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Phenom Cogn Sci (2017) 16:181–185
DOI 10.1007/s11097-016-9462-2
Yanna B. Popova, Stories, meaning, and experience:
narrativity and enaction
Routledge, 2015, 210 pp, Hardcover, $99.00,
ISBN: 9780415715881
Elena Clare Cuffari 1
Published online: 17 March 2016
# Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016
What is it like to read a novel? What exactly happens—to time, to thought, to one’s
neck and shoulders—when dizzily devouring a popular ebook on a trans-atlantic flight?
Is there an explanation for the quiet, compelling satisfaction of returning to the world of
a book you reread every couple of years—a world that you didn’t write, but surely
know better than anyone—a world that any film adaptation would at best transform, at
worst deface, but never match? These simple questions may seem to belong neatly to
the territory of literary studies, yet they seek an account for a domain of human
experience that is as complex as it is common.
Reading a fictional narrative is a particular kind of sense-making, one with constitutive embodied and interactive dimensions that, until now, have gone largely without
the rich interdisciplinary study and careful phenomenological attention they require. In
Stories, Meaning, and Experience: Narrativity and Enaction, Yanna Popova delivers us
from this lacuna, theorizing and then, by engaging with some well-known literary
works, demonstrating a new understanding of narrativity. While she takes on an
extensive range of theories and approaches in narratology and related fields (philosophy, cognitive science and linguistics, and psychology), Popova’s distillation of
narrativity yields a dense nucleus in which three essential elements all point to each
At its core, a narrative is something told. That which is told is a series of events with
a causal relation to each other. The relation exists in virtue of being perceived as such,
i.e. as being meaningful to some one. The story told has a teller—the causal events are
not experienced unmediated for a reader, but through the perspective of a unique agent.
BWhat constitutes a simple narrative, as I define it, are at least two causally linked
events, the ascription of intentionality to an agent in reporting those events, and the
* Elena Clare Cuffari
Department of Philosophy, Worcester State University, Worcester, MA, USA
E.C. Cuffari
reader’s enaction of that intentionality^ (39). Or, as Popova says earlier in the work,
BMy definition of narrativity includes at least two causally linked events and the
ascription of intentionality to an agent with a perceiving consciousness, a specific
narratorial viewpoint that the reader enacts^ (8). This formula may sound simple, but
each of the three moves has deep roots and far-ranging consequences.
First, narrativity is grounded in the human ability to directly perceive meaning by
perceiving relations between acts and events. Popova draws on Michotte’s innovative
though little-known psychological experiments and Leyton’s theoretical work in cognitive science, as well as philosophical and linguistic studies on the temporality of
recounting past events in the present, to develop dynamic causal structure as one of
narrativity’s core features. For example, in Michotte’s experiments, subjects report
billiard balls Blaunching^ or Bcarrying^ each other. Under appropriate timing conditions, observers reliably describe a causal relation rather than disconnected events (i.e.
Bthe blue ball hit the red one,^ rather than Bthe blue ball moved to where the red one
was and then the red ball moved^). Contra Hume, we do not infer causality when we
watch one billiard ball strike another; we see it. An analogous instant perceiving of
causal relation takes place when we read minimal narratives like: B‘Ouch!’ cried the
cunning oyster eater, ‘A pearl!’ Someone at the next table bought it for 100 franks. It
had cost 30 cents at the dime store^ (39, quoting Feneon 1906/2007). The ability to
grasp meaning so directly is dependent in turn upon a primal sociality, which is
narrativity’s second element.
A reader comes to a narrative as she does to a conversation: as an active and
receptive participant. Building on De Jaegher and Di Paolo’s foundational concept of
participatory sense-making as the primordial sociality of cognition (2007; Di Paolo and
De Jaegher 2012), Popova defines narrativity as an interactive, collaborative process or
pattern of meaning-construction (123). Reading a narrative is a form of participatory
sense-making because the reader is an active participant who completes and thus coauthors the meaning of a text, but also and equally because she is not the only
participant. In truly exciting innovation, Popova introduces a third figure, one whose
existence is dependent upon and yet excessive of both the reader and the author of a
narrative. This is the narratorial consciousness, or intentionality, that a reader enacts.
The narrator (the enacted narratorial consciousness) is a middle-way creature,
emergent from at least two doublings. On the one hand, the narrator comes to being
through the combination of two sense-making conditions: textual indication and the
reader’s deployment of her own inherent intersubjectivity. BIf readers assume the
existence of a conversational participant who is the agent responsible for the text, the
process of literary interpretation becomes an intersubjective process of sense-making
and will be a reflection of each individual reader’s distinct engagement with that agent’s
stance^ (64). While the narrator will come into being somewhat differently for every
specific reader, much as any conversation is unique to its participants, the reader is led
or triggered to enact this narrator because of textual cues, which Popova calls
Blinguistic markers of experientiality^ (67). To mark experience linguistically is to give
it a temporal profile, a unique pattern of traces of events that happened to or were
witnessed by someone, through the use of tense, aspect, and Aktionsart (67, 69). These
are cues that a particular perceiving consciousness is speaking to us, alternatingly
showing and telling, and through these temporal dynamics sharing not only what has
happened but the narrator’s own Bepistemological imprint^ on that happening (67).
Stories, meaning, and experience: narrativity and enaction
The narrator becomes a narrator therefore in virtue of playing a double role in
relation to the story told; he is a participant in events on-going and a reporter of events
already ended. BNarrativity is thus an effect of the double temporality of any narrative:
as a story unfolding now for the reader, leading to an unknown end; and as a story
already completed in the past and thus already a subject of some ordering principle^
(32). This ordering principle, this relation that the reader perceives and experiences
right away, comes from the presence and perspective of the narrator. Thus Beach event
that a reader enacts, despite her awareness of its epistemological pastness, expressed
linguistically through the use of the past tense, is also happening ‘now’, at the very
moment that the reader encounters it, and then subsides to allow the next one to take its
place^ (69).
This wrestling between the experience (temporal dynamics) of reading versus the
experience related in what is read—this is the conversation that unfolds between reader
and narrator. The narrator shares a world with the reader but remains the keeper of an
alien perspective, an external autonomous constraint, which is a necessary but not
sufficient condition for the rendering of fictive meaning. The narrator knows something
the reader does not, and yet the narrator, removed in space and time, does not know or
determine the reader or her contribution to the narrative. Each attempts to communicate
with the other; this distributed and collaborative process forges the narrative’s meaning.
The emergent outcome of this dynamic tension is emotive experience (88), for example, the suspense a reader feels even upon rereading a well-paced mystery, or the
exhilaration of a first kiss told in flashback of a couple the reader already knows to be
romantically involved. Novel reading is a Bform of human exchange… a process of
leading and being led in order to enact an experience^ (89). The emotional experience
of a novel occurs in and through social interaction, Popova suggests; it is neither
entirely up to a reader, but nor is it possible without her. To the extent that a novel’s
author intends for the work to impart an emotional experience, this intention is only
completed or realized (partially and unpredictably) by the reader in collaboration with
the mediating narrator whom she calls to existence.
Popova’s proposal of narrativity as emergent from the interaction between teller and
told is intricate, and the evidence and reasoning she provides in support of it is
correspondingly detailed. A reviewer’s abbreviation does not do the nuances justice.
But we must note the relevance and scope of Popova’s contribution to research in
enaction, language, and phenomenology. Recently Di Paolo, De Jaegher, and I
(Cuffari et al. 2015) have attempted to articulate what the enactive approach entails
for the ontology and study of language. With this new work, Popova confirms and
expands the reach of the enactive language project, in several fundamental ways.
Consider the widely received understanding of novel reading as a paradigm case of
high-order, abstract cognition—a fine candidate for ‘disembodied’ or ‘decoupled’
sense-making: a good book is precisely that which takes the reader away from the
present moment and setting to an intangible, ephemeral timeline and place of pure
imagination. But if Popova is right in categorizing reading as engaging in a kind of
conversation, it becomes clear that there is nothing ‘offline’ or ‘disembodied’ about it.
How does this work? Readers couple to horizons of significance and normativity that
are always already available to them as members of a culture (or several), as speakers
(and readers) of a language (or several), i.e., as bodies with certain sensitivities and
potentialities (see Cuffari et al. 2015, 1114–1115). The very act of reading a novel is
E.C. Cuffari
possible because of certain cultural practices and background conditions, which on
Popova’s view are Bsupplied^ or brought to the exchange as part of the reader’s
participation in the shared unfolding of narrative enaction. Foucault observed a very
similar phenomenon when he described that which is written by a particular author as
being B…a speech that must be received in a certain mode and that, in a given culture,
must receive a certain status^ (1984, 107).
Narrative experience is possible for creatures who are primordially social and whose
bodies therefore grow and develop into linguistically powerful and sensitive beings.
‘Enlanguaged’ people can be engaged in what Popova terms Binteractive language
processing,^ not simply picking up the breadcrumb trail the author leaves in the text,
but rather, while venturing out in an indicated direction, laying down a new and unique
path by conjuring a narratorial consciousness as a companion (64). Readers selfregulate, that is, internalize and deploy interactively acquired norms that structure our
thoughts and our worldly engagements alike; that is just what we mean in defining
languaging as a Bspecial kind of social agency^ (Cuffari et al. 2015, 1110). As readers,
we know we are being told, yet we are where we must always be, here, now, with the
telling. Much as a walk through an old-growth forest can be a brand-new experience of
something ancient that waits for us, readers enjoy the past that a narrative masks as past
by delivering it to us in the present. This happens as readers Bre-experience^ the told
events Bas they unfold in a flux of unpredictability^ (69).
Unpredictability is guaranteed as a hallmark of social interaction (71), at least
according to De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007; and Di Paolo and De Jaegher 2012).
Unpredictability stems from interaction autonomy and from the autonomy of the other.
Just as we do not necessarily understand other minds through propositional inference or
neural simulation, so we do not understand the narrator of a story in this way. Just as
interactional conversational meaning is co-authored, the meaning of a story does
belongs neither to the author nor the reader alone but is dependent upon their interaction (85).
The new of the novel emerges from the interplay of limits, constraints, and nudges
imposed by the narrator, and from the irreducible contingencies and idiosyncrasies of a
particular reader’s constellation of culture, language, and experience (this constellation
is clearly relative to her social participation and her bodily being). The narrator has the
power to Bshape and control our experiential access to both the world of the story and
the characters^ (63); but that power is delivered by the reader, who brings her
experiencing self to the conversation to be so shaped and guided. As Popova points
out, BWhen we read, we re-create a situation, a moment, an act, in order to understand
it. This understanding is shared, yet also personal and dependent upon many factors
such as gender, knowledge, verbal expertise, and experience, among others^ (76).
I hope to have made clear that this work is a major contribution to the enactivist
canon, applying principles of social interaction and radical embodiment to account for
complex higher-order cognitive activity. Popova goes further than bringing enaction to
bear on another domain of human languaging, however. On the basis of substantial
research, she suggests broad principles for all cognition: BCausality and narrative
closure are not processes that we choose to engage in exceptional circumstances or
for pleasure only. They are the mind’s necessities^ (44). We cannot help but perceive
meaning in what we see: we see events, intentions, and relations directly. At the same
time, we cannot help but be connected with each other, making meaning together,
Stories, meaning, and experience: narrativity and enaction
telling or listening to stories. We receive each other always already as narrators, that is,
as co-experiencers of a common life, even if some of us are a bit ahead on the road. As
Popova says, these are conditions of our cognitive nature; they are not aesthetic choices
but rather the ground against which aesthethic choices make their mark. This bold
proposal, along with special status Popova gives to metaphor as one of the structuring
principles in thought and narrative (which I do not discuss here), demands to be met by
scholars of language and cognition.
Finally, Stories, Meaning, and Experience can also be read as a fine work of
phenomenology. Popova seeks the heart of what it is to construct and undergo narrative
experience. Notably, this inquiry takes place at a level different from that of Gallagher
and Hutto’s Narrative Practice Hypothesis (2008), which begins with an
unproblematized, received understanding of narrative. In plumbing the subject for its
deepest structures and most basic conditions of possibility, Popova helps her readers
reconsider what it means to be a meaning-making agent, and she helps enactivists by
explaining how sense-making happens across great distances, literally and figuratively.
Cuffari, E. C., Di Paolo, E., & De Jaegher, H. (2015). From participatory sense-making to language: there and
back again. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 14(4), 1089–1125. doi:10.1007/s11097-0149404-9.
De Jaegher, H., & Di Paolo, E. (2007). Participatory sense-making. Phenomenology and the Cognitive
Sciences, 6(4), 485–507.
Di Paolo, E., & De Jaegher, H. (2012). The interactive brain hypothesis. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6.
Foucault, M. (1984). What is an author. In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault reader. New York: Pantheon
Gallagher, S., & Hutto, D. (2008). Understanding others through primary interaction and narrative practice.
The shared mind: Perspectives on intersubjectivity, 17–38.
Continental Philosophy Review (2020) 53:511–515
Christoph Durt, Thomas Fuchs, and Christian Tewes
(eds): Embodiment, enaction and culture: investigating
the constitution of the shared world
MIT Press, 2017
David Carr1
Published online: 10 August 2020
© Springer Nature B.V. 2020
The following is a review of Embodiment, Enaction and Culture. Investigating the
Constitution of the Shared World. Edited by Christoph Durt, Thomas Fuchs, and
Christian Tewes. MIT Press, 2017.
Keywords Enactment · Embodiment · Culture · Phenomenology
The late Hubert L. Dreyfus was known for claiming that computers can’t think, not
because they don’t have minds or souls, but because they don’t have bodies. The
paradigm of the “ghost in the machine” (which Ryle attributed to Descartes) might
have worked if the activities of the “ghost” were limited to making extremely rapid
calculations, but some of the simplest things we do, like shaking hands and smiling
at the appropriate times, require bodies, and not just machine-like bodies. If we are
capable of things like perception, recognition, and social interaction, as we clearly
are, and if these require the body, then the body must be conceived and understood
in a way that makes these activities possible.
Dreyfus was drawing on the phenomenological tradition of Husserl, Heidegger,
Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, in which the idea of the embodied subject had been
developed unencumbered by the metaphysical correctness of reductive materialism
that had prevailed in the English-speaking world. Whether influenced by phenomenology or simply by following the requirements of research, the study of cognition
and perception has gradually liberated itself from the constraints of traditional cognitive science and epistemology and has charted new territory of its own. This new
territory, which by now has itself developed into a tradition, is abbreviated helpfully
* David Carr
Atlanta, USA
D. Carr
by the authors of one of the studies in this collection as “4EA”: embodied, embedded, enactive, extended and affective cognitive science (353). Since the 1991 publication of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, the landmark study by Varela, Thompson and Rosch, a vast literature has developed, and this
extensive collection gives us an impressive sampler of some of the best and most
recent work.
Most of the contributors to this volume, we are told, have collaborated for years
in the interdisciplinary European research network Towards an Embodied Science
of Intersubjectivity (TESIS). This volume represents the “final outcome” of their
work in the TESIS network. Together with other contributors assembled here, the
authors “share phenomenological commitments.” But “the underlying explanatory
approach is interdisciplinary, bringing together fields such as philosophy, neuroscience, anthropology, psychology and psychopathology” (10).
The collection simultaneously serves several purposes. For this reviewer, coming
from the phenomenological side, it provided an opportunity to catch up on work by
“4EA” theorists and get a panoramic view of the diversity and unity of their work.
For those in that tradition, the collection does a good job of displaying the importance of phenomenology as source and continuing contributor to cognitive science.
For the editors, a further agenda is served. As they say in their introduction, “the
cultural context of enactive embodiment… has not yet been explored in an interdisciplinary volume,” and their goal here is to highlight “the role of culture for embodied and enactive accounts of cognition” (1).
Given the number and the vast diversity of the contributions making up this volume, I will not try to comment on everything. Instead I will seek out the primary
issues addressed by the authors assembled here. The editors’ introduction does a
good job of summarizing the volume and explaining its division into four parts. My
own assessment cuts across this division in search of common themes.
