Shaun Gallagher: Action and Interaction

Action and Interaction Book Cover Action and Interaction
Shaun Gallagher
Oxford University Press
Hardback £30.00

Reviewed by: Horacio M. R. Banega (FFyL UBA / UNQuilmes / UNLitoral, Argentina)

Action and Interaction is divided into three parts. The first is composed of three chapters that analyze action. The second’s four chapters address interaction. Part three discusses the critical turn in the cognitive sciences in three chapters. The book is strikingly exhaustive. Its positions are revisionist and its implications contentious and challenging for the cognitive sciences. While Gallagher’s  Enactivist Interventions (2017) provides an overview of his thinking,  in Action and Interaction he fine tunes that stance for the sake of an interdisciplinary project that incorporates social philosophy and, to a lesser degree, the social sciences. Gallagher is startling concise in his account of different disciplines’ explanations and descriptions of social interaction and the development of the abilities and skills we bring to bear in our engagement with the natural-social-cultural environment. The contributions of the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of psychology, the ontology of action, the neurosciences, social psychology, the psychology of development, and of other areas of study work both in Gallagher’s favor and against him. His project is comparable to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s: assault on all fronts the reigning and hegemonic Cartesianism in the ontology, methodology, and epistemology of social cognition. But Cartesianism has endured, and continues to endure, in what Thomas Kuhn calls the normal cognitive sciences. In what follows, I will first offer a brief review of the various chapters in the book and then outline what I deem its most important aspects.

In chapter 1, Gallagher states that “action” must be understood in terms of the movements and intentions of an agent. “The concept of affordance and a pragmatic concept of situation [must be understood] as relational” (7). “Action,” then, is what we call the situation in which motor, pragmatic, contextual, social, and other aspects are arranged to produce a particular affordance. In this book, Gallagher bases his concept of situation on John Dewey’s philosophy (1938).[1] He calls the situation of which the agent forms part the agentive situation. Looking to empirical studies of impaired agents, he indicates that action is structured into three dimensions: a basic motor level; a semantic or pragmatic level, where the intentions of each agent are formed; and a social level, or the level of cultural meaning. These three empirically justified levels configure a first holistic approach to the individualization of action (there is no action without context or agent). A holistic view of action means that action cannot be partitioned without altering its nature. That is why Gallagher does not affirm the existence of basic action but rather the existence of basic activity to account for the beginning of an action. This means that action is a continuous process.

In chapter 2, Gallagher analyzes the temporal structure of action to justify the assertion that basic activity is intentional and to claim that action entails an intrinsic temporality. The enactivist perspective comes into focus at this juncture, with the affirmation that perception of the environment and action are organized to allow for enactive processes that ground the agents’ intentional existences (25). Empirical research in development psychology shows that even primary motor coordination—hand to mouth, for instance—implies an internal temporality. The aim of explicitly addressing the internal temporality of action is to show the double nature of its operationality, first as duration and second as organization of the coordination of the sensorimotor process. The assertion that the organization of the process’s coordination is temporal means that, to be performed, the movement requires present-moment anticipations related to past movements of that sensorimotor coordination. This problem is so complex it demands considering not only time as seen by phenomenological philosophy, but also—and more crucially—the temporal organization intrinsic to the corporal scheme of a baby from the time she appears in the world. Francisco Varela (1999) is one of the scientists who first used dynamic systems theory to formalize Husserl’s notion of the constitution of immanent temporality with its instances of retention, protention, and proto-impression. Varela thus applied his models to the functioning of the different levels of the enactive agent to show the integration of those different levels with their also different durations, and to spell out the dynamic coupling between brain, body, and environment. That dynamic coupling is geared to action; it is not representational but pragmatic—and therein lies the basic unit of enactivism, which radically defies normal cognitive science and its Cartesian basis. Gallagher coins the term “primal enaction” to refer to the initial moment of basic activity, which—because of its fluid structure—is not only momentary. Hence, “anticipatory intentionality is not an apprehension of an absence […] it is […] an apprehension of the possibilities or the affordances in the present” (36). Temporality plays a structuring role in narrative practices as well. With narrative, temporality is double: an internal temporality is at play in the articulation of a story while the narrator has a temporality of her own. There is a strong claim here that the structure of the action precedes the narrative structure, hence demonstrating that the action does not need a narrative configuration to produce meaning. That does not, however, deny the fact that narration adds or complements meanings of actions in specific situations. All these questions lead to the problem of autonomy and agency—topics addressed in chapter 3.

