How Shall Affordances Be Refined?
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How Shall Affordances Be Refined?

Four Perspectives:a Special Issue of ecological Psychology

Keith S. Jones

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How Shall Affordances Be Refined?

Four Perspectives:a Special Issue of ecological Psychology

Keith S. Jones

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What should and should not be considered an affordance is still an open issue. This special issue expands on the 2002 North American meeting of the International Society for Ecological Psychology covering this topic. The first article argues that affordances are properties of the animal-environment system and are emergent properties that do not inhere in either the environment or the animal. The next paper focuses on four issues regarding affordances: the ontological status, whether or not they are necessarily related to (one's own) actions, the relation between affordances and effectivities, and the nesting of affordances. Finally, several exemplars of phenomenologically driven perceptual research are examined, as well as the advantages over extant theories of affordances.

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Affordances, Dynamic Experience, and the Challenge of Reification

Harry Heft
Department of Psychology Denison University
Why is it that affordances have received attention within psychology only in recent decades if they are supposedly what individuals perceive most fundamentally? This paradox can be explained, in part, by the fact that psychologists have usually considered the character of perceiving from a detached stance, and then reified the results of this analysis—an error that William James called the psychologist's fallacy—rather than attending to the immediate flow of perception-action. By the same token, if ecological psychologists were to take stimulus information as what is perceived, rather than as part of a conceptual framework offered to explain how we perceive, they would be committing a similar reification error. Ecological optics as a conceptual framework is always open to revision, even while the reality of affordances is assumed. Bearing in mind this distinction between what is perceived and how it is perceived, investigators need to return regularly to immediate experience, both as a means of verifying that our concepts connect back to our experience of the world and as a way of uncovering new qualities of perceptual experience for investigation. From this perspective, several exemplars of phenomenologically driven perceptual research are examined. Furthermore, the multidimensionality of affordances is considered, with an emphasis on their place in the flow of immediate experience, development, and sociocultural processes.
Theoretic knowledge, which is knowledge about things, as distinguished from living or sympathetic acquaintance with them, touches only the outer surface of reality.
—William James (1909/1996, pp. 249-250)
If James Gibson is correct, that we experience the environment in terms of its affordances, then why have affordances so easily eluded the attention of experimental psychologists over the years? As the supposed ground of all perceptual experience, these functionally significant properties of the environment should be readily apparent in the experimental literature. From its inception, however, experimental psychology exclusively focused on physical properties of the environment, neglecting affordances and their like.
Perhaps the reason that mention of affordances is scarce in the experimental literature is that they have been introduced into scientific discourse through J. J. Gibson's (1979) later efforts and only now are beginning to make an appearance. This explanation is not very convincing, however, because even though the term affordances is relatively new, Gibson was hardly the first person to point out that there is much to be gained by considering environmental features with respect to their functional significance. For some time, this suggestion has been in the literature of philosophy (e.g., Heidegger, 1926/1962; Merleau-Ponty, 1962; see also Dreyfus, 1991) and sociology (e.g., Schutz, 1967). Also, of course, there are references to these properties of the environment throughout the Gestalt psychology literature, most notably by Koffka and Lewin, as Gibson (1979, pp. 138-139) himself indicated.
Still, one might try to account for psychology's neglect of affordances by noting that all of these instances were too far outside of the mainstream of American experimental psychology to have much impact on its development and its broader influence. Less easily dismissed, however, is Tolman's (1932) allied concept of manipulanda, which he proposed in his major work, Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men. However, as influential as Tolman was in so many respects, his claim for the value of viewing environmental features in terms of their functional significance for behavior never took hold.
So why are affordances, and similar concepts, not even yet staples of the psychological literature? Could it simply be that this concept is inconsistent with prevailing paradigmatic ways of thinking in the discipline? A case could be readily made, for example, that the influence of operationism on psychological theory effectively ruled out a concept like affordances with its phenomenological and perceiver relative qualities. Without wanting to minimize this possibility, which I believe has much validity, I propose that there is a more fundamental reason. Importantly, for our purposes, it is a reason that has considerable significance for the ongoing development of ecological psychology. The relative obscurity of affordances and similar ideas in experimental psychology despite their declared pervasiveness in everyday experience is worth considering for a moment, because doing so will remind us what affordances are and, just as important, what they are not.

