Harry. Ecological Psychology in Context. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum,
Heft undertakes an ambitious project: to account broadly for the formation
of ecological psychology as a viable and distinctive area of inquiry in the
human sciences generally and in psychology more specifically. He reads the
formation of ecological psychology through several figures: William James,
James Gibson and Roger Barker are most notable and included in the
subtitle. Basically, Heft sees James’ radical empiricism as a suitable
bridge to connect Gibson’s work on ecological optics and affordances
with more recent and pocketed uptakes of "ecological psychology" in various
disciplines. According to Heft, this is needed work because it begins to resolve
experimental psychology’s scientific compulsions, ironing out some of the
core suppositions that lead to "theoretical conflict."
Heft frames the motivation for ecological psychology in terms of three
tenets: an overhaul of cause (not simply taken as "mechanistic
antecedent-consequence relations" (xxiv)), revision of the mind/matter
split, and repairing the dichotomy between organism and environment.
From a stream of perceptual abundance, selectivity is a key in
understanding the relationship between experience and knowledge in EP. Also,
there is a clear–if not excessive–emphasis on functional relationships,
rather than critical or rhetorical relationships (to adopt Selber’s troika).
There’s a lot here, and I’ve focused mainly on Hefts explanation of
concept and percept, his expansion of affordances by explaining them
in terms of James, and his distinction between tool and artifact
(let the record select this selectivity). Gibson explains that affordances
paradoxically are both subjective and objective. Heft sorts out
Gibson’s ambiguity by using James’ idea of the "double-barreled nature of
conscious experience," which eliminates the thought-object split.
Also, to explain the relativism of affordances, Heft uses an anecdote about a
child in a daycare for whom the door does not afford passage like it does for an
adult (132). Tools, for Heft, are distinct from artifacts:
It will be more fruitful to employ a distinction offered by Ingold (1993)
between tools and artifacts: "A tool, in the most general sense, is an object
that extends the capacity of an agent to operate within a given environment;
an artefact is an object shaped to some pre-existent conception of form." (p.
433). Ingold was proposing here a distinction between materials (tools) that
have not been designed by an individual for a particular purpose, but instead
have been selected for the purpose of extending action possibilities, and
designed materials (artifacts) that have been explicitly fashioned with their
role in carrying our some task in mind" (341).
Revisit chapter 9, "Ecological Knowledge and Sociocultural Processes"
Key terms: sciences of the inanimate (physical) (xxii), mechanistic
foundations (xxii), adaptive agents (xxiii), knowing and selectivity (28),
James’ radical empiricism (37), percepts and concepts (38), optical flow (119),
occluding edge (122), affordance (123), affordances as percepts (129),
affectional experiences (129), ecological optics (147), cognitive maps (186),
ecological knowledge, dilated bodies, networks (356).
"At the level of human experience, animate beings, unlike inanimate
things, are (a) ceaselessly active and b) continually in the
process of engaging their surroundings in a selective manner.
Environmental conditions are in flux, and animate beings monitor these
ongoing conditions, make functional adjustments with respect to them, and
engage environmental features in relation to their own goals and
interests. For these reasons, (c) animate beings exist in relation to
a flow of events, and their functioning is best understood as that of dynamic,
organismic processes in context. Animate beings selectively engage
environmental features and selectively enter places in order to benefit from the
functional opportunities things and places offer. And more than this, (d)
animate beings participate in the modification of many of these very
features and places. In these respects, (e) animate beings are adaptive
"From the outset, experimental psychology has been caught between, on the one
hand, following successful paths established in the physical sciences
and, on the other hand, recognizing the necessity of grounding its concepts in
evolutionary theory" (xxix).
"Significantly, ecological psychology suggests an approach to meaning from a
third-person perspective, thereby offering a way of making this issue
amenable to experimental study" (xxiii). How to reconcile this with the
discussion of objective/subjective and affordances? (James’ double-barrel
"To back up for a moment, in radical empiricism, knowing refers
most fundamentally to a functional relation in experience between a
knower and an object known" (37). ^Heavy emph. on functional.
"Perceiving, then, is a direct, unmediated, selective
discovery of structure in immediate experience. And it is a selective process
that transpires continuously over time: Percepts ‘are singulars that
change incessantly and never return exactly as they were before’ (p. 253)" (39).
"Thinking or conceiving entails, in turn, selecting and
fixing particular parts of this perceptual flow. Through this
process concepts are carved out of immediate perceptual experience at a
remove from action and are abstracted from it" (40). This happens without a
relation to language? Is this "carving" a symbolic process? Iconic? A blend?
"What is the relation between percepts and concepts? For the
most part, conceptual orders to not replace or override the intrinsic
structure of perceptual experience. Instead, percepts and concepts
imperceptibly merge together. The experience of our mental life is largely an
interweaving of the immediate structure of perceiving and the abstracted systems
of concepts" (49). Absent an account of the role of language, it’s difficult to
follow how percepts trump concepts.
"An affordance is the perceived functional significance of an
object, event, or place for an individual" (123).
Event? Also, no collective affordances.
"Affordances are claimed to possess two distinctive and seemingly
contradictory characteristics: First, they are relational properties, and
second, they are properties of environmental features existing independently
of a perceiver" (124).
"One last point concerning James’ analysis of the double-barreled nature
of experience: For James, the kinds of experiences that most clearly reveal
this double-barreled quality are what he called ‘affectional experiences.’
Whereas in most cases through the selective process of knowing, an experience is
readily classified as ‘objective or subjective’ in terms of its relations to one
or another context, this possibility is much more difficult with experiences
that have a particularly strong evaluative character" (129).
"The objects and events of the environment are embedded in a rich web of
relations. Critically, these relations can be perceived by the knower; they
are ‘in’ the environment and not imposed on it" (143).
"As independent objects, tools reside potentially within an
individual-environment relation. They are environmental features that can become
appropriated into the goal-directed action of the individual; and in doing so,
they extend or amplify actions, and they alter the body’s phenomenal boundary
during their use" (342). Never before or after their use? This definition of
tool precludes language, no?
- Related sources:
- Heider, F. (1959a). Thing and medium. On perception and event
structure, and the psychological environment, Psychological issues, 1,
Monograph 3, 1034. (Original work published 1926).