What affordances can’t do

Everyone knows what affordances are. An affordance is an opportunity for action. It arises when you have three things:

  1. Structure in the environment that has properties.
  2. An animal that has skills or abilities.
  3. A relation between (1) and (2) such that the animal is able to act on the structure.

Let’s put that in a picture. Everyone likes pictures.


An affordance involves an animal, some structure in the environment, and a relation between the two

Now, there’s a slight issue that arises here, and it’s this: which bit of the diagram is the affordance? Well, sometimes the affordance is the thing that is denoted by the label under the tree, i.e. it’s a property of the tree such that the tree is climbable. At other times, the affordance is the two-headed arrow in between the tree and the squirrel, i.e. it’s the relation, or the fit between this particular squirrel’s abilities and the relevant properties of the tree. Jimmy Gibson, who invented the word affordance, was a bit inconsistent about this. This is unfortunate, but we’re just going to have to live with it.

What makes the concept of affordances so compelling is that it overcomes the old dualism between mind and body that’s been a feature of Western thought since thinking was invented by the Greeks. For thousands of years, meaning was something that happened in a cave. The concept of affordances liberates meaning from the cave, and releases it into the environment. Meaning, says Gibson, is real. It’s as real as apple pie or dolphins. Meaning consists in the fit between an animal and its environment.

Now, Gibson was careful to insist that what he was developing was an approach to perception. And he was designing this approach to perception in such a way that it would be general enough to apply to all perceiving animals. In suggesting that meaning is external to the perceiver, Gibson was not talking about linguistic meaning. The squirrel, in perceiving the tree, does not need to be able to say to itself: ‘Oh look at that tree. I bet I could climb that.’ The meaning, to repeat, is in the fit between the structure of the animal and the structure in the environment.

That’s what affordances are. The theory of affordances offers a new theory of meaning—an ecological theory of meaning that is new to Western thought.

And yet there’s a temptation to think that the concept of affordances can do more than this. Surely—so the thinking goes—affordances must be able to do more than merely pick out things like tree–squirrel complementarities? Surely there must be a way that we could extend the concept of affordances? Couldn’t we use it to explain human things like—oh, I don’t know… Like table manners? Or queueing? Or counterfactual reasoning? Gibson himself seemed to encourage this (1979, 128):

The different objects of the environment have different affordances for manipulation. The other animals afford, above all, a rich and complex set of interactions, sexual, predatory, nurturing, fighting, playing, cooperating, and communicating. What other persons afford, comprises the whole realm of social significance for human beings. We pay the closest attention to the optical and acoustic information that specifies what the other person is, invites, threatens, and does.

This passage makes things sound ever so straightforward. Humans, we are reminded, are nothing more than a special case of animals. Why can’t we just treat the human environment in the same way as we treat the squirrel’s environment? Culture is like a tree that we can climb up.

Well, maybe. But what would that mean, exactly?

There’s a paper in press at Behavioral and Brain Sciences that tries to extend the concept of affordances to culture. Me and Tony Chemero wrote a commentary on it (preprint here). In the commentary we suggest that the prospect of an empirical program based on ‘cultural affordances’ is not a promising one:

In practice, it has proved remarkably difficult to leverage [the concept of affordances] as part of a fruitful empirical program, even when the target of explanation is a single actor performing a simple task … It is much more difficult to apply the concept to culture, and to our knowledge no one … has succeeded in doing so non-metaphorically. You can say ‘cultural affordances’ all you want, but that does not constitute an empirical research program.

There’s a deeper problem than this, though. The deeper problem is that affordances, by definition, pick out a fit between a particular (individual) animal and its environment. But culture isn’t a fit between an individual and the surroundings of that one individual. Culture is a property of social collectives inhabiting a set of geographic places. If we want to be able to explain specifically human behavior, then we will need to reckon with the structure of the collective setting. This structure may be dynamic, only revealing itself over time. The point is that the relevant structure is a property of the setting, and it inherently involves multiple actors. It is not a property of the fit between an individual animal and its surroundings. To talk of ‘cultural affordances’ is, in that case, to commit a category mistake. It is to seek an explanation at the individual scale of a phenomenon that occurs at the collective scale.

Let’s consider an example. Take table manners. Question: Why do you not put your elbows on the table when you’re dining with the vicar? Answer: because it’s rude. Or, at any rate, because you’ve been told that it’s rude. It’s not that the table doesn’t afford leaning-on-with-one’s-elbows. It’s that leaning on the table with one’s elbows is not the done thing in this particular setting. The setting is causally relevant here, and it ought to figure as part of the explanation.

But hold on. Suppose that I simply want to explain your behavior in this situation—you as an individual. I could say that you are appropriately responding to the affordance don’t-put-your-elbows-on-the-table-when-the-vicar-is-around-ability. I wouldn’t be wrong to say that. It’s just that this affordance-based account doesn’t explain anything that wouldn’t be equally well (or better) explained by stating that the reason you don’t put your elbows on the table is because you are being polite. The language of affordances isn’t adding anything to the explanation here.

It’s reasonable to want to pursue an embodied account of human meaning—one that builds on and is consistent with Gibson’s account of perceiving and acting. We argue in the commentary that doing so will require us to adopt an appropriate account of human social learning—namely, Vygotsky’s account. What’s not good enough is to say: ‘Culture—why it’s all just affordances!’ As if that solves anything. As if being a cultural animal is no different, really, than climbing a tree.

At the risk of stating the obvious… Culture is not a tree. And you, dear reader, are not a squirrel.


  • Baggs, E. and Chemero, A. (to appear). Thinking with other minds. [Commentary on Veissière, S., Constant, A., Ramstead, M., Friston, K., and Kirmayer, L. (in press). Thinking through other minds: a variational approach to cognition and culture]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
  • Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton-Mifflin.

Is distributed cognition an extension of ecological psychology? (on Heft 2001, chapters 9 & 10)

The key thing about ecological approaches in psychology is that they are concerned with how structure in the world serves to constrain and enable the behavior of an organism. Such was the lesson from chapters six, seven, and eight of Harry Heft’s book. This will be the last post in the series. In earlier posts, we saw that the environment exhibits structure at multiple scales. Roger Barker was concerned with structure at the scale of social groups. James Gibson was concerned with structure at the scale of an individual organism encountering its surroundings. The previous post ended with a question: how can we pursue a psychology that takes into account both of these scales at the same time?

The answer, according to chapter 9, is to appeal to distributed cognition, i.e. the programme of research associated with cognitive scientists working in California in the 1980s and 90s, notably Ed Hutchins. This might seem like an unexpected move. After all, distributed cognition is rooted in old-school cognitivist thinking, and very much not in the kind of radical empiricist and Gestalt thinking that gave rise to Gibson’s ecological approach. But then again only the Gods have the luxury of building theories from perfectly coherent parts. What makes distributed cognition suitable here is its focus on explaining behavior in terms of structure in the environment, and not merely in terms of what’s going on “in the head” of an actor. Given this focus, you might even say that distributed cognition is already a kind of ecological psychology. This is exactly the line that Harry takes (p. 367): “Hutchins’s work is an important contribution to ecological psychology, taking the analysis of meaningful environmental structures to a level of complexity rarely considered.” Now that is very strong praise.

