Introduction to Classic Edition of James J. Gibson The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979

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Introduction to Classic Edition of James J. Gibson

The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979

William M. Mace

Dept. of Psychology

Trinity College

Hartford, CT 06106

The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception has been available in English for 35 years (as of this writing in 2014).  It has captured a substantial audience, including those reading it in German and Japanese.  A Polish translation currently is being planned. As befits a classic, it is still possible to promise new readers that they will find “something completely different” here and to assure those who have read it before that it’s worth reading again.  

This book marked the culmination of the development of James J. Gibson’s thought, not because his thoughts were completed but because he died of pancreatic cancer at the end of 1979, the same year the book was published.  See Neisser (1981), Pick, Pick, Jones & Reed (1982), and Hochberg (1994) for memorial remarks. Officially, this was Gibson’s third book.  Unofficially it could be called the fourth because his 1950 book included much from a book length Army Air Corps report (Gibson, 1947).   Gibson’s first reformulation of the main topics in visual perception was in The Perception of the Visual World (Gibson, 1950).   This book was followed by a reconceptualization of all the “senses” in The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (Gibson, 1966) and then finally, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, which started out as a revision of the 1950 book but became much more than that.
Gibson’s publishing career began in 1929. He was an honored (for his experimental work) senior figure in experimental psychology by the time the first book appeared. It was 16 years until the publication of the second book [although his chapter for the Koch series (Gibson, 1959) was a major statement], and another 13 years to the last one. Gibson was continuously at work throughout his career, and he stayed remarkably focused on the same issues from his work in World War II until his death. His books are like progress reports summarizing his thinking up to the final editing. By the time a book was published, he had already started to extend and revise the work until it crystallized into the next book.
Gibson developed his thinking through relentless revisions of his own published work.   His personal copies of the first two books were densely marked with annotations beginning with phrases like “Egads!  How could I have believed this?”   or, more temperately, “Here is what I should have said” followed by a positive statement.   Preliminary versions of his ideas began as short memos prepared for this perpetual Thursday afternoon seminar at Cornell.  At these meetings, Gibson would distribute a one-page document (sometimes longer).  These papers might state a thesis and outline an argument.  Sometimes they were a list of provocative questions, sometimes a tentative classification.  Copies of these short pieces also were sent to colleagues on his mailing list.  Because they were reproduced in a “ditto” process that printed in aromatic purple, students came to call these “purple perils.”  i
The chapters in his second two books developed in this stepwise fashion --- from notes in book margins to “purple perils” to published papers or lectures to more formal statements. Chapter 8 in this 1979 book, “The Theory of Affordances,” is one example of this method of work. There were multiple “purple perils” on affordances and a small section on affordances in the 1966 book. Gibson gave lectures on affordances, including one lecture at a 1973 conference that was revised and published in 1977 (Shaw & Bransford, 1977). Chapter 8 here is a further revision of that 1977 chapter. Gibson had completed drafts of nearly all of the chapters for this final book by the spring of 1977 and circulated them to colleagues. Therefore final versions of most chapters in this book are the product of multiple revisions based on Gibson’s own self-criticism and his reflections on remarks from colleagues.

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