13. The Extent of Our Abilities: The Presence, Salience, and Sociality of Affordances
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13  The Extent of Our Abilities: The Presence, Salience, and Sociality of Affordances While the concept of affordances is central to broadly embodied approaches to cognition, it is often relied on without sufficient explication. Here I seek to contribute to its clarification in the course of exploring its scope. The concept in its original and basic sense refers to potentialities for action, constituted by the relationship between animals and their physical environment (Gibson 1977; Greeno 1994). Recent research has sought to extend the concept into the social and cultural sphere (Ferri et al. 2011; Rietveld 2012). Such an extension, though promising, poses its problems and complications. My focus here will be mainly on the ability component, or complement, of affordances, as shaped and informed socially for human beings. We—in virtue of our sociability and plasticity —are particularly open to altering and developing our capacities and abilities, thereby extending the range of available affordances, expanding the scope of our space of potentiality . The distinctively dynamic and expansive nature of abilities for human beings, however, raises questions concerning the ontology of affordances, given their relativity to abilities, their being relative to abilities. These questions are particularly pressing, since much of the concept’s power comes from the claim that affordances are real, that they exist in some sense (Turvey 1992; Chemero 2003). I begin, briefly, with the basic core, to form a solid grasp of the concept before expanding outward into the social realm. I then raise some ontological issues posed by the changeability and variability of our (human, social) abilities. The resolution of these issues, I suggest, involves taking the temporal dimension of abilities and affordances seriously, particularly in terms of interaction across multiple temporal scales. Such a temporal perspective perforce encompasses the persistence of social and cultural patterns over time. I end by addressing abilities as they extend into—and are extended by—social interaction and coordination, and introduce the notion of joint affordances specifically, in contrast to the sociality of affordances more generally. Of course, a full consideration of much of what is touched on here exceeds my present scope and space. Indeed, this paper forms a portion of what is ultimately a much larger project, which involves tracing in detail the substance and application of the concept of John Z. Elias 246 J. Z. Elias affordances, from basic embodied engagements with the immediate physical environment to the possibilities of its application in the social and, perhaps, linguistic realm. 1  An Embodied Modal Realism Put simply, as a starting point at least, an affordance is a possibility or opportunity for action. Such a possibility depends on an animal’s abilities as well as what’s available in its environment ; an affordance, therefore, is necessarily complementary, a matter of mutuality between animal and environment (Stoffregen 2003). Thus a tree affords climbing for a cat that can climb; it does not afford so for a dog that cannot. It also affords shading for either, among other things. And the tree still affords climbing even when the cat is shading itself: that is, the affordance climbability persists whether or not the cat is in fact climbing or otherwise occupied by the act of climbing. Which is to say, affordances exist independently of their being currently perceived or attended to—so this isn’t some form of subjective idealism, in which their existence consists in their being perceived or intended (Sanders 1997). Yet their existence does depend on perceptual capacities more generally, since perception is an essential part of an animal’s ability to act in and on the world. However, everyone would agree—given one’s abilities and what is available in the environment —that there will be certain things one can and cannot do; this is hardly news. What keeps the idea from being trivial, what gives it substance, is its boldly ontological character, the claim that affordances actually exist, as actual possibilities for action. Thus the presence of a sharp stick presents the possibility for stabbing: it is a real possibility within the situation; absent such a stick, such a possibility would not exist. (Here, incidentally, one may wonder about the human ability to consider, or represent, possibilities not currently present, to reach beyond immediately available affordances, and to what extent other animals remain enclosed within their sphere of affordances; see, e.g., Millikan 2006.) The ontological status of affordances, their existence as real possibilities, or potentialities, for action, goes hand in hand with the core ecological claim of...