Philosophy of Cognition: Topic7

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A Brief Intro[edit]

One of the issues characterizing a theory of distributed cognition is related to how humans turn their environment into something potentially meaningful and beneficial for their survival and reproduction. That is, the theory of distributed cognition has placed great emphasis on how humans solve their problems by externalizing functions to the environment. That is, the environment is not neutral from the cognitive perspective, but it is ready for supporting and extending our cognition in a certain way. Ecological psychology, for instance, insisted on the “invitation” or “demand” character of the environment. In this case, the emphasis is put on the way the agent and the environment may communicate or, even better, on how couplings may be established.

The notion of affordance helps us clarify the way the environment is transformed from a source of constraints to a source of chances. More precisely, the theory of affordance is particularly helpful in understanding how the human agent looks at the environment as a source of chances. That is, affordances are the locus in which a stable and functional relationship between the agent and the environment is successfully achieved. The term was coined by the ecological psychologist James Gibson who defined “affordance” as what the environment offers, provides, or furnishes. For instance, a chair affords an opportunity for sitting, air breathing, water swimming, stairs climbing, and so on. By cutting across the subjective/objective frontier, affordances refer to the idea of agent-environment mutuality.

More generally, the notion of affordance does not only contribute to shedding light on how the environment turns into a source of chances for the agent, but it also introduces another important related question: the question of how to access environmental chances. If the environment provides the agent with opportunities for behavior, how does the agent come up with them? How could we describe such a process?

The question of access is central also for a theory of distributed cognition. The idea of distributed cognition arises to take into account the way external resources become part of one’s cognitive system notwithstanding the fact that they are external to the brain. That said, the question of access is intimately related to distributed cognition as it explicitly addresses the problem of how the agent comes to be engaged in the exploitation of latent environmental resources in order to extend and shape pre-existing abilities. Here, the notion of affordance acquires a central meaning, as it offers a straightforward answer to the question of access. It states that the human agent has direct access to environmental chances.


Pick an object/tool/artifact you are familiar with and analyze its affordances.


What is an affordance?

How to integrate the concept of affordance with the distributed approach to cognition?

Compulsory readings[edit]

Gibson, J.J. (1977). The theory of affordances. In R. Shaw & J. Bransford (eds.), Perceiving, Acting and Knowing. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. Available at:

Recommended readings[edit]

Gibson, J.J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bardone, E. (2011) Seeking Chances. From Biased Rationality to Distributed Cognition. Chapter 4.