Affective Affordances

In my first post on Monday, I mentioned that emotions have a complex normative dimension and that noncognitive accounts do not pay enough attention to the normativity of emotions. Embodied accounts (as I argued in yesterday’s post) explain quite nicely the central role that internal arousal, bodily postures, and facial expressions play in the constitution of the emotions’ being meaningful and action-orienting at the same time. Yet embodied accounts are particularly constrained when it comes to accounting for the normative dimension of emotions. This is because they (usually) are committed to naturalism and externalism. Let me explain what I mean by these terms and why I think they restrain embodied accounts.

Naturalism is usually understood as involving the ontological claim that there are no supernatural entities and that methodological claim that everything there is should be explained with reference to the best sciences we have. While naturalism constrains how we can account for norms and values, externalism forces us to think of the intentional objects of emotions as being definable independently of the emotion (so we cannot account for the emotions’ intentional objects in terms of, say, response-dependent value-properties). In my book I argue that we can account for the normativity of emotions without abandoning the framework of embodied accounts just described if we also assume that emotions are about affordances.

Affordances, according to James Gibson (1986), are features of the environment that exist objectively but only in relation to the organism and its abilities. These features are of value to the organism, they offer possibilities for action, and they highlight things that should be approached or avoided. For a particular organism, certain fruits look edible; for persons of a certain size and shape, certain objects look sit-upon-able; and so on. Gibson assumes that perception always involves proprioception and thereby has intentional objects that are fundamentally observer-relative, although the external information that is picked up through perception is assumed to be real. A tree might look climbable to a squirrel but not to me, while the floor looks walk-upon-able to me but not to a fish.

Things in the environment can be perceived as being of value, insofar as they match with the organism’s needs and skills. The notion of value here can be understood as an instrumental notion. Things needn’t be construed as being in any intrinsic or context-independent sense good or bad; they are simply good or bad for particular organisms in particular environments. But, crucially, their being good or bad for the organism does not depend on the organism representing them (or responding to them) as good or bad. An animal in an unfamiliar environment might entirely lack the ability to represent some berries as indigestible. But these berries nonetheless have the property of being indigestible simply in relation to the organism and its needs and abilities.

An affordance theory of emotional objects fits nicely with an embodied account as it offers a good prima facie understanding of the relation among bodily reactions, world-directedness, and motivating potential in emotions: the emotions’ “aboutness” is constituted by the bodily reactions they involve, and these bodily reactions can represent an external affordance, because they were set up by evolution (or a learning history) to do so. The bodily reactions, by preparing the body for action, also give an observer-relative shape to the intentional object of the emotion as it is grasped by the subject.

In the case of fear, rather than only representing something’s being dangerous, we represent it as a danger-to-be-avoided. Being dangerous is a relational property that was present in the environments of our ancestors already before they were able to respond emotionally to dangerous situations. The pattern of bodily reactions that evolved in response to this relational property turns the property into an affordance: something that is not only related to us as living organisms, but also to us as agents with certain abilities.

Emotions understood as representations of affordances are thus not only intentional (about relational properties) but also intensional (involving a particular way of grasping relational properties). But, crucially, emotions are intensional without thereby entailing complex representations with conceptual content; rather, they are intensional merely because the skillful bodily reactions that prepare one for action constitute a certain mode of presentation.

To develop this idea further let me characterize what relational properties and response-dependent properties are and then explain how relational properties constitute affordances. A property is a relational property if an object has this property not intrinsically but only with regard to another object. Relational properties are objective in the sense that their existence does not in general depend on our representing them or in any sense responding to them. Response-dependent properties, on the other hand, are those relational properties that are constituted by our representations or responses. In an embodied framework we need to assume that the objects of our emotions are at least partly constituted by relational properties that are not response-dependent in order to account for the emotions’ objects fitting into an externalist framework: these objects must belong to some externally defined class, such as the class of things that are dangerous for organisms like us in the case of fear, or the class of things that are indigestible for us in the case of disgust.

Gibson thinks of affordances as objects that are of value to the perceiving organism:

The perceiving of an affordance is not a process of perceiving a value-free physical object to which meaning is somehow added in a way that no one has been able to agree upon; it is a process of perceiving a value-rich ecological object. Physics may be value-free, but ecology is not (Gibson 1986, 140).

It is important to note that a naturalist approach can account for these values, since they can be understood as instrumental values, defined with regard to biological norms or standards such as the survival of the organism. As has been suggested above with regard to emotions such as fear and disgust, one might be happy to say their objects are of disvalue to us with regard to biological standards.

Yet, as has been suggested above, with regard to many emotions it looks implausible to determine their intentional objects in terms of bodily needs or biological values in the first place. For emotions such as guilt, shame, jealousy, envy, and pride, the social context in which they occur is constitutive for their intentional objects. I will focus on these emotions in my last post tomorrow.



Gibson, J. (1986): The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. New York: Routledge.


  1. Mike Roberts

    Thanks for the above, Rebekka – most interesting. Couple of questions:

    1) Would you say that “skillful bodily reactions that prepare one for action”, along with being modes of presentation, are also forms of activity themselves? Or would you want to make some kind of distinction? If so, why?

    2) How would you respond to someone who suggested collapsing the distinction between [perceiving X as dangerous] and [perceiving X as dangerous-and-to-be-avoided]? Is there a warrant for thinking that a case of perceiving the (former) relational property already contains within it some necessary kernel of response? How would you shake out [perceiving X as dangerous] in a way that avoided any kind of affective dimension? I.e. what would you say the phenomenology of that state is, that differed from the response-dependent case? Would appreciate your thoughts.

    • Rebekka Hufendiek

      Thanks, Mike, for two very interesting questions – both certainly worth to ponder about for a while. Here are two spontaneous suggestions, though:

      With regard to your first question, I guess the answer is yes. If by an activity (in contrast to an action) you mean a preintentional yet purposeful deed – then I guess several bodily responses that contribute to an emotion can be described in that way. Take the widening of the eyes in fear as an example. Many people have suggested that this alters the attention for further visual information – so you might want to call that an activity. An involuntary smile that communicates your joy is another example that deserves being called an activity but contributes to the overall mode of presentation at the same time.

      With regard to your second question, of course you can perceive the sharp blade of a knife and think “oh, that’s dangerous” without getting emotional. Yet I don’t think that there is a “pure perception” of the relational property that is not mediated by at least a slight bodily response. There can be different bodily responses to the same kind of property though. You might be only mildly scared by seeing a poisonous spider – I would panic and somebody else might freeze.
      The reason I insist that there are relational properties, and not only response-dependent one’s, is that I think these properties play an important role in explaining how we acquire emotions from an evolutionary point of view. Certain things can be dangerous for certain organisms even if they have no ability to detect that property at all. But dangerous things establish a selective pressure and fear responses are a highly flexible and effective answer to that pressure.

      What do you think?

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