In today’s post I am looking at the idea of “affordances”. This term is attributed to the famous American psychologist, James J Gibson. A loose explanation of affordances is something that offers ‘action possibilities’ or ‘information possibilities’. For example, a seat with its solid and flat surface affords sitting. It also affords standing on it. Gibson explains:
The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.
Gibson was making it very clear that affordances are not exclusively the properties of something. They are the possibilities that are perceived by a user. What is perceived constitutes the affordances. His view was that values and meanings of things in environment can be directly perceived. He did not put the liability for the affordance solely on the object, nor did he put it solely on the observer. He put it instead right in the middle.
An important fact about the affordances of the environment is that they are in a sense objective, real, and physical, unlike values and meanings, which are often supposed to be subjective, phenomenal, and mental. But, actually, an affordance is neither an objective property nor a subjective property; or it is both if you like. An affordance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us to understand its inadequacy. It is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. An affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer.
Gibson expands on the example of the seat:
If a surface of support with the four properties (horizontal, flat, extended, and rigid) is also knee-high above the ground, it affords sitting on… We call it a seat in general, or a stool, bench, chair, and so on, in particular. It may be natural like a ledge or artificial like a couch. It may have various shapes, as long as its functional layout is that of a seat. The color and texture of the surface are irrelevant. Knee-high for a child is not the same as knee-high for an adult, so the affordance is relative to the size of the individual. But if a surface is horizontal, flat, extended, rigid, and knee-high relative to a perceiver, it can in fact be sat upon. If it can be discriminated as having just these properties, it should look sit-on-able. If it does, the affordance is perceived visually. If the surface properties are seen relative to the body surfaces, the self, they constitute a seat and have meaning.
I enjoyed Gibson’s explanation of a seat in terms of affordances. This is something that I have looked at in the past to discuss the Socratic Method. Socrates was famous for cornering a student by asking for a definition of something such as a seat. For every answer or example that the student gives, Socrates would give a counter that would perplex the student. Gibson, it seems like, would have given the excellent answer – a seat is anything that affords sitting.
Gibson’s ideas were put forth against the prevalent ideas at that time such as mind/body dualism or subject/object dualism. Gibson realized that there is a circularity between the subject and the object. The affordances are not merely properties of the object, nor are they just imaginations of the subject. The affordances lie in relation to each other. They represent the possibilities for the future. They are future oriented, situated in the present, and based on the past. Gibson building upon the ideas of affordances defines niche as a set of affordances. He differentiates niche from habitat.
A species of animal is said to utilize or occupy a certain niche in the environment. This is not quite the same as the habitat of the species; a niche refers more to how an animal lives than to where it lives. I suggest that a niche is a set of affordances… The natural environment offers many ways of life, and different animals have different ways of life. The niche implies a kind of animal, and the animal implies a kind of niche. Note the complementarity of the two.
This brings up an interesting point that when we look at an environment, it must be from someone’s viewpoint. Similarly, when we look at an agent, it must be in relation to their environment. The agent is situated in the environment; they are defined by their environment. The environment in turn is affected/molded by the agent. When we describe an environment, we are describing the affordances it offers with respect to a species, most often us since we are the ones describing it.
There is a history between the agent and the environment. The agent’s actions and inactions are defined by their niche. The agent perceives the affordance because those affordances worked in the past. This regularity of the environment is quite similar to the idea of structural coupling in cybernetics. The structure of the organism and the perturbations from the environment results in a set of interactions. As Maturana noted – “We speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems.”
Gibson used the example of a baby to expand on these ideas further. He postulated that a baby does not notice the properties of an object. What it notices is the actionable features, the affordances. There is a nice Heideggerian undertone here. Heidegger talked about the idea of readiness-to-hand. When we engage with an object such as a hammer, we just use the hammer without paying attention to the color of the handle or the material of the handle etc. The hammer is ready-to-hand, and we use it for a specific purpose without the payment of our attention to it. What we notice is the action possibility of the hammer, and not the hammer itself.
There is much evidence to show that the infant does not begin by first discriminating the qualities of objects and then learning the combinations of qualities that specify them. Phenomenal objects are not built up of qualities; it is the other way around. The affordance of an object is what the infant begins by noticing. The meaning is observed before the substance and surface, the color and form, are seen as such. An affordance is an invariant combination of variables, and one might guess that it is easier to perceive such an invariant unit than it is to perceive all the variables separately. It is never necessary to distinguish all the features of an object and, in fact, it would be impossible to do so. Perception is economical. “Those features of a thing are noticed which distinguish it from other things that it is not—but not all the features that distinguish it from everything that it is not”.
From a cybernetics viewpoint, the environment always has more variety than us. This means that an object in the environment can have multiple uses. A seat in our previous example, can be used for sitting as well as for standing. It could be used also as firewood if it is made of wood. Another point is that the environment as we define it with respect to its affordances is incomplete. It still has an indefinite number of niches that are not yet occupied. The external variety is always higher!
There are all kinds of nutrients in the world and all sorts of ways of getting food; all sorts of shelters or hiding places, such as holes, crevices, and caves; all sorts of materials for making shelters, nests, mounds, huts; all kinds of locomotion that the environment makes possible, such as swimming, crawling, walking, climbing, flying. These offerings have been taken advantage of; the niches have been occupied. But, for all we know, there may be many offerings of the environment that have not been taken advantage of, that is, niches not yet occupied.
I will finish with a great note from William M. Mace:
Ask not what’s inside your head, but what your head is inside of. – Mace
Stay safe and always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Reality for a cybernetician: