New publication: enactive ethnography of skilled intentionality in architecture

Well known philosophy journal Phenomenology & the Cognitive Sciences has accepted our paper on optimal grip on affordances in RAAAF’s architectural design practices. It is based on Anne Brouwers’ ethnography as an embedded researcher at RAAAF ‘s studio.

Download it here: Rietveld, E. & Brouwers, A.A. (2016) Optimal grip on affordances in architectural design practices: An ethnography. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, doi: 10.1007/s11097-016-9475-x

Figure 1

This paper will be interesting for philosophers of enactive/embodied cognitive science, philosophers working on distributed cognition and architects/artists curious about RAAAF’s way of working and affordance-based architecture more generally.


New publication on self-organization and skilled intentionality

Jelle Bruineberg and I have published a new paper on self-organization and skilled intentionality. (An earlier 2008 paper on this topic can be found here.) Jelle is one of the PhD-students on VIDI-project ‘Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind’ at the University of Amsterdam. The paper is published in a Frontiers in Human Neuroscience special issue on the implications of Tony Chemero’s (2009) book Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. Here is the abstract and a link to the page where one can download the PDF of our paper:


Self-organization, free energy minimization, and optimal grip on a field of affordances

In this paper, we set out to develop a theoretical and conceptual framework for the new field of Radical Embodied Cognitive Neuroscience (cf. Chemero, 2009). This framework should be able to integrate insights from several relevant disciplines: theory on embodied cognition, ecological psychology, phenomenology, dynamical systems theory, and neurodynamics. We suggest that the main task of Radical Embodied Cognitive Neuroscience is to investigate the phenomenon of skilled intentionality from the perspective of the self-organization of the brain-body-environment system, while doing justice to the phenomenology of skilled action.

In previous work, we have characterized skilled intentionality as the organism’s tendency towards an optimal grip on multiple relevant affordances simultaneously (Rietveld, 2012a/b/c). Affordances are possibilities for action provided by the environment (Gibson, 1979; Chemero, 2003). In the first part of this paper, we introduce the notion of skilled intentionality and the phenomenon of responsiveness to a field of relevant affordances.

FigureRietveldBruineberg2014ISSASpdf2Figure 1: Sketch of conceptual framework to be refined (Rietveld, 2012c). Through skilled intentionality one gets a grip on a field of affordances. (Inspired by: Thompson, 2007, 2011; Chemero, 2003, 2009; Dreyfus, 2007; Tschacher & Haken, 2007; Rietveld, 2008a/b/c).

Second, we use Friston’s (2000, 2011) work on neurodynamics, but embed a very minimal version of his Free Energy Principle in the ecological niche of the animal. Thus amended, this principle is helpful for understanding the embeddedness of neurodynamics within the dynamics of the brain-body-environment system. Next, we show how we can use this adjusted principle to understand the neurodynamics of selective openness to the environment: interacting action-readiness patterns at multiple timescales contribute to the organism’s selective openness to relevant affordances.

In the final part of the paper, we emphasize the important role of metastable dynamics in both the brain and the brain-body-environment system for adequate affordance-responsiveness. We exemplify our integrative approach by presenting research (De Haan, Rietveld, Stokhof & Denys, 2013) on the impact of Deep Brain Stimulation on affordance responsiveness of OCD patients.

Upcoming invited talks Spring 2014

Over the next few weeks we will present work at several interesting and recommended events. Most are in the field of enactive or embodied cogntive science, some in the fields of art & architecture.

May 22, An Outstanding Landscape of Affordances, lecture and animation, RAAAF together with Barbara Visser, Invited by Atelier of the Chief Government Architect (Rijksbouwmeester Frits van Dongen), Ministry of Finance, The Hague.

May 26, Sitting Kills: Towards an Landscape of Standing Affordances, Grand Round, Academic Medical Center (AMC), Amsterdam.

June 20, The Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind, Expert Meeting Psychiatry & Philosophy, Radboud University, Nijmegen.

June 20, Expert Practice in DBS Parameter Optimization (presented by Maarten van Westen), Expert Meeting Psychiatry & Philosophy, Radboud University, Nijmegen.

June 24, Vacant NL on the Move (together with Ronald Rietveld), Kunsthal, Rotterdam. (An interview with Dutch newspaper Volkskrant can be found below.)InterviewVolkskrant2zoom230614

June 24, Vacancy Studies (presented by Arna Mackic), Strijp S, Eindhoven.

June 26, Affordances in archtectural practice, EWEP 13 symposium organized by Rob Withagen ‘Affordances and architecture: Towards an ecological approach‘, Queens University, Belfast.

July 6-14, Action readiness in a landscape of affordances (together with Jelle Bruineberg), International Summer School in Affective Sciences, Swiss NCCR Affective Sciences Center (ISSAS), Geneva University, Château de Bossey, Switzerland.


RAAAF elected Dutch Architect of the Year

RAAAF [Rietveld Architecture-Art-Affordances] is Dutch Architect of the Year 2013. A jury composed by Archtectenweb selected RAAAF out of a shortlist of 6 nominees including Mecanoo and RAU. From the jury report: “The jury appriciates RAAAF as a unique and headstrong architecture studio. Focusing on relevant issues RAAAF sets its own agenda, explores hidden layers within these themes, and creates unprecedented possibilities in the places touched. Their work expresses crafsmanship, is concrete, visually strong, optimistic, and detailed beautifully.”