A fine example of the kind of analysis that distributed cognition can offer is Hutchins’s (1990) description of team navigation on a navy ship. Hutchins’s research was carried out in the 1980s, back when they used to use paper nautical charts, and telephone circuits. A particularly important part of navigating on a navy ship occurs when the ship is close to land, or is steering through a shallow channel. What you want to do in this situation, if you’re steering the ship, is to steer a course through the deeper bits of water, avoiding the shallow bits where the ship might hit the bottom. One way to do that is to have someone continuously plot the exact position of the ship on a paper chart that already shows you where all the shallow bits are. But in order to do that you need to be able to know where the ship is at a given moment. Finding out the position is simple enough. It works like this. You use a compass to measure three bearings to known landmarks on the shore, which you can then plot out as straight lines on the chart. Where the three lines intersect is where the ship is right now. But there’s a slight problem: ideally you want to take these three bearings simultaneously, or as near to simultaneously as possible, because the ship is currently moving, and the bearing to any given landmark is therefore changing continuously. In other words, you want to do all of this quickly, which means you need teamwork.

Navy ships had developed efficient strategies for carrying out this team navigation task. Hutchins observed how this worked in practice. Hutchins’s analysis treats the whole business—the team members, along with the ship, the instruments, the chart—as a single system. The whole process of navigation is described in terms of information flowing around the system: from the instruments, through the bearing takers, to the chart plotter, then back from the chart to the bearing takers, and so on.


Figure from Hutchins (1990): teamwork in ship navigation. The bearing takers are stationed at positions (1) and (2). Their job is to use an instrument to take a bearing of the ship relative to a known landmark on the shore. These bearings are then communicated over a telephone circuit to the bearing timer–recorder (3), who writes them down in a log book. The plotter (4) then uses the readings to mark out the position of the ship on a chart. Meanwhile, the bearing timer–recorder selects three new landmarks for the next set of readings, and the cycle repeats.

All of this, clearly, involves the use of symbols, or representations. Are there representations in ecological psychology? Sure! If by ‘representations’ you mean things like markings in a logbook, or symbols on a nautical chart, or numbers on a compass scale. Advocates of distributed cognition sometimes refer to such things as ‘external representations’ to distinguish them from ‘internal’ or mental representations. (I’m wary of that distinction though: it implies that the two types of representation are straightforwardly analogous, which they are not.)

The point here is that the kinds of structure that are characteristic of the human environment are unavoidably symbolic in nature. If you want to understand how human behavior settings work, then you need to engage with this symbolic structure. Human behavior settings are full of instruments and artifacts that have been designed for specific purposes. And moreover these artifacts exist as actual structures in the environment, which allows us to manipulate them. Other animals modify their environments; we humans engineer our environment—we modify it to a design, and in changing the material environment, we change the design. The way that we engineer the structure of our environment is fundamental to cultural evolution, in which “a teleological, Lamarckian system is embedded in a blind, Darwinian one” (Cole 1996, 167, cited in Heft).

How to sum up these efforts to put the various ecological and distributed psychologies together? In the final chapter Harry suggests that we should view ecological psychology (read: a future, integrated ecological psychology) as having three ‘main features’:

  1. its principal unit of analysis is ‘the dynamic, ongoing, environment-person relation’
  2. it views natural processes as being ‘structured in a nested hierarchy of relations’
  3. it assumes that what is most distinctive about human activities is their effort towards meaning

(The last feature here I take to be an echo E. B. Holt’s view of knowing as a striving to discover the structure of reality at ever increasing scales of organization. Holt was Gibson’s grad school mentor; he features heavily in the first half of Harry’s book.) Harry’s vision for ecological psychology is an expansive one. Gibsonians have, I’d say, made some progress towards fulfilling this vision since the publication of Harry’s book. But we still don’t have anything like a comprehensive Gibsonian approach to social activity. Maybe we should all move to California and start hanging out on boats.


  • Cole, M. (1996). Cultural Psychology. Harvard University Press.
  • Heft, H. (2001). Ecological Psychology in Context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the Legacy of William James’s Radical Empiricism. Psychology Press.
  • Hutchins, E. (1990). The technology of team navigation. In: Intellectual Teamwork: Social and Technological Foundations of Cooperative Work. Psychology Press.

Unifying the two ecological psychologies (on Heft 2001, chapter 8)

In the last two posts, we saw that there are historical connections between the two ecological psychologies. Both Gibson and Barker were importantly influenced by Gestalt thinking. We also saw that Roger Barker’s concept of a behavior setting operates at a different scale of organization from James Gibson’s animal–environment system. Barker was concerned with higher-order units that constrain the behavior of multiple actors, Gibson with the way that a single actor perceives a structured environment. (Also, Barker stopped using “ecological psychology” as a label for what he was doing. And I might add that Gibson, as far as I know, never did use the term. But we’ll ignore these details.) On the face of it, it seems like unifying these two ecological psychologies is a good idea because it would give us a framework for explaining behavior at multiple scales of organization. Is such a unification possible?

This is what Harry Heft tries to pull off in chapter 8 of his book. His first move is to make a clarifying point about causality and Aristotelian metaphysics. (I know, but bear with me here because this bit is good.)

Modern science is mostly concerned with two types of causality:

  1. antecedent–consequent relations: a thing is said to cause another thing if the second thing reliably follows the first; think of one billiard ball hitting another, or stimulus–response sequences in psychology
  2. component processes underlying some phenomenon: here it is useful to think of the high school science lesson when you learned that when water boils this is actually just a load of individual water molecules moving around with greater and greater energy; to put it another way, the molecules moving around are the cause of the boiling water

These two types of causality are different from one another: (1) refers to things that happen in a temporal sequence, while (2) refers to two processes that occur simultaneously but at different scales of organization. For Aristotle, both of these types of causality fall under the category of efficient cause.

Aristotle also identified three other types of cause: formal, material, and final. The last of these, final cause, refers to teleology or purpose. Harry quickly passes over this one, so we will too. It’s important to distinguish between the other two:

  • Formal cause is related to form or structure. An example: a clay bowl is different from a clay sculpture because it has been given a different form, even though the two objects are made of the same material
  • Material cause is related to matter. A clay bowl is different from a bronze bowl because it is made of a different type of material, although it may have the same form

Now here’s the good bit. Harry points out that Heider’s analysis of thing and medium (see chapter 6) is a kind of formal cause analysis. It echoes, in a way, Aristotle’s own theory of perception. Aristotle compared perception to a bronze stamp making an impression on a wax seal. What is transferred between the world and the perceiver is the form that already existed in the world—just as the form of the bronze stamp already existed before the stamp was squished down onto the hot wax. Perception doesn’t have to create a mental copy of the object in the world. The matter of the object is not transferred (and nor does it have to be inferred), because that’s not what perception is about: perception is about apprehending the structure of the world.

