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Moral Moments

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An Immortal Pair Passes

by Joel Marks

Last December the surviving member of an extraordinary duo of American psychologists passed away. Eleanor Jack Gibson was 92; her husband, James Jerome Gibson, had predeceased her by 23 years at the age of 75.

Eleanor Gibson, known to colleagues as 'Jackie,' was the doyenne among experimentalists in the field of developmental psychology. Prior to her work it was commonly accepted by the experts that a human infant, unlike the young of other species, required a long period of maturation before it could perceive even the simplest aspects of its surroundings. This made sense in light of the assumption that we end up smarter than other animals, in part because we have a longer time to take everything in, while they must fend for themselves relatively quickly. And this idea had the imprimatur of the great psychologist and philosopher William James, who had described the human infant's first view of the world as a “blooming, buzzing confusion.”

But Eleanor was skeptical of the received wisdom, perhaps because as a young woman in a male-dominated field, she had the advantage of close observation of her own young children growing up. The story goes that this all came to a head on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon, where she and James debated the risk of their two-year-old daughter coming too close to the edge! So Eleanor, with colleague Richard Walk, decided to put the question to a scientific test. They devised a `visual cliff,' which was a piece of glass extending from a tabletop. Would a human infant placed on the table attempt to avoid the (apparent) fall-off? The answer turned out to be “Yes”: We visually perceive depth when we are young enough to crawl. (But it is still a good idea not to leave your toddler alone on a tabletop since bodily coordination does not develop as readily as visual perception!)

Eleanor went on to conduct a program of exquisite experiments that culminated in her classic textbook, Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development. Meanwhile her husband James - known to colleagues as 'Jimmy' and to his graduate students as 'J.J.' - had more of a theoretical bent. One of his mottos, borrowed from the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin, was, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”

Like Eleanor, J.J. concentrated on problems in perception. His core belief was that sensory perception is an activity of an organism in its environment. This ran counter to the prevailing view that psychological beings such as ourselves are first and foremost attuned to their own minds, so that we experience a world of 'sensations' or 'images' and then must infer that something real corresponds to them in the 'external' or physical world. J.J. argued - and his students demonstrated in experiments - that, instead, vision (taking this as paradigmatic of perception) is grounded in the structure of the optical stimulation that enters the eyeballs, and that structure is in turn determined by the objects in our environment off which light is reflected. Thus, the structure contains informational content - “The information is in the light!” as J.J. would say - and our perceptual knowledge is realistically based, revealing to us the 'affordances' of the 'furniture' of the environment (e.g. “Apple says 'Eat me'”).

I had the privilege of knowing the Gibsons when I was a lowly undergraduate at Cornell University. I had fallen in with two of J.J.'s graduate students, Tony Barrand and Tom Toleno, who welcomed me into the ranks of the 'gibsonians'.

Becoming a regular attendee of J.J.'s graduate seminar was the defining experience of my academic vocation: I saw what a true theorist is like in action. Each week J.J. would issue a 'purple peril' (mimeographed handout), which would then be subjected to withering criticism by those who sat around the seminar table. I marvelled that from this apparently destructive and demoralizing process would emerge his polished publications.

But I even owe my philosophical vocation to J.J., although I would not recognize it as such until many years later. For prior to my exposure to his ideas, I had lived in a world consisting of 'objects' (including other people) plus me. But J.J.'s work made me realize that there is a Third Thing - my perceiving of those objects (and of myself, for that matter, at least qua ‘object’). In other words, I must come to know those objects - there is a problem - the problem of knowledge, in fact: epistemology. As I would recount to countless people thereafter (and even before formally discovering the discipline of philosophy), when one becomes aware of one's own consciousness, one's world is flipped on its head: All that had seemed most real now seemed least so, since all I knew were my own sensations, and so the existence of physical objects had become problematic. Thus, I was ripe for capture by Descartes and Berkeley, as did transpire.

It is ironical that J.J. had this effect on me, since his theory was intended to be antithetical to the transformation I underwent. Yet perhaps I was merely recapitulating his own development, from being the author of The Perception of the Visual World (1950), to the author of the definitive The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966). In the former book, J.J. had introduced his readers to the visual field, that flat array of colors and shapes which is projected onto our retinas and is also accessible to sensory consciousness if we attend to it. But, as with Wittgenstein, there was also a 'later' J.J.; the latter rejected the notion of an intellectual intermediary in perception and instead characterized the process as 'direct.' (Of course my own ideas have evolved as well.)

Eleanor (as I) met James when he was her professor while she was studying for her bachelor's degree. They were married the year after her graduation and eventually hired into the same department at Cornell. Thus, they were not daunted by the official discouragement of dating between student and teacher nor of nepotism between colleagues. Again bucking the odds, they are now united forever in the history of psychology.

© JOEL MARKS 2003

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com

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