Affordances are on my mind right now as I develop the throwing research programme, and a major commitment of that work is that affordances are (dispositional) properties of the environment picked out by organisms in the context of tasks. This commitment has become important enough that it's time to get into developing specific arguments against the various 'affordances are relations' papers that are out there. I am working towards a paper summarising my objections to the relations account that also strongly advocates for the properties account on the grounds it enables a lot more science. This will be an occasional series of posts as I read and draft my arguments; as always, feedback welcome.
In this first post, I want to draft a response to 'Affordances 2.0', from Chemero's (2009) book Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. I previously blogged this chapter in two parts here and here.
I had a conversation with Eric Brymer (@Ericbrymer) a few weeks ago. Eric is a Reader at Leeds Beckett and is an ecologically minded psychologist interested in the effects of the natural world on mental health. We chatted affordances for a while, and despite it being a very interesting chat, I really wasn’t sure if I had anything to say about the differences between the natural and designed worlds. But I have not been able to stop thinking about this topic, and now I think there’s something fairly cool here.
Radical enactivists do not just want to get representations out of their explanations for our mental life. They also want to get rid of the notion of content. Hutto & Myin (2013) is the strong version of this claim. Mental states or processes have content if there are specified conditions of satisfaction and if it can be evaluated for things like truth (i.e. does the thing conveying content doing so accurately or not?). Part of the concern is that ecological psychology is committed to content and thus can’t play with the other radical theories. The evidence is that we talk about things like ‘information about affordances’; that ‘about’ implies content. van Dijk, Withagen & Bongers (2015) took a swing at defending a content-less ecological psychology. I admire the attempt to get the radical camps on the same page, but at the end of the day I think a) the defence is grounded on the wrong notion of affordances (as relations, instead of dispositions) which means b) I don’t think it works but that c) I don’t think I care. I am as yet unfazed by critiques of content, although I’m happy to hear more on this; frankly Hutto & Myin’s book is a real struggle to read and any clarity people can add, I’ll take.
Turvey, Shaw, Reed and Mace (1981) laid out an ontology of affordances; a formal account of the kind of things they are. They described them as dispositions, properties of the world constituted by sets of anchoring properties that offered an action to an organism whose dispositions could complement the affordance. Making affordances dispositions makes them real, makes them pre-date the interaction with the organism, and accounts for their odd ‘not doing anything until interacted with’ kind of existence. I am firmly Team Affordances are Dispositions and I have yet to meet an alternative account that supports a science of affordances or even allows them to be perceived.
The literature on dispositions was somewhat limited in 1981, but in 1998 Stephan Mumford published the definitive work on what they are and how they work. I always hoped someone with the necessary philosophy chops would use this work to strengthen the foundations of affordances (I even almost talked a philosopher into doing it!) but it turns out I’m covered. Andrea Scarantino (2003) published ‘Affordances Explained’ and did much of the necessary work, and there are some very useful things in the analysis. This post is me working through this material, translating from the technical philosophy into words I can understand better.