On This Day … 27 January

People (Births)

  • 1904 – James J. Gibson, American psychologist and academic (d. 1979).

James J. Gibson

James Jerome Gibson (27 January 1904 to 11 December 1979), was an American psychologist and one of the most important contributors to the field of visual perception.

Gibson challenged the idea that the nervous system actively constructs conscious visual perception, and instead promoted ecological psychology, in which the mind directly perceives environmental stimuli without additional cognitive construction or processing. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked him as the 88th most cited psychologist of the 20th century, tied with John Garcia, David Rumelhart, Louis Leon Thurstone, Margaret Floy Washburn, and Robert S. Woodworth.

Education and Career

Gibson began his undergraduate career at Northwestern University, but transferred after his freshman year to Princeton University, where he majored in philosophy. While enrolled at Princeton, Gibson had many influential professors including Edwin B. Holt who advocated new realism, and Herbert S. Langfeld who had taught Gibson’s experimental psychology course. After taking Langfeld’s course, Gibson decided to stay at Princeton as a graduate student and pursued his Ph.D. in psychology with Langfeld serving as his doctoral adviser. His doctoral dissertation focused on memory of visual forms, and he received his Ph.D. in 1928.

E.B. Holt, who was taught by William James, inspired Gibson to be a radical empiricist. Holt was a mentor to Gibson. While Gibson may not have directly read William James’ work, E.B. Holt was the connecting factor between the two. Holt’s theory of molar behaviourism brought James philosophy of radical empiricism into psychology. Heft argues that Gibson’s work was an application of William James’. Gibson believed that perception is direct and meaningful. He discussed the meaning of perception through his theory of affordances. Gibson also was influenced by James’ neutral monism, nothing is solely mental or physical.

Gibson started his career at Smith College where he taught psychology. While at Smith, Gibson encountered two influential figures in his life, one of which was the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka. Although Gibson did not agree with Gestalt psychology, he nevertheless agreed with Koffka’s belief that the primary investigations of psychology should be problems related to perception. The other important figure Gibson met during his time at Smith College was his wife, Eleanor Jack, who became a prominent psychologist known for her investigations such as the “visual cliff.” The two were married on 17 September 1932, and later had two children, James Jerome Jr. in 1940 and Jean Grier in 1943.

In 1941, Gibson entered the US Army, where he became the director of a unit for the Army Air Forces’ Aviation Psychology Programme during World War II. Of particular interest to him was the effect flying an aircraft had on visual perception. He used his findings to help develop visual aptitude tests for screening out pilot applicants. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1946. After the war ended, he returned to Smith College for a short period during which he began writing his first book, The Perception of the Visual World, in which he discussed visual phenomena such as retinal texture gradient and retinal motion gradient. Before the book was published in 1950, Gibson moved to Cornell University where he continued to teach and conduct research for the rest of his life.

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