It is in this chapter that Interaction Theory (IT) first makes its appearance, with the affirmation that action emerges out of “our early interactions with others” (42). From there, “the phenomenological sense of agency” leads us to the assertion that action is the integrated form of “intention, sense of agency, and meaning which generally goes beyond the agent´s intention” (43). Those phenomenological components cannot be reduced to purely causal, mechanical, or neural processes.  First off, because they involve intentional bodily processes that are used to distinguish the sense of agency from the sense of ownership—which, in the case of voluntary and intentional movement, are not readily distinguishable. The way to draw that difference is to consider involuntary and unintentional movement, where it is indeed possible to discriminate between sense of ownership and sense of agency. In the case of involuntary and unintentional movement, there is no sense of agency, since I am not the one who causes the movement. At stake in voluntary and intentional movement are motor-control processes along with perceived modifications in the environment pursuant to my action to evidence the configuration of a pre-reflexive sense of agency. Intentions take shape on the basis of those sensorimotor and perceptive processes that allow us to monitor aspects of our actions. Those intentions also help form a sense of agency. A difference is drawn between distal intentions—future-oriented deliberate processes—and proximate intentions—motor intentions connected to the present and to the processes of control at play in an action underway. Gallagher analyzes the relations between those two and then assesses attributions of agency and ownership in relation to one’s own agency and ownership. The sense of agency might be reinforced by an attribution of agency, but that attribution is not necessary to the constitution of that sense. The combination of those relations evidences different degrees of agency.

It is in relation to Gallagher’s engagement with Pacherie that something I want to underscore arises, namely where to place the limits between the experiential dimension and the functional dimension of action. Pacherie argues that there can be “naked intentions” that are neutral in relation to the agent. That is a scandal for a phenomenological understanding of the experiential dimension. Gallagher affirms:

Pacherie is right to note that a conceptual analysis cannot “preempt the question of whether these various aspects are dissociable or not […]” (2007 7). What can decide the issue, however, is agreement on where to draw the lines between phenomenological analysis (i.e., of what we actually experience), neuroscientific analysis […] and conceptual analysis (which may introduce distinctions that are in neither the phenomenology nor the neurology, but may have a productive role to play in constructing cognitive models or, in regard to the individual, explaining psychological motivations, or forming personal narratives, etc.).” (58-59).

The end of that passage makes it clear that actions and their intentions, motives, and aims are not mental states; they need others to take shape and advance beyond the singular individual. At stake, then, is a dynamic constitution of the causal and reciprocal brain-body-environment coupling that is the unit of analysis of Enactivism and of Interaction Theory—Gallagher’s topic in Part II of the book.

In chapter 4, Gallagher critiques the Theories of Mind (ToM) called Theory Theory and Simulation Theory in eight condensed arguments or problems he finds in that Cartesian representationalist perspective. What Gallagher term the Starting Problem is crucial to chapter 7. In ToM, a rule of inference must be applied on the basis of our mental states: we must infer a state other than the one we find ourselves in, a state we can imagine the other agent to be in. Nonetheless, “Neither theory has a good explanation of how the process gets off the ground—or more precisely, what ground we stand on as we engage in the process” (Gallagher 2011: 2).

