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27 Jan 08 – Gibson, Merleau-Ponty – Perceptual Action/Embodied Agency.

27 January 2008

On this day in 1904, James J. Gibson was born. Gibson is known for his research on perception, which has been interpreted as demonstrating that perceptual qualities are not built from simple sensory inputs. Instead, they are directly sensed from the environment. Essentially, this means that we perceive through experience of the world; we are in direct interaction with the world as it is.

This should not be confused with a meditational perspective on our interaction with the environment, such as that offered by cognitive psychology. That is, Gibson was not saying that we are involved in a one-way process, wherein we process value-free information from the surrounding environment, organize it, and then act on our organization (the mediation occurring in the mind). This cognitive mediation perspective assumes a relatively passive mechanism of sensation adapted to random, chance events in the environment. It is a dualistic perspective that separates the subjective mind from the objective environment, the products of the subjective mind being mediated by the mechanisms of sensation (the mechanical registration of bits of sensory information from the environment). This is sometimes referred to as a “representational” view of sensation wherein humans are conceived of as representing the external world through a step by step process, essentially in the physical nervous system.

Gibson, instead, conceived of perception as an attribute of the human and the environment together, in holistic fashion. Perception, in this framing, is not an indirect process carried out within the individual. Instead, it is a direct interaction carried out between the individual and his/her environmental context (this is why it is often referred to as “direct realism” – a term borrowed from the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid – or “ecological psychology” – attending to the contextual situatedness of the perceptual experience). Perception, then, is not passive; it is active and exploratory – in tune with the living meanings already pregnant in the contextual environment itself (Gibson referred to these living meanings as “affordances” – possibilities ways that the contextual environment makes itself known to the particular individual). The living meaning (or affordance) depends on the interaction that the individual is having with the contextual environment, explaining why a piece of chalk can be afforded the meaning of writing instrument or, as one of my professors in undergrad vividly demonstrated, a foodstuff (should we wittingly choose to take a chomp out of it). These affordances are not inside the mind. Instead, they are living possibilities and properties of the contextual environment itself when the contextual environment is perceived in a ways that is not dualistic, artificially separating a subjective mind from an objective reality. From Gibson’s perspective, perception is an active interchange between the active intentions of the individual and the living, meaningful possibilities (“affordances”) of the contextual environment.


The French existential philosopher, Merleau-Ponty, actually preceded Gibson in developing a very similar formulation of perception. A wonderful, albeit quite difficult book to read, which presents Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy on perception is entitled, The Phenomenology of Perception. In this book, Merleau-Ponty suggests that, unlike Husserl’s perspective that “consciousness is always consciousness of something,” consciousness is perceptual consciousness; perception is of primary important to being conscious at all. From this philosophical grounding, Merleau-Ponty explores perception as the active engagement between the contextual environment and the individual, which occurs through the body. That is, the “lived body” adjusts and acts in response to the active solicitations of the contextual environment. This is conceived of almost like an active conversation between the body and the context. Much like Gibson’s later formulation of the concept of affordances, Mereleau-Ponty conceived of the things that we interact with, such as a mountain, as correlative with our bodily capacities and acquired skills, so that, for example, a mountain affords climbing. This affordance is not merely a cross-cultural phenomenon based solely on body structure, nor a body structure plus a skill all normal human beings acquire. It is an affordance that comes from experience with mountains and the acquisition of mountain-climbing skills.

Embodied Agency 

Though both positions are quite difficult to summarize in the little space I have provided here, I think the best way to conceive of them is as akin to the concept of “embodied agency.” According to the concept of embodied agency, what have been traditionally assumed to be two separate and distinct entities – mind (possessing agenctic qualities) and body (possessing deterministic qualities) – are viewed as parts of a larger system wherein the mind and body mutually constitute one another. Accordingly, the nature of the mind constitutes the nature of the body, and vice versa. This would account for the numerous empirical studies that indicate how agentic factors (e.g., choices) contribute to neurobiological change. As but one example of this, using positron-emission tomography (PET) to measure the neurological effects of certain therapeutic processes, investigations have indicated that conscious withholding of obsessive-compulsive behaviors had the same eventual effect on changes in neural activity as the recommended drug for obsessive-compulsive disorder. In other words, agency and biology interact, wherein agency is associated with changes in biology. Similarly, according to the assumption of embodied agency, biology has affects on agency. For example, the constraints of my current bodily make-up – including my body type and current cardiovascular endurance – prevent me from successfully engaging in certain actions such as running a 6 minute mile. No amount of agency on my part will change my ability with regard to accomplishing this task right now. Furthermore, the constraints of my current biology disallow me from seriously considering that option, thereby constraining my available options and, thus, my agency. Alternatively, many athletes, with appropriate body types and well developed cardiovascular endurance, certainly do have the ability to run a 6 minute mile. As such, their agency is widened, at least with respect to the choices related to this task, by their biology.

The perspective offered by embodied agency, then, means that individuals and their actions are not explainable or understandable without reference to both their biology and their agency: amounting to a truly holistic perspective. As neuroscientist Eliot Valenstein put it, “…it is impossible to understand [biological phenomena such as] consciousness and thought without considering the psychosocial context that not only shapes the content of thought, but also the physical structure of the brain.” Alternatively, as Slife & Hopkins note, agentic acts such as, “…a good deed requires a relatively sound body. Good deeds simply cannot be performed without the biological properties of a relatively healthy body.”

Hence, based on the concepts offered by Gibson, Merleau-Ponty, and the perspective of embodied agency, perception cannot be reduced to either the products of the mind or the body, alone. There is no clean distinction between subject and object. Instead, perception is considered, based on these perspectives, as a holistic, active, interactive process, involving possibilities afforded by both the living environment and the lived experience of the individual.

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.


January 27, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

16 Jan 08 – Brentano – Opposition to Wundt’s Physical Reductionism?

16 January 2008

On this day in 1838, Franz Brentano was born.  Brentano is known as the founder of “act psychology.”  Act psychology focused on what the mind does (its activities) rather than what is contained within it.  That is, Brentano felt that psychology should be focused on experiences as an activity rather than as a structure.  Brentano, for example, felt that physics was a secondary science, focused on the noumenal experience that physicists could only know through questioning their or others’ phenomenal experience.  In other words, physics gained knowledge indirectly – from description of experiences.  Alternatively, act psychology was focused on gaining knowledge directly: from the phenomenal experience of individuals.  Brentano’s student, Edmund Husserl, merely furthered this position in his own phenomenology movement.

The history of psychology has painted Brentano in opposition to Wundt.  Unfortunately, as I hope to describe here adequately, this is a false polemic (controversial argument).   This polemic – honestly, I do not feel it is nearly as controversial as it should be – paints Wundt as a physical reductionist and Brentano as a more holistic theorist. 

Unfortunately for this polemic, as noted in one of my prior blogs, Wundt was not a physical reductionistic.  Instead, he was more of a mind/body dualist, believing that humans possessed both a mind and a body.  In fact, he refused to reduce the one to the other.  It was his student Titchener who focused on the reductionistic nature of Wundt’s methods and Titchener’s protege Boring who framed Wundt in reductionistic terms in his very influential history of psychology. 

In fact, Wundt’s portrayal of Brentano was such that Wundt perceived that Brentano was reductionistic, and that this was the fault of Brentano’s position:

           The psychology based on self-observation, which preferred to designate itself empirical 
           [i.e., Brentano’s] psychology, must therefore limit itself to an unsystematic juxtaposition
           of the