We can work it out: an enactive look at cooperation

Valentina Fantasia, Hanne De Jaegher, Alessandra Fasulo

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The past years have seen an increasing debate on cooperation and its unique human character. Philosophers and psychologists have proposed that cooperative activities are characterized by shared goals to which participants are committed through the ability to understand each other’s intentions. Despite its popularity, some serious issues arise with this approach to cooperation. First, one may challenge the assumption that high-level mental processes are necessary for engaging in acting cooperatively. If they are, then how do agents that do not possess such ability (preverbal children, or children with autism who are often claimed to be mind-blind) engage in cooperative exchanges, as the evidence suggests? Secondly, to define cooperation as the result of two de-contextualized minds reading each other’s intentions may fail to fully acknowledge the complexity of situated, interactional dynamics and the interplay of variables such as the participants’ relational and personal history and experience. In this paper we challenge such accounts of cooperation, calling for an embodied approach that sees cooperation not only as an individual attitude toward the other, but also as a property of interaction processes. Taking an enactive perspective, we argue that cooperation is an intrinsic part of any interaction, and that there can be cooperative interaction before complex communicative abilities are achieved. The issue then is not whether one is able or not to read the other’s intentions, but what it takes to participate in joint action. From this basic account, it should be possible to build up more complex forms of cooperation as needed. Addressing the study of cooperation in these terms may enhance our understanding of human social development, and foster our knowledge of different ways of engaging with others, as in the case of autism.
Original languageEnglish
Article number874
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 8 Aug 2014


  • cooperation
  • development
  • autism
  • infancy
  • social interaction
  • participatory sense-making


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