I recently attended the conference “Science of the Self: the Agency and Body Representation Research Forum”, which took place in Sydney on November 20-22. The conference was organized by a group of researchers from Macquarie University (Vince Polito, Regine Zopf, Simmy Poonian, and Mariia Kaliuzhna, who did a great job putting together an exciting program, and also selecting a wonderful location). The conference featured four keynote presentations, and it gathered researchers working on the topics of embodiment and agency, most of them from an experimental perspective.
The topic of my poster presentation at the conference was the relationship between mutual responsiveness in action and embodied cognition. According to a leading philosophical account of small-scale cooperative joint action (Bratman 1999, 2014), central instances of it require from participants to be mutually responsive in action to one another, i.e. they demand the flexible tracking and adjustment of an agent’s actions to the actions of co-agents during joint action execution. This leading account has been criticized for not saying much about the ‘body glue’ that mutual responsiveness in action apparently requires, at least in cases that involve the spatio-temporal proximity of the involved agents (Pacherie 2015, p. 24).
On the face of it, there seems to be a certain puzzle about the relationship between embodiment and mutual responsiveness in action. In normal circumstances, an individual agent receives an on-going flow of information about his or her own body, in particular (although not only) during action execution. The puzzle arises because certain activities involving mutual responsiveness in action, such as lifting and carrying a heavy object together with someone, seem to demand that each agent receives and integrates information about a co-agent’s embodied perspective in a fluid and flexible way. To be sure, the question of how this might be possible hasn’t gone unnoticed in research on joint action. Some researchers have investigated a variety of cognitive mechanisms that plausibly enable joint action execution, such as co-representation of tasks, co-representation of perceptions, joint attention, and alignment mechanisms (Pacherie 2015, Knoblich et al. 2011, Gallotti et al. 2017).
In my presentation, I explored the idea that joint action execution is supported by “shared action spaces” (Pezzulo et al. 2013; Pacherie 2015). I distinguished and discussed two ways of interpreting this notion. On one reading of it, a shared action space is the result of each agent supplementing his or her individual action space with information about another agent, via perspective-taking and simulation. These and other cognitive mechanisms would provide each agent with supplementary information about another agent’s individual action space, in such a way that joint action execution could get off the ground. But there is room for another interpretation of what a shared action space amounts to. According to it, a shared action space follows from each agent re-framing socially his action space as a we-space. On this view, each individual’s representation of his or her own action space is not supplemented, but re-calibrated socially given the presence of other agents. This second interpretation of a shared action space provides for an attractive alternative to the cognitive demandingness that the first interpretation seems to involve. It can accommodate the relevance of perspective-taking and simulation, by pointing out that they take place on the basis of a shared action space (as a we-space). And it resonates nicely with the idea that a shared action space may include distinctive “social affordances”, i.e. joint action possibilities that are not available to one individual in isolation (Pezzulo et al. 2013, p. 2).
I am grateful to participants in the conference for discussion on these and other topics, and to the organizers for their efforts to make of this conference the great event it was.
Bratman, M. (1999). Faces of intention: selected essays on intention and agency. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bratman, M. (2014). Shared agency: a planning theory of acting together. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Gallotti, M., Fairhurst, M. T. & Frith, C. D. (2017). Alignment in social interactions. Consciousness and Cognition 48 (2017): 253–261
Knoblich, G., Butterfill, S. & Sebanz, N. (2011). Psychological research on joint action: Theory and data. In Ross, B.H. (ed.) The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, pp. 59–101, Burlington, MA: Academic Press.
Pacherie, E. (2015). Modest Sociality: Continuities and Discontinuities. Journal of Social Ontology 1(1): 17–26.
Pezzulo, G., Iodice, P., Ferraina, S. & Kessler, K. (2013). Shared action spaces: a basis function framework for social re-calibration of sensorimotor representations supporting joint action. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7: 1-16.