Gibson, “Theory of Affordances”

James J. "The Theory of Affordances." Perceiving, Acting,
and Knowing
. R.E. Shaw and J. Bransford, eds. Hillsdale, N.J.: Elrbaum,

Gibson’s seminal essay introduces the term, affordances, and
articulates the nuances in its application to ecological psychology. An
affordance, according to Gibson, is "a specific combination of the properties of
its substance and its surfaces taken with reference to an animal" (67).
Affordances are species-specific; they are functionally generic, in this
sense, applying differently according to the physiological tendencies of an

Affordances are those perceived aspects of the environment that suggest
suitability to habituated action (action likely to be carried out in kind by
others of the species). Objects, substances, and events all
afford activities (^events afford exigence). Niche, for Gibson, is
a set of affordances (how one lives rather than where, rather than
). And while niches are not, strictly speaking, places, they involve
occupation and suitability (even sustainability?). They also take root in a
middle space between the subjective and objective, according to Gibson (69). An
affordance is not wholly dependent on the observer’s perspective nor on the
absolute physical properties of an object. Niche, however, guides us toward an
understanding of affordances as real–constitutive of the phenomenal

Gibson further develops the concept of affordances using a series of
question-guided subsections:

What do substances afford? (71): ripeness and pleasure
What do surfaces and their layouts afford? (72): obstacles and locomotion
The Affording of Concealment (73): from ecological optics,
concealment involves positioning relative to layout
What do detached objects afford? (74): manipulation and tool-use
What do other animals and other people afford? (75): interaction, animation and
Summary: Positive and Negative Affordances (76): "There has been endless debate
among philosophers and psychologists as to whether values were physical or
phenomenal, in the world of matter or only in the world of mind. For affordances
as distinguished from values the debate does not apply. They are neither in the
one world or the other inasmuch as they theory of two worlds is rejected. There
is only one environment, although it contains many observers with limitless
opportunities for them to live in it" (77).

In the section titled, "The Origin of the Theory of Affordances," Gibson
situates affordances in work by Gestalt psychologists. He invokes valence,
a concept he attributes to Lewin which applies to the behavioral object rather
than the geographical object. The phenomenological object is entangled with the
intensities of the user. But Gibson wants to qualify affordances as something
more persistent than vectors and valences (78).

In the final section of the essay, Gibson distinguishes between perceiving
and misperceiving affordances. The need for perception means that affordances
can also be misperceived. : "No wonder, then, that quicksand is sometimes
mistaken for sand, that a pitfall can be mistaken for solid ground, that poison
ivy is sometimes mistaken for ivy, and that acid can be taken for water" (81).

"Now just as surfaces are stand-on-able and sit-on-able so also are they
bump-into-able or get-underneath-able, or climb-on-able, or fall-off-able" (68).

^Is Gibson’s a modernist project dependent on restrictive (or regular)
patterns of human behavior?  What, if not an affordance, is the
experimental edge of the thing-in-use? Are affordances incompatible with
singularity? Given the ties to perception (and ecological optics), this is an
interesting pairing with VV’s
"Seeing in Third
Sophistic Ways."

Key phrases: Koffka’s "demand character" (77), Kurt Lewin’s
"invitation-character" (78), valence (78), vectors (78),

Related sources:
Koffka, K. Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt,
Brace, & World, Inc., 1935.