According to Wikipedia, ‘an affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to perform an action. For example, a knob affords twisting, and perhaps pushing, while a cord affords pulling.’ (A photograph of a tea set in the Wikipedia entry bears the caption, ‘The handles on this tea set provide an obvious affordance for holding.’) Later we learn that James J. Gibson introduced ‘affordance’ in his 1977 article “The Theory of Affordances”; he ‘defined affordances as all “action possibilities” latent in the environment, objectively measurable and independent of the individual’s ability to recognize them, but always in relation to the actor and therefore dependent on their capabilities.’
I do not now remember where I first encountered the term–perhaps in my readings of embodied cognition literature in graduate school, probably. It has always struck me as a marvelously evocative term, and one of those that almost immediately serves to illuminate the world in a different light. We are physical beings, minds and bodies united, caught up in a tightly coupled system of world and agent; the world provides us affordances for our particular modes of interactions with it; we modify the world, modifying its affordances and change in response; and so on. The dynamic, mutually determining nature of this interaction stood clarified. Thinking of the world as equipped with affordances helped me envision the evolutionary filtration of the environment better; those creatures with traits suitable for the environment’s affordances were evolutionary successful. Knobs and cords can only be twisted and pulled by those suitably equipped–mentally and physically–for doing so. Babies learn to walk in an environment that provides them the means for doing so–level, firm surfaces–and not others. An affordance rich environment for walking, perhaps equipped with handles for grasping or helpful parents reaching out to provide support, facilitates the learning of walking. And so on.
But ‘affordance’ need not be restricted to understanding in purely physical terms. We can think of the world of psychological actors as providing psychological affordances too. An agent with a particular psychological makeup is plausibly understood as providing for certain modes of interaction with it: a hostile youngster, bristling with resentment and suspicion of authority restricts the space of possibilities for other agents to interact with him; the affordances he provides are minimal; others are more capacious in the affordances they provide. A psychological agent’s life can be viewed as a movement through a space of affordances; his trajectories through it are determined by his impingement on others and vice-versa; he finds his responses modified by those that the space allows or affords. As parents find out when they raise a child, theories of learning and rearing only go so far; the particular make-up of the pupil feed back to the parent and can modify the rearing strategy; the child has provided only some affordances that work with the child-rearing theory of choice. An inmate in jail is stuck in a very particular domain of psychological affordances; he will find his reactions modified accordingly.
Thinking of our exchanges with the world and other human beings in this light helps illuminate our dependence and influence on them quite clearly; we are not solitary trailblazers; rather at every step, we are pressed on, and push back. What emerges at every point and at the end bears the impress of these rich relationships with our environment, both physical and psychological.