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Can Affordances Explain Behavior?


In this paper we secure the explanatory value of affordances by treating them as relational properties and as inherently linked to unintentional movements and possible intentional actions. We distinguish between Basic affordances, which are related to unintentional movements, and Complex affordances, which are subjective (related to motor intentions) and executively controlled by individuals. The linkage between affordances and motor intentions allows for accounting for the infinite number of affordances that any given object potentially has. Appealing to objective systematic contingencies that provide the actor with information about the effects of her actions, allows for accounting for perception of affordances and for securing their explanatory value.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Note that both Turvey and Scarantino exclude non-basic, higher-order, emerging properties from their analyses. Both refer to the properties they focus on as ‘intrinsic properties’, which we call ‘basic physical properties’.

  2. 2.

    Apart from this epistemological notion of ‘objective’ there are also different ones, e.g. ontological (meaning that the existence of the entity does not depend on the existence of a subject), and so forth.

  3. 3.

    We discuss the notion of direct perception in detail later. For now, it is worth clarifying that, unlike Gibson, we regard the question whether representations are involved in perception or not to be independent of the question whether perception is direct or not. In our view, perception is nothing but having representations, while representations are not mediating perception – they rather constitute it. Perception can then still be direct in the sense that no inferences (or even any further representations) are involved.

  4. 4.

    The fact that properties are ascribed to objects does not exclude that these properties exist independently of the ascription. What is key here is that they are ascribed to objects rather than to subjects, i.e. we use them to classify objects, e.g. as sit-on-able.

  5. 5.

    Turvey construes affordances as “objective properties”, in the broad sense of the term – properties that exist independently of our minds. However, given that “objective properties” in this paper designate objectively or universally perceived properties, and in the interest of clarity, we do not use this characterization here. It is also worth clarifying that the claim that affordances are a distinct ontological category should be understood against the classical distinction between primary qualities (shape, solidity, etc.) and secondary qualities (color, smell, etc.) (cf. Locke, (1690/1975). Specifically, ecological psychologists construe affordances as a third category of properties – ones that concern possibilities for bodily interactions. Moreover, these possibilities are said to be ‘real’ possibilities as opposed to being merely “epistemic possibilities”, e.g. “conceptual possibility or uncertainty” (Turvey 1992: 174).

  6. 6.

    In fact, we claim that any perceived property that directly triggers a movement (including reflexes) has to be analyzed as a subjective property, in the aforementioned sense. They are implicitly related to the perceiver. For example, an object moving within my visual field might directly trigger a head movement. However, it is not the objectively perceptible movement per se that triggers my movement, but the specific implicit relation to me, i.e. not only the position of the moving object within my visual field but also the object’s proximity to me, that perhaps I perceive it suddenly and so forth.

  7. 7.

    Scarantino distinguishes between ‘doings’ and ‘happenings’. In the interest of simplicity we adopt the established distinction between doings and actions.

  8. 8.

    Note that Chemero allows for both predicational (this apple affords eat-ability or to be eaten) and non-predicational affordances (it’s raining or (being outside) affords getting wet) (2001:115).

  9. 9.

    For a critical discussion of the non-reductive, yet systematic relations between higher-order and lower-order properties called “emergent”, see Kim (2006).

  10. 10.

    It is on the grounds of direct perceptibility that Stoffregen rejects Turvey’s analysis.

  11. 11.

    But see, amongst others, Horowitz and Wolfe (e.g. 1998).

  12. 12.

    Note that direct perceptibility does not entail infallibility. For under the least favorable circumstances, one might fail to perceive the brown color as such. However, even under the most favorable circumstances one might perceive an affordance, which is not there – this seems to exclude colors.

  13. 13.

    See Fodor and Pylyshyn (1981) for a similar argument.

  14. 14.

    Recall at this point that our use of the words “learning” and “memory” is very broad, comprising the implicit, more association-like learning of artificial neural nets.

  15. 15.

    A similar point regards acquiring concepts by deference – consider for instance concepts like dinosaur, tiger, electron, and so forth (cf. Fodor 1994).

  16. 16.

    This is not to say that we subscribe to the view that mastery of these systematic contingencies can fully explain our phenomenal experience, as O’Regan and Noë suggest. For a detailed criticism, see e.g. Jacob (2006), Schlicht and Pompe (2007).

  17. 17.

    Here we appeal to the notion of motor intention as Butterfil and Sinigaglia (2014) define it. In particular, our aim is to emphasize the distinction between propositional intentional states involved in conceptual reasoning and motor-related intentional states involved in purposeful action.

  18. 18.

    Indeed, in addition to the sensory input we have to assume that the baby assigns some “utility” to certain sensations. Although we do not share the non-representationalist remarks, we refer the reader to the detailed mathematical model in Maye and Engels (2013) as an example of how such sensorimotor contingencies might be learned and exploited for action.

  19. 19.

    Despite doing so in light of experiences with instances of a given kind, our concepts refer to categories as a whole (cf _______[author’s paper, reference omitted for anonymous reviewing]).

  20. 20.

    Similarily, Withagen and Chemero (2012) claim that directly visible features do not dependably specify non-visible physical features (like solidness), which ground basic affordances (like supportability).

  21. 21.

    This containment-relation might not be mereological in the sense that unintentional movements are proper parts of actions. Still, one aspect of an intentional action is that it involves movements that can be described (and apprehended by the subject) without intentions.

  22. 22.

    Scarantino (2003) also introduces a distinction between different kinds of affordances. In our view, all of his three kinds of affordances are complex affordances.

  23. 23.

    This direct link between action and perception does not, however, imply that affordances are directly, in the aforementioned sense, perceptible. In fact, we argue that the resulting systematic contingencies between directly visible features and possible actions (which are reflected in the direct links between motor and sensory brain areas) ground perception of complex affordances, which are always indirectly perceived.

  24. 24.

    These experimental conditions are notably similar to the case of the aforementioned ‘paper chair’.

  25. 25.

    At this point we appeal to a view inspired by Searle’s (1983, pp. 83–98) distinction between “prior intentions” and “intentions in action”. Specifically, we treat intentions as “prior intentions”. Briefly, a prior intention has as its object an action, e.g. On Friday afternoon a subject thinks to herself ‘reply to this email by Monday morning’. In contrast, an intention in action, generated by the prior intention say on Monday morning, has as its object not the action that the subject is embarking on, i.e. replying to that email, but what Searle takes to be a component of it – actually moving her fingers to press keys on a computer keyboard.


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Correspondence to Alexandros Tillas.

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Tillas, A., Vosgerau, G., Seuchter, T. et al. Can Affordances Explain Behavior?. Rev.Phil.Psych. 8, 295–315 (2017).

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  • Dispositional Property
  • Explanatory Role
  • Systematic Contingency
  • Direct Perception
  • Subjective Aspect