Read more here (in Dutch).

Sketch of the Field of Affordances published in Frontiers

One of my ongoing interests is visualizing the field of affordances. See for instance the Trusted Subcultures-project RAAAF presented at the Sao Paulo Biennale 2009, using social affordances to create new public domain for the centuries old water city of Amsterdam. Or, more recently, our project Outstanding Landscape of Affordances.


Another example is the Dutch Atlas of Vacancy in which we investigated the affordances (in context) of 10.000 empty public builldings in the Netherlands. For instance the possibilities for making noise: at a vacant air base or in a vacant bunker one can make sounds of 140DB without disturbing anyone.



In a new special issue on Neurophenomenology edited by Evan Thompson for Frontiers, Sanneke de Haan, Martin Stokhof, Damiaan Denys and I have now published a more abstract sketch of different fields of affordances.


Figure: Sketch of different fields of relevant affordances (De Haan, Rietveld, Stokhof & Denys, 2013)

We propose that the changed world as described by the 18 OCD patients with Deep Brain Stimulation interviewed by us at the Academic Medical Center can be fleshed out in terms of changes in their field of relevant affordances. We can distinguish three dimensions to this field: the “width” refers to the broadness of the scope of affordances that one perceives. This dimension relates to having a choice or action options. The “depth” of the field refers to the temporal aspect: one not only perceives the affordances that are immediately present here and now, but one is also pre-reflectively aware of future plans and possibilities for action: the affordances on the horizon that one is responsive to, so to speak. This temporal horizon reflects our anticipatory affordance-responsiveness. Lastly, the “height” of each of the affordances refers to the relevance or importance of the affordances that one is responsive to, i.e., to the experienced solicitation or affective allure. This dimension of relevance and salience relates to the motivational force of affordances.

The title of our (open access) article is: The phenomenology of deep brain stimulation-induced changes in OCD: An enactive affordance-based model. 

VIDI-grant awarded by Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO)

Great news: Today I learned that I’ve been awarded a VIDI-grant! This means 5 years of fundamental research in philosophy and generous NWO-funding to develop my research group. Here is a short project description:

The Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind

In many situations, experts at work act successfully, yet without deliberation. Architects, for example, perceive immediately the opportunities offered by the site of a new project, and intuitively improve the size of the door in one of their designs. One could label these manifestations of expert intuition as ‘higher-level’ cognition, but still these experts are just acting unreflectively. Traditionally in philosophy, so-called ‘higher’ cognitive capacities are associated more with explicit deliberation and linguistic forms of rationality than with unreflective action, but this has left unexplained the characteristic phenomenon of intuitive expertise (e.g. intuitively improving a design).


The two central ideas behind this NWO VIDI-proposal are (a) that many of these context-sensitive episodes of ‘higher’ cognition can be understood along the same lines as everyday skillful unreflective activities, such as grasping a coffee cup or riding a bike; and (b) that our surroundings contribute to skillful action and cognition in a far more fundamental way than is generally acknowledged.

My long term aim is to use these ideas to develop a novel conceptual framework for embodied or ‘enactive’ cognitive science (Thompson, 2007; Chemero, 2009). The cognition we find in expert intuition is very context-sensitive because it consists of responsiveness to multiple possibilities for action provided by our surroundings, or ‘affordances’. I argue that the notion of affordances is rich in application, so it makes sense to say both that a cup affords grasping and that a friend’s sad face affords comforting. Moreover, we are bodily responsive to a multiplicity of affordances simultaneously (Rietveld, 2012a/b). Embodied cognition amounts here to skillful responsiveness to the many affordances available in one’s surroundings; a selective responsiveness to a whole field of affordances.

This integrative, philosophical framework is innovative in showing how the increasingly influential field of embodied cognitive science has a much wider scope than previously thought. Findings thought to be exclusively valid for everyday unreflective action (or for sensorimotor behavior) can now be applied to skilled ‘higher’ cognition, or better, expert intuition (project 1). We will also show concrete, real-world applications in the domains of architecture (project 2) and psychiatry (project 3 on Deep Brain Stimulation), respectively. Interactions with renowned experts in these practices feed the development of the overall framework. Another project (4) will advance convergence with Karl Friston’s influential work on the anticipating brain, by situating the latter in the whole system ‘brain-body-landscape of affordances’.

Read more: interview with SMART Cognitive Science


Progress on plans for future research

I spent last summer writing two exciting new research proposals for fundamental work in philosophy of enactive/embodied cognition. These new ideas have been inspired by my experiences with embedded research in the worlds of architecture and psychiatry.

I have now been informed that my philosophical research proposals have been selected for the final rounds of both the ERC Starting Grant and NWO’s VIDI scheme for innovative research. The aim of these novels plans is showing how my understanding of embodied cognition as skillful responsiveness to the rich landscape of affordances offered by our surroundings opens up new perspectives for studying skillful ‘higher-level’ cognition and context-sensitivity, which are important open issues in enactive or embodied cognitive science. Central to the VIDI will be a new project on Deep Brain Stimulation and skilled intentionality.