Ever since Descartes, there has been a looming elephant in the room for psychologists and philosophers: how do you resolve the difference between mental acts and physical ones? Is there a ontological difference between the physical and mental? Is the problem even worth discussing? In this post I want to discuss the revolutionary ideas of James Gibson on perception and their implication for Cartesian dualism.
For early to mid 20th century psychologists, this dichotomy of the mental versus physical surfaced in the opposition of the behaviorist and Gestalt schools of thought. On one hand, the behaviorists wanted to completely ignore the “black box” of the mental domain in order to explain experience, while on the other hand, the Gestaltists wanted to use “top-down” mental rules to explain the same phenomena. James Gibson side-stepped this opposition completely and thought that the two schools were both being inhibited from progress by the same conceptual stumbling block: namely, implicit Cartesian dualism.
The behaviorists wanted to impose a distinction between physicalist forces and mental ones i.e. the physical world stimulates the mental realm and the mental realm then causes the body the react. The Gestalt psychologists also wanted to keep these two realms separate, but differed from the behaviorists by trying to phenomenologically investigate the mind through “cognitive” rules of Gestalt organization. In coming up with a theory of perception, Gibson was able to avoid this dualistic trap by focusing on an integration of the mental and the physical into a single domain: the realm of organisms meaningfully acting in an environment, as opposed to being a passive receivers of stimuli.
Gibson opposed this “response psychology” firstly by coming up with research methodologies that bypassed dualism, and secondly, by postulating theoretical frameworks for his research results to rest in. In this post I’d like to discuss the theoretical underpinnings of his pioneering research in the field of visual perception.
Possibly the most important concept in Gibsonian psychology is concept of “exploration” as being a critical aspect of perception. Going against hundreds of years of philosophical dogma, Gibson likened perception to an activity, or active skill that is employed to obtain information about the environment. As Gibson put it, “perception is active, not passive. It is exploratory, not merely receptive…Exploratory movements of the eyes, the head, and even locomotor exploration in the surrounding may all the thought of as a search for more information.”
Traditionally, perception has been analyzed in terms of distal versus proximal stimuli. That is, distal photons stimulate the proximal retinal photoreceptors, the mind interprets this information, and that is all there is to it. Gibson radically challenged this view. The alternative framework Gibson proposed seeks to analyze stimuli which excite the organism, not the retina. Thus, Gibsonian psychology seeks to explain perception in terms of an active organism exploring the environment and getting information about said environment for evolutionary purposes, as opposed to being a mere passive responder to physical stimuli hitting the retina.
The environment [consists of] a sort of reservoir of possible stimuli for both perception and action, light, heat, sound, odor, gravity, and potential contacts with objects that surround the individual…the sea of energy has variables of pattern and sequence which can be registered by sense organs.(Gibson, 1960c)
Gibson proposed that the fundamental distinction was not between different levels or forms of stimuli in perception, but rather, between “modes of activity”: voluntary behavior/perception versus “imposed” stimulation. The difference being in the former stimuli are obtained by active organisms on a functional level, and in the second it is merely “imposed” on any level.
Gibson’s belief that perception is the means whereby observers keep in touch with the valuable things around them thus led to his rejection, not only of behaviorism, but of the causal theory of perception as well. He came to consider perception an activity of motivated individuals, not the result of physical causes impinging on bodies inside of which minds are trapped.
-Reed, James Gibson and the Psychology of Perception
So, James Gibson was such a revolutionary figure in psychology, not only because he was a brilliant experimentalist, but also, because his theoretical frameworks were radical departures from the implicit Cartesian dualism that had plagued psychology and philosophy for hundreds of years. He was able to move beyond the stimulus-response framework and into a conceptual schema that took organisms in environments seriously.