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Hanne De Jaegher. Loving and Knowing: Reflections for an Engaged Epistemology (2018)

A Systems Library, Vol. 15

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Note: This is a review of a short book that has been published in Dutch. However, the ideas foregrounded in the essay are accessible to English readers via a paper that is freely available. I’m heading my review by the title of the paper, rather than that of the book, as the former is more attractive and offers a more faithful reflection of the core ideas.

This is a very important book. For me anyway. Because it provides a scientific basis for beliefs and a praxis that I have long since embraced. In short, I believe that life comes down to learning together. We can do many things on our own, but what turns us into what we are is the result of a long and continuous process of collaborative learning. Any relationship worth having is a learning process. It changes us; it changes our environment. Large groups of people form communities by learning together.

Only societal arrangements that make room for intense collective learning offer a long-term horizon for Homo Sapiens Sapiens on this planet.

I did not invent these ideas. They have been circulating within constructivist systems theory for some time. Now, this vision is being confirmed by cognitive science, an interdisciplinary field at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics and computer science. Belgian philosopher of mind Hanne De Jaegher has done us a service by summarising her ideas in a small and very readable book.

What is it about? Thinkers of all kinds have long been trying to put their finger on what thinking actually is. A quasi-consensus has grown up around the so-called Theory of Mind which, in short, states that our brain works like a computer. It is presented with a series of signals, processes them algorithmically and then spits out a response to the signal. Input, transformation, output. That sounds very mechanistic and it is. The basis for this theory was already laid in the 17th century when philosophers such as René Descartes made a radical distinction between res extensa (the world around us) and res cogitans (the thinking substance, us, our brain). Although there are many technical and moral problems with this (the author neatly sums them up), this view is still upheld as the dominant frame of reference.

In this essay, De Jaegher proposes a more humane alternative. It is rooted in the ‘enactive approach to intersubjectivity’. The term ‘enactive’ can mean both ‘putting an idea into practice’ and ‘playing a role’. In my opinion, both elements are relevant. It is about practice, i.e. confrontation with materiality and other subjects, and it is about roles, i.e. scripts that take shape in patterns of behaviour in consultation and coordination with other subjects.

The core of De Jaeger’s argument is the observation that we are constantly doing ‘participatory sense-making’. This means that we always approach the world — with its inexhaustible supply of human and non-human entities — from our basic posture, in which certain things appear as meaningful and necessary for our survival, and others simply play no role.

This is a constructivist principle. For the world does not appear as an objective fact, but is filtered through our physiological and mental armature. If we find something meaningful, we interact with it. And that process, according to De Jaegher, is by definition participatory.

A good part of the book is about the nature of this participation. It is a very complex process. On the one hand, we are naturally self-preserving. We want to ensure our survival. That in itself constitutes a very complex interplay of self-organising processes at different levels (the metabolic, the organic, the person-oriented-subjective). In relation to another human entity, the complexity naturally increases, for we are not alone, and the other is just as focused on self-preservation. But there is a third element at play in our intersubjective involvement, namely the relationship itself. This also has a certain autonomy which, in confrontation with the participating subjects, can display a certain unruliness. In this ‘game’ of ever unfolding life processes, we are thus constantly, knowingly, involved. Body structure, movement, context and cognition engage in complex interactions. Indeed, cognition cannot be detached from this ‘game’. There is no computer that observes its surroundings in detachment and calculates what its next move might be. There are only life processes, in encounter with others, through which intelligent behaviour manifests itself.

Ok, now we haven’t talked about love yet. De Jaegher: “A central, intimate part of the context are the people with whom you understand the world together. In the process of participatory meaning-making, we constantly position ourselves in relation to our fellow human beings. There is, through the self-preservation processes of the individuals and of the interaction processes, obvious tension in those relationships. We can deal with this tension in many ways, in the best case lovingly. What does that mean? According to De Jaegher, a loving relationship is one in which we ‘let the other be’ (she borrowed this idea from the Canadian philosopher Kym Maclaren).

‘Letting be’ is not an indifferent laissez-faire, but a sensitive search process in which we constantly try to keep our own being and the other’s being in a generative balance. De Jaegher: “This is the fundamental tension of loving and knowing; it is the fundamental tension of letting-be.”

Thus, indeed, we begin to see that loving and knowing are manifested through a similar pattern of active, empathic engagement with each other. And why not stretch this principle to include interaction with non-human entities? Hence ‘knowing as loving’.

“We can only understand knowing when we understand how essential it is to engage in interactions. How it makes relational knowers. That is why I bring love, knowing and thinking together here. Because we only understand knowing when we understand loving. That is where our deepest, most transformative and most essential interactions are.”

These interactions are indeed transformative: they change us, they change the other, and equally they change the world around us. It also follows, and this brings us to the last pages of the essay, that change goes through knowledge. To want to change something, or to fight it, requires that we open ourselves to it and risk being changed by it. We have to get to the essence of things in order to deal with them properly.

It is clear that “Thinking about Love” is not a self-help book that, based on a few rules of thumb, reconciles us to ourselves and the world for a while. It offers a polished and scientifically rigorous plea for rekindling our systemic sensibilities. The ‘enactive’ lens allows the whole thing to flow with life juices, with light, and gives it the rich texture of our existence as feeling, observing, reflecting, interacting, loving human beings.

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Philippe Vandenbroeck

Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?