Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Ecological Analytic Philosophy

Despite my fear of being the person inappropriately dressed for the party (metaphorically speaking), I will attempt to relate ecological psychology to the analytic philosophical tradition (Adam, go easy on me).  After all, Harry Heft's description of the ecological approach (particularly that of Gibson) inspired within me a flashback to my last semester, not only within the continental camp (e.g. Merleau-Ponty, who was cited several times in the paper, not to mention concepts of the 'lived body' and apperception described by Husserl), but also within analytic attempts at demystifying perception (if one can call it that).  Specifically, I was reminded of the sense-data debate, with Bertrand Russell in one corner and Wilfrid STALKER Sellars in the other.  Ding, ding!  Round one!

I suppose I should begin by describing the idea of sense-data.  To be sure, there are many varieties of sense-data theories, and Bertrand Russell is not unique in his utilization of the term, though I believe he coined it, and perhaps not so coincidentally, is able to provide a clear definition of sense-data: "things that are immediately known in sensation: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardness, roughnesses, and so on," which is distinct from one's "experience of being immediately aware of these things" or act of 'sensation' (Russell, 2011, p. 4).

Enter Sellars, who begins his Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (EPM) (1991) by questioning the epistemological significance of sensing sense-data.  The first section includes Sellars' famous 'inconsistent triad' in which he expounds a problem in sense-data thought (the photo for this blog post is another kind of inconsistent triad).  However, leading up to this, he explains:

"[Sense-data theorists] have taken givenness to be a fact which presupposes no learning,
no forming of associations, no setting up of stimulus-response connections. In
short, they have tended to equate sensing sense contents with being conscious,
as a person who has been hit on the head is not conscious, whereas a new-born
babe, alive and kicking, is conscious. They would admit, of course, that the
ability to know that a person, namely oneself, is now, at a certain time, feeling
a pain, is acquired and does presuppose a (complicated) process of concept
formation. But, they would insist, to suppose that the simple ability to feel a
pain or see a color, in short, to sense sense contents, is acquired and involves a
process of concept formation, would be very odd indeed.
     But if a sense-datum philosopher takes the ability to sense sense contents to
be unacquired, he is clearly precluded from offering an analysis of x senses a
sense content which presupposes acquired abilities. It follows that he could
analyze x senses red sense content s as x non-inferentially knows that s is red
only if he is prepared to admit that the ability to have such non-inferential
knowledge as that, for example, a red sense content is red, is itself unacquired.
And this brings us face to face with the fact that most empirically minded
philosophers are strongly inclined to think all classificatory consciousness, all
knowledge that something is thus-and-so, or, in logicians' jargon, all
subsumption of particulars under universals, involves learning, concept
formation, even the use of symbols" (Sellars, 1991, p. 131).

Now perhaps it is clear why I made the jump from ecological psychology to a discussion of the analytical debate over sense-data.  It seems to me that what the sense-data theorists propose stands in stark contrast to the method by which Gibson and, consequently, Heft describe perception.  Furthermore, the concerns Sellars describes in his attack on the 'given' is perhaps relevant to the concerns expressed by the relational, ecological approach.  However, I wonder to what extent the ecological approach claims to provide not only a phenomenological method, but also an ontological and epistemological perspective, as they all seem very related (as demonstrated through Sellars' EPM).  In other words, to what extent are the 'objective' and 'subjective' qualities of affordances or this relational aspect constitutive?

Continuing with EPM, the second section is pretty much a re-hashing of Wittgensteinian ideas regarding language and usage.  The third section then gets interesting because Sellars complicates matters by developing thoughts on something "looking" (and "seeming") a certain way.  I would very much suggest taking a look at this discussion because it reveals just how difficult conceptualizations of one's experience can be:

"Indeed, at first sight the
situation is quite disquieting, for if the ability to recognize that x looks green
presupposes the concept of being green, and if this in turn involves knowing in
what circumstances to view an object to ascertain its color, then, since one can
scarcely determine what the circumstances are without noticing that certain
objects have certain perceptible characteristics -- including colors -- it would
seem that one couldn't form the concept of being green, and, by parity of
reasoning, of the other colors, unless he already had them" (Sellars, 1991, p. 147).

And then later:

" can have the concept of green only by having a
whole battery of concepts of which it is one element. It implies that while
the process of acquiring the concept of green may -- indeed does -- involve
a long history of acquiring piecemeal habits of response to various objects
in various circumstances, there is an important sense in which one has no
 concept pertaining to the observable properties of physical objects in Space
and Time unless one has them all -- and, indeed, as we shall see, a great
deal more besides" (Sellars, 1991, p. 148).

The sixth section is worth a read because he draws on other thinkers (Berkeley, Locke, Hume) to define his ideas (or rather, counter-ideas).  He also outlines the problems of the 'myth of the given' to be: 1) "How do we become aware of an immediate experience as of one sort, and of a simultaneous immediate experience as of another sort?" and 2) "How can I know that the labels I attach to the sorts to which my immediate experiences belong, are attached by you to the same sorts?  May not the sort I call 'red' be the sort you call 'green' - and so on systematically throughout the spectrum?" (Sellars, 1991, p. 157).

