Juan Toro / Embodiment and the theory of affordances

Often disorientated, but also seduced by the complexities of the topic, I’ve been revolving around the same question for a year: How can phenomenology and embodied cognitive science help us understand cases of abnormal embodiment, like cerebral palsy?

Currently I’m working on the theory of affordances, as originally proposed by Gibson in 1979. The notion of affordance, conceived as the opportunities for action for an agent in an environment, has played a central role in embodied cognitive science -especially in the radical, non-representationalist versions-. One of the reasons is that it provides a tool to explain the engagement of the animal (or person) with its environment avoiding the issues associated with explaining cognition in terms of representations and computations.

According to Gibson, we perceive affordances directly, in our environment, without mental inferences. We perceive familiar objects as already inviting us to engage with them: chairs to sit on, apples to grab and eat, friends to talk to, and so on.

Another aspect of Gibson’s theory that, I think, cognitive scientists have found appealing, is that it is consistent with -though irreducible to- scientific realism: the claim that the world as described by science exists independently of there being anyone to perceive it. Therefore, Gibson offers an account of perception and action that can be included into our respected scientific theories, that gets rid of representation and computation, and can be mathematically modelled using dynamic systems theory. That fits very well into what embodied cognitive science looks for, as a reaction to the old-fashioned classical cognitive science.

The wide range of phenomena that has been studied through the lens of the theory of affordances counts as evidence of its potential. Only in the field of psychopathology, it has been applied to obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and autism, among others.

Despite the potential of Gibson’s theory, it seems to me that its conception of the body of the agent is still impoverished, taking it to be merely as an accessory that allows him to move around, explore, and discover information that was already in the independent environment. If we conceive the body in such a limited manner, we end up with a very poor understanding of cases in which the agent’s body is abnormal: the most we can say is that he can’t engage with some of the affordances in the environment, that his abilities to explore are diminished, so that some of the available information will remain unknown to him, and similar statements.

On the other hand, the phenomenological tradition -especially Husserl and Merleau-Ponty- has developed a rich and insightful account of embodiment and its role in how we get to experience the world as this meaningful, intersubjective horizon, where all our activities and interests take place. Husserl has shown that the body can be conceived as both an object in the world, but also an experiencing lived body around which the world emerges for the subject.

If we understand the role of embodiment underlying the constitution of the world for the perceiving subject, we can also understand better the impact of a motor control disorder for the constitution of that meaningful world.

Briefly, what is missing from the current theory of affordances and embodied cognitive science is an account of meaning: how does it emerge for the agent, how does it evolve in connection with embodiment variations, how can it be shared by a community?  This difficulty, I think, is a consequence of Gibson’s ontological commitment with realism.

The intuition I’m pursuing is that it should be possible to enrich the notion of affordance by complementing it with a phenomenological account of embodiment. Such a richer notion will allow us to understand the essential role that embodiment plays in our engagement with affordances, as well as our constitution of them as meaningful structures. Furthermore, this approach can enter into a fruitful dialogue with empirical studies of abnormal processes of embodiment, of which I hope to talk about in another entry of this blog.

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