Since the editors have sought out links between the new cognitive science
and culture, it is understandable that the concept of intersubjectivity should
occupy a central position. The first two essays (Moran and de Warren) focus on
two old masters of the phenomenological tradition, Husserl and Sartre. Husserl,
we could say, devised a new way of describing subjectivity, and built that into a
method whose key concept was intentionality. Husserl made perception central
to his account, and he recognized that perception could not be understood apart
from embodiment. This brought with it a new way of thinking about the body,
uncoupling it from physiological objectivism and focusing on the body as lived
or experienced from the first-person point of view (Leib as opposed to Körper).
Merleau-Ponty picked up on this insight, and he serves as a major point of reference for many of the essays in this volume. But Husserl was also known for his
intense concern with the link between subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Starting
with the paradigm of the face-to-face encounter, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty have
a lot to say about the importance of the body when I experience another person.
But such an encounter also involves a shared world and shared meaning. Husserl
saw that intentionality could be attributed not only to the I-subject but also to the
we-subject. We-intentionality, as this has come to be called, has developed into a
major topic in phenomenology, and is one of the recurring themes for the authors
Christoph Durt, Thomas Fuchs, and Christian Tewes (eds):…
in this collection. In other words, it is not only world and meaning that are shared,
but subjectivity itself.
But if subjectivity is embodied, what about intersubjectivity? We are led to
the concept of intercorporeality, as Moran calls it (25), and de Warren finds this
in Sartre’s account (in Critique of Dialectical Reason) of the emergence of the
“group-in-fusion” out of the “seriality” of the loose collection of persons. In the
hands of Christoph Durt, this leads us to the threshold of the concept of culture,
which involves “shared significance, as well as the forms of behavior that enact
significance” (65). Significance, he says, is not some “third thing between the
mind and the world. Rather, it is the way the world is given to us due to our ways
of making sense of it” (69). Adapting Ryle’s distinction between thin and thick
descriptions of mind, and grafting that onto Geertz’s similar distinction between
thin and thick descriptions of culture, Durt tries to work out how cultural life differs from minimal conscious life.
The remaining two essays in the first part of the book, written by practitioners and defenders of the enactive approach to social understanding (the first by
De Paolo and De Jaegher, the second by Hutto and Satne), address what they see
as theoretical problems encountered by this approach. These essays are not well
served by their prose, which is clogged by insider-jargon and abbreviations (REC,
HPC, REB and the like) that are hard to breach for the outsider. This is, I must
say as an aside, a problem throughout this collection. Am I right in thinking that
this is related to the wide-spread practice of multiple authorship? It is as if these
authors are writing for each other. One longs for examples, and when one finally
turns up, it is as if a light had been switched on. For example, late in the first of
these essays, we read, “I am no less embodied and coupled to the world when I
plan my holidays than when I ride a bike; I’m simply doing different things with
my body and coupling” (97).
The problems addressed here seem to arise from theoretical frameworks outside
their field of research, residual assumptions of the mind–body distinction, and the
like. Hutto and Satne deal with the question of how their approach squares with natural-scientific intelligibility and the distinction between cognition that involves content and cognition that does not. Then there is the question of how the one evolved
out of the other. Is there continuity, or must one admit to discontinuity? These
authors, I think, want to claim that their approach offers some advantages in dealing with issues around the so-called Hard Problem of Content. But their somewhat
lame conclusion is that while they cannot offer a philosophically satisfying solution
to this puzzle, neither can anyone else, and “there is no shame in failing to do the
impossible” (123).
This essay by Hutto and Satne, like a later contribution by M. Bickhard on “The
Emergence of Persons,” grapples with issues of reconciling their researches with
metaphysical commitments, primarily the default assumption of scientific realism.
These commitments constitute what I earlier called “metaphysical correctness,” to
which these authors feel they must pay homage. In my view these authors would
be well advised to follow the example of phenomenology. Husserl bracketed metaphysical questions in order to describe experience on its own terms.

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