The History of Psychology: Fundamental Questions

By Margaret P. Munger | Go to book overview
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James J. Gibson (1904–1979) attended Princeton University interested in psychology's an-
swer to the question, “What does it mean to be human?” He was exposed to a variety of
psychological answers and methods by the Princeton faculty of the 1920s, themselves
trained by German and American pioneers like Carl Stumpf and William James (p. 216).
One of Gibson's first projects was to assist Leonard Carmichael, recently returned from
Kurt Koffka's Berlin Institute, in building an apparatus to explore the apparent motion phe-
nomena noted by Max Wertheimer (p. 308) and J. Ternus. Gibson received his Princeton
Ph.D. in 1928 and began teaching at Smith College. During World War II, he studied the
perceptual problems facing pilots, including how to land an airplane accurately on a short
course. This altered the direction of Gibson's work because he became dissatisfied with the
contemporary definition of “stimulus.” He joined the Cornell University faculty in 1949
and wrote a great many articles and books, including the “Purple Perils”—short, contro-
versial essays designed to spark discussion in his weekly seminar. Gibson became increas-
ingly frustrated with psychology's orientation and direction: “It is time to stop pretending
that scientific psychology is a well-founded discipline. We continue to do so by keeping
silent about the contradictions at its foundations, and by glossing over the vagueness of its
fundamental issues… The student has the right to know what is really incoherent in the
textbook, for part of his bewilderment is not the fault of his understanding, but of the sub-
ject-matter itself.” Gibson's wife, Eleanor J. Gibson, professor emeritus of psychology at
Cornell University, studies perceptual development in infants and is often mentioned in
textbooks for her work on depth perception using the visual cliff.



I have described the environment as the surfaces that separate substances from the medium in which the animals live. But I have also described what the environment affords animals, mentioning the terrain, shelters, water, fire, objects, tools, other animals, and human displays. How do we go from surfaces to affordances? And if there is information in light for the perception of surfaces, is there information for the perception of what they afford? Perhaps the composition and layout of surfaces constitute what they afford. If so, to perceive them is to perceive what they afford. This is a radical hypothesis, for it implies that the “values” and “meanings” of things in the environment can be directly perceived. Moreover, it would explain the sense in which values and meanings are external to the perceiver.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. The antecedents of the term and the history of the con

From James J. Gibson. “The Theory of Affordances.” In The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, (pp. 127–143). Hillsdale,
NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1979.


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