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Malgorzata Herc-Balaszek

Professor Simon Penny

Art 215
Taking another look: Affordances, Evolution, and Emotions
The idea that cognition does not happen strictly in our brain but
extends through the body and beyond the skin into the world has been
widely recognized across the disciplines over last few decades. We now have
many theories that distribute cognition, at a different level, between the
brain, body and the environment. I want to focus on a theory from the field
of ecological psychologythe theory affordances. Affordances is the concept
that locates the perception of values and meaning not in the brain of the
animal but in the environmentthe idea that we operate in a value-rich
environment and the way we interact with it is based on what it affords. I
will introduce the original Theory of Affordances and a couple of its
developments, then discuss the aspects of the theory that I find problematic.
I want to stress that the goal of this essay is not to challenge the Theory of
Affordances as a whole, but rather to recognize a couple of blind spots,
particularly in the writings by Gibson and Chemero. I will look at the
evolutionary basis for affordances and evaluate the theory through the lens
of Cognitive Archeology, analyzing the interactions with the environment
through affordances vis-a-vis Malafouris idea of Probing. I will then consider
affordances in respect to emotion, referring to Thomsons reflections on
extended mind theory, arguing that its not only our physiognomy that

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dictates our perception of affordances as well as that cognition can not be
considered separate from emotion.

Theories of Affordances

Affordance is a concept and a term developed by James Gibson in the

late nineteen-seventies. In his theory, Gibson argues that values and
meanings are not developed internally but are, in fact, external to the
perceiver. Animals do not look at the neutral environment and then create
meaning in their brain, but rather look at the value rich environment and
perceive those values directlyThe affordances of the environment are
what it offers to the animal, what it provides and furnishes, either for good or
ill.(Gibson 127) Affordances are perceived visually (128), and, what is
important to recognize, they cannot be measured like physical properties, as
they are relative to the animal. Therefore, what constitutes a horizontal,
extended, rigid surface for an insect will not appear in the same way for a
larger animal (128). Differences in perceiving affordances exist also between
individuals of the same specieswhile many consider a flat knee-high
surface as sit-on-able, what is knee-high is different for differt people (127128). What is worth noting here is Gibsons emphasis on the relationship
between the affordances and the size of the animal.

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A set of affordances in the environment for a particular animal
constitutes a niche of that animal; so the niche implies a kind of animal, and
at the same time the animal implies a kind of niche (Gibson 128). Gibson
discusses affordances of mediums, substances and surfaces, which are the
basic affordances of the environment. For humans, the air, among other
things, affords breathing and visual perception; the water, drinking and
bathing; the ground, locomotion. Different features of the environment
afford barriers, but humans have been able to alter the surface of the earth
to extend its affordances (for themselves, of course). Objects and other
animals provide the most interesting and complex affordances of the
environment. Some objects afford grasping or lifting; some afford
manipulation, which people usually classify as tools, utensils and weapons.
As Gibson points out, our classifications might be misleading and limiting
The theory of affordances rescues us from the philosophical muddle of
assuming fixed classes of objects, each defined by its common features and
given name.(134) The fact that an object is classified as one thing does not
mean it cannot be used in many other ways. Gibson argues against some
theories in the field of psychology in asserting that we do not discriminate
objects based on their qualities but based on what they afford (134). Here I
want to point out that, while I agree with his argument in regards to children,
I believe that the case might not be true for adults. Through the process of
socialization we repress acting on the affordances of objects and turn instead
toward their qualities. For example, one is more likely to use a hammer when

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putting a nail in the wall, even if he or she has a rock that is closer to our
The affordances of other animals are, no doubt, the most complicated
ones. When touched they touch back, when struck they strike back; in
short, they interact with the observer and with one another.(135) These
affordances are reciprocal and enormously complex, but, according to
Gibson, still strictly based on the information picked up visually (I find this
concept quite problematic and I will elaborate more on the subject later in
this essay). In any case, whether an animal, an object or a medium,
affordances point both ways to an animal and to environment, meaning they
are equally a fact of environment and the fact of behavior.(Gibson 129)
They are perceived directly and, as Gibson points out, without much learning
(143). Most importantly, they surpass the objective-subjective dichotomy,
placed neither with the subject nor the object or both at the same time.
Gibsons Theory of Affordances has been analyzed and further
developed by many scholars, but for the purpose of this essay I will focus on
studies by Edward Reed and Anthony Chemero. Reed considers the role
affordances in the process of natural selection. He claims that the resources
and properties of the environment exert selection pressure on the animals,
leading to the development of perceptual mechanisms necessary for
recognizing what they affordaffordances and only the relative availability
(or non-availability) of affordances create selection pressure on animals;

