Distinguished Dissident

James J. Gibson and the Psychology of Perception

by Edward S. Reed
Yale University Press, 348 pp., $32.50
James J. Gibson
James J. Gibson; drawing by David Levine

“There are some 20,000 psychologists in this country alone [in 1966], nearly all of whom seem to be busily applying psychology to problems of life and personality. They seem to feel, many of them, that all we need to do is consolidate our scientific gains. Their self-confidence astonishes me. For these gains seem to me puny, and scientific psychology seems to me ill-founded. At any time the whole psychological applecart might be upset. Let them beware!”

Such an utterance would not normally endear its author to his professional colleagues, but I find it hard to imagine anyone being angry with “Jimmy” Gibson. True, as an outsider, lacking all formal training in his field, I had and have no stake in the honor of the guild, but I was all the more happy to learn from Edward Reed’s biography that even Gibson’s academic critics testified to his “great personal warmth” and passion for the truth.

Reed’s book is evidently a labor of love. It tells the story of a “distinguished dissident” who felt reluctantly compelled by the evidence he encountered in his research to question views that had been taken for granted for centuries. Naturally, in the course of this intellectual odyssey Gibson’s statements became more and more antagonistic. Opening the book we frequently encounter emphatic assertions about what perception is not: “Perception is not to be explained as a construction of the mind.” It is “an act, not a response, an act of attention, not a triggered impression, an achievement, not a reflex.” Not a “guessing game,” but “a search for meanings.” These challenging statements, however, are invariably part of an argument based on rigorous reasoning and careful experiments. “A strenuous effort has been made”—Gibson wrote in the first of his books—“to keep the propositions of this book explicit enough to be potentially incorrect.” Consciously or unconsciously endorsing Karl Popper’s methodology, he also wrote: “The construction of a theory is most valuable when the theory is ‘vulnerable,’ when future experiments can but do not disprove it.”

Despite these incessant efforts to make himself clear, which led to much rewriting, Reed tells us that the implications of Gibson’s revolution have only rarely been understood. Perhaps he can console himself with Goethe’s paradoxical reflection: “In a way we only learn from books we do not understand, the author of a book we do understand would have to learn from us.” Admittedly there are books we do not understand but which we only use as a source of a new and possibly impressive vocabulary. Gibson introduced very few novel terms. The difficulties he presents and the profits he offers are of a different kind. What he asks us mainly to do is to unlearn. Our entire education has been geared to making us distrust our senses and slightly to look down on those who confuse their subjective experiences with objective facts.

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