- James J. Gibson's Ecological Approach:Perceiving What Exists
Environmental Philosophy and Epistemology
The purpose of this paper is to help an audience attracted to environmental philosophy get to the core of Gibson's system in a compact form and to appreciate the necessity for an account of the environment in epistemology. I hope to show that Gibson's is a consistent and scientifically progressive account of knowing that gives the environment its due and that this is not a simple matter of fiat but a call to extended scientific investigation. I want to stress that Gibson's work is scientifically progressive in the sense that it has consistently opened new avenues for research. If one could be assured tomorrow that Gibson was correct and his critics wrong, the ecological psychology enterprise would not have to be shut down with nothing left to do. The goal of the enterprise, certainly for Gibson, was not to be declared a winner but to open doors for discovery. Because Gibson has developed a theory of perceiving the environment, it would be worth exploring as an important topic for environmental philosophers covering a wide range of issues. It offers an intriguing, environmentally based, grounding for epistemology; it offers ways to deal [End Page 195] with practical issues within "pure science"; and it is open to reorganizing ways to conceptualize problems beyond epistemology.
Gibson developed a richly articulated system that grew steadily over a period of 50 years, 1929 to 1979, which he devoted to "puzzling over" the "perplexities" of vision (1979, xiii). From Gibson's standpoint, knowledge begins with perception, and perception is perceiving the environment. The environment, for Gibson, is at least as essential as the brain to the existence and exercise of "the mind."
As an empiricist, knowledge is based on perception for Gibson. But perception, at root, turns out to be perception of the environment. Entities like sense data and representations become "after the fact" curiosities for Gibson, and have no role to play in the foundations of perceptual experience and, a fortiori, knowledge. If Gibson is correct, then scientific accounts of perception must converge on environmental perception. A philosopher whose primary focus is epistemology, and who works within Gibson's system, would perforce be an environmental philosopher—not (first) because of a special concern for the environment, but because an adequate appreciation of relevant facts requires it. Of great importance to environmental philosophers is that Gibson not only provides an account of perceiving grounded in access to environmental properties, but he establishes a basis for perceiving this particular world as a specific arrangement of surfaces. The world we perceive, according to Gibson, is a connected, public world that we share. It is, again, the world, the logical individual world and not an abstraction. This is not an account of the experience of abstract shapes, distances, and motions. It is a system in which travelers can visit the pyramids and in which I can trip over your garbage.
Is there a symmetric direction of influence? Just as a commitment to understanding knowledge scientifically and philosophically can lead one to focal considerations of the environment, could a deep concern for the environment as a value lead to the serious study of perception and, more broadly, epistemology? It seems entirely plausible. Gibson's is a "yin and yang" system of scientific complementarities beginning with animal and environment and extending to knowledge and value (in his concept of affordance). In each complementarity, the terms are differentiable but not entirely independent. Animals and their environments are different entities and should not be confused with one another, but they also are so [End Page 196] mutually dependent that one should not imagine a thorough account of one without the other. In like manner, objects and value (first through use) are not independently comprehensible in Gibson's system. This is a theme worthy of careful examination of detailed examples. I am not doing that in this paper, but hope that enough of the flavor of Gibson's work will come through to allow a reader to understand how one might be steered to epistemology from an initial concern with environment and values and...