The aim of my research is to develop a philosophical psychology that acknowledges the indeterminacies of the living world. To this end I explore the theory and scope of ecological psychology. Traditional psychology often moves from discussing experience in everyday life to mechanisms inside the head in a single breath. Ecological psychology by contrast stresses the importance of the environment, the particulars of the world in which psychological phenomena happen. A chair is seen to afford sitting when tired, and when alone at a party a familiar face is greeted with affection. The world is meaningful because it furnishes us with possibilities to act. I argue that the ecological approach can be pushed much further.
Recognizing experience as environmental engagement we may also ask: what concrete situations invite reflecting on our place in the world? Where do we love or grieve? Answering these questions requires expanding our notion of the environment and looking at how the histories of materials and the lives of humans meet in concrete “sociomaterial” situations. This means crossing disciplinary boundaries, combining methods that bring out how the world unfolds across multiple timescales, how it is shared with other people, across generations and species. It also means rethinking the place of tension, conflict and ambiguity in everyday life.
Below are the most important topics to which my view takes me. All are strongly collaborative projects. Research is a joint effort, even when writing alone.
- Why would indeterminacy and precariousness be any less real than those parts of the world that are specified and stable? What does psychology stand to lose by not having the concepts and methods that get indeterminacy into view? Working on ontology and affordances I draw on pragmatism and the environmental humanities to find out what answering such questions entails.
- In work on sociomaterial practices I aim to understand practices as a part of the world we share across generations and individuals. Drawing on pragmatist considerations as well as on anthropology and ethnography I explore ways to incorporate normativity into ecological theory as intricately bound up with the world for human animals, for instance by thinking of practices as the medium in which we perceive.
- To accommodate our psychological theories to deal with the precariousness of life in an open-ended world, I work on providing an ecological account of perception, inspired by radical empiricism and developmental systems biology. I’m especially interested in developing a usage-based account of information and in understanding the notion of specification.
- Ecological psychology aims to account for cognitive activities without recourse to mental representations that specify what we do. Yet progress is slow. Focusing on engagement with a historical and ongoing world promises a new way of approaching “representation hungry” activities: activities in which we’re aiming for what is not currently present, and therefore have been thought to require representations. My ethnographic studies focus on the material world of everyday, laboratory and architectural practice to understand the temporal structure of situations in which we deal with the absent or abstract.
- In writings on language I build on Wittgenstein and pragmatist sources to investigate the co-operative and temporal nature of talking in everyday life. Plugging this into ethnographic observations, the view takes me to consider the possibility that participating in linguistically structured practices is experienced as reflective thought.
- How should we characterize the way we coordinate with the world over time? In experimental work I’m interested in challenging traditional perspectives in productive ways. Using Gibsonian insights to study motor learning for instance the prevalent notion of transfer and the outcomes measures it takes into account were put into question. Practically these experiments showed for the first time that prosthetic skills are positively affected by playing games that use EMG, electric current from a person’s musculature, as an interface.
- For an ecological approach the concrete details matter. This requires rethinking the relation between empirical and philosophical work. Can ethnography replace, or be a philosophical argument? What about experiments? What is required of either method to weigh in on philosophy and conversely, what notion of philosophy allows for this? We may need to draw the boundaries between ontology and epistemology, and between objectivity and subjectivity, differently.
- Rethinking the place for normativity in an open-ended world leads to questions of responsibility. How do scientific practices structure our thinking and doing in everyday life? What role do humans play in the lives of other species? My research not only questions the logic but also the ethics of psychologies that shift attention away from the world that furnishes our possibilities to act, toward mental states “about” that world. I argue that psychological science has a particular responsibility to lead us to the material practices that afford us to question our own place in the world.