Gallagher lays out his Interaction Theory in chapter 5. That theory holds that intersubjective understanding takes place through embodied practices. Since intersubjetive understanding involves social cognition, it is where the problems social psychology deals with arise, among them bias in the perception of members who do not belong to our group of reference. In this chapter, Gallagher clears up misunderstandings regarding his critique of mindreading and the nature of mental states. His target is the classic notion that mental states are private internal events that others have no access to, or that the only access possible is through inference or simulation on the basis of our own mental states. If that is the basis for the theory of mindreading, Gallagher affirms that it is rarely needed in our daily interactions. The notion of the mind Gallagher defends is the notion of an embodied mind geared to action and enactively contextualized. This conceptualization is “non-orthodox” (99) and difficult to reconcile with the notion of mental states as private events. Gallagher affirms:

Interaction: a mutually engaged co-regulated coupling between at least two autonomous agents, where (a) the co-regulation and the coupling mutually affect each other, and constitute a self-sustaining organization in the domain of relational dynamics, and (b) the autonomy of the agents involved is not destroyed, although its scope may be augmented or reduced. (Based on De Jaegher, Di Paolo, & Gallagher 2010). (99).

It is difficult to determine the scope of that definition because of its theoretical and practical, and multidisciplinary, potential. The primacy of interaction is based on processes of primary intersubjectivity, secondary intersubjectivity, and communicative and narrative competencies, which in turn form the basis for three points that challenge ToM specifically: 1. “Other minds are not hidden away and inaccessible,” 2. “Our normal everyday stance toward the other person is not third-person, observational; it is second-person interaction,” and 3. “Our primary and pervasive way of understanding others does not involve mentalizing or mindreading” (100). Primary intersubjectivity is tied to the development of the innate or early sensorimotor skills required to make contact with others, specifically the caregiver. What matters here is that in second-person interactions the “mind” of the other is manifested in its embodied behavior. That interaction depends on the self/non-self distinction and the proprioceptive development of our own body. Contemporary scientific evidence supports Merleau-Ponty’s thesis on a shared affective intentionality: intercorporeality. Interaction thus contributes to social cognition insofar as it understands it as the joint dynamic constitution of meaning through reciprocal exchanges between agents and environments. Child-development studies show that an understanding that is not theoretical, but rather pragmatic and affective is developed. Neither that understanding nor primary intersubjectivity as embodied practice disappears with development, IT argues. On the contrary, along with secondary intersubjectivity and communicative and narrative practices, it forms the basis for understanding others. The mind is a second-person phenomenon and understanding the other means being bodily available to respond in interaction. This implies personal and subpersonal processes that cannot be so clearly distinguished as a mental state encapsulated in a mind that operates propositionally and modularly with representations and other tools but that is not here in the world. These processes are embodied and affective, pragmatic and intersubjective. On that basis, Gallagher proceeds to work through the eight problems of ToM formulated in chapter 3. [2]

In chapter 6, Gallagher states that interaction assumes direct perception of others, of their emotions and intentions in particular—that because this type of perception (which Gallagher terms “smart” perception) is always contextualized. As we interact with others, we perceive their motor intentions and proximate intentions in their gestures, bodily stances, movements, and in what they are looking at and doing in relation to the context of their daily praxis. There is no need for us to commit to the existence of or to have access to the internal mental states of others to perceive them directly. Significantly, for Gallagher “there are good reasons […] to view beliefs as dispositions that are sometimes ambiguous even from the perspective of the believer” (2005: 214). This pragmatist-like approach enables Gallagher to work through the problem of access to the beliefs of other agents insofar as those dispositions are dispositions to act in a certain way. It is on the basis of the contributions of social psychology and its experiments on bias in perceptive recognition of the color of human faces that Gallagher begins to introduce questions of social conflict into the cognitive sciences.

