A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The senses re-considered as perceptual systems - Introduction to the Special Isuses

Gibson’s 1966 book The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems recently turned 50. Two issues of the journal Ecological Psychology commemorated that event (here, and here). This is the first in a series of posts reviewing those contributions.

These special issues were organized by Covarrubias, Jiménez, and Cabrera, from the University of Guadalajara, and Costall from the University of Porsmouth, and they provided an introduction to both issues. Putting together these issues is a tremendous service to the field, and I hope that the articles contained therein will help shape the field’s future. It is worth starting with some highlights from the intros themselves, and the next post will start with the looking at the contributed articles. 

Because it mirror’s my own experience, I want to highlight how the special issue starts. The editors tell us:
The importance of a scientist’s work may be weighed by the influence of his or her contributions to the scientific community. This is sometimes a case of direct influence upon students or colleagues, whereas at other times it may be less direct. Probably one of the ways a scientist may have the broadest impact is when his book, discovered on the shelves of an overseas university library, inspires a group of scholars to undertake a research program in response. In our case, James J. Gibson’s 1966 book, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, has indeed profoundly influenced our research activity. 

That beginning is extremely compelling to me. In the summer between my undergraduate and graduate education, I came across an article about Gibson’s work in the context of animal behavior research. The article had only the most cursory explanation of what Gibson was up to, but it piqued my interest. It inspired me enough for a trip to the library and to Senses Considered. I then found myself a convert, running around in graduate school (at the University of California, Davis) that included no other Gibsonians, but several senior faculty members who were sympathetic to his cause, and who had fond memory of his having spent a year on campus several decades prior. I immediately felt, as Carmichael intimated in his intro to the book, that though not everyone will agree with all of Gibson’s claims, no psychologist “can afford to be ignorant of what is said in it.” (p. vi)

The introduction goes on to talk about the many ways in which Senses Considered challenged the status quo. We are told that the articles contained in the initial issue will show how an understanding of active perception challenges traditional notions of modularity; how Gibson inspired 60 years of research on haptic perception (perception via touch, including active physical manipulation); how Senses Considered include neglected considerations of how sociocultural factors influence perception; and how Gibson’s work presaged much of the current interest in psychological “embodiment.”  

The introduction to the second issues has an impressive coverage of the reviews generated in the years following the release of Senses Considered. This includes not only reviewers who appreciated its importance for psychology (especially in terms of how it should effect research programs), but also notes regarding its importance for artists, educators, biologists, and philosophers. We are then told that the second issue of this commemoration will show how Gibson’s work challenges the idea of separate senses in crucial ways, how Senses Considered raised the bar on what should be expected from evolutionarily-oriented psychologists, how the systems theory inherent in Gibson’s work can be extended to the study of social phenomenon, how the full implications of active perception can be better appreciated, and how Gibson’s work relates to the experimental analysis of behavior.

Coverage of those nine full-length articles will be coming soon. I very much look forward to reviewing them!


Covarrubias, P., Jiménez, A. A., Cabrera, F., & Costall, A. (2017) The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems: The Revolutionary Ideas of Gibson’s 1966 Book, 50 Years Later - Part 1. Ecological Psychology, 29, 69-71.
Covarrubias, P., Jiménez, A. A., Cabrera, F., & Costall, A. (2017) The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems: The Revolutionary Ideas of Gibson’s 1966 Book, 50 Years Later - Part 2. Ecological Psychology, 29, 161-164.
Gibson, J. J. (1966). The senses considered as perceptual systems. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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