Sellars then goes on to discuss perception in terms of the acquisition of empirical information as contrasted with attempts at a foundational epistemology through sensations (akin to the former discussion).

It is with this that I will end this blog post (congratulations if you're still conscious, in any sense of the term).  There really is a lot to be found in EPM.  My only point, I suppose, was to draw a very delicate line between what Sellars did in rejecting sense-data theories and what Gibson and Heft were up to when dismantling traditional dualistic, mechanistic conceptualizations of perception.  Please note that I do not believe they have the same goals nor address the same problems in anything but a vague sense.  Indeed, Sellars' debate quickly takes a semantical turn and becomes lost in language and claims of knowledge (which is precisely his point).  However, both seem to highlight that one's experience of the world is not an independent 'given' occurrence, but rather, is necessarily situated in some way, whether it be a relational affordance or conceptually-based, intricate interactions between perception, language, and knowledge.

Russell, B. (2011). The Problems of Philsosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1912).

Sellars, W. (1991). Science, Perception and Reality. Atascadero: Ridgeview Publishing              Company. (Original work published 1963).

For anyone who would like a guide to Sellars' EPM, here is Brandom's guide.


  1. A very interesting thread, and well argued. Sellars' rejection of the Given is quite well aligned with the Gibsonian approach to perception, but there is much more work to be done in relating the two. You might be interested in relating Sellars arguments in EPM to Dan Hutto when we get on to enaction proper.

  2. Thanks Fred! Looking forward to reading some Hutto.

  3. Somehow my original comment does not seem to have registered. For some reason the second half of it is here when i go to comment again but the first has disappeared. I explain this just incase it somehow resurfaces and I seem to be repeating myself. Giving credit where it is due, this is thus merely an imitation, all rights reserved etc...

    Nice post!

    Good to see that Adam has transported back in time to put Heft right:

    "It seems to me that what the sense-data theorists propose stands in stark contrast to the method by which Gibbons and, consequently, Heft describe perception"


    Do you think there is space to bring these two approaches closer together (not a task I am offering to take on), or would that be missing the point of either approach altogether? Understanding affordances as ( in line with Heft) functional significances of environmental objects taken relative to what an individual can do with respect to them, we still need some method(s) for the calibration between subject and environment. The information being filtered in the array, or the aperature that permits its entrance and allows for its comprehension does seem at least in part conceptually driven. Maybe this is accounted for elsewhere?

  4. Thanks for your comments, Mark! Regarding your first point, Adam is indeed a talented guy. I'm constantly amazed by his abilities, time travel being the least impressive of them all. However, you were right to point out my typo. Thanks for that - it has been corrected :)

    Regarding your second point, I think it would be unfair to compare them as they are since they have different aims. Sure, both explore perception, but the point of the ecological psychology piece we read aimed to explain how perception is necessarily situated and embodied, while Sellars' views extend well beyond this. In EPM in particular, he did several things, most prominent of which might be to attack sense-data theorists and the 'myth of the given'. More specifically, he deals with the question of how (non-inferential) sensing of particulars could constitute knowledge. The ecological psychologists, however, did not seem to address these ontological and epistemological challenges. I think the closest Heft comes is to say: "Knowing how to do something necessarily implicates (1) the structural characteristics of the objects utilized in the performance of the action and (2) the structural characteristics of the body that engages those objects. In other words, knowing how to do something is situated knowledge" (Heft, 1989, p. 13), and later, "Thus, among the affordance possibilities of the environment, which are ontologically real, some affordances will be realized in the course of the individual's interaction with the environment" (Heft, 1989, p. 26). As a side note, "knowing how" is different from "knowing that," the latter of which Sellars deals with at great length. Nonetheless, I think you are right to demand more in the "calibration between subject and environment," and I suppose that was what I was trying to get at with this post. What does it mean to say affordances are 'ontologically real', and isn't perception (as explained by ecological psychology) intimately related to knowledge? To understand perception in this way requires concepts (influenced by culture, past experience, etc.), which seem to be inferentially known (in Sellars' terms). It then follows that perception cannot be non-inferential knowledge or simple 'givens', but then how do we have these concepts at all if we have no simple 'givens' on which to construct our concept? You can see how this gets messy very quickly, and while it gets far from the main points of Gibson and Heft, I think their views tend toward these kinds of dilemmas. Therefore, my only complaint (so far) is they perhaps took for granted the complexity of the issue of perception and its close relation to certain ontological and epistemological claims.

    That said, I have yet to read Turvey (who I believe writes on the ontology of affordances) as Fred had suggested - though I intend to once I (hopefully) catch up on work. If only I could control time like our good friend Adam...

    Heft, Harry (1989), Affordances and the body: An intentional analysis of Gibson's ecological approach to visual perception, J. Theor. Soc. Behavior, 19(1), 1-30.