In chapter 7, Gallagher addresses the communicative actions and narrative practices that broadened the scope of IT to bring to a close its dispute with simulation theorists and sympathizers. That means dealing with the role of the acquisition and exercise of language in social interaction and cognition as pragmatic tools that enable a refusal to commit to propositional attitudes, mental states, and so forth. Both language and narrative practices are grounded on contextualized embodied interaction. The development of linguistic capacity depends on the ability to move vocal cords, tongue, lips, and hands in gestures. It is based on three indications of Merleau-Ponty’s that converge in contemporary analysis. First, “we are born into a ‘whirlwind of language’” (156). Second, language accomplishes thought. Third, language transcends the body. Insofar as meaning is generated in the body and in language, that third point means that meaning outlives its origin. Linguistic pragmatics can broaden the resolutions of the problems raised by theorists of the mind insofar as embodied action is what does something between the speakers in the contextual medium of conversation. Narrative practices’ role in child development is understood to be central, and there is ample empirical evidence that it is based on pre-linguistic, proto-narrative practices. Narration articulates an order based on the temporal structure of social agents’ actions and interactions that both enable that interaction and feed back to it. That order is normative, and it is through narrations that the child begins learning norms while also becoming familiar with the core structure of folk psychology and delving into the Massive Hermeneutical Background (MHB). At the same time, understanding someone means formulating a narrative that, whether explicitly or implicitly, makes it possible to reconstruct their motives and aims, what makes them act in a certain way. It is in this chapter that Gallagher introduces the topic of MHB, which TT and ST look to to resolve the Starting Problem, though without specifying MHB’s nature or functioning in singular cases.  The MHB cannot, as John Searle would have it (1992), be reduced to cerebral processes; it is shaped by acquired dispositions (habits and schemes) of perception, action, and evaluation. “The background, having its effects through an individual habitus, is a normative force that plays an essential role in regulating social practices, and contributing to social reproduction” (2011: 7). Gallagher uses that concept of habitus, devised by Pierre Bourdieu (1980), to exemplify MHB, and that leads us to the question of empathy. Our author also takes issue with the various versions of empathy defended by champions of mindreading.

In my view, the book’s third section, which the author calls A Critical Turn, is the most contentious and challenging because it ventures into the terrain of practical philosophy in general and social philosophy in particular. One could well ask what this turn critiques. The answer may be twofold. First, it critiques mainstream cognitive sciences from within (Gallagher and Gallese have discussed issues of cognitive science, see note 16, page 97). But it also critiques the social state of things in late capitalism, and of the many critiques of the reigning state of things Gallagher chooses Axel Honneth’s. The path that takes Honneth from developmental psychology to recognition theory is paved by Trevarthen’s research (2008) on primary intersubjectivity. Gallagher does not fully embrace Honneth’s theses; he posits notions of recognition that do not necessarily imply conflict or revenge, but rather forgiveness and gift.

In chapter 9, Gallagher analyzes the topic of the extended mind, that is, institutions and collective agency. Insofar as those questions involve group identity, they also imply critical narratives: “The cognition involved is distributed,” (214) Gallagher asserts. The distribution of social knowledge is addressed at the level of institutions, bearing in mind narratives’ power to transform situations that distort the communicative practices of institutions. Gallagher acknowledges that a change in narrative may not be enough to effect a change in a situation. To address that question, he looks to debates on cognitive institutions, which affords him a more subtle approach to the question of autonomous agents’ participation and involvement in institutions, which—to put it bluntly—can range from maximum creativity to maximum alienation.  As Gallagher puts it:

First, that the cognitive-science informed analyses of interaction theory and socially extended cognition which offer insight into these processes and how they operate in institutional practices and procedures can inform critical theory. Second, since the cognitive science of such phenomena focuses on narrow questions about how such things work rather than on the broader consequences of such practices, we need to give cognitive science a critical twist.” (227).

Finally, in chapter 10 Gallagher lays out his theory of the practice of justice at play in the social interaction embodied in everyday life. He critiques basic tenets of John Rawl’s Theory of Justice and considers the ethological analyses of cooperative behavior in chimpanzees. He is in favor of an imperfect consensus and, like Honneth, insists on not reducing distributive justice to the distribution of economic goods, though he recognizes that, “in the final instance,” you cannot live without money anywhere in the social world.

