Ecological Psychology in Context
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Ecological Psychology in Context

James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the Legacy of William James's Radical Empiricism

Harry Heft

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eBook - ePub

Ecological Psychology in Context

James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the Legacy of William James's Radical Empiricism

Harry Heft

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In this book Harry Heft examines the historical and theoretical foundations of James J. Gibson's ecological psychology in 20th century thought, and in turn, integrates ecological psychology and analyses of sociocultural processes. A thesis of the book is that knowing is rooted in the direct experience of meaningful environmental objects and events present in individual-environment processes and at the level of collective, social settings. Ecological Psychology in Context:
*traces the primary lineage of Gibson's ecological approach to William James's philosophy of radical empiricism;
*illuminates how the work of James's student and Gibson's mentor, E.B. Holt, served as a catalyst for the development of Gibson's framework and as a bridge to James's work;
*reveals how ecological psychology reciprocally can advance Jamesian studies by resolving some of the theoretical difficulties that kept James from fully realizing a realist philosophy;
*broadens the scope of Gibson's framework by proposing a synthesis between it and the ecological program of Roger Barker, who discovered complex systems operating at the level of collective, social processes;
*demonstrates ways in which the psychological domain can be extended to properties of the environment rendering its features meaningful, publicly accessible, and distributed across person-environment processes; and
*shows how Gibson's work points the way toward overcoming the gap between experimental psychology and the humanities. Intended for scholars and students in the areas of ecological and environmental psychology, theoretical and historical psychology, cognitive science, developmental psychology, anthropology, and philosophy.

