, they refer to how living beings go about their sense-making activities and thereby constitute and inhabit their worlds. On the other hand, they refer to how we understand living beings, how living beings make sense to us. In this way, these words point back to us as those living beings who have a pre-understanding of life and who can therefore raise the question, “what is living being?” This question is the overarching question of Donn Welton’s and John Protevi’s papers responding to my book, Mind in Life.5 Welton has examined how to integrate a “bottom up” phenomenology of biological systems into a phenomenology of intentional conciousness, while Protevi has discussed whether this kind of integration of life and mind might lead us also to panpsychism. My way of entering this discussion and responding to their rich papers will be to take up again the question, “what is living being?” Or, more simply and precisely, “what is living?” My essay has four parts. First, I will say more about what I mean when I ask, “What is living?” Second, I will present my way of answering this question, which is that living is sense-making in precarious conditions. Third, I will respond to Welton’s considerations about what he calls the “affective entrainment” of the living being by the environment. Finally, I will address Protevi’s remarks about panpsychism.


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