Gallagher’s book is so stimulating and far-reaching that all the questions and reflections it occasions cannot be tackled in the little space I have left. The most pressing question, for me, is if it is possible to connect, combine, and harness sociological research and social theory to complement social cognition and embodied cognition. Gallagher begins to build that bridge. In the part of chapter 7 where he analyzes MHB, he adopts sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s thesis on the social world.  I would like to point to two questions along these lines. The first, and critical, question is that for Bourdieu those “acquired dispositions” are actually imposed by a dominant and hegemonic social class. Gallagher’s watering down of Bourdieu’s critical theory seems to take place in part III of the book, where Gallagher privileges hermeneutic positions over critical ones. The positive question can be explained in terms of the practical turn in social sciences, a recent research paradigm[3] of which Stephen Turner (1994) voices a powerful critique. In 2007, he affirms that “Social Theory cannot get very far without making generous use of mentalistic or cognitive concepts” (357). Some of the enactivist theses Gallagher posits are very adept at capturing what is actually happening with social agents in the practical turn and, hence, they enable a double feedback loop: first, from embodied cognition and enactivism to the social sciences, which more robustly justifies the practical turn (against Turner); and second, from the social sciences to social cognition, where the former contributes its research on social ties, group belonging, class conflict, race, gender, practical knowledge, etc.

The relation with sociology makes itself felt at the beginning of the book as well, when a difference is drawn between the process-action of the completed action and a posteriori attribution of meaning. Alfred Schutz distinguishes between action as process and act as completed action. He uses Husserl’s concept of temporality to capture the constitution of the subjective meaning of social action—Max Weber considered this a requisite to differentiate meaningful action from mere movement in space.[4]

It is my sense that, in part III, Gallagher takes on a wide range of topics, though his approach is not without problems. He is too quick to establish a relation between lab experiments with animals and embodied practices of social agents in a social space in conflict. Centuries of reflection on the possibility—or impossibility—of living together complicate a facile combination disciplines like political philosophy, ethics, meta-ethics, the philosophy of law, and experimental research on normative learning. At the same time, Gallagher looks, albeit obliquely, to Aristotle’s notion of phronesis that Gadamer uses in Truth and  Method (1950). It would seem that Richard Bernstein (1986: 155) was right when he affirmed that Aristoteles had at least one universally accepted norm to use as parameter for the application of other, narrower rules to each specific controversy, thus justifying the practical possibility of phronesis. There is a need, however, for discussion of the historical distance and different conditions of application of norms—or of one norm—in our globalized pandemic-ridden present and ancient Athens.  It is because we no longer have such an efficacious norm that Bernstein states that hermeneutics as practical wisdom must move to the sphere of politics.

I also have the sense that the book lacks an analysis of the philosophy of science. It seems to be there on a conceptual level, but it is never fleshed out. The representatives of mainstream cognitive sciences appear, in their scientific contributions, to be ontological and epistemic realists, and that, it appears, is the first thing to reconstruct in an attempt to reshape their discipline. The use of dynamic systems theory clearly points in that direction, but I still have the sense that the models are mistaken with what lies outside of them, without pausing to question the theoretical weight of theoretical terms like distal intention, proximate intention, motor intention, mirror neurons, and so on. In any case, it seems that a similar analysis, but now regarding the empirical content, is necessary in the phenomenology used in scientific research and in its disputes with representationalist cognitive sciences.[5] Both of those questions are related to the naturalization of phenomenology, a project that has been underway for some time and that merits a comprehensive assessment other than the one performed by Gallagher and Dan Zahavi in The Phenomenological Mind (2012).

This is a book necessary for these times. It provides a number of insights for further scientific and philosophical research into our nature.


Balmaceda, T. 2017. “Apuntes acerca de la hipótesis de la percepción directa de los estamos mentales.” In Pérez, D. and Lawler, D. (Eds.), La segunda persona y las emociones, 249-274. Buenos Aires: SADAF.

Banega, H. 2016. “Husserl’s Diagrams and Models of Immanent Temporality.” Quaestiones Disputatae, Vol. 7 (1): 47-73.

Bourdieu, P. 1980. Le sens pratique. Paris: Minuit.