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Information

Jahr
2001
ISBN
9781135689582
I
Ecological Theory and Philosophical Realism
Image
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, is that psychological analyses come to grips with processes of both the person and the environment—and it is here where the going gets rough. For if occurrences in the environment follow physical laws that are best understood as mechanical events, and if phenomena of the mental realm follow dynamic, nonphysicalist principles, then psychological phenomena in this dualistic framework cannot be related in any straightforward way with conditions of the environment.
How then can events in the physical world and phenomena of the psychological domain be coordinated? How can lawful relations be identified between environmental conditions and persons? Because the features of the environment and the operations of the body are both describable in the common currency of physical properties and mechanical events—that is, because the mechanical operations of the physical body are co-extensive with the mechanics of the physical environment—the body can be viewed as functioning as an intermediary between the environment and the mental realm.
This dualistic Cartesian perspective, which requires the coordination of a physical mechanistic domain (environment and body) and a dynamic mental domain, is contemporary psychology’s legacy from its intellectual past. In the wake of this history, psychological theories have either followed this formulation generally and uncritically, or have adopted analyses that in the manner of their rejection of dualism retain some of its most problematic features.
CONCEPTUALIZING THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE PERSON
Let us look more systematically at the way the environment and the person are conceptualized in the Cartesian perspective. The picture of the environment offered by this perspective is that of a world of inert matter in mechanical interaction. Matter and the objects composed from it are located in a container of space, their location specifiable with reference to three Cartesian coordinates, and also along a dimension of abstract time (Burtt, 1954). The various properties of objects in the world are describable in forms of physical energy, and through these energies, object properties are conveyed to the knower: Visually perceivable properties of objects are conveyed by light energy giving rise to visual experience. Tangible properties, such as solidity and texture, and sounds emitted from inanimate and animate objects are conveyed via mechanical energy and realized psychologically as tactual and auditory experience, respectively. The chemical composition of environmental features is conveyed by chemical energy and realized as taste and smell. This kind of account of the physical properties of the material world forms the basis of most contemporary treatments of the environment in experimental psychology.
And how have processes of the person been conceptualized? Such conceptualizations have changed in scientific circles over the past several centuries from an unholy Cartesian dualistic alliance of mechanical bodily processes and those of an unextended soul, either in interaction or in a parallel relation, to a more exclusive concern with material processes of the body. Analyses of bodily processes have themselves progressed from accounts described in purely mechanical terms, modeled after inanimate phenomena [e.g., the hydraulics of a closed system of fluids (Descartes) or the vibrations of taut strings (Newton and Hartley)], to analyses using biochemical concepts more suited to the nature of organic processes.
Taking a long view, then, this developing understanding of environmental properties and of person processes has followed different trajectories. Whereas the conceptualization of person processes has radically changed over the past three to four centuries, the concepts that psychologists employ today to describe the environment are substantially the same as those that scientists used in the days of Galileo, Descartes, and especially Newton. Looking at these different trajectories, would advances in the biological sciences have enabled a more primitive understanding of living processes to catch up with a more sophisticated understanding of the environment? Or, alternatively, in some sense, has the conceptualization of the environment in psychology failed to keep pace with changing views of the living organism? Although at first glance the first of these interpretations may seem more accurate, in my estimation, it is our conceptualization of the environment from a psychological perspective that is lagging behind.
The Newtonian revolution in the physical sciences during the Enlightenment has a counterpart in the Darwinian revolution in the life sciences of the 19th century. Evolutionary theory has obvious and important implications for the way in which psychologists think about living things, and consequently, this framework has dramatically transformed the conceptualization of the organism. Perhaps less obviously, but equally important, are the implications of evolutionary theory for how psychologists think about the environment. However, now, almost 150 years since the publication of The Origin of the Species, the treatment of the environment in psychology, for the most part, remains unchanged since the Enlightenment and is still couched in the language of the physical sciences.
Here is the origin of many of the theoretical tensions in experimental psychology. Put perhaps much too simply, the reason is this: The implications of the Darwinian revolution in the life sciences have yet to catch on fully in contemporary psychology. While psychological analyses of organismic processes have been transformed by evolutionary thinking, psychological analyses of the environment relevant to organismic functioning have not. In the absence of a conceptualization of the environment more in keeping with evolutionary thinking, the current analyses of psychological issues are infused with a mixture of concepts from the physical sciences and the biological sciences, not to mention verbal descriptions of first-person mental experience of psychological processes.2
Conceptual confusion results when psychological phenomena are described simultaneously in these various ways. And yet this is what is often done in contemporary psychology. Take the standard formulation of perception. It entails a physical description of environmental conditions and some combination of biological and experiential description applied to the individual, and oftentimes hypothetical intrapsychic processes are included as well. For example, the conventional textbook account of visual perception is a description of physical energies of light, which initiate biochemical processes in the retina and subsequent neural activity in the optic pathways and cortex, resulting in a mental representation of the environment with correlates in conscious experience.
But the conceptual frameworks provided by the physical sciences and the life sciences, as well as phenomenological analysis, are alternative descriptive systems, and each descriptive system may be more appropriately suited to one kind of phenomenon than another. What often seems to be absent in much of contemporary psychology is explicit recognition that many of its commonly used concepts stem from alternative explanatory systems. One way to conceptualize the differences between the concepts of these alternative explanatory systems is with reference to the notion of differing levels of organization. As is discussed later (chap. 8), natural phenomena can be viewed as being organized at different levels of organization, and particular conceptual resources are better suited for capturing the distinctive processes operating at one level of organization as opposed to another. For example, when a problem is identified at a biochemical level, such as how photochemicals in the retina are altered by light and then reconstituted, an analysis at the level of physical and biochemical processes is clearly most desirable. However, when psychological processes are the concern (e.g., perceiving the layout of environmental features), what is needed is an account of the functional relation between the properties of environment and an individual’s actions.
A functional analysis centers on the individual’s ongoing transactions with meaningful features of the environment. Accordingly, it involves a conceptualization of environmental conditions at a molar (rather than molecular) level of organization commensurate with an individual’s molar, purposive actions (i.e., the self-directed actions of the whole organism). In other words, a functional analysis emphasizes the intentionality of individuals’ actions, and concurrently adopts a molar analysis of the environment in relation to which these actions transpire. With this focus, psychologists are in a position to work within a framework where both facets of the environment-person relation are conceptually commensurate. And, maintaining commensurate analytical levels is crucial because in this way the ongoing, reciprocal interrelations between the environment and the person become conceivable in a coherent manner. At this level of analysis, individuals engage the environment in order to learn more about its properties and, in many instances, individually and collectively contribute to the environment’s changing functional character. This kind of analytical stance, emphasizing the reciprocity of the environment and the person, is a central feature of an ecological approach.
Because it has these attributes, the ecological approach to be explored in subsequent chapters avoids many of the seemingly intractable problems and theoretical tensions associated with the standard Cartesian formulation, with its conjoining of physical variables, biological processes, and conscious experience. Perhaps more significantly, the ecological framework will create opportunities for breaking new conceptual ground in psychology.
Where does one begin to develop an ecological analysis of the environment and the individual? Many of the concepts needed for such a project, as well as the metatheoretical foundations required for its further development, have been available in the psychological literature for some time. The next section begins to draw some of these ideas together.
COLLECTING THE THREADS OF ECOLOGICAL PSYCHOLOGY
Looking for the precise historical beginning of an idea is usually an empty exercise. Intellectual progress is a cumulative and collective enterprise among a community of inquirers extended over historical time and distributed across geographical places. At some point, however, anticipatory ripples from diverse sources converge into the beginnings of a ground swell, at which time a certain idea may come to be expressed explicitly for the first time. Accordingly, in this study of ecological psychology, no single event marks its initial development; but some significant historical threads that appeared earlier in this century can be picked up.
A good place to start is Heider’s (1926/1959) classic essay “Thing and Medium,” and Tolman and Brunswik’s (1935/1966) joint paper “The Organism and the Causal Texture of the Environment.” Both papers point to a problem that has been insufficiently addressed in psychology, a problem most explicitly formulated by Heider.
Generalizing from first-person experience, it would seem that all individuals perceive a world populated with innumerable objects and features (e.g., trees, houses, tools, other individuals etc.). And yet perception as it has typically been studied in psychology begins with a consideration of the impact of physical stimulation from the world on specialized sensory receptors of the body. If contact with the world consists of physical stimulation of these receptor interfaces located on the body, how is it that individuals experience a world of features “out there” that extends away from them and among which they negotiate? How is it possible to bridge the gap, conceptually speaking, between the perceiver and the environment?
In the case of vision, by beginning an analysis of perception with retinal stimulation, the next step is to discover how the character of the experienced world can be derived from these scintillations of receptor firings. However, a prior question has been overlooked: What is the relation between the environment and visual stimulation? Or, stated more generally, what is the relation between the structure of the environment and stimulation at receptor surfaces? This is the important question raised by Heider.
The only framework for the analysis of perception available to most psychologists is one that takes physical stimulation as the appropriate conceptualization of the “stimulus.” Beginning with a conceptualization of the stimulus as physical stimulation at the receptor level creates enormous, and perhaps insurmountable, theoretical and philosophical problems for any account of perception because from the outset the structural properties of the environment are absent. With such a formulation, perception of environmental features becomes, if not magical, then pure guesswork.
Alternatives to this approach are lacking because, quite simply, the structure of the environment from a psychological perspective, as contrasted with a physical perspective, has rarely been considered. Heider (1930/1959) described the situation this way:
Everybody will concede that the perceptual apparatus belongs to an organism which is adapted to the environment; nevertheless, in discussion of perception the structure of the environment is often completely neglected, and only the proximal stimuli (for instance, the wave length of the stimuli impinging on the organs) are taken account of. (p. 35)
Heider’s essay and the Tolman and Brunswik paper offered different approaches to this problem. Heider considered how structure can be conveyed via a medium, such as the air, to a perceiver. Tolman and Brunswik (1935/1966) offered a broader analysis of what they called the environment’s “causal texture,” wherein the probabilistic dependencies existing among environmental events can be the basis for an organism developing expectations of environmental structure (see chap. 6).
At first glance, consideration of the problem of environmental structure may seem to be only a narrow concern for the analysis of perception. But there is hardly a topic in psychology for which considerations of the nature of the environment and an individual’s relation to it do not play an essential role. As Tolman and Brunswik (1935/1966) pointed out:
All the problems of psychology—not only those of visual perception and learning—but the more general problems of instinct, insight, learning, intelligence, motivation, personality, and emotion all center around this one general feature of the given organism’s abilities and tendencies for adjusting to these actual causal textures [of the environment]. (p. 483, emphasis added)
If this claim is warranted, analysis of the structure of the environment w...

Inhaltsverzeichnis

  1. Cover Page
  2. Half Title page
  3. Series Page
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Dedication
  7. Contents
  8. Foreword: Resources for Ecological Psychology: Series Dedication
  9. Preface
  10. Introduction
  11. I Ecological Theory and Philosophical Realism
  12. II The Ecological Approach and Radical Empiricism
  13. III Ecological Psychology and the Psychological Field
  14. IV Conclusion
  15. References
  16. Author Index
  17. Subject Index