This is brilliant, because it gets to the core, I think, of why Gibson’s account of perception can be hard to understand for someone coming from a mainstream cognitive science background. (Gibson’s theory of perception, remember, is a development of Heider’s analysis.) As Harry writes (280): ‘Some theorists erroneously take Gibson’s account of stimulus information as the first step in a series of information-processing stages, the latter which Gibson fails to provide.’ But this, of course, is to take Gibson’s analysis as being rooted in the kind of billiard-ball thinking associated with efficient causality. But what Gibson was actually concerned with was understanding how structure in the world comes to play a role in regulating behavior. In short, Gibson was developing a formal cause analysis of perception.

The question, then, is whether Barker’s theory of behavior settings is also an analysis in terms of formal cause. It seems fair to say that it is. And this is not surprising given Barker’s training in Gestalt psychology. The Gestalt programme was all about explaining behavior in terms of forms or structures (and indeed, the word Gestalt itself can be translated as form). This, then, is the key to unifying the two ecological psychologies. Gibson had identified structure in the world that plays a role in regulating behavior at the scale of the individual actor. Barker, meanwhile, in developing the concept of a behavior setting, had identified a type of structure in the world that regulates behavior at the scale of the group. Both ecological psychologies are predicated on the same fundamental claim: that in order to understand the behavior of an organism, it is necessary to investigate the structure of the world outside the organism. (Or, in Bill Mace’s imperishable formulation: “ask not what’s inside your head but what your head’s inside of”.)

And, basically, that’s it. Can the two ecological psychologies be unified. Yes, and actually, they’re already unified, in the sense that they are both doing the same kind of thing: trying to understand behavior by figuring out the structure of the environment in which behavior takes place. But surely if we’re trying to unify the two programmes there has to be more to it than that? Well, maybe…

Affordances and behavior settings

If Barker’s and Gibson’s programmes can be unified by viewing them both as formal cause analyses, albeit operating at different scales of organization, then the most obvious next question is: how do these scales fit together?  In addressing this, Harry points out that (p. 297):

among the behavior settings reported [by Barker] are bus stops, parking lots, hallways, telephone booths, staff lounges at the school, and sidewalks. … Barker called these features behavior settings; and yet they obviously differ from the dynamic, collective behavior-milieu structures that are paradigmatic of behavior settings [e.g. a baseball game]. The confusion can be avoided by viewing such functionally significant milieu features as affordances rather than behavior settings.

To me, this move seems unnecessary. Why can’t a sidewalk be both a behavior setting and, at the same time, a surface that affords walking? Certainly there are properties of sidewalks that only operate when you have more than one actor present. North American city dwellers, for example, tend to walk on the right hand side of the sidewalk, but this is not true everywhere. I think Harry gets it right elsewhere in the chapter, where he suggests that the environment should be understood as being structured in a nested hierarchy. This avoids the either/or dichotomy and allows you to say that behavior settings and affordances can operate simultaneously, albeit, again, at different scales of organization.

Do we have to perceive behavior settings?

A second question is related. Harry points out that, according to Barker, Behavior settings are perceivable. The obvious Gibsonian response to this is: how? What is the relevant stimulus information at play? Harry writes (p. 300):

it seems apparent that individuals can detect the boundaries of a setting; that is, individuals appear to be aware of when they are entering and when they are leaving a behavior setting. Moreover, individuals apparently detect in a reliable fashion the meaning of settings, as is evidenced by the fact that setting-appropriate behaviors are commonplace in everyday life, and deviations are relatively rare. On these grounds, it is reasonable to expect that stimulus information specifying behavior settings is available to be detected and is the basis for these perception-action discriminations. But what the nature of this stimulus information might be is unclear. An analysis of the nature of information specifying behavior settings is needed

My response to this is: but why? This seems to conflate knowing-that one is in a given setting with knowing-how to behave appropriately when you’re there. But we don’t necessarily need to know explicitly that we’re in a behavior setting in order for our behavior to be constrained by the setting. (In the same way, we don’t need to explicitly know that we’re approaching an occluding edge in order to perceive danger, we still adjust our behavior so as to avoid stepping off the cliff.) Think of what happens when you blunder into a room where a meeting is going on. Your behavior will be altered immediately, before your internal monologue has a chance to interpret for you what has just occurred (“Oh, I have blundered into a meeting. This was a mistake.” etc.).

A more interesting reading of the behavior setting concept would have it that behavior settings constrain behavior whether or not the behavior setting as such is perceived. This would seem more compatible with a developmental story about how we come to be skilled actors who “know” how to act appropriately in the places we find ourselves. When you’re born, you’re already in a behavior setting—one which is structured (hopefully) by people who know what’s good for you. You don’t have to perceive the boundaries of the setting, because you’re never outside it. Recognizing that there are settings is an intellectual abstraction. Explaining how we come to be able to do things like make intellectual abstractions is the purpose of developmental psychology.

There’s a pessimistic reading to all this, and it is the following. While the two ecological psychologies may be compatible with one another, there isn’t actually any scope for combining the two within a single research programme, because the two unavoidably target different scales of organization in nature. The next chapter hints at a way to avoid this.


  • Heft, H. (2001). Ecological Psychology in Context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the Legacy of William James’s Radical Empiricism. Psychology Press.

Roger Barker’s science of small town happenings (on Heft 2001, chapter 7)

“Got nothing against a big town
Still hayseed enough to say, “Look who’s in the big town”
But my bed is in a small town
Oh, and that’s good enough for me” — John Mellencamp, “Small Town”

Theorists seem to love to have a creation myth about their major theoretical breakthroughs. And why not? Roger Barker had a creation myth about how he came up with his ecological approach to behavior. Barker’s creation myth occurs one day in the early 1940s. Barker is on a train which is pootling its way through rural Illinois, and he has a sudden epiphany (Barker, 1990, p. 67, quoted in Heft):

I had an overwhelming negative “Aha!’’ experience. Here I was, a native of the culture and an expert on child behavior … who knew no more about the everyday behaviors and environments of the children of the towns than laymen know. I was aware, too, that other child psychologists knew no more than I did, and furthermore, that we had no means of discovering more … I thought of how different the position of an agronomist might be. He would know or could determine the kinds, yields, and qualities of the crops we were passing, the properties of the soils in which they were growing, and the relations between soil conditions and output. This was the beginning of a growing conviction that a science that knows no more about the distribution in nature of the phenomena of which it is concerned than laymen do is a defective science.

Following this moment of insight, Barker set out to study human behavior as it occurs in the real world. The goal would be to come up with a taxonomy of the behaviors that actually occur “in the wild” (as opposed to in artificial laboratory conditions), and to observe those behaviors in order to determine how common they are, and in what contexts they arise.

Barker eventually set up a research station in the small town of Oskaloosa, Kansas, whose population was a little over 700. Barker and his family ended up moving there, as did several other members of his research team. The method would be simply to document the goings on of the townsfolk, in as systematic and detailed a way as possible (in much the same way, I suppose, as an agronomist might document the local soil conditions). Illustrative of this initial enterprise is the book that Barker published with his collaborator Herbert Wright in 1951,  One Boy’s Day, which is a 435-page document that describes, in minute detail, everything that happens to a single boy over the course of an actual day—the data were gathered by a rotating team of observers working in half-hour shifts. (There’s a tremendous piece in Harper’s magazine from a few years ago about Barker’s research programme. It ends—spoiler alert—with the author tracking down the boy who was the subject of One Boy’s Day.)

Barker’s team collected similar day-long records for several other children (though these went unpublished). Initially, Barker hoped to use these records to identify contextual factors in the children’s immediate surroundings that would predict the child’s behavior at a given moment: he hoped to be able identify patterns in the stream of behavioral events that would reliably predict what the child would do next. It turned out, though, that the data were poorly predictive for this purpose.

While this initial programme ended in failure, it led Barker to an important shift in his thinking. Barker came to realize that what was important to know, if you wanted to predict a child’s behavior at a given instant, was less what was going on immediately around the child, and more: where is the child currently located? If you want to predict how a child is behaving right now, it is more useful to know whether the child is in a church hall or a candy store or a classroom than it is to know, say, what the child’s friend has just said, or even how the child’s personality differs from that of her peers.

Barker came to think of the children’s behavior as being structured by higher-order units which he called behavior settings. Examples of behavior settings are: a baseball game, a drugstore, a bridge club meeting. Behavior settings can be thought of as systems that operate in the environment and that both support and constrain the activities of the actors within them. And these constraints are real, as Barker illustrates: “While it is possible to smoke at a Worship Service, to dance during a Court Session, and to recite a Latin lesson in a Machine Shop, such matchings of behavior and behavior settings almost never occur … although they would not be infrequent if these kinds of behavior were distributed among behavior settings by chance” (Barker 1968, 164, quoted in Heft). According to Barker (to paraphrase from Barker 1968, 16, quoted in Heft), behavior settings:

  • are naturally occurring phenomena
  • have a geographical location
  • have boundaries
  • can be perceived
  • resist perturbation
  • exist independently of a single person’s experience
  • involve interdependent relations between actors

What I like about this analysis is that it avoids the kind of mentalistic machinery that often gets invoked when philosophers try to explain joint activity. If we’re doing something jointly with other people, then we must surely possess some sort of joint goal, right? Barker’s notion of a behavior setting renders this unnecessary. A behavior setting is less like a coordinated goal-directed activity, and more like a dam that is collectively maintained by a group of beavers. Sure, a behavior setting (or a dam) has to be established at the outset, and it has to be actively maintained in order to go on existing, but its existence is not a mere mental achievement of the participants—it exists as a physical location within the environment. (Is a beaver dam actually a behavior setting? I’m not sure. I haven’t read enough to know Barker’s feelings about beavers.)

In the last post I mentioned Fritz Heider’s distinction between thing and medium—between the object of perception, and the structure that carries information about that object. I noted that James Gibson’s ecological optics is a development of this analysis, and that Barker, too, appealed to the distinction. Barker invokes Heider’s analysis in an attempt to clarify the concept of a behavior setting. For Barker, behavior settings are things, or, at least, behavior settings ‘possess “thing-like” characteristics’ (Barker 1968, 161, quoted in Heft). The medium, for Barker, is us—the occupants of behavior settings. Harry draws great significance from the fact that both Gibson and Barker appeal to Heider’s thing/medium distinction. Harry wants to use this as proof that Gibson and Barker share deep metatheoretical commitments that render their respective ecological approaches commensurable with one another.  I’m not so sure. Gibson’s theory seems like a genuine development of Heider’s initial idea. Barker’s use of the distinction feels more like a throwaway analogy. (Ok, maybe not exactly “throwaway”, but he’s certainly making a leap.)

Perhaps here is the place to point out that while Barker for some time referred to what he was doing as “ecological psychology” (he even used the phrase as the title of his 1968 book), he eventually came to abandon this label.  Harry spends some time in his chapter describing how Barker’s programme came to be targeted at the higher-order units that Barker called behavior settings. If behavior settings are real, higher-order units, then the study of behavior settings is not the same things as the study of the psychology of individuals who find themselves within behavior settings. The two things operate at different scales of organization. For this reason, Barker and his colleagues began to describe what they were doing as ecobehavioral science. Gibson’s ecological approach, meanwhile, genuinely does operate at the psychological scale—Gibson’s account is all about how a structured environment comes to be experienced by an actor. Given that Barker and Gibson are targeting two different scales of organization,  how might their programmes be brought together into any kind of useful synthesis? This is Harry’s main project in the second half of his book, and it will be the topic of the next post.


  • Barker, R. B. (1968). Ecological Psychology: Concepts and methods for studying the environment of human behavior. Stanford University Press.

The two ecological psychologies (on Heft 2001, chapter 6)

If you look up “Ecological psychology” in wikipedia (which I don’t recommend that you do—the entry is not very good), the first thing you will learn is that there are in fact two ecological psychologies. One is associated with James Gibson, the other with Roger Barker. There is, you will be informed, “some overlap between the two schools”. Mm… mysterious.

The person who has done most to try to figure out how to bring these two ecological psychologies together is Harry Heft. He has done this in various papers and, especially, in his book Ecological Psychology in Context (2001), the subtitle of which is, James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the Legacy of William James’s Radical Empiricism. The first half of Harry’s book makes a brilliant and compelling case that Gibson’s psychology is in fact a development of William James’s radical empiricism—the philosophical programme that James was developing towards the end of his life. Andrew Wilson blogged the first half of the book in 2010 (Andrew’s posts can be found here).

The second half of the book is largely about the prospect of a combined Gibsonian–Barkerian research programme. I’m going to comment on this second half of the book over the next few posts.

Connections between the two ecological psychologies

If we are to pursue a rapprochement between Gibson’s and Barker’s programmes, then a reasonable place to start is by asking: Why didn’t Gibson and Barker do this themselves? James Gibson (1904–1979) and Roger Barker (1903–1990) were contemporaries. Both were prominent American psychologists working in the middle part of the twentieth century, and both were explicitly applying ecological thinking to psychological problems. One might wonder why it didn’t occur to them to combine their efforts.

But then again, it’s not really surprising that their approaches remained separate. Beyond the superficial fact that they were both using ecological terminology, the problem fields they were addressing are, at first glance, quite far apart. Gibson was concerned with developing a new theory of perception. Barker’s programme was all about trying to understand behavior in everyday settings, like in drugstores and at baseball games. How do you even begin to bring those two programmes together?

One strategy would be to show that the two approaches have common intellectual antecedents. And indeed, as Harry shows, they do. Both Gibson and Barker were influenced by key figures from the Gestalt school, particularly Kurt Lewin and Fritz Heider.

Kurt Lewin: field theory in psychology

The history of Kurt Lewin’s influence on embodied cognitive science probably deserves its own book (and by that, what I mean to say is: I know almost nothing about Kurt Lewin, but he sure seems important). Lewin developed a unique way of conceiving the organism as occupying a space in a psychological field, or a life space. In a summary of Lewin’s thinking, Harry writes (p. 212):

Lewin proposed that the actions of an individual are best understood as the joint outcome of several factors: multiple environmental determinants in the individual’s perceptual or phenomenal field; personality and motivational factors; and developmental level. An individual’s present phenomenal field, or life space, consists of the self and the various features of the environment as experienced by the individual at a particular time.

At the time Lewin was developing this theory (around the 1930s), American psychology was dominated by behavioristic stimulus–response thinking. Lewin’s approach is quite different. Instead of thinking of the individual as simply responding to a stimulus event, following the formula S-causes-R, Lewin’s view places the individual at the centre of a field of forces, all simultaneously pulling and pushing. Any given behavior has to be seen as the outcome of multiple causal factors. Importantly, the life space, for Lewin, was shaped in part by structure in the real world (or the ‘ecological environment’, p. 248).

Roger Barker spent some time as a postdoctoral scholar working with Kurt Lewin at the University of Iowa. The approach that Barker would go on to develop is rooted in Lewinian thinking. Behavior settings—a key part of Barker’s analysis—are extra-individual structures that shape the life space of the individuals within them. I’ll get to that in the next post.

Lewin also directly influenced Gibson’s thinking. This is most explicit in a paper Gibson wrote in 1938 with an engineer co-author, “A theoretical field-analysis of automobile-driving” (Gibson and Crooks 1938). In that paper, Gibson and Crooks describe what it’s like to be a driver. The driver experiences a perceptual field that is structured by the movements of the car itself and by the obstacles outside the car. Within this perceptual field, the driver perceives a “field of safe travel” which ‘consists, at any given moment, of the field of possible paths which the car may take unimpeded. Phenomenally it is a sort of tongue protruding forward along the road. Its boundaries are chiefly determined by objects or features of the terrain with a negative ‘valence’ in perception—in other words obstacles’ (Gibson and Crooks 1938, p. 454). (At the same time, the driver perceives the “minimum stopping zone”, which also extends out in front of the moving car. Gibson and Crooks describe how, as the car’s speed increases, the minimum stopping zone starts to creep out towards the boundary of the zone of safe travel; ‘when this happens driving begins to feel “dangerous”‘.)


Figure from Gibson and Crooks (1938): a Lewinian analysis of driving a car

The Gibson and Crooks paper presents, in rough outline, many of the ideas that Gibson would go on to develop into his ecological approach. Gibson would carry on thinking about Lewin’s ideas for decades. In his 1979 book, Gibson acknowledges the influence of Lewin in the development of the concept of affordances (the word itself echoes Lewin’s earlier coinage, Aufforderungcharakter, which referred to the inviting character of features encountered in the life space). On the face of it, it seems like there’s good reason here to think that Barker’s and Gibson’s programmes might have something important in common after all.

Fritz Heider’s analysis of thing and medium

A second key figure is Fritz Heider. Heider is known to psychology undergraduates for his study with Marianne Simmel in the 1940s on the perception of animacy—you know the one with the cartoon video of triangles having an argument outside a room. More important for Gibson and Barker, though, was Heider’s early work on the nature of perception. Heider was concerned with the question of why it is that we perceive a world “out there”, even though the things we use to perceive the world—our perceptual organs—are local components of our bodies. Why don’t we experience the world as being “here” at the surface of our skin, or at our retinas?

In addressing this problem (in a paper first published in German in 1926, cited in Heft), Heider made a distinction between the object of perception, and the medium that stands between the object and the perceiver (the air is an example of a medium). Now, this distinction might seem so obvious as to be trivial. But note that both the object and the medium are “outside” the perceiver. They both constitute part of the environment of the perceiver. Why does perception not get the two muddled together? For Heider, the trick is that the thing and the medium differ in their structural properties. The thing (the object) consists of elements that are strongly interconnected; it has a coherent organization which persists, and which is resistant to perturbations. When light hits an object, the light is likely to be affected by the object. The medium, by contrast lacks coherence among its elements. Because of this, the medium is able to convey structure from objects to a perceiver. The trajectory of light travelling through air is typically not affected by the structure of the air. “The more independent [each part] is from its neighbors, the less is the message altered in the course of transmission” (Heider, 1926, p. 6, quoted in Heft).

Heider’s analysis here provides the foundation for what would become Gibson’s ecological optics. Somewhat surprisingly, though, Barker too made explicit appeal to Heider’s thing/medium distinction in his definition of behavior settings. Again, I’ll come to that in the next post.

One last note here. Heider was more than just an intellectual influence for Gibson and Barker. Harry notes at the end of chapter 8 that Gibson and Heider were faculty colleagues at Smith College in the 1940s, and close friends. James and Eleanor Gibson left Smith for Cornell in 1949, and around the same time Heider was recruited to the University of Kansas by none other than Roger Barker. Later, in the mid-1960s, Gibson and Barker were both part of a five-person selection committee for an award that the American Psychological Association granted to Heider, ‘for his trailblazing thoughts about the fundamentals of perception, and for seeing problems that others did not recognize’.

So, you know, there’s at least “some overlap between the two schools”, it’s fair to say.


  • Gibson, J. J. & Crooks, L. E. (1938). A theoretical field-analysis of automobile drivingThe American Journal of Psychology 51(3): 453–471.
  • Heft, H. (2001). Ecological Psychology in Context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the Legacy of William James’s Radical Empiricism. Psychology Press.
  • Heider, F. (1959). Thing and medium. In On perception and event structure, and the psychological environment, Psychological issues, 1, Monograph 3, 1–34. (Original work published 1926)

Are we wrong to believe we have separate senses?


A bird in flight must control its movement with reference to multiple simultaneous sources of information: air mass, the ground plane, changes in stimulation caused by its own movements (image)

Eyes are for seeing and noses are for smelling. Everyone knows this. You know this. But hold on, what’s this? Ecological psychologists think you’re wrong!

The problem goes like this. Animals have to move about in an environment that already has other stuff in it besides the animal itself. All kinds of stuff. Imagine you’re a fish. You want to get over there to swallow that clod of plankton. If this was a video game you’d just press buttons until the plankton clod got big and filled up the screen. And when you can’t make the plankton clod look any bigger, that’s when you know you’ve arrived. Good old-fashioned visually-guided locomotion. But things aren’t that simple. You’re a fish, and there’s water in the way. Now you also have to move in such a way as to cancel out the movement of the water. Also, since you’re a fish, that is, a living, active organism, the visual scene before your eyes is in part structured by your own movements. Now you have to work out which bits of the stuff you’re looking at are moving because stuff out there is moving, and which bits are moving because you’re a fish and you’re twitching your face from side to side and your paddling is creating weird ripples and shadows.

One way to respond to this is to shrug and say, “I dunno, being a fish is complicated, I guess. At least they don’t have to worry about table manners or heights.” This is the normal way to respond. If you’re an ecological psychologist, however, you might respond differently. You might come out with something like this: “We propose that the senses form a single, unitary, irreducible perceptual system whose sole function is to detect parameters of the global array.”

In making this proposal, Stoffregen, Mantel, and Bardy are doing us a service for they are forcing us to question an unexamined assumption. In this case, the assumption is that the senses constitute distinct and separate systems. As the authors note, James J. Gibson also liked to question unexamined assumptions. But Gibson himself accepted this particular assumption without examining it. According to SMB, this has led to problems. One such problem: research within the ecological tradition has asked questions of the form, “What visual parameter is implicated in controlling the movement of this seabird into this body of water?” But this reductively detaches the visual component of the behaviour from everything else that is going on in the bird–air–water–gravity–etc. system.

A more esoteric problem is this: specification of structure in the environment into structure in perception does not work if we consider the senses as distinct systems. If all the seabird has to go on is vision, then it has no way of distinguishing between changes in the appearance of the water surface that are caused by its movements towards the surface, and those that are caused by the movement of the air relative to the same surface. Without being able to distinguish between these, SMB claim, the bird cannot adjust its behaviour over time in the appropriate way. Specification only works if we consider all of the relevant structure at once. And we need specification. Ambiguity is no good. If specification fails, then direct perception is also impossible, and ecological psychology itself disintegrates into an incoherent puddle.

Now, it is tempting to respond to SMB’s proposal that the senses constitute a single, unitary system in this manner: “Nuh-uhh! The senses are obviously separate! Look! Eyeballs!” But SMB have been making this argument for a few years now and have apparently come across this response before (S&B originally published this argument in BBS in 2001; the 2017 paper is largely a reassertion of that one). The authors call for their critics to go beyond merely pointing out apparent instances of counter-evidence and to engage with their arguments “at the level of general principles”. So let’s try to do that. I will make three points.

First, while every assumption deserves to come under scrutiny once in a while, it’s impossible to evaluate any given assumption except in the light of remaining assumptions that we hold to be more fundamental or secure. Thus, SMB state:

If we accept that perception yields knowledge (i.e., that perception is epistemological), then we can ask what type of knowledge is obtained. Following Darwinian principles … Gibson reasoned that perception yields (and should yield) knowledge about the environment.

But wait, what? Why should we accept this assumption? I mean, not to be rude, but “perception yields knowledge”… that sounds a little, I dunno, Cartesian? SMB also talk about perception as having content: “Our focus is on the animal–environment interaction as the contents of perception”.

Maybe the real problematic assumption here is this one: that information is contentful, i.e. that it is about structure in the environment. This argument was made by Van Dijk, Withagen, & Bongers in a paper that I blogged about here.  If information is contentless, then the issue of ambiguity does not arise. Ambiguity is not in the information because information is not being transmitted. The animal is not in the business of constructing knowledge about what the world has in it. Rather, the animal is in the business of regulating the fit between itself and its environment. If this is the case then perception does not have to be infallible, it just has to be good enough to keep the animal alive for a certain while. The fit is either maintained, in which case the animal is still alive, or it isn’t, and it’s dead. But why say that this fit is the content of perception?

Second, in their enthusiasm to do violence to the Aristotelian dogma of separate senses, SMB sometimes risk doing damage to other theoretical distinctions which we presumably want to maintain. For instance, it seems useful to distinguish between a) action and b) structure in the environment with reference to which that action is being regulated. In their more effusive moments SMB seem to want to fold this all together:

The global array is not ambient to massless, geometric points; rather, it intrinsically, inescapably is ambient to and provides information about the full dynamics of the animal–environment interaction. The global array pulses with the life of the organism; it embodies animal–environment reciprocity.

SMB argue that Gibson’s notion of the ambient optic array as a set of points of potential observation is “disembodied” and “reductionist”, and we should instead think in terms of an “embodied point of observation”. We should recognize that visual information in real life is structured simultaneously by stuff in the environment and by the activities of the living, moving animal itself. When you walk, your eyeballs jiggle in your head, which is going up and down on top of your neck thump-te-thump. This is fine, but don’t we also still want to be able to talk about structure that’s actually out there in a straightforward way, without constantly having to talk about it in terms of the animal–environment fit?

Third, and more generally: suppose we all went along with SMB and just admitted that the notion of separate senses is mere superstitious hokum and baloney that has been holding us back from pursuing a properly scientific study of perception. Where would that actually get us? In what way is it useful to treat perception as a single system? It certainly seems useful to treat vision, say, as a distinct system. To do so is consistent with our everyday conception of our experience—our way of talking about it. Don’t we want to be able to explain, say, the navigability of the inside of a building in terms of what it looks like without having to also talk about what the air feels like on our faces or what smells are wafting in from a nearby cafeteria? How does it help us to flat out deny the distinctions we have traditionally made between the senses?

It’s hard to see the global array concept getting any real uptake based only on arguments that have been presented so far. What would make the case more convincing? SMB need to show either that the assumption of distinct senses is pernicious and has misled us in important ways, or that rejecting the assumption leads to useful outcomes or applications that would otherwise be inaccessible to us. They have done neither of these so far. Maybe they’re right, though. I’m going to ask a fish.


Stoffregen, T. A., Mantel, B., & Bardy, B. G. (2017) The senses considered as one perceptual system. Ecological Psychology, 29(3):165–197 doi: 10.1080/10407413.2017.1331116


Overcoming loser philosophy: Comments on Käufer and Chemero’s Phenomenology: An Introduction

If you are studying affordances, or studying the role of the body in perception and cognition, then you ‘are not merely influenced by phenomenology,’ you are ‘doing phenomenology, insofar as [you] are pursuing the basic ideas and insights this tradition was founded on.’ So claim Stephan Käufer and Tony Chemero (K&C) at the start of their new bookPhenomenology: An Introduction (2015).

Now, one would be forgiven for thinking it’s safe to ignore this book, on the grounds that a) it’s got the word ‘Phenomenology’ in the title, and b) it’s got the words ‘An Introduction’ in the title. But don’t let’s get hung up on those two details. K&C are pursuing a serious project here. They aim to show that the phenomenological tradition is alive, and that it provides the necessary foundation for embodied cognition research. The message of the book might be summarized thus: Nothing in embodied cognition makes sense except in the light of lived experience. It’s a good message, and I hope people take notice.

I am not going to summarize, in this post, all of the book’s discussion of the history of phenomenology. The book does a nice job of covering the major thinkers while also weaving in the story of how psychology emerges as a separate discipline seeking to differentiate itself from philosophy, without ever quite succeeding. There are chapters on Kant and Wundt, then Husserl, Heidegger, the Gestalt psychologists, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre and Beauvoir, then James Gibson, Hubert Dreyfus, and a final chapter giving a brief overview of the current state of play in embodied and enactive cognitive science. I will quickly go over a couple of the important ideas from the Merleau-Ponty chapter, then I’ll get into K&C’s discussion of what, in their view, are the most interesting current issues in the field.

Merleau-Ponty and the lived body

A hand holding the handle of a coffee cup

Can you really be sure that that coffee cup has a backside? (Source)

Husserl spends a lot of time fretting about this kind of question: How can it be that, when we look at a tree, we seem to experience the tree as having a backside, even though, right now, we can only see the front? Husserl’s solution is to posit that the tree that we experience is a mental entity, an intentional object: we see the tree as whole because we’re not directly experiencing the tree itself, we’re experiencing a copy of the tree that’s internal to our consciousness. Husserl sees this as a methodological move that allows him to ignore the question of whether the tree really does have a backside or not, or, for that matter, whether there’s any tree there at all.

Merleau-Ponty provides a different way out of the problem. He distinguishes between the lived body, which he also calls the habit body, and the objective body, or the body as an object. He uses this distinction to explain what’s going on in phantom limb cases where people who have lost a limb report still feeling pain or sensation at the location where the limb used to be. The way we normally experience the world, Merleau-Ponty says, is as a lived body that exhibits skills and habits. In phantom limb cases, the skills and habits have formed in the presence of the limb, and these skills and habits remain intact even though the objective limb itself is no longer present. The loss of the limb means that the habit body is no longer in harmony with the objective body. Now when the individual encounters a situation which used to involve the limb, the situation may still be perceived as one in which the old action is possible, but the objective body no longer supports this action.

To return to Husserl’s problem, Merleau-Ponty points out that when we encounter an object from a particular aspect, we do not do so as disembodied observers, but precisely as lived bodies. This allows us to say that when we encounter a tree, or a coffee cup, we experience these objects as having a backside to the extent that our bodies are disposed to act on the whole object. We see a tree that we can walk around, or a cup that we can wrap our fingers around. The backside is not in our perception, but in the complete act of engaging with the world.

Incidentally, this also provides the solution to a problem Chemero raised in his previous book (though K&C do not acknowledge this): how do we perceive that a beer can contains drinkable beer, if we are not representing the contents? Chemero (2009, 118) uses this example to motivate the claim that perception must be grounded in constraints and conventions. It is held that the label on the beer can is conventionally related to the presence of beer. We, as perceivers, have access both to the convention and to the label, and together these indicate the presence of beer inside the can. But Merleau-Ponty’s account of the lived body renders unnecessary any such appeal to conventions. We don’t need to perceive the beer itself, any more than we need to perceive the back of the coffee cup. Our bodily skills mean that we can just act in the presence of the beer can. And sure, it might turn out, after all, that the beer can contains sour milk, or that the coffee cup doesn’t actually have a backside. But such considerations do not normally enter into our activities. We do not live in a world where we have had to interact with milk-containing beer cans or backside-less coffee cups, so there’s no reason why our habit body would come to be shaped by such eventualities. In general, we get along just fine.

Now onto the current problems in the field. First: affordances.

Affordances, invitations, and the frame problem in ecological psychology

Affordances, it is generally said, are opportunities to act on the environment. But that raises a question: how is it that only some affordances come to be selected for action? It would seem to be the case that a detached observer is required to do the selecting—some mental controller that sits inside the organism and is able to assess the available options. This is a problem that Gibson was aware of, as shown in this passage that K&C quote twice (Gibson, 1979, 225): ‘The rules that govern behavior are not like laws enforced by an authority or decisions made by a commander; behavior is regular without being regulated. The question is how this can be.’ (Another way to put this is to say that the ecological approach provides a theory of the structure available to perception, but not a theory of behaviour as such; see this post for discussion.)

The way K&C present this is as a version of the frame problem—a problem in AI research that gave rise to much philosophical bellyaching in the 1980s, most notably from Dan Dennett. The problem is this: how can a robot ever be expected to choose its next action, given the infinite number of facts that the robot could, in principle, take into account before making its selection? As K&C see it, the only way out of this problem is to appeal to dynamical systems. An actor is a dynamical system. And the actor is nested inside a larger dynamical system—its environment. If the actor is a dynamical system then it does not need to mentally entertain any of the possible actions available to it; rather, it just acts, and it learns by changing over time. Engaging with the world not only changes the world, it also changes the internal dynamics of the actor. The outcomes of actions can have the effect of reconfiguring the attractor states within the actor’s nervous system. Here K&C appeal to Walter Freeman’s work on the neural dynamics of the rabbit olfactory bulb. If the rabbit experiences a particular scent and subsequently gets food, then this will have the effect of subtly re-configuring the rabbit’s nervous system, which will affect how the rabbit responds to the same scent the next time it encounters it (207). The frame problem dissolves because now everything is dynamic. (But I’ll have more to say about the frame problem below.)

In order to fix how we talk about affordances, K&C recommend that we follow Withagen et al (2012) in making a distinction between mere affordances and invitations. Affordances are the possibilities to act, which are always infinite in number; invitations (a term borrowed from Merleau-Ponty) are the subset of affordances that stand out at a given moment as live options. Withagen et al make this distinction in the context of a discussion of agency. K&C use it to appeal again to dynamical systems. K&C discuss the example of someone engaged in the activity of building a bookcase. The bookcase builder does not attend to an infinite world of possibilities, but only to aspects of her environment that are relevant for her ongoing project. The dynamics of this organism–environment system (builder plus bookcase-parts plus tools and so forth) have become self-organized into ‘a temporary, special-purpose dynamical system’ (203), one in which only certain affordances actually invite behaviour.

The future of phenomenological cognitive science

This is all well and good as a description of what it’s like to be a living being engaged in activities in the world. But where does it get us? How can we turn the insights of phenomenologists into a productive programme of empirical research?

How K&C propose to do this rests, in large part, on a phrase that they borrow from Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi (2008), who say that, in their empirical studies of behaviour, researchers should front-load phenomenology. Unfortunately, it is not very clear exactly what work this phrase is supposed to be doing. K&C define front-loading phenomenology as ‘designing scientific experiments specifically in order to test posits concerning phenomenology’ (218). This suggests that phenomenology itself should be the subject matter of the research. But this seems at odds with what Gallagher and Zahavi themselves say (2008, 38; emphasis added): ‘The idea is to front-load phenomenological insights into the design of experiments, that is, to allow the insights developed in phenomenological analyses to inform the way experiments are set up.’ Here, it seems that phenomenology is not the subject matter of the research per se, but is part of the experimental methodology: thinking in terms of phenomenology is just part of the experimenter’s toolkit for setting up useful experiments. In their own recommendations for conducting future research, K&C seem to vacillate between two different types of strategy, neither of which seems to exactly match what Gallagher and Zahavi are after.

Strategy 1: Directly investigate stuff that phenomenologists have actually said. An example of research using this strategy is Chemero’s work with Dobri Dotov (Dotov et al, 2010), on how equipment can go from being ready-to-hand to being unready-to-hand. In the experiment, subjects are asked to play a computer game in which they have to move a mouse cursor about on a screen. At some point in the game, the experimenter interrupts the link between the mouse movement and the cursor movement. This is like what happens when you get a bit of water on your laptop trackpad, or in the old days when you got a bit of fluff taffled up in the mouse’s rollerball. As we know from having experienced this kind of thing, the disruption is apt to put us off what we had just been doing and may well cause us to flail about in an attempt to regain control of the situation. Dotov et al present this in explicitly Heideggerian terms, as a disruption that shatters our smooth coping with equipment in the environment. And they have a way of quantifying this: the disruption goes along with a disruption of the subject’s movement dynamics, which move from exhibiting pink noise (or 1/f noise, which is assumed to be characteristic of smooth coping) towards exhibiting white noise (characteristic of random movement, or flailing about). This is neat as a ‘demonstration’ of an idea from Heidegger’s phenomenology. But it is not clear how this is supposed to serve as a model for doing cognitive science in general. Are we to restrict our empirical efforts to attempting to prove Heidegger correct?

Strategy 2: Reduce everything to maths, but do so in a way that you hope is consistent with phenomenological theorizing. The second strategy is to subsume everything under the logic of dynamical systems modelling. This is defended on the grounds that complex systems are inclined to ‘self-organize and so have a tendency to behave like much simpler systems,’ and therefore ‘one will often be able to model these systems in terms of extremely simple functions, with only a few easily observable parameters’ (200). And the logic of these systems means that, in principle, it’s possible to study any phenomenon, from the level of the cell to the level of whole societies, all in terms of relatively simple dynamical equations. One might object that by reducing everything to maths, you have taken yourself outside of the realm of phenomenology altogether. Equations don’t have feelings. And there’s nothing that it’s like to be an equals sign. More to the point, there’s nothing that it’s like to be a cell or a basketball team either. Experience only operates at the level of individual organisms. By collapsing everything into mathematics, have we not lost sight of the very thing—lived experience—that caused us to so admire the phenomenologists in the first place? Surely we’re owed at least a hint of an explanation as to why it’s desirable to model experience-involving processes in exactly the same way as non-experience-involving ones. But according to K&C, there is no problem here: it’s perfectly possible to do dynamical systems modelling and still be in the business of successfully front-loading your phenomenology (201). What’s important is that the way you choose what phenomenon you are going to model in the first place should be informed by a suitably phenomenological worldview.

I have to say, I think K&C give a fair account of the current state of play within phenomenologically-informed cognitive science (that is, in enactivst and dynamical systems research). Still, neither of these two strategies strikes me as being particularly attractive.

The second strategy, in particular, seems to be too much in awe of the frame problem. I suspect that part of the motivation for trying to reduce everything to dynamical systems explanations is the worry that unless everything is expressed in the same language (mathematics) then we will never exorcise the creeping spectre of dualism and we’ll be forever stuck with some version of the frame problem. But there’s a reason why the frame problem originated where it did—in the field of artificial intelligence research. The old project in AI had the goal of building a robot with the capacity to act autonomously in a natural environment. In order to achieve that, AI researchers were going to have to be able to build a robot that could select its actions from a seemingly infinite set of possibilities. But why should we non-AI researchers take that as a model for our own psychological programme? I just don’t buy that building a working model of a behaving, living system is a realistic goal for psychology. Or a useful one. I’m much more interested in using psychology as a set of tools for intervening in real-world problems: how can we design cities that are better adapted to how we want to live, or educational resources that are better suited to how we learn, or clinical environments that better draw out the capacities of people we currently deem to be mentally ill? As such, I just don’t care about the frame problem. And neither should you!

What I’d like to see developed more is a strategy more closely aligned to that definition from Gallagher and Zahavi: to front-load phenomenology is to use phenomenology as a tool for designing experiments that can actually inform us about how we engage in specific activities—a tool that will allow us to pursue genuinely useful research. This is what Andrew was getting at in this post on dynamical mechanistic explanations. And I’ve argued (Baggs, 2014) that the appropriate way to conduct research is to take a task-oriented approach; that is, we can identify an activity that is of interest to us, from the perspective of outside analysts, but to do so we must identify a dynamic that is meaningful from the perspective of the actor. Taking this kind of approach allows researchers to study phenomena—such as steering a car round a corner, or learning to walk—that are phenomenological through and through. (See Wilson and Golonka, 2013, which sets out the general strategy for actually employing the task-oriented methodology.) The task-oriented approach seems much more worthy of the label ‘phenomenological’ than does the reduce-everything-to-maths approach.

But this is an argument for the future. For now, I’ll say that I very much enjoyed reading K&C’s book. What the book does well is it places current research in embodied and enactive cognitive science in a long-ish historical context. In doing so, the authors reveal that, far from being ‘radical’, in the sense of being outlandish and hopelessly outside the mainstream, these approaches are grounded in a solid phenomenological tradition. We inheret from Heidegger and from Merleau-Ponty a view of action as skilled engagement with the world, by a lived body. Indeed, taking this long view, it is the cognitivist AI programme that turns out to be the historical aberration. Hubert Dreyfus drily explains this in an excellent interview from 2005 (K&C also quote a different passage from this interview):

The people in the AI lab, with their “mental representations,” had taken over Descartes and Hume and Kant, who said concepts were rules, and so forth. And far from teaching us how we should think about the mind, AI researchers had taken over what we had just recently learned in philosophy was the wrong way to do it. The irony is that the year that AI (artificial intelligence) was named by John McCarthy was the very year that Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations came out against mental representations. [Dreyfus may be a little muddled on the dates here—EB] (Heidegger had already done so in 1927 with Being and Time.) So, the AI researchers had inherited a lemon. They had taken over this loser philosophy! If they had known philosophy, they could’ve predicted, like me, that it was a hopeless research program, but they took Cartesian philosophy and turned it into a research program. Anybody who knew enough philosophy could’ve predicted it was going to fail. But nobody else paid any attention. That’s why I got this prize.

K&C have shown us the direction to take if we are to avoid falling back into loser philosophy. They have done us a service.

Further reading/listening

  • There’s a great Brain Science Podcast interview with Tony Chemero talking about the book, to be found here.