Definition of Affordance

What is an Affordance?

Affordances are relations between the environment and an agent that allow for emergent opportunities for patterned action. The coffee cup affords grasping to an agent with a hand, skills, senses and need to grasp. The affordance emerges out of engagement. It stabilized to such a degree that we confuse the affordance with the thing-in-itself. 

“Affordances are the entities that animals perceive and act upon. …Affordances cut across the subjective-objective distinction, and also that they cut across the mental-physical distinction. This is because affordances are intelligible only in terms of both the abilities of animals, includ-ing perceptual abilities, and the features of the environment. So, they really are both mental and physical.” (J. J. Gibson)

The Gibsons, who developed the concept of affordances and co-founded the approach of Environmental Psychology, were adamant about this point: An affordance is neither in the thing nor is it in us: it is the relational outcome of a situation. Affordances step out of, or negate the subject-object divide. Affordances are the relation -- the dance and dialog that has stabilized between us and things.

Affordance Relationship between individuals and features

“Environmental Aspects” or “Features” can only show up as what they “are” in action. Environmental Features are relational. It is as if part of “us” is in the feature and part of the feature is in us.

Affordances and Embodiment

This is precisely why the Embodied tradition of cognition talks about how we are Embodied, Extended and Embedded:. 

  • Our particular unique embodied physical beings matter
  • What extends us out into and connects us with the environment (shoes, glasses, knives, smart phones, etc.) matter.
  • The surrounding material landscape in which we are embedded matters.

AND when you put it all together what emerges is not simply a coming together of neutral physical elements -- but the ENACTMENT of a directly meaningful environment -- a holistic world of affordances. A seemingly magical world that “works”. 

It is precisely an Enacted World because one cannot “see” it -- or them (the affordances) by being a disinterested neutral observer of reality (if such a thing could even exist) — this world only emerges -- is enacted -- in action.

The dance and dialog is worldmaking. A world that emerges from the middle. Literally: once we put together Embodied + Extended + Embedded the “system” snaps into a new state: a world of affordances emerging and always growing from the middle. 

Think of how often in the course of the day we use whatever is handy to do things: we step on a chair to change a bulb, or a dishcloth to grab a hot pan, or a large mug as a smartphone speaker. In these moments we see the world around us directly for what it affords and we can sense the web of a world -- our world.

How Do We Use Affordances?

We live in an environment that we have transformed to be totally loaded with affordances.  But we are not unique in this: All living beings live in similar environments that they have played an active role in shaping. All life is to some degree enactive -- it is intimately and irreversibly conjoined with an environment that it co-shapes. All life lives as coupled beings: subject-environments in the dance of action and co-shaping.

Diagramming the impact affordances has on environments

We humans are hyper environment shapers. We have shaped every part of our immediate worlds. This is not inherently a bad thing or a destructive thing, for afterall to be alive is to be and to co-shape an environment. To be able to act whatsoever is to be an environment-in-the-making. To be able to think whatsoever is to be an environment.

How are Affordances Creative?

How are we creative from the middle? The “middle” is affordances. Affordance is the relation between relations. Our sensory lives are ones that directly touch, see, sense and prehend affordances. And it is here we will find creativity. But, it is not that easy...

Example of Affordance

Let's examine an example of an affordance with a cup of coffee: this specific set of carefully bundled affordances that makes our morning so wondrous is haunted by an excess of possible linkages to other spaces and other affordances.

Affordances of a coffee mug

It could be used for anything from a ladle, to a measurement tool, to a pen holder, to a spider catcher, to a hammer, to a percussion instrument.

These are new uses for the coffee cup -- but are they genuinely new affordances?

Not really. We are just using one existing thing (the coffee cup) to do some other already existing actions (store pencils, measure flour, cut cookies, etc.) based on its more-than-coffee affordances. We are taking an intended affordance (containing) and using it for an unintended but similar purpose. While there is some novelty in this, it is a type of repurposing that does not in itself introduce real disruptive novelty into the situation.

We do also take unintended affordances and put them to new but existing uses. For example we could flip the cup upside down and use it as a candle holder, and the small lip on the bottom, which was designed to afford resting without wobbling on uneven surfaces, unintentionally can now serve to collect and stop the dripping wax from spilling onto the table. Using it as a percussion instrument would be quite similar -- the unique sonic resonances that it affords were never intended.

These are new uses for the cup but are they genuinely novel?

The possibility affordances offer

They are not. Ultimately they all connect us back to existing actions and practices that sit inside task-spaces, environments, our abilities and identity. It is in these tight loops that bring us back into the known and the already existing that we can see the agency and the propensity of a world.

This is where it is critical to understand that we are not discreet individuals but are individual+environment couplings. 

The constraints that create this system and make it persist are not in our heads but are held across the system. 

It is never, change your mind and the rest will follow. 

The intense entanglements of the totality of the system mutually create, constrain and stabilize a mode-of-being -- a world -- and give it a direction.

This environment/world is perfectly constrained to allow for all sorts of forms of change-in-degree, but not changes in kind.

This is why genuine novelty is really hard: we live, see, and sense affordances -- our intimately coupled self-environment realites and it all loops back into these micro worlds and their emergent agency...

But how can we sense an affordance that could push this constrained dynamic system into a new stable but totally distinct dynamic? How can we go from world preserving and expanding to novel world making? 

How exceed impact the worlds around them

For More On Affordances

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