Reckwitz. A. 2002. “Towards a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Cultural Theorizing.” European Journal of Social Theory, 5 (2): 243-263.

Bernstein, R. J. 1986. “From Hermeneutics to Praxis.” In Philosophical Profiles. Essays in a Pragmatic Mode. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

De Jaegher, H., Di Paolo, E., and Gallagher, S. 2010. “Does social interaction constitute social cognition?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14 (10): 441–7.

Dewey, J. 1938. The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Wiston.

Ihde,D. 2012. Experimental Phenomenology. Multistabilities, Second Edition.  Albany: SUNY Press.

Gadamer, H.G. 1989. Truth and Method. New York, NY: Continuum.

Gallagher, S., 2006. “Phenomenological contributions to a theory of social cognition.” Husserl Studies, 21 (2): 95–110

Gallagher, S., 2011. “Narrative competency and the massive hermeneutical background”. In Fairfield, P. (ed.), Hermeneutics in Education, 21-38. New York: Continuum.

Gallagher, S., 2017. Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gallagher, S. and Zahavi, D. 2012. The Phenomenological Mind. London: Routledge.

Gomila, A. y Pérez, D. 2017. “Lo que la segunda persona no es.” In Pérez, D. and Lawler, D. (eds.), La segunda persona y las emociones. Buenos Aires: SADAF.

Pacherie, E., 2007. “The sense of control and the sense of agency.” Psyche 13 (1): 1–30.

Schatzki, T., Knorr Cetina, K., y von Savigny, E. (Eds.). 2001. The Practice turn in Contemporary Theory. London and New York: Routledge.

Schutz, A. 1967. The Phenomenology of the Social World. Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Searle, J. 1992. The Rediscovery of the Mind. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Trevarthen, C. 2008. “Why Theories Will Differ.” In The Shared Mind: Perspectives on Intersubjectivity, J. Zlatev, T.P. Racine, C. Sinha, and E. Itkonen (Eds.), vii–xiii. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Turner, S. 1994. The Social Theory of Practices. Tradition, Tacit Knowledge and  Presuppositions, Cambridge, The University of Chicago Press.

Turner, S. 2007. “Social Theory as a Cognitive Neuroscience.” European Journal of Social Theory, 10 (3): 357-374

Varela, F.J. 1999. “The Specious Present: A Neurophenomenology of Time  Consciousness”. In J. Petitot, F.J. Varela, B. Pachoud, and J.-M. Roy (Eds.), Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and  Cognitive Science, 266–314. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Weber, M. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Glencoe, Ill., The Free Press.

[1] As readers of this journal know, the concept of situation can also be grounded in Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenologies, which explains the historical compatibility of pragmatist and phenomenological positions. To understand this compatibility or complementarity, see Don Ihde, Experimental Phenomenology. Multistabilities, Second Edition, Albany: SUNY Press, 2012, among others.

[2] For another consideration largely akin to Gallagher’s position though with some caveats, see Tomás Balmaceda, “Apuntes acerca de la hipótesis de la percepción directa de los estamos mentales” (249-274) and Antoni Gomila and Diana Pérez, “Lo  que la seguna persona no es” (275-297), plus other articles compiled in Diana Pérez and Diego Lawler (Eds.), La segunda persona y las emociones, Buenos Aires, SADAF, 2017.

[3] See Andreas Reckwitz. “Towards a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Cultural Theorizing,” European Journal of Social Theory. 2002, 5 (2): 243-263 and Theodore Schatzki,  Karin Knorr Cetina  and Eike von Savigny, (Eds.), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London and New York: Routlege, 2001.

[4] See Alfred Schutz, The Phenomenology of the Social World, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1967 and Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1947 (Talcott Parsons’s translation is the one cited by the translators of Schutz’s text).

[5] I humbly refer to Horacio Banega, “Husserl´s Diagrams and Models of Immanent Temporality”, Quaestiones Disputatae, Vol. 7 (1), Fall 2016, 47-73, for a revision of Husserlian methodology.

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