Defining the Environment in Organism–Environment Systems

Frontiers in Psychology 11:1285 (2020)
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Enactivism and ecological psychology converge on the relevance of the environment in understanding perception and action. On both views, perceiving organisms are not merely passive receivers of environmental stimuli, but rather form a dynamic relationship with their environments in such a way that shapes how they interact with the world. In this paper, I suggest that while enactivism and ecological psychology enjoy a shared specification of the environment as the cognitive domain, on both accounts, the structure of the environment, itself, is unspecified beyond that of contingent relations with the species-typical sensorimotor capacities of perceiving organisms. This lack of specification creates a considerable gap in theory regarding the organization of organisms as coupled with their environments. I argue that this gap can be filled by drawing from resources in developmental systems theory, namely, specifying the environmental state-space as a developmental niche that shapes and is shaped by individual organisms over developmental and, on a population scale, evolutionary time. Defining the environment as an organism’s developmental niche makes it clearer how and why certain contingencies have arisen, in turn, strengthening a joint appeal to both enactivism and ecological psychology as theories asserting complementarity between organisms and their environments.
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