Why are Affordances so Commonplace, and Yet so Elusive?

Let me first be clear about the phenomena to which affordances refer. Affordances—and affordances by any other name—point to a recurring claim in the literature of philosophy and the human sciences: At a basic, prereflective level of awareness, prior to the abstractions (e.g., categorization, analysis) all humans so readily perform on immediate experience, we perceive our everyday environment as a place of functionally meaningful objects and events. In their immediacy, the "things" of our everyday environment have perceivable psychological value for us in terms of the possibilities they offer for our actions and, more broadly, for our intentions (Heft, 1989). This aboriginal mode of awareness runs through the flow of our ongoing perceiving and acting, constituting its experiential bedrock.
To experience objects and events of the world most fundamentally as bearing possibilities for our actions, that is, as affordances, is by definition to experience them relationally. Affordances are attributable to the intrinsic properties that features, objects, and events possess by virtue of their makeup, and are delimited or specified in relation to a particular perceiver-actor (J. J. Gibson, 1979; Heft, 2001; Reed, 1996).
Perceiving the affordances of our environment is, if you will, a first-order experience that is manifested in the flow of our ongoing perceiving and acting. By first- order experience I mean experience that is direct and unmediated; it is the experiencing of x, in contrast to experiencing x through the intercession of y or z. Awareness sinks to a minimum at these times to such an extent that encounters with the world seem nearly automatic and habitual, and the experience of a boundary between the self and the world is negligible. We are "simply" immersed in situated doing and being.
Alternatively, and more saliently, we can step outside of the ongoing flow of immediate perception-action awareness by reflecting on the things of the environment; that is, we can shift the necessarily selective character of our attentional focus from experiencing the immediate flow of events to experiencing the experience and, in doing so, isolate particular portions of immediate experience, holding them in awareness for analysis, categorization, or other second-order or indirect acts of cognition. Accompanying these acts of reflexivity is a comparative heightening of awareness, as entities in experience are momentarily lifted out of the perceptual flow for closer scrutiny.
When we are engaged in this second-order mode of knowing, we experience objects and events of the world largely in relation to each other—for example, we may classify them as belonging to the same or different categories—rather than experiencing them primarily in relation to us as perceivers-actors, that is, as affordances. Experienced in the former manner they stand apart from us; they are "in" the world, and there they reside in their own domain of physical objects, indifferent to our interests. Experiencing them as physical objects, rather than as affordances, we are not drawn toward them or repelled by them for any intrinsic qualities they possess. If they are valued at all it is because they can serve as a means to some other end; the source of their value is extrinsic. In such a detached, physicalistic view of the environment, as opposed to a functional view, the environment consists of intrinsically neutral things to which value is subsequently attached.
To return, then, to my initial question, if affordances are so pervasive and immediate in our experience, and so intrinsically rich in psychological content, why have they been given so little consideration by psychologists, especially in comparison to the things of the world considered from a physical standpoint? In view of even the brief remarks made so far, this state of affairs should not be too difficult to understand. The scarcity of affordances in psychological discourse is largely explainable in terms of the nature of intellectual inquiry itself. Science is fundamentally an analytical enterprise; thus, when we think about the environment for the purposes of psychological study we are prone to adopt this more detached attitude—and affordances are difficult to notice from a stance of detachment.
The distinction between immediate, first-order, nonanalytical awareness and reflective, second-order, analytical awareness is important, because it identifies two alternative avenues for knowing. Critically, experimental psychology's failure to maintain this distinction in a consistent manner has produced no end of problems. In fact, it has resulted historically in so much theoretical mischief that James (1890/1981) dubbed this misstep "the psychologist's fallacy." The relevance of these matters to the idea of affordances will be clear shortly.

The Psychologist's Fallacy

This distinction between immediate and reflective modes of awareness has been made many times in 20th-century philosophy, particularly by individuals identifying themselves with a phenomenological orientation. An early expression of this distinction was offered by James in The Principles of Psychology (1890/1981), in the context of his influential discussion of knowledge of acquaintance and knowledge-about. Concerning knowledge of acquaintance, he wrote:
I am acquainted with many people and things which I know very little about, except their presence in places where I have met them. I know the color blue when I see it, and the flavor of a pear when I taste it; I know an inch when I move my finger through it; a second of time, when I feel it pass; an effort of attention when I make it; a difference between two things when I notice it; but about the inner nature of these facts or what makes them what they are, I can say nothing at all. I cannot impart acquaintance with them to anyone who has not already made it himself.... At most, I can say to my friends, Go to certain places and act in certain ways, and these objects will probably come. (p. 217)
As for knowledge about:
We can ascend to knowledge about it by rallying our wits and proceeding to notice and analyze and think. What we are only acquainted with is only present to our minds; we have it, or the idea of it. But when we know about it, we do more than merely have it; we seem, as we think over its relations, to subject it to a sort of treatment and to operate upon it with our thought. (pp. 217-218)
James (1890/1981) further contrasted the differing character of these two kinds of knowledge as follows:
The words feeling and thought give voice to the antithesis. Through feelings we become acquainted with things, but only by our thoughts do we know about them. Feelings are the germ and starting point of cognition, thoughts the developed tree [italics added]. (p. 218)
One cannot help noticing that James's use of the term feeling in this passage as being implicated at a basic level in cognition is unusual in comparison to how feeling has been treated in most cognitive psychology. This term clearly has a broader connotation for him than is usually ascribed to it. I return to this point later.
All forms of knowing for James involve selection by a knowing agent from a field or manifold of potentially knowable qualities and structures. This distinctive characteristic of his psychology cannot be overemphasized. The selective processes that are associated with knowledge of acquaintance are sensation and perception (James, 1890/1981). By means of both, one has a direct or immediate (i.e., unmediated) awareness of qualities of things of the world, including one's own body. Whereas sensation is an immediate awareness of particular object qualities (e.g., color), perception has a more elaborated character, where immediate awareness can encompass a comparatively wide range of relations, such as experiencing an object of a definite shape and size (e.g., a face). James's assertion that there is direct awareness of sensations and percepts is, for him, an empirical claim. He was reporting that we experience these qualities of sensation and perception as being characteristics of the world rather than as reflecting some inner mental state—that is, as being mediated. I referred to this earlier as first-order experience. James (1890/1981) wrote in this regard:
So far is it from being true that our first way of feeling things is the feeling of them as subjective or mental, that the exact opposite seems to be the truth. Our earliest, most instinctive, least developed kind of consciousness is the objective kind, and only as reflection becomes developed do we become aware of an inner world at all. (p. 679)
In his late writings, James (1912/1976) called the phenomena of immediate (unmediated) experience percepts and the phenomena of reflection or analysis concepts. I retain this useful terminological distinction throughout this article.
The philosophers and psychologists who have most directly shaped contemporary theories of perception, by contrast, have considered the objects of sensation and perception to be mental states rather than properties of the world. Why is this? James pointed out that, when the forebears of contemporary theory engaged in an analysis of perceiving, they typically lost sight of the fact that they were indeed engaging in an analysis; that is, they failed to notice that they were stepping outside of the immediacy of the process of perceiving and offering an account at least once removed from it. By failing to recognize that they were examining the phenomena from "without," they mistakenly took the outcome of the analysis as a constituent of the process. That is, what they and, by extension, we commonly do is erroneously take a product of analysis for a constituent of that which is being examined. In other words, we mistake concepts for percepts. In such cases, which are all too common, the psychologist is confusing "his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report" (James, 1890/1981, p. 195). To do so is to commit the psychologist's fallacy.
An example, no doubt, will be helpful here. James (1890/1981) commented, as follows, on the tendency of theorists historically to take a simple sensation as an element or a building block of conscious awareness:
No one ever had a simple sensation ...


  1. Cover
  2. Contents
  3. Copyright
  5. What Is an Affordance?
  7. Affordances as Properties of the Animal-Environment System
  8. Affordances: Four Points of Debate
  9. Affordances, Dynamic Experience, and the Challenge of Reification
  10. An Outline of a Theory of Affordances