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Re-cognising Learning and Teaching: Opening the Space of Possibility

Varela. Ethical Know-How 1

From: F. Varela (1999). Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition. Stanford University Press: California.


The First Lecture: Know-How and Know-What



Ethics is closer to wisdom than to reason, closer to under­standing what is good than to correctly adjudicating par­ticular situations. I am not alone in thinking this, for it seems that nowadays the focus has moved away from meta-­ethical issues to a much sharper debate between those who demand a detached, critical morality based on prescriptive principles and those who pursue an active and engaged ethics based on a tradition that identifies the good.

This can be seen as a reenactment of the classical opposi­tion between morality and situatedness. On the side of mo­rality, we have such eminent representatives of the Kantian tradition of moral judgment as Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls. On the side of situatedness, we have the descendants of Hegel, whose position is ably represented by philosophers like Charles Taylor, who clearly explains the differences be­tween the two camps in his recent Sources of the Self:

Much contemporary moral philosophy, particularly but not only in the English-speaking world, has given such a nar­row focus to morality that some of the crucial connections I want to draw here are incomprehensible in its terms. This moral philosophy has tended to focus on what is right to do rather than on what it is good to be, on defining the con­tent of obligation rather than the nature of good life; and it has no conceptual place left for a notion of the good as the object of our love or allegiance or as the privileged focus of attention or will. (1)

Although I draw heavily on recent contributions to this debate in the literatures of phenomenology and pragma­tism, I find equally interesting the enormous body of thought about what it is good to be that comes from the three wisdom traditions of the East: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. In what follows I highlight these non-­Western contributions and thus take a comparative view of ethical experience.

As a first approximation, let me say that a wise (or virtu­ous) person is one who knows what is good and spontaneously does it. It is this immediacy of perception and action which we want to examine critically. This approach stands in stark contrast to the usual way of investigating ethical be­havior, which begins by analyzing the intentional content of an act and ends by evaluating the rationality of particu­lar moral judgments.

Philosophers are not only ones who have lost sight of the distinction pointed at by Taylor. For instance, none other than the psychologist Jean Piaget in The Moral Judgement of the Child opens his discussion by saying that “it is the moral judgement that we propose to investigate, not moral behav­ior,” only to conclude that “logic is the morality of thought just as morality is the logic of action. . . . Pure reason is the arbiter both of theoretical reflection and daily practice” (404) (2). But we have to ask ourselves: why should one con­flate ethical behavior with judgment? Most people answer this question by repeating the received (Western) opinion on this matter, not by describing what they do in everyday life. This is crucial. Consider a normal day in the street. You are walking down the sidewalk thinking about what you need to say in an up coming meeting and you hear the noise of an accident. You immediately see if you can help. You are in your office. The conversation is lively and a topic comes up that embarrasses your secretary. You immediately per­ceive that embarrassment and turn the conversation away from the topic with a humorous remark. Actions such as these do not spring from judgment and reasoning, but from an immediate coping with what is confronting us. We can only say we do such things because the situation brought forth the actions from us. And yet these are true ethical ac­tions; in fact, in our daily, normal life they represent the most common kind of ethical behavior.

And yet the present tendency is to contrast this pervasive mode of being ethical with situations in which one experi­ences a central I performing deliberate, willed action. For example, I read a newspaper article about the devastating civil war in Yugoslavia and call a friend to join forces in a relief campaign for the victims. Or I learn that my child is having trouble in school and after pondering a course of ac­tion I solemnly decide to help him with his homework. In situations of this kind, we feel that the action is “ours”. We can explain what we do in terms of the goal we expect to achieve.

It is quite clear that one aspect of our moral and ethical behavior is grounded in such judgments and justifications, but we cannot and should not pass quickly over the first, more pervasive mode of ethical behavior as being merely “reflexive.” Why not start with an investigation of this per­vasive mode and see whether it leads us into an under­standing of the difference between know-how and know­-what, between spontaneous coping and rational judgment? (3)

We have now in front of us two interdependent ques­tions that are central to these lectures:

  1. How can one best understand ethical know-how?
  2. How does it develop and flourish in human beings?



In order to pursue the first question we need first to ascer­tain how this neglect of the study of immediate coping man­ifests within the very sciences dedicated to the study of mind and knowing: the cognitive sciences, to which we now turn.

New Forms for Old Problems

“Rationalistic,” “Cartesian;” “objectivist”: these are some terms used to characterize the dominant tradition of recent times. Yet when we reexamine our understanding of knowl­edge and cognition, I find that the best expression to use for our tradition is abstract: nothing characterizes better the units of knowledge that have been deemed most “natural.” It is this tendency to find our way toward the rarefied atmos­phere of the general and the formal, the logical and the well defined, the represented and the foreseen, which characterizes our Western world.

However, there are strong indications that within the loose federation of sciences dealing with knowledge and cognition – the cognitive sciences – the conviction is slowly growing that this picture is upside down and that a radical paradigm shift is imminent. At the very center of this emerging view is the conviction that the proper units of knowledge are primarily concrete, embodied, incorporated, lived; that knowledge is about situatedness; and that the uniqueness of knowledge, its historicity and context, is not a “noise” concealing an abstract configuration in its true essence. The concrete is not a step toward something else: it is both where we are and how we get to where we will be.

Perhaps nothing illustrates better this tendency than the gradual transformation of ideas in the very pragmatic field of artificial intelligence. In its first three decades (1950­-1980) research in artificial intelligence (and cognitive sci­ence in general) was based entirely on the computational­ist paradigm, according to which knowledge is a manipula­tion of symbols by logic-like rules, an idea that finds its fullest expression in modern digital computers. Initially, re­searchers in artificial intelligence concentrated on solving the most general problems, such as natural language transla­tion or devising a “general problem solver.” These attempts, which tried to match the intelligence of a highly trained expert, were seen as tackling the interesting, hard issues of cognition. After years of consistent and persistent failure, re­searchers began to seek out more modest challenges. Soon it became clear that even the most ordinary tasks, even tasks performed by tiny insects, lie beyond the grasp of a compu­tational strategy. Early optimism has given way to the re­cent and growing conviction that artificial intelligence wor­thy of the name will not be achieved without first under­standing the situated embodiments of simple acts. (4)

The fact is that some researchers have always believed that cognition can only be understood in terms of how sig­nificance arises out of the autonomous totality that is the organism. Paradoxically, a good example is Jean Piaget, who has transformed this intuition into good research. By studying how children shape their world through sensori­motor actions, he has done nothing less than study how the constitution of a perceptual object is grounded in ontogeny. Piaget successfully introduced the notion that cognition – ­even at what seems to be its highest level – is grounded in the concrete activity of the whole organism, that is, in sen­sorimotor coupling. In short: the world is not something that is given to us but something we engage in by moving, touching, breathing, and eating. This is what I call cognition as enaction since enaction connotes this bringing forth by concrete handling.


Microworlds and Microidentities

Picture yourself walking down the street, perhaps going to meet somebody. It is the end of the day and there is noth­ing very special in your mind. You stop at a kiosk and buy a pack of cigarettes, then continue on your way. You are in a relaxed mood. You put your hand into your pocket and suddenly you discover that your wallet is missing. Your mood is shattered. Your thoughts are muddled. And before you know it, a new world has emerged. You see clearly that you left your wallet at the kiosk. Your mood shifts again to one of concern about losing your documents and your money. The only thing on your mind now is getting back to the store as quickly as possible. You ignore the surround­ing trees and passers-by; all your attention is directed at avoiding further delays.

Situations like this are the very stuff of our lives, and they involve the most ordinary situations as well as the more interesting ethical stances. We always operate in some kind of immediacy of a given situation. Our lived world is so ready-at-hand that we have no deliberateness about what it is and how we inhabit it. When we sit at the table to eat with a relative or friend, the entire complex know-how of how to handle our utensils, how to sit, how to converse, is present without deliberation. We could say that our having-­lunch-self is transparent. (5) You finish lunch, return to the of­fice, and enter into a readiness that has its own mode of speaking, moving, and making assessments.

We have a readiness-for-action proper to every specific lived situation. Moreover, we are constantly moving from one readiness-for-action to another. Often these transitions or punctuations are slight and virtually imperceptible. Sometimes they are overwhelming, as when we experience a sudden shock or come face-to-face with unexpected danger.

I call any such readiness-for-action a microidentity and its corresponding lived situation a microworld. Thus, “who we are” at any moment cannot be divorced from what other things and who other people are to us. We could engage at this point in a bit of phenomenology and identifY some typ­ical microworlds within which we move during a normal day. The point, though, is not to catalog these microworlds but to notice their recurrence: the ability to take appropriate action is, in some important sense, how we embody a stream of recurrent microworld transitions. I am not saying that recurrence always applies. For example, when we arrive in a foreign country for the first time, we face it virtually “empty-handed.” Many simple social interactions have to be done deliberately or learned outright. In other words, microworlds and microidentities are historically consti­tuted. But in general, “who we are” – the pervasive mode of living – consists of already constituted microworlds.