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hence behavior is regulated with respect to the affordances of the
environment for given animal. (Reed 18)
Chemero, on the other hand, argues that affordances are features and
not properties, but also that they are not located in the environment (184).
He draws the line between properties and features by explaining that while
recognizing properties is limited to an object and requires knowledge of a
particular entity, placing a feature does not require any knowledge and
applies to a situation as a whole. (185) As features, they cannot be placed in
the environment but in the environment-animal system. He also challenges
the notion of affordances depending on the size of the animal, shifting the
emphasis to ability. His main development is an emphasis on affordances
being relations; therefore, not solely belonging to animal or the environment,
but instead a combination of both. Although they cannot be placed with any
actor in the system they are not ghostly entities that can be ignored by
science. As relations, they are perceivable just like a relation of taller than,
which cannot be intrinsic to one agent and exists only in the presence of
another (Chemero187), or, as it was quite adequately put by Thomson,
inspect a baby all you want and youll never find out whether she is a twin;
this relational aspect is nevertheless real.

Affordances and Evolution

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In order to set the ontology of affordances, a couple of attempts have
been made in an effort to bind the theory of affordances with evolution. I will
focus here on two of the theories: Reeds environmental pressure and
Chamiros functional properties of animals. I will attempt to explain why,
unlike Chemero, I would not completely reject Reeds assertions, and why I do
not necessarily find them at odds with Gibsons theory. Reed developed a
theory that related affordances to selection pressure, according to which the
resources in the environment are the source of selection pressure on
animals, causing them to develop perceptual systems that can perceive
those resources. Those resources that some species of animal evolve to the
ability to perceive are affordances for members of that species.(Chemero
183) This theory is challenged by Chemero, who claims that the selectionist
view undermines the mutual aspect of the affordance theory; thus, if
selection pressure were true, then it destabilizes the Gibsonian view that
the niche implies the kind of animal, and the animal implies the kind of
niche (Gibson 128). As Chemero suggests, this kind of analysis puts the
environment in the lead position within the relation (190). In response,
Chemero takes a different approach in his efforts to validate the theory of
affordances in the context of evolution. After defining affordances as
relations between the abilities of organisms and features of the
environment(189), he focused on the abilities of animals as functional
properties. Functional properties, according to Chemero, are properties that
developed as some point of animals evolutionary history to help in survival

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or reproduction. He concludes: Because functional properties depend on
evolutionary history, and affordances are partly constituted by functional
properties, affordances are tied to evolution. This makes ecological
psychology a branch of biology and truly ecological science. (190) I will not
try to challenge Chemeros premise, as I dont believe it is in opposition to
environmental pressure belief; instead, I will return to Chemeros critique of
Reeds theory. When suggesting that the selectionist view stands at odds
with Gibsons hypothesis, Chemero fails to notice that Gibson himself
recognizes that, despite the relational aspect affordances, environment holds
the upper hand: Note the complementarity of the two. But note also that
the environment as a whole with its unlimited possibilities existed prior to
the animals. The physical, chemical, meteorological, and geological
conditions of the surface of the earth and pre-existence of plant life are what
make animal life possible. They had to be invariant for animals to
evolve.(128) Furthermore, despite his insistence on affordance being a
relation and not a feature of environment, Chemero seems also to place
the affordance closer to the environment when claiming that affordances do
not disappear when there is no local animal to perceive them. (193)
What Reed addressed in his theory is what both Gibson and Chemero
seem to ignore: how exactly are we able to perceive affordances? While
perception of basic affordances like climb-ability of stairs (so often referred to
by both authors) or walk-on ability of ground does not require sophisticated
cognitive abilities, when we start wondering about affordances of detached

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objects like tools, utensils or weapons, perception gets a little complicated:
Perception is not simply about directly perceiving the world, it is also, if not
primarily, about learning how to see the world and formulating hypothesis
about this world (Malafouris 290)
I will now look at Malafouris study of cognitive archeology of images
and the development of modern human cognition to explain why I believe
that the development of perceptual systems is crucial to Affordance theory;
this is why I find Reeds assertions on selective pressure quite plausible.
While focusing on the biological aspects of perceiving affordances like
size and physical abilities (Chemero 188), Chemero embraces the
problematic concept of biology being the driving force of culturea way of
looking at cognition in terms of hardware-software computational theory of
mind. (Mal 292) The theories that lead to the development of the concept of
Affordances, like Aufforderungscharaker (vectors that pull us toward or away
from objects) or Koffkas demand character of objects that are conferred
based on the need of the observer (Gibson 138), suggest a particular
intentionality, an approach that favors a Think Me, Make Me model of
interacting with the world vice the Make Me, Think Me that is so important
in development of modern intelligence. (Mal 160) Malafouris argues, as
embodied beings we engage with the world and our cognitive capabilities
emerge out of those interactions. According to Gibson, to perceive them
(surfaces) is to perceive what they affordthe values and meanings of
things in the environment can be directly perceived. (127) If we consider

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our engagement with the world through affordance relations, we seem to
disregard what Malafouris calls probing. As perception, action and
cognition spawn each other, Malafouris suggests the possibility of intelligent
use of materials before intelligent thinking (293)this means that we might
engage with objects and materials before perceiving what they afford. Most
importantly, this probing influences our cognitive abilities not only in the
context of individual but in the context of evolution as well. In his analysis of
phalolithic imagery, Mamafouris stresses that the question is not what kind
of mind was needed to made those images? but instead what kind of
minds are constructed by perceiving those images? (295) He also suggests
that it is through probing the world that we develop new perceptual abilities
abilities that are important in perceiving the affordances in the
environment. Both Malafouris, in his study of cognitive archeology, and
Gallese, in his research of mirror neurons, suggest that our modern cognitive
abilities did not develop through a biological mutation of the brain but by
neural exploitationthat is to say the exaptation of neural mechanisms
originally evolved for sensory-motor integration. (Gallese 443) In this
context, Chemeros theory of abilities as functional properties being the link
between affordances and evolution seems a bit superficial, while Reeds
concept of resources in the environment creating a selection pressure
leading to the development of cognitive systems that can perceive them
seems not so far-fetched.

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Affordances and Emotions

One of the greater blind spots in the Theory of Affordances is a

complete disregard of emotion in our interaction with the world. While
recognizing that as a set of possible relations between the actor and the
environment, affordances play a crucial role in the realization of self;
Gallese notes, affordance relation is rooted in the individual motor
abilities(125 Body in Action). In developing his theory, Gibson stresses time
and again that affordances are perceived visually (giving some credit to
touch, sound, or taste) (128,135,136).
Many scholars like Gibson, Michaels, Stoffregen or Helt, relate
affordances to body scale, often referring to Warren`s 1984 study of stair
climbing. In the study, Warren attempted to measure the climbability of
stairs, concluding that in can be quantified as a ratio between the leg length
of the individual and riser height of the step. Later studies that were
designed to physically measure the affordances followed similar logic,
focusing on ratios between furnishings of the environment and body scale.
(Chemero 187-188) Chemero further developed this theory by not focusing
strictly on body scale but the ability of that body. A more recent study by
Cesari, Formentini and Olivato suggests that the perception of affordance of
stair climbability is influenced not only by the height of the individual, but
also by his or her age. They measured the distance between the foot and
the stair as the participant paused before climbing, and realized that the

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ratio between the distance of foot to the stair and the stair height was the
same for the participants in the same age group but varied between different
age groups. Considering the differences in flexibility between younger and
older adults, they concluded that the perception of affordances depends on
the individuals physical ability. (Chemero 188) Therefore, the stairs afford
climbing if the raiser height is at the right ratio to the leg length and the
physical ability of the individual. While it might seem rather straightforward
when it comes to stairs, what about affordances of other individuals in the
Richest and most elaborate affordances of the environment are
provided by other animals and for us, other people states Gibson in The
Theory of Affordances. (135)
Other individuals afford different sets of behaviors: Sexual behavior,
nurturing behavior, fighting behavior, cooperative behavior, economic
behavior, political behavior(135); the affordances between animals are
always reciprocal, and as Gibson emphasizes, what another animal affords
can often be misperceived. Gibson recognizes the complexity of interactions
between animals; nevertheless, he classifies the alter as just another
detached object that, although it is unlike nonliving things or plants, it is still
perceived strictly through visionthe other person has a surface that
reflects the light, and the information to specify what he or she is, invites,
promises, threatens, or does can be found in the light.(136) So even in

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considering the affordances of other people Gibson does not consider
emotion in the way we perceive them.
The disregard for emotion in the Theory of Affordances is possibly
explained by the trap of the inferential-direct binary. According to inferential
theory of perception, the meanings develop inside animals; the direct theory
of perception favors the idea of meanings being in the worldthe animal
simply gathers information from meaning-laden environment. (Chemero
181) Both Gibson and Chemero are the proponents of the later. While
Gibson highlights that affordances are relative to the animal, he
nevertheless refers to them as affordances of environment. Chemero, on
the other hand, argues that affordances do not belong to the environment
but rather to the animal-environment system, as they are the features of the
whole situation; so instead of referring to them as qualities of the
environment he calls them relations. (186) In his theory of relations, he
brushes against the inferential theory of perception when, in attempting to
solve the problem of two minds (a concept stating that minds can be
overlapping if two people perceive the same object), he asserts that what we
perceive is not the object but our personal relation to that object, but never
steps over the line, maintaining his focus on features and physical abilities.
The problem with neglecting emotion in the cognitive process is not strictly
an issue of the Affordance theory but the Extended Mind thesis in general.
Extended Mind thesis views cognition as affectless problem solving or
information processing. (Thomson) As Thomson points out, merging

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emotion and cognition is on the rise within the cognitive sciences and there
is neuro-scientific evidence as to why this is. He refers to Pessoas studies
that unveil the non-modular aspect of cognition. According to research, the
regions of the brain that where believed to be strictly cognitive are activated
in the emotion and regions believed to be affective show cognitive activity.
This validates the Walter Freeman argument that emotion is essential to all
intentional behavior(Thomson). Including emotion in the perception of
affordances would explain why we are at a higher risk of misperceiving
affordances of people and animals than other detached objects. But
emotions get in the way not only in relation to other people. As I mentioned
studies on climbability of stairs earlier, now lets think of a ladder. Following
Gibson and Chemero, a ladder affords climbing if the step height is at the
right ratio to the leg length and the physical ability of the individual. I would
point out that even when meeting the mentioned criteria, it does not afford
climbing to a person with a fear of heights.
When explaining the origin of the concept of affordances Gibson refers
to gestalt psychology, particularly Koffkas concept that each thing says
what it is (138); he later adds that although each thing says what it is, it
might be lying. (142, 143) I would go further and say that, although each
thing says what it is, with emotions getting in the way, we are not always
willing to listen.


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By looking at affordances with regards to development of modern

cognition and emotion, I hope to address some aspects of the theory that
have not been addressed or not addressed enough. I want to stress that by
focusing on raw physiognomy in perception of affordances, both Gibson and
Chemero reinforce, in some way, the computational way of looking at
cognition, with biology (hardware) being the driving force of culture
(software). In a similar way, the rejection of emotion reduces cognition to
basic problem solving information processing system. I find that the idea of
interacting with environment through affordances, while sound most of the
time, does not leave much space for experimentation and development of
new perceptual systems (as Gibson points out, we perceive affordances
without much learning). I am not challenging the validity of the Theory of
Affordances, but find it incomplete, full of possibilities for further

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Works Cited
Chemero, Anthony. "An Outline of a Theory of Affordances." Ecological
Psychology. 15.2 (2003): 181-195. Print.
Gallese, Vittorio. "Mirror Neurons And Art." Trans. Array Art and Senses.
Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
Gallese, Victtorio and Sinigaglia Conrrado. "How the Body in Action Shapes
the Self." Journal of Consciousness Studies. 18.7-8 n. page. Print.
Gibson, James. The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1979. Print.
Malafouris, Lambros. "The Cognitive Basis of Material Engagement: Where
Brain, Body and Culture Conflate." Trans. Array Image and
Imagination:A Global Prehistory of Figurative Representation.
Cambrige: McDonald Institute of Archeological Research University of
Cambrige, 2007. 289-302. Print.
Malafouris, Lambros. "The Cognitive Basis of Material Engagement:Where
Brain, Body and Culture Conflate." Trans. Array Rethinking materiality
the engagement of mind with the material world. Cambridge:
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research University of
Cambridge, 2004. 53-63. Print.
Reed, Edward. Encountering the world. New York: Oxford University Press,
1996. Print.
Thomson , Evan, and Mog Stapelton. "Making Sense of Sense-Making:
Reflections on Enactive and Extended Mind Theories." Topoi. 28.1
(2009): n. page. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

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