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Animal Cognition (2021) 24:353–369
Dances withdogs: interspecies play andacase forsympoietic
Received: 9 September 2020 / Revised: 21 December 2020 / Accepted: 23 December 2020 / Published online: 12 January 2021
© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer-Verlag GmbH, DE part of Springer Nature 2021
I argue that an enactivist framework has more explanatory power than traditional philosophical theories of cognition when
it comes to understanding the mechanisms underlying human-animal relationships. In both intraspecies and interspecies
exchanges, what we often ﬁnd are novel forms of cognition emerging from such transactions, but these “co-cognitive” pro-
cesses cannot be understood apart from the interaction itself. I focus on a speciﬁc form of human-animal interaction—play,
as it occurs between humans and domestic dogs—and argue that the best theory suited to the task of explaining how these
two species create unique thought processes is a “sympoietic enactivism.” Rather than the more common “autopoietic”
arguments defended by many enactivists, I argue that what is more accurately occurring during bouts of human–dog play
is sympoietic, or “collectively producing.” Drawing on several diﬀerent disciplines that converge on similar conclusions
about creativity and collaboration, I show that human–dog play is a quintessential case of cognition that cannot be readily
understood by appealing to the inner workings of either individual among the dyad. Thinking, on this view, is a form of play,
and in playful interaction what gets created are wholly intersubjective modes of thought.
Keywords Dogs· Cognitive science· Play· Philosophy· Interspecies interactions
Humans and dogs have closely interacted for thousands of
years, and these interspecies transactions have been gaining
more attention among researchers lately. Despite how popu-
lar canine cognition has become in the past few decades, as
well as the growing appreciation of the mutually beneﬁcial
relationships humans and dogs so often form (e.g., see Brait-
man 2014; Cornu etal. 2011; Hare and Woods 2013; Horow-
itz 2010, 2016; Kramer etal. 2019), very little attention has
been paid to the mechanisms that might underlie these inter-
species interactions. As I have argued elsewhere (Merritt
2015b), the theory of enactivism provides an explanatorily
powerful framework for understanding not just how humans
and dogs interact, but what these interactions imply about
the type of cognition that occurs during these exchanges.
Humans and dogs not only live, work, and play together—
they think together, and the way they “co-cognize” will not
be properly understood by appealing to an individualized or
subjective theory of cognition.
According to enactivist cognitive science, broadly con-
strued, thinking is a dynamic unfolding between an organ-
ism and its environment (Gallagher 2017; Hutto and Myin
2017, 2012; Ward etal. 2017; Ward and Stapleton 2012).
Though there are several varieties of enactivism, many of its
proponents employ the notion of autopoiesis to explain these
organism-world transactions (De Jesus 2016a, b; Di Paolo
2005; Di Paolo etal. 2010; Froese and Di Paolo 2011; Hutto
2011; Thompson 2010). Autopoiesis is a term Varela etal.
(1974) began using to characterize the “self-producing”
nature of organisms. Enactivists who emphasize autopoiesis
often argue that cognition largely consists in the ability of an
organism to dynamically respond to environmental changes
and create itself anew, all while maintaining its fundamental
structure or identity.
I argue that autopoietic enactivism has important
strengths in terms of understanding cognition, but it is lack-
ing in its capacity to explain the collaborative cognition that
occurs when two or more organisms are tightly coupled in
an interactive dyad. Instead, I suggest enactivists take up a
more sympoietic stance regarding intersubjective cognition.
* Michele Merritt
1 Department ofEnglish, Philosophy, andWorld Languages,
Arkansas State University, Jonesboro, AR72401, USA