When we leave the realm of human experience and shift to that of animals, the same kind of analysis applies as an external account. The extreme case is illustrative: biologists have known for some time that invertebrates have a rather small repertoire of behavior patterns. For example, a cock­roach has only four fundamental modes of locomotion: standing, slow walking, fast walking, and running. Never­theless, this basic repertoire makes it possible for these ani­mals to navigate appropriately in any possible environment known on the planet, be it natural or artificial. A key ques­tion for the biologist is then: how does the animal decide which motor action to take in a given circumstance? How does it select the appropriate behavior? How does it assess a given situation as requiring, say, running as opposed to slow walking?

In the two extreme cases – human experience during breakdowns, and simple animal behavior at moments of transition – we are confronted, in vastly different manners to be sure, with a common issue. At each such breakdown point, the manner in which the cognitive agent will next be constituted is neither simply determined nor simply planned. Instead, its constitution is a matter of the common­sensical emergence of an appropriate stance from the entire history of the agent’s life. Once a behavioral stance is se­lected or a microworld is brought forth, we can more clearly analyze its mode of operation and its optimal strat­egy. In fact, the key to autonomy is that a living system finds its way into the next moment by acting appropriately out of its own resources. And it is the breakdowns, the hinges that articulate microworlds, that are the source of the autonomous and creative side of living cognition. Such common sense, then, needs to be examined on a microscale, for it is during breakdowns that the concrete is born.

Knowledge as Enaction

Let me now illuminate these issues further by explaining better what I mean by the word “embodied.” Embodiment entails the following: (1) cognition dependent upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities; and (2) individual sensori­motor capacities that are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological and cultural context. These two points have already been touched on, but here I wish to ex­plore further their corporeal specificity, to emphasize once again that sensory and motor processes, perception and ac­tion, are fundamentally inseparable in lived cognition, and not merely contingently linked as input/output pairs.

In order to make my ideas more precise, let me now give a preliminary formulation of what I mean by an enac­tive approach to cognition. (6) In a nutshell, the enactive ap­proach underscores the importance of two interrelated points: (1) that perception consists of perceptually guided action; and (2) that cognitive structures emerge from the recurrent sensorimotor patterns that enable action to be perceptually guided. These two points will become clearer as we proceed.

Let us begin with the notion of perceptually guided ac­tion. According to the dominant computationalist tradition, the point of departure for understanding perception is typ­ically abstract: the information-processing problem of re­covering pre-given properties of the world. According to the enactive approach, however, the point of departure for understanding perception is the study of how the perceiver guides his actions in local situations. Since these local situ­ations constantly change as a result of the perceiver’s activ­ity, the reference point for understanding perception is no longer a pre-given, perceiver-independent world, but rather the sensorimotor structure of the cognitive agent, the way in which the nervous system links sensory and motor sur­faces. It is this structure – the manner in which the per­ceiver is embodied – and not some pre-given world, that determines how the perceiver can act and be modulated by environmental events. Thus the overall concern of an enac­tive approach to perception is not to determine how some perceiver-independent world is to be recovered; it is, rather, to determine the common principles or lawful linkages be­tween sensory and motor systems that explain how action can be perceptually guided in a perceiver-dependent world.

This central concern of the enactive position stands in contradistinction to the received view that perception is fundamentally the truthful reconstruction of a portion of the physical world through a registering of existing envi­ronmental information. In the enactive approach reality is not a given: it is perceiver-dependent, not because the per­ceiver “constructs” it as he or she pleases, but because what counts as a relevant world is inseparable from the structure of the perceiver.

A classical illustration of the perceptual guidance of ac­tion is the study of Richard Held and Alan Hein, who raised kittens in the dark and exposed them to light only under controlled conditions. (7) A first group of animals was allowed to move around normally, but they were harnessed to a simple carriage and basket that contained the second group of animals. The two groups, therefore, shared the same visual experience, but the second group was entirely passive. When the animals were released after a few weeks of this treatment, the first group of kittens behaved nor­mally, but those who had been carried around behaved as if they were blind: they bumped into objects and fell over edges. This beautiful study illustrates the – enactive – view that objects are seen not by the visual extraction of features, but rather by the visual guidance of action. Similar results have been obtained under various other circumstances and studied even at the level of the single cell.

If the reader feels that this example is fine for cats, but irrelevant for humans, let us consider another case. Paul Bach y Rita designed a video camera for blind persons that can stimulate multiple points on the skin by electrically activated vibration. (8) Thus images formed with the camera were translated into patterned tactile sensations – with the following results. Patterns projected onto the skin had no “visual” content if the subject remained motionless. How­ever, if the subject directed the camera by moving his head, hands, or body for a few hours, a remarkable transforma­tion occurred. The tactile sensations became visual percep­tions, the patterns of vibration on the skin were not felt but seen as images projected into the space being explored by the bodily directed “gaze” of the video camera. Thus in or­der to experience “real objects out there,” it was enough for the person to actively direct the camera. This experi­ence is an excellent example of the perceiver-dependent nature of what otherwise seems an internal representation of a perceiver-independent world of features.

From Sensorimotor Patterns to Cognitive Capacities

Let us now turn to the idea that the more familiar cognitive structures of human life emerge from the kinds of recur­rent sensorimotor patterns that enable action to be percep­tually guided. What we need to examine now is how this sensorimotor coupling can be linked with other kinds of typically human cognitive performance. Otherwise, we might be tempted to deny to the “low” level event of sens­ing and acting the significance that we grant to the “higher” cognitive levels.

In fact, the idea that the cognitive structures of human life emerge from recurrent sensorimotor patterns is at the very core of Piaget’s program (9), and has been argued for in recent works by cognitive linguists George Lakoff arid Mark Johnson. (10) We will present the idea of embodied cog­nitive structures with special reference to their work. Once again we must move out of the abstract and emphasize an experientialist approach to cognition. As Lakoff says, the central claim of their approach is that meaningful concep­tual structures arise from two sources: (1) the structured na­ture of bodily experience; and (2) our capacity to project imaginatively from certain well-structured aspects of bodily and interactional experience to conceptual structures. Ra­tional and abstract thought is the application of very general cognitive processes – focusing, scanning, superimposition, figure-ground reversal, and so on – to such structures (11). The basic idea is that embodied (sensorimotor) structures are the substance of experience, and that experiential structures “motivate” conceptual understanding and rational thought. Since I have emphasized that perception and action are em­bodied in self-organizing sensorimotor processes, it is nat­ural to postulate that cognitive structures emerge from re­current patterns of sensorimotor activity. In either case, the point is not that experience strictly determines conceptual structures and modes of thought; it is, rather, that experi­ence both makes possible and constrains conceptual under­standing across a multitude of cognitive domains.

Lakoff and Johnson provide numerous examples of cog­nitive structures that are generated from experiential pro­cesses. To review all of these examples here would take us too far afield. Let me discuss briefly just one of the most significant kinds: basic-level categories. Consider most of the middle-sized things with which we continually interact: tables, chairs, dogs, cats, forks, knives, cups, and so on. These things belong to a level of categorization that is intermedi­ate between lower (subordinate) and higher (superordinate) levels. If we take a chair, for example, at the lower level it might belong to the category “rocking chair,” whereas at the higher level it belongs to the category “furniture.” Eleanor Rosch and her colleagues have shown that this intermedi­ate level of categorization (table, chair, and so on) is psychologically the most fundamental or basic one. (12) Among the reasons why these basic-level categories are considered to be psychologically fundamental are the following: (1) the basic level is the most general level where category members have similar overall perceived shapes; (2) it is the most general level where a person uses similar motor actions for interacting with category members; and (3) it is the level where clusters of correlated attributes are most apparent. It would seem, therefore, that what determines whether a category belongs to the basic level depends not on how things are arranged in some pre-given world, but rather on the sensorimotor structure of our bodies and the kinds of perceptually guided interactions this structure makes possible. Basic-level cate­gories are both experiential and embodied. A similar argu­ment can be made for image-schemas emerging from basic forms of sensorimotor activities and interactions.



Cognitive science is waking up to the full importance of the realization that perception does not consist in the recovery of a pre-given world, but rather in the perceptual guidance of action in a world that is inseparable from our sensorimotor capacities, and that “higher” cognitive structures also emerge from recurrent patterns of perceptually guided action. Thus cognition consists not of representations but of embodied ac­tion. Thus we can say that the world we know is not pre­given; it is, rather, enacted through our history of structural coupling, and the temporal hinges that articulate enaction are rooted in the number of alternative microworlds that are activated in every situation. These alternatives are the source of both common sense and creativity in cognition.

Thus it seems more and more compelling to look at knowledge – to understand understanding – in a manner that can only be called post-Cartesian: that is, knowledge appears more and more as being built from small domains composed of microworlds and microidentities. Behavioral repertoires vary throughout the animal kingdom, but what all living cognitive beings seem to have in common is know-­how constituted on the basis of the concrete. Thus what we call general and abstract are aggregates of readiness-for-­action.

