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Shaping our action space: A situated perspective on self-control

Workshop – Situated perspectives on agency and normativity

As cultural animals, the life of human beings is intimately related to the kinds of norms that rule within the communities they inhabit. Even though they are seldom verbalized and reflected upon, social norms underpin our most basic activities, causing striking differences in the way we interact with the immediate environment, including others (Bicchieri, 2006; Higgins, 2017). But, how do social norms affect the way we act and think? How do individuals learn and become responsible for these norms? Do social norms function as constraints on action only, or do they also increase our possibilities for action? These and other related questions constitute a central object of study for philosophers, psychologists, social scientists, cultural anthropologists, and cognitive scientists alike, and become particularly pressing if one embraces a situated cognition perspective, assuming that our social environment partly constitutes the way we think and act.

In this workshop (the first one of a series of academic events associated to the research project “Shaping our action space: A situated perspective on self-control”), we invite speakers from both philosophy and the social sciences to discuss how situated cognition approaches can account for the various ways in which social norms affect our individual agency.

Confirmed speakers: Prof. Vasu Reddy, Prof. Joanna Rączaszek-Leonardi, Prof. Marc Slors, Dr. Manuel Heras-Escribano, Dr. María Jimena Clavel Vázquez, Dr. Victor Fernández-Castro, Dr. Sophie Pedersen, Rebecca Zeilstra, Josephine Pascoe, and Dr. Miguel Segundo-Ortin.

When:23rd & 24th September, 2021 – 11.00 to 17.30 (CEST)

Where: This is an online event and everyone is welcome to join. If you’re interested in attending, please send an e-mail to m.segundoortin@uu.nl so we can make sure that you receive the link.




Marc Slors – Vicarious conventional norm enforcement is more than upscaled dyadic norm enforcement

According to Michael Tomasello, the collective intentionality that characterizes and explains collaboration in modern human societies is a scaled-up version of the joint intentionality that characterizes collaboration in dyads as well as in early human hunter-gatherer societies. Social norms are an important part of collective intentionality. Their enforcement is, according to Tomasello, “a kind of scaled up second-personal protest” (2020, 256): just like in dyadic (or small-group) collaboration one collaborator might protest at the lack of effort of another collaborator, so a person (or a sub-group) might object to and correct someone for not following social norms on behalf of society as a whole. I will argue that this idea of ‘upscaling’ is not applicable in the case of conventional cultural norms. Such norms serve a purpose for which I will argue there is no parallel in dyadic or early human collaboration. I will propose an alternative for the upscaling explanation of the ontogenetic and phylogenetic emergence of conventional social norms according to which they provide an open infrastructure that allows for smooth, large-scale division of labour. ​


Joanna Rączaszek-Leonardi – Normativity in motion: Enabling and shaping agency through movement in early co-action

Analyses of early interactions reveal how, from the earliest moments, infants are treated as participants in dialogical, co-constructed, sensible events. We can trace how individual agency is regulated by the enactment of interactive routines, which have been stabilized over the cultural evolution time-scale. Enabling and shaping the agency in such everyday encounters is where the social norms may have their first manifestations. In my talk I will point i) to how they might be revealed in the sequences, shapes and, importantly, the timings of each smallest contribution, and ii) to the role of the infants’ felt bodily movement in becoming responsible for their participation as agents.


Vasu Reddy – Actions and others: Emergent compliance in infancy

The tension between cultural norms and autonomy remains alive and troublesome throughout life. In this talk I focus on the way in which infant actions in the first year of life are ‘managed’ in two different urban cultures. The incidence of adult directives towards infants – or indeed towards other adults too – varies enormously between cultures. And so also does the incidence – though not the proportion – of complying with directives. Engagements surrounding directive attempts and responses do more than engender specific actions: they appear to create the very practice of active participation in culture. Directives in infancy are primarily aimed at encouraging rather than inhibiting actions – thus opening many opportunities for complex participation and development.


M. Jimena Clavel Vázquez – Perceiving like a girl? Situated embodiment and the sensorimotor approach to perception

In what sense is perceptual experience situated, i.e., shaped by a body that is the concrete locus of our social, historical, economic, and cultural situation? To address this question, some have opted to examine the effects of higher-order cognition on perceptual experience (see, e.g., Jacobson 2012). In line with the sensorimotor approach to perception, however, I take a different strategy and explore the position that perception is situated insofar as it is a skilful engagement with the world. I begin by outlining the claims of the sensorimotor approach that perception is active and knowledgeable (see Hurley 1998, O’Regan & Noë 2001). In section II, I argue that, although for the sensorimotor theory perceptual experience is shaped by the body of the perceiver, the view fails to do justice to the situated aspect of embodiment. I argue that this aspect is reflected in perceptual experience’s lack of social and cultural neutrality. In section III, I articulate this lack of neutrality in terms of the notion of situation by drawing on Iris Marion Young’s view (1980) of the gendered situated body and how this is reflected on an agent’s skills. In section IV, finally, I accommodate the notion of situated perceptual skills in the sensorimotor approach to perception and provide some preliminary responses to objections that have been advanced to similar claims. If perception is “something we do” (O’Regan and Noë 2001, p. 970), as the motto of the sensorimotor approach goes, it is something we skilfully do as situated agents.


Sophie Pedersen – The ought to be, how to be, or not to be – developmental dynamics in the intersection of institutional environments, societal standards, and subjectivity

In our comprehension of young people’s development, we tend to emphasize biology, social relations (and pressure!), or individual motives. However, young people live their everyday lives in concrete institutional settings, e.g., high school, that are saturated with societal standards for youth life, and ideas of how one ought to be or become. Hence, institutional settings may invite for rather different ways of ‘doing youth’ and being young – and these invitations are continuously met, negotiated, produced, and reproduced by young people in the course of their everyday life. In this talk, I will reflect about the entanglements of subjectivity, the invitational character of the environment, and societal standards of youth life, in order to comprehend developmental dynamics in a situated, dialectical-ecological manner.


Josephine Pascoe – Bargains for new narratives: A suggestion for bottom-up social change

As commonly acknowledged in philosophical discussions on harmful social and cultural norms, the endeavor of changing such norms for the better is complicated by the fact that we are often unaware of the rules that govern our behavior. Views from the situated cognition framework (e.g., Brancazio, 2019; Haslanger, 2019; Maiese & Hanna, 2019; McGeer, 2019) have come a long way in understanding how, through socialization, agents internalize rules and roles that escape perception. What seems to lack in these analyses is, however, an investigation of how we, as individuals, could enact social change from the bottom-up. I believe that a first step in the right direction is to look at self-narratives. It is by now uncontroversial that self-narratives are normative and have social and cultural aspects, and that, as such, they are one way in which society imposes roles on agents. Importantly, as McConnell and Snoek (2018) and Hutto (Forthcoming) highlight, we are merely co-authors of our own narratives. As a consequence, changes in our narratives importantly depend on the acceptance of them by the hand of our co-authors, that is, other agents in our social sphere. Regarding harmful roles, this suggests that becoming aware of them is not enough to get rid of them: when co-authors reject changes that we propose, they keep in place a (harmful) narrative that we ourselves identify with. Knowing that women get often interrupted by men because of sexist dynamics will not prevent men from interrupting me, which, more importantly, will probably convince me that it is normal for me to be interrupted by men. In this talk, I will explore the ways in which agents bargain with others in order to make changes in their narratives so that they can gain new possibilities for action. Through this analysis, I hope to further understand one way in which agents can effectively enact social change from the bottom-up.


Victor Fernandez-Castro – Interpretativism, expressivism and normativity

In recent years, we have seen a revival of interpretivism in the philosophy of mind, the thesis that mental states exist in relation to interpretive practice. Several authors have presented different ways of understanding interpretivism and offered different arguments in its favor. In this talk, I will attempt to present an expressivist proposal that, while sharing some interpretivist assumptions, differs substantially from it. I will explore this expressivist proposal through various interpretivist arguments: First, the argument regarding the indeterminacy of mental state attributions and their role in disagreement. Second the argument based on the role of attributions in our counter-normative practices. To conclude the talk, I will explore some consequences of expressivism for the notion of agency.


Rebecca Zeilstra – Situated cognition and nudging

A significant group of citizens finds it difficult to make rational decisions and to exercise the capacity of self-control, among other reasons, because they are situated in a stressful environment. The Dutch Scientific Council for Policy Design advises the government to use nudging to help these citizens. A nudge is a change in the choice architecture that alters citizens’ behaviour in a predictable way, without forbidding options or changing financial incentives. An advantage of nudging seems to be that it is a soft form of regulation. People can opt-out of a nudge: they can resist the urge to follow nudge and make their own decision. Should the government use nudging as a regulative technique? I will firstly explain how insights from situated cognition are integrated in policy design, and more specifically, how nudging is used as a regulative tool. Secondly, I will elaborate on different objections against nudging. Thirdly, I will add a new objection, involving that nudging is problematic because, presumably, not all citizens have the same amount of energy to resist the urge to follow a nudge, while governmental regulation should have the same obligatory force for everyone.


Manuel Heras-Escribano – Social normativity, fields of promoted action, and canonical affordances

In this talk, I will show how social normativity, the field of promoted action, and canonical affordances are related. The field of promoted action is concept proposed by Reed (1996), which is based on the idea that there are affordances emphasized by other people (Reed 1996: 130). Although proposed for the field of developmental psychology and experimentation, I think it is a rich concept to be applied to other fields (like philosophy of mind) to make sense of our everyday experience. But how could we articulate this idea? I propose that my ideas on social normativity (Heras-Escribano 2019) could serve as a framework for showing how the field of promoted action is constituted and present in everyone’s cognitive life. Also, I think the combinatio of the ideas of social normativity and the field of promoted action can help articulating the origins and nature of canonical affordances from a social perspective.


Miguel Segundo-Ortin – Socio-cultural norms in ecological psychology: A not so difficult fit

Ecological psychology stands as one of the most influential theories in the radical embodied cognitive sciences. And yet, despite this optimism, there are also critical voices in the field that claim that the theory as articulated thus far remains incomplete for it is unable to account for the fact that our perception and taking of affordances are molded or shaped by the socio-cultural norms that rule within the communities we partake in (Costall, 1995, 2012; Heft, 2003, 2007, 2018, 2018, 2020; Heras-Escribano, 2019; Segundo-Ortin, 2020). My claim is that in order to overcome this objection we have to focus on perceptual learning and, more specifically, on the role that social interaction plays in it. In contrast to the individualistic approach to perceptual learning traditionally adopted by ecological psychologists (see, e.g., E. J. Gibson & Pick, 2000), I will defend that it is by interacting with others that our perception-action cycles can come to be normatively shaped (see Segundo-Ortin & Satne, in press). To flesh out this claim, I will focus on what I call the “social education of intention.” I hypothesize that it is only by taking seriously the impact that social interaction has on perceptual learning (and the education of intention, more specifically) that ecological psychology will be able to capture the socio-cultural dimensions of human action and experience adequately.