An Ontology of Affordances

Ecological Psychology 9 (1):97-112 (1997)
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I argue that the most promising approach to understanding J.J. Gibson's "affordances" takes affordances themselves as ontological primitives, instead of treating them as dispositional properties of more primitive things, events, surfaces, or substances. These latter are best treated as coalescences of affordances present in the environment (or "coalescences of use-potential," as in Sanders (1994) and Hilditch (1995)). On this view, even the ecological approach's stress on the complementary organism/environment pair is seen as expressing a particular affordance relation between the world and the analyst. That the world is parsed in any way among events and objects, perceivers and worlds, etc., reflects equally features of certain real or possible perspectives on the world and features of the world itself. In section 1, I begin by contending that, contrary to the apparent expectations of some in the field, the bare existence of affordances is surely quite uncontroversial. In section 2, I argue that the most reasonable approach to foundational ontology is a relativistic one. In section 3, I address the claim that affordances must be ontologically complemented by effectivities for the sake of completeness, and I shall argue against that claim on grounds that I take to reflect some of Gibson's most important insights. This work will help to clarify the way affordances are to be used in the fourth and final section, where I argue that ontological work, even within special sciences, should not be merely "regional," and that the most attractive general approach to ontological questions is one that is based on affordances, rather than upon things, events, surfaces, and the like.

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John T. Sanders
Rochester Institute of Technology


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