In other words, cognitive science is waking up to the simple fact that just being there, immediate coping, is far from simple or reflexive. Immediate coping is, in fact, the real “hard work;’ since it took the longest evolutionary time to develop. The ability to make intentional, rational analy­ses during breakdowns appeared only recently and very rapidly in evolutionary terms. (This point of view is also gaining ground in the related fields of modern robotics and artificial life research.)13

My interest in immediate coping does not mean that I deny the importance of deliberation and analysis. My point is that it is important to understand the role and relevance of both cognitive modes. It is at the moments of break­down, that is, when we are not experts of our microworld anymore, that we deliberate and analyze, that we become like beginners seeking to feel at ease with the task at hand.14 In this light one can say that computationalist cog­nitive science has been mostly concerned with the behavior of beginners and not with that of experts.

This distinction, as Hubert Dreyfus reminds us, was rec­ognized very clearly by John Dewey in Human Nature and Conduct, from whom we borrow in fact the distinction be­tween know-how and know-what:

We may be said to know how by means of our habits. . . . We walk and read aloud, we get off and on street cars, we dress and undress, and do a thousand useful acts without thinking of them. We know something, namely, how to do them. . . . [If] we choose to call [this] knowledge. . . then other things also called knowledge, knowledge of and about things, knowledge that things are thus and so, knowledge that involved reflection and conscious appreciation, remains of a different sort. (15)

In summary, then, my main point is that most of our men­tal and active life is of the immediate coping variety, which is transparent, stable, and grounded in our personal histo­ries. Because it is so immediate, not only do we not see it, we do not see that we do not see it, and this is why so few people have paid any attention to it until phenomenology and pragmatism, on the one hand, and new trends in cog­nitive science, on the other hand, brought it to the fore. Yet the question remains: how can this distinction between coping behaviors and abstract judgment, between situated­ness and morality, be applied to the study of ethics and the notion of ethical expertise?


  1. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 3.
  2. Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgement of the Child (Glencoe, Ill: The Free Press, 1935); cited in H. Dreyfus, “Towards a Phenomenology of Ethical Expertise,” in J. Ogilvy, ed., Revisioning Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991).
  3. The inspiration for this crucial observation comes mostly from my ideas on the central role of sensorimotor coordination in cognition (cf. H. Maturana and F. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge, 2d ed. [Boston: Shambhala, New Science Library, 1992]), and from my own experience in the wisdom traditions described below. However, I am very indebted to Hubert Dreyfus’s recent work on the phenomenology of skills and their ethical importance. See H. Dreyfus and S. Dreyfus, “What Is Morality? A Phenomenological Account of the Development of Ethical Expertise;’ in D. Rassmussen, ed., Universalism versus Communitarianism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), and H. Dreyfus, “Towards a Phenome­nology of Ethical Expertise.” In what follows I draw heavily from these papers for some key philosophical quotations chosen by Dreyfus.
  4. For a recent collection of papers explicitly dealing with this cri­tique, see L. Steels and R. Brooks, eds., The Artificial Life Route to Artifi­cial Intelligence: Building Embodied, Situated Agents (New Haven, Conn.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995), and my own contribution therein, “The Re-enchantment of the Concrete;’ pp. 11-20.
  5. I am grateful to Fernando Flores for sharing his insights on these topics with me; they are described in documents for internal use in his consulting firm Business Design Associates, Emeryville, California.
  6. See F. Varela, Connaitre: Les Sciences Cognitives (Paris: Seuil, 1989), and Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, The Embodied Mind.
  7. R. Held and A. Hein, “Adaptation of Disarranged Hand-Eye Co­ordination Contingent upon Re-afferent Stimulation,” Perceptual-Motor Skills 8 (1958): 87-90.
  8. P. Bach y Rita, Brain Mechanisms in Sensory Substitution (New York: Academic Press, 1962).
  9. See, for instance, Piaget’s classic Biologie et Connaissance (Paris: Gal­limard,1969).
  10. See George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), and Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
  11. George Lakoff, “Cognitive Semantics,” in Umberto Eco et al., eds., Meaning and Mental Representations (Bloomington: Indiana Univer­sity Press, 1988), p. 121. This article provides a concise overview of Lakoff and Johnson’s experientialist approach.
  12. E. Rosch, C. B. Mervis, W D. Gray, D. M. Johnson, and P. Boyes-Braem, “Basic Objects in Natural Categories,” Cognitive Psy­chology 8 (1976): 382-439.
  13. See P. Bourgine and F. Varela, eds., Towards a Practice of Auton­omous Systems: The First European Conference on Artificial Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, Bradford Books, 1992).
  14. H. Dreyfus discusses this point in H. Dreyfus and S. Dreyfus, Mind over Machine (New York: Macmillan, 1986).
  15. J. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1922), p. 177.