Wall Scholar Q&A: Hanne De Jaegher

February 16, 2022

In 2021 PWIAS expanded the Wall Scholars program to include scholars from outside of UBC. For the first time in the program’s history we welcomed Wall Scholars from Toronto, South Africa and Spain.

In the following Q&A, Wall Scholar Hanne De Jaegher shares her thoughts about the Wall Scholars program, the impact of the cohort on her research, and how she’s approaching this year’s theme of “Complex Systems”. 

About 2021 Wall Scholar Hanne De Jaegher

Hanne De Jaegher is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country in San Sebastián, Spain. A leading theorist of the enactive approach to cognition, she co-authored Linguistic Bodies. The Continuity between Life and Language, with E. Di Paolo and E. Cuffari (2018, MIT Press). She is co-director of Dialogica, an autistic-majority led organisation that fosters better understanding, increasing acceptance, and better action for autism and neurodiversity.

Q1: What brought you to PWIAS/UBC? What has been the most rewarding aspect of your time as a Wall Scholar so far?

I heard about this year’s call for scholars from Evan Thompson (Philosophy, UBC), who was a Wall Scholar in 2018. He encouraged me to apply, and so I did.

I had actually already been here once too, in 2017, for a PWIAS International Research Roundtable organized by Wall Scholar Kalina Christoff, about Spontaneity. I was impressed by the atmosphere, the encouragement to think through unusual questions and topics, and how scholars come together across disciplines to do so. I think that’s incredibly valuable, and rare. 

What strikes me in our discussions, since the very first Wall Scholars meeting, is how much engagement and heartfelt concern everyone brings to their academic work. Each one of the Scholars is ultimately very concerned with making a positive difference through our work. I’m impressed by how everyone’s “heart” is in their research questions.

Q2: Can you describe your work and how it relates to this year’s theme: Complex Systems?

I think human beings are experts at dealing with complex systems, by virtue of being humans and interacting with each other and their environments. Humans (and animals and plants too) engage with complex systems like the weather, each other, cities, governments, the law, the land, language, and so on. All of the Wall Scholars at the Institute this year study this in some way or another.

The tradition I work in is enactive cognitive science. Evan Thompson is one of the fathers of this approach, and his books The Embodied Mind and Mind in Life are central to this tradition. I mainly work on social cognition, or what I call participatory sense-making. This is both a way to describe inter-subjectivity and the name of a theory and research framework I’ve been developing together with my colleagues Ezequiel Di Paolo, another pioneer of the enactive approach, Elena Cuffari, and others.

One thing we have proposed, is an idea that is well-known in sociology, but was all but ignored in the mind sciences, namely that interaction processes that emerge between people can take on a life of their own, and that, as such, they can co-determine people’s intentions.

Interaction processes have a hand in how people can participate in them. They can pull people in or push them out, for instance. They can enable and constrain how people think, behave, and make sense of things. Think of how each time you meet this particular person, you always seem to be drawn into becoming flirtatious, or shy, or competitive, or frustrated. This does not only depend on the other person, but also on what emerges between you, as you meet. To such an extent even that sometimes neither of you has control over these interactive dynamics and how they take you up. As Erving Goffman said, interaction processes have a certain autonomy. Relations can take us up, and this is something we unavoidably contend with. Not only with each other. 

Together with fellow Wall Scholar Rika Preiser, we will be conducting an experiment soon, in which researchers will be able to investigate the experience of these interactive pushes and pulls, while participating in live interactions. This will give them deeper insight into their own powers and sensitivities in interaction. At the same time, the findings will contribute to the science of interactive experience and its role in social understanding.

Q3: You’ve recently begun to take these ideas in a new direction, something you call “a loving and knowing epistemology” – can you speak more on that?

I think we can better understand cognition as the interactive, ethical, bodily activity of knowing, and that we can get new insights into it from another phenomenon that has been underexplored by cognitive science, namely loving. Both loving and knowing are existential, dialectical, tensionful engagements between being yourself and being in relation. There is something fruitful here if we want to better understand the human capacities of dealing with complex systems. This shift in thinking allows us to better understand not just the dynamics of emergent processes between people, but also how what is stake for us, what things mean to us, and that they matter, makes a difference to “cognition”.

Q4: Can you describe an encounter/person/paper/etc. that made you look differently at your research/work?

When preparing for my time at PWIAS, I was excited about the prospect of expanding my research to include collaborations with Indigenous communities. This is something I have been interested in for some time. I believe there are rich things that can be said through a dialogue between my field and Indigenous epistemologies.

I realized very early on during my residency that there is much for me to learn and question before I’m ready to engage in this kind of dialogue. Through conversations with my fellow Wall Scholars and the Interim Director, as well as readings, I’ve come to understand the complexity, care and time needed to build respectful and reciprocal relationships with Indigenous peoples and communities grounded on trust, consent and accountability. This process also helped me to reflect on my own complicity in historical and systemic colonial violence as a recently arrived immigrant from Europe to a settler-colonial state.

I do think the enactive principles of studying knowing on the basis of living and relational processes may have an affinity with epistemologies of Indigenous communities, and so, I still hope to make concrete connections with Indigenous scholars while at PWIAS. One thing I’m very interested in understanding better is Glen Coulthard and Leanne Simpson’s concept of grounded normativity. 

Being at PWIAS, and the conversations with the Wall Scholars, have complicated my work and all these relations for me enormously, in ways that I’m only beginning to grapple with, and that I can hopefully sensitively take further. It’s asking a new beginning of me and my work, in a sense, and a not-knowing where it all will go next. At this point, the radicality of this both scares and excites me. 

Learn more about Hanne De Jaegher and her research on her website.