PhD Thesis - Normativity

Cognitive science and philosophy of mind are articulated around two basic questions: What allows an agent to make sense of its environment? And how does it do it? Both questions imply a normative dimension. On one hand, making sense of the environment implies being able to differentiate the relevant from the irrelevant, the convenient from the inconvenient, etc. and acting accordingly. This means that being a cognitive agent implies having a normative point of view that guides its behavior and from which aspects of the environment are discriminated according to the agent’s own purposes. On the other hand, an agent can fail in its cognitive processes, whether it realizes or not. This implies that cognitive processes and activities are subjected to external and public normative criteria that potentially allow others to determine whether the agent failed or succeeded. This does not mean that others have to actually evaluate the agent’s performance, or that these criteria determine the agent’s behavior as laws of nature do. Instead, external criteria must establish conditions of success and failure that go beyond the agent’s own impressions. These two dimensions capture two essential features of cognition: agents are not indifferent to their environments but have a normative point of view that guides its behavior, and this behavior can succeed or fail (Mojica, 2020).

Any naturalistic account of the mind should thus include an explanation of how normative behavior with the two dimensions identified above arises in nature. This project articulates and critically examines the explanations offered within the enactive embodied tradition. One of the accounts defended in the literature is proposed by the enactive approach to cognition whose historical roots are the autopoietic theory. It defends that agents establish a point of view of their environment and are motivated to act accordingly in terms of what contributes or threatens its identity, be it in its metabolic/biological dimension or the sociocultural one. According to this approach, a normative point of view arises from the very constitution of the living organism and their cognitive behavior is defined as the interactions that the agent selects to counteract the tendencies that threaten its identity (Barrett, 2017, 2019; Weber & Varela, 2002). In contrast, radical enactivism defends that selection over the evolutionary scale is the fundamental source of normativity; under this account, external normative criteria are established by the selected features and behaviors selected in the history of the species or the shared form of life of human communities that the agent belongs to (Hutto & Myin, 2013). Both approaches to the mind define cognition and normativity in terms of the practical possibilities and practical consequences for the agent or for a species that their selection has in the individual or in the evolutionary scales. However, despite the similarities and potential complementariness of both, there is no unified conception of normativity, let alone, an in-depth examination of the ontological consequences for nature that these proposals of naturalization of normativity have.

The structure of the project is the following: First, a conception of cognitive normativity is needed; a conception that yields itself to be naturalized and that includes both basic minimal forms of cognition and more complex ones. A working hypothesis in this respect is that a pragmatic conception of normativity allows us to understand both minimal and complex forms of cognition as natural phenomena that form a continuum and that, despite being realized in different ways in different living creatures, share the common features of being the realization of an intrinsic purpose as well as being subjected to fail or succeed. This account of normativity sets the conditions that a project of naturalization of normativity in cognitive science should meet. Second, the available naturalistic accounts of cognitive normativity are examined given the criteria set in the first part. Enactivism offers an explanation of how a normative point of view and external normative criteria arise simultaneously with the constitution of a living organism. However, it is unable to explain how these two dimensions of normativity can disentangle as it is characteristic of cognition. Accounts focused on evolution such as radical enactivism and teleosemiotics can account for the separation between these dimensions: evolutionary history sets the external normative criteria that make a specific individual behavior right or wrong. Ecological psychology has the potential of synthetizing both the enactive and evolutionary accounts of normativity. According to the ecological approach, cognition is conceived of in terms of possibilities for action established by a niche constituted by the history of the species the agent belongs to as well as by the skills shared by their form of life (Rietveld, 2008; Rietveld & Kiverstein, 2014). Ecological accounts of cognition have the potential of building together a strong naturalistic account of normativity that brings together enactive and evolutionary accounts of normativity and that meets the criteria set by the definition offered in the first part of the project. However, they require that nature allows selection in different time scales, individual and evolutionary, which in turn, require that nature is not completely deterministic. The last step of this project examines this consequence that pushes nature towards under-determinism and explores some options in science that could accommodate the ontology that is needed.


Barrett, N. (2017). The normative turn in enactive theory: An examination of its roots and implications. Topoi, 36(3), 431-443. 

Barrett, N. (2019). On the nature and origins of cognition as a form of motivated activity. Adaptive Behavior, 28(2), 89-103. 

Hutto, D., & Myin, E. (2013). Radicalizing enactivism : basic minds without content. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Mojica, L. (2020). Reclaiming Meaning, Reclaiming Normativity. Constructivist Foundations, 15(3), 216-218. Retrieved from

Rietveld, E. (2008). Situated normativity: The normative aspect of embodied cognition in unreflective action. Mind, 117(468), 973-1001. 

Rietveld, E., & Kiverstein, J. (2014). A Rich Landscape of Affordances. Ecological Psychology, 26(4), 325-352. doi:10.1080/10407413.2014.958035

Weber, A., & Varela, F. (2002). Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1(2), 97-125. doi:10.1023/A:1020368120174