Ecological Psychology in Context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the Legacy of William James's Radical Empiricism

By Harry Heft | Go to book overview

Prologue: Intimations of an Ecological
Psychology

And just as an individual, to be free, must verbalize the past that has resulted in his present, so an entire science must remain in dialogue with its past and analyze its hidden biases and omissions if it is not to wither away into dried-up specialties and unfulfilling evasions. (Jaynes, 1973a, p. x)

The modern conception of psychology is rooted firmly in the Cartesian perspective. The expression “the Cartesian perspective” refers to the worldview accompanying the rise of the New Science, starting roughly in the early 17th century and represented in the work of such scientists as Galileo and Kepler. It received its clearest and most systematic articulation in the writings of Descartes, and later reached formal scientific expression in Newton's imposing cosmology and physics. Thus, the phrase “the Cartesian perspective” does not refer solely to the philosophical and scientific writings of Descartes. Instead, it is intended as a label for the convergence of thought among many empirically minded Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers who self-consciously, through logical reasoning and mathematical analysis, sought to liberate individual inquiry from centuries of institutional constraints. Its goal was, and is, to articulate the abstract, universal principles on which the natural order rests (Berlin, 1980).1

The Cartesian approach as applied specifically to psychological concerns recognizes two distinct domains: the environment and the person. It offers up a picture of the world consisting of matter in motion and, in contrast, a separate dynamic realm of mental phenomena where such materialistic accounts do not apply. Although phenomena of psychological interest—such as perceptual experience, thoughts, and emotions—are to be located within this domain of the person, their causes are typically sought in the material domain. What this conceptualization requires, then,

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With its emphasis on discovering decontextualized universals, the Cartesian perspective that came to be synonymous with the natural science approach differed from an alternative, but equally “progressive” approach to understanding represented by the humanists of the late 16th century (Toulmin, 1990).

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