Are affordances normative?


In this paper we explore in what sense we can claim that affordances, the objects of perception for ecological psychology, are related to normativity. First, we offer an account of normativity and provide some examples of how it is understood in the specialized literature. Affordances, we claim, lack correctness criteria and, hence, the possibility of error is not among their necessary conditions. For this reason we will oppose Chemero’s (2009) normative theory of affordances. Finally, we will show that there is a way in which taking advantage of affordances could be considered as possessing a normative character, but only when they are evaluated within the framework of social normative standards in particular situations. This reinforces our claim that affordances, per se, lack normativity and can only be taken to be rule-governed in relation to established normative practices.

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  1. 1.

    We are thankful to Julian Kiverstein for pressing us on this claim.

  2. 2.

    This raises the question of the relationship between conceptuality and language. Is it possible to identify and individuate objects conceptually in a non-discursive way? We will place this question within a broader perspective below. However, we think that a positive answer can be given, following McDowell and Evans (Evans 1982, McDowell 1994: 105–7, McDowell 2009: 262–4). Evans and McDowell stressed the idea that demonstrative concepts are concepts that do not possess any trace of generality, as most concepts do (‘red’ is a general term that does not capture the particular features of the different experiences of particular red objects; it just captures a common feature that all of them share regardless of their particularities). So the existence and identity of that concept depends on the existence and identity of a certain particular object or property. If we perceive a particular object with a particular red color, the content of our mental state is conceptual and not linguistic because the concept that we possess at that moment depends on the existence of that object’s color. So we can identify that color in other contexts and, if we want to linguistically express that identification, we can say to a friend, “See? This is the color I meant” by using a demonstrative. So the conceptual can be articulated discursively, but this does not mean that every concept should possess a linguistic nature. Recently, McDowell developed a Kantian-inspired notion of ‘intuition’ as the content of perceptual experience that also fulfills this requirement.

  3. 3.

    For details on the McDowell-Dreyfus debate, see the volume edited by Schear (2013) and a for a critique of Dreyfus and Schear’s arguments see Heras-Escribano (2014). See Heras-Escribano, Noble & Pinedo. (2015) for a rejection of a similar commitment to normativity in phenomenology and enactivism. See also Pinedo and Noble (2008) for an argument against the need to choose between representationalism and eliminativism with respect to agency.

  4. 4.

    A looping process in this context refers to the continuous, online and dynamical engagement between an agent’s capacity for perceiving-acting and certain elements of her environment. A more detailed depiction of what is a looping process is offered in section 3.1.

  5. 5.

    As the reader may note, the word ‘response’ does not refer to the kind of response that falls under the behaviorist notion of ‘stimulus–response behavior’. As it has been shown before, ecological psychology explicitly rejects behaviorism, so here we do not share the same notion of ‘response’. We use in the rest of the paper a different notion of ‘response’, one that refers to a step of the action-perception loop, which is the subsequent action performed by the agent once it detects ecological information. We thank Julian Kiversten for the pointer.

  6. 6.

    Other characterizations of affordances as dispositions can be found in Turvey (1992) and Scarantino (2002). For an recent critical review of a dispositional account of affordances, see Zipoli Caiani (2014).

  7. 7.

    We are thankful to David Jacobs, David Travieso and Lorena Lobo for the pointer.

  8. 8.

    Runeson (1988) concludes that perceptual error must be included within ecological psychology after analyzing the case of the distorted room illusion. In the distorted room illusion “rooms are inevitably perceived as rectangular, and the effect is so strong that persons inside the room appear as dwarfs or giants, depending on where in the room they are standing--even changing their size as they move from one corner to the other” (Runeson 1988: 295). Here we focus on his view on conflicting information as his main argument for supporting the notion of error within ecological psychology.

  9. 9.

    We are thankful to one anonymous referee and John McDowell for warning us about the importance of addressing more explicitly this possibility.


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This paper was partially funded by the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación under the research projects “Dispositions, Holism and Agency” (FFI2010-19455) and “Naturalism, Expressivism and Normativity” (FFI2013-44836). We are thankful to two anonymous referees and to Paco Calvo, Álex Díaz, Jorge Ibáñez, David Jacobs, Lorena Lobo, María Muñoz, David Travieso, Julian Kiverstein, Jason Noble, Andrés Soria, María José Frápolli and John McDowell for fruitful comments and discussions on previous drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Manuel de Pinedo.

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Heras-Escribano, M., de Pinedo, M. Are affordances normative?. Phenom Cogn Sci 15, 565–589 (2016).

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  • Affordances
  • Normativity
  • Perception
  • Ecological psychology