Tag Archives: James J. Gibson

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.


Against “joint action”: all actions are actions in a populated environment

I gave a talk last week at the 6th Joint Action Meeting in Budapest. The program for the conference is here; my abstract appears on page 29. The conference is a biannual affair. It was initially set up ten years ago by Günther Knoblich and Natalie Sebanz as a forum for collegial disagreement about what joint action is. It still retains that atmosphere, I think. I tried to construct my talk in the spirit of open enquiry that Günther and Natalie seem to invite. I like this conference because I believe such open enquiry is necessary for working through the conceptual issues involved here. I used my talk to argue against “joint action” as a piece of terminology, on the grounds that the term leads to an overly restrictive interpretation of what’s going on in the phenomena studied by joint action researchers. The argument is based on James Gibson’s distinction between the environment and the physical world. I will use this post to make a record of the argumentative portion of the talk. (The talk also had an illustrative portion in which I talked about possession in soccer, as blogged here.)

What is a “joint action” anyway?

Ants on an ant mound Two people carrying a sofa together
What do these two images have in common? (sources: 1, 2)

I start with a question: what is it that is supposed to unite all of the different phenomena we talk about when we talk of joint action? Consider the two images above: on the left, a group of ants in the process of building a mound; on the right, two people carrying a sofa together (this is one of the go-to examples that philosophers reach for when discussing joint action).

In fact, it is very difficult to identify anything that unites these phenomena. Philosophers often appeal to the concept of common knowledge (e.g., from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “In order to communicate or otherwise coordinate their behavior successfully, individuals typically require mutual or common understandings or background knowledge”). But few would be willing to attribute common knowledge to the ants. Psychologists like to appeal to hypothetical theory of mind capacities within individuals, but again few would be willing to entertain the idea that the individual ants are engaging in complex mental modelling of the inner lives of their fellows.

One escape route here would be to simply insist that only humans can do proper joint action. (This is the option chosen by Michael Tomasello, for instance. Tomasello asserts that chimpanzees hunting in groups are not really doing joint action: “The apes are engaged in a group activity in ‘I’ mode, not in ‘we’ mode.”) This does not really solve the problem, though. We now just have a new problem: how do we distinguish proper joint action from merely apparent or quasi-joint action? And if non-linguistic animals cannot do joint action, what about human infants? In short, we’ve merely replaced the question of defining joint action with a different question: what exactly is it that makes humans so special?

So it is difficult to identify just what it is that allows us to talk about a bunch of disparate phenomena while labelling them all as instances of “joint action”. Except there is one thing that unites the ants and the sofa-carriers. Consider the situation from the perspective of one of the individual actors. Relative to that individual’s perceptual system, the environment is populated. And it is here that it is necessary to invoke James Gibson’s distinction between the environment and the physical world.

The environment v. the physical world

At the very start of his final book, Gibson introduces his concept of the environment by contrasting it with the standard view of the physical world. The terms “environment” and “physical world”, he claims, should not be treated as synonyms. Understanding this distinction is, I think, key to understanding the radical difference between Gibson’s psychology and the standard representational theory of mind. (I hadn’t really realised how important this was until I was preparing this talk. But the distinction obviously is important to Gibson: he makes it on page 2 of chapter 1, a chapter whose title is “The animal and the environment”.)

The environment, according to Gibson, is that which surrounds an individual animal (1979, p. 8):

[I]t is often neglected that the words animal and environment make an inseparable pair. Each term implies the other. No animal could exist without an environment surrounding it. Equally, although not so obvious, an environment implies an animal (or at least an organism) to be surrounded. This means that the surface of the earth, millions of years ago before life developed on it, was not an environment, properly speaking. The earth was a physical reality, a part of the universe, and the subject matter of geology. […] We might agree to call it a world, but it was not an environment.

Gibson is here insisting that animals do not perceive the world of physics, we do not perceive the bare physical world. What we perceive is our surroundings: the structured collection of surfaces and objects that are meaningful by virtue of our capacity to act relative to them. The environment ultimately only exists at the approximate scale of our bodies (microscopes and mass spectrometers notwithstanding). When ecological psychologists talk about the “animal–environment system”, this is not some vague device for pointing out that our bodies are situated in space and that we perceive things in that space (a fact which no cognitivist would deny). It is, rather, an assertion that we never in fact perceive pure “space”. What we perceive is our surroundings; we perceive our own unique environment relative to our ability to act in it.

To bring this back to the topic at hand, it should be pointed out that one of the features of the environments of all animals in reality is that they are populated with other animals. The ants and the sofa-carriers all encounter an environment that is not merely structured by the presence of surfaces and objects. It is also structured by the presence of other actors. A populated environment is one that not only reacts to the exploratory activity of the animal (as with Newtonian conservation of momentum). It is an environment that acts back, one in which that actions that the animal engages in can be perturbed, amplified, reversed, and observed by other animals.

“Joint action” mixes relational categories

When we talk about “joint action” we are in effect mixing two different relational categories.

  • “Jointness” describes an interpersonal relation; it denotes the fact that a group of actors can appear to doing more than merely acting simultaneously, they can appear to be acting together
  • “Action”, on the other hand, is usually descriptive of a relation between an individual actor and some aspect of its environment; when we act it brings about change in our environment

Perhaps part of the problem is that it is not immediately obvious that action is about animal–environment relations. Action is more often discussed in terms of the presence or absence of some mental entity or volition, as in Donald Davidson’s claim that an action must be “intentional under some description”. But on Gibson’s definition of the environment, an action must be about animal–environment relations. Even an action as simple as shaking one’s head involves the environment. In order to coordinate that particular action in the first place or to perceive whether the action has been carried out successfully one must create the perception of optic flow while keeping static the invariant structure that specifies the layout of the environment (when you shake your head your visual field moves but the environment doesn’t).

To talk of “joint action” is to suggest a dichotomy between “individual action” and “joint action”. The term invites an explanation of the behaviour of interest primarily in terms of interpersonal relations. Other kinds of actor–environment relations are left out of the analysis, or pushed to the background, taken for granted, described as mere “low-level” action.

The standard disagreement in the field is over exactly what kinds of interpersonal relations must be involved for joint action to be possible. One view says that in order for a group of actors to be able to act together successfully they must in some sense subordinate their own activity to that of the group; they must collectively constitute a “plural subject” of the action, in the phrase of the philosopher Margaret Gilbert. The second view prefers to maintain the boundaries around individual actors. On this view, a joint action requires each actor to engage in mindreading activity of some variety, whether it be through the construction of mental models of the other actors’ intentions or through unconscious processes of interpersonal synchronization. Only when each actor shares the appropriate mental content with the other actors can the joint action be undertaken.

Two standard approaches to joint action: the plural subject model (l) v. the mindreading/interpersonal synchronization model (r); the black arrows represent action.

What these views share is a lack of attention to just what the environment looks like from the perspective of an individual actor. The action itself is treated as mere output from a system. The puzzle is taken to consist in identifying how the jointness of this system arises. It is implicitly assumed that once we have an explanation of this jointness we will also have an explanation both of how the group behaves and of how the group’s individual members behave.

Acting in a populated environment: it’s not all about interpersonal relations

It is worth pausing over this phrase, “low-level action”. What could it mean? Why should actions directed at inanimate objects be considered “low-level” while actions involving other animals are considered high-level or social? Why are we tempted to make this distinction?

This distinction has arisen, I suspect, as an accidental by-product of the way that action has traditionally been studied. Psychologists have tried to study behaviour by isolating individual actors from their natural environments and placing them in carefully constructed artificial environments in which the sensory inputs and outputs can be tightly controlled and measured. It is tempting to believe that by getting a subject to respond to dots on a screen we are ignoring everything that is not action and perception at the most basic level.

But real environments are not like the environments created in the laboratory. An ant’s environment always contains other ants. That is to say, any action that the ant might perform is one that potentially perturbs the environment of another ant. It is this fact that allows the ants as a collective to construct great structures that could not possibly be conceived by any of the ants individually. Each ant merely acts in, and relative to, its own environment, and in doing so it alters the structure of the environment of its fellows.

“Low-level action”, then, is an analyst’s construct. In reality, all action is social because all action has the potential to perturb the environment of another animal. The phrase I propose, “acting in a populated environment”,[1] collapses the dichotomy between joint action and individual action. There is simply no need to establish a joint goal or to construct, ahead of time, a joint actor that is constituted by a set of interpersonal relations. It is sufficient for an individual to act on the available structure; this act can then be amplified or responded to by another individual whose environment has been perturbed.

The pay-off of this move, from talking about “joint action” to talking about “acting in a populated environment, is that it allows us to avoid asking spurious questions about how groups come to perform tasks together. Existing accounts of joint action attempt to explain such behaviour primarily in terms of interpersonal relations, asking the question: “How do individual actors in some situation combine to make a joint actor or team?” On the alternative view that I have outlined, this question is no longer seen as a pre-requisite to understanding the behaviour. Instead, we can ask a more tractable kind of question, focusing on some specific task and asking: “How do we identify precisely which structures in the actor’s environment are implicated in the control of the actor’s behaviour?”


The term “joint action” invites us to explain collective behaviour in unnecessarily narrow terms, focusing primarily on interpersonal relations while pushing other kinds of actor–environment relations to the background. As an alternative, I prefer to talk of “acting in a populated environment”. This phrase can be thought of as a device for turning complex questions about collective behaviour into tractable questions about individual behaviour. It also happily allows us to avoid having to grapple with such fraught concepts as shared intentions or shared goals. And yet to talk of acting in a populated environment is not to deny that there is a great deal of complexity that underlies such behaviour. Instead, it forces us to acknowledge the rich structure that exists in populated environments and that pervades an animal’s surroundings; this structure does not merely exist in between actors but surrounds each of us. This richness is in fact an asset; it is what is used by actors to guide and control specific actions. The hope is that by examining this structure in detail it will be possible to explain, in specific cases, how individual actors can successfully act as part of a coordinated collective.


[1] The phrase “populated environment” I take from Gibson’s “Note on perceiving in a populated environment”, published posthumously as part of a set of notes on the concept of affordances (Gibson, 1982).


  • Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton-Mifflin, Boston.
  • Gibson, J. J. (1982). Notes on affordances. In Reed, E. and Jones, R., editors, Reasons for Realism : Selected essays of James J. Gibson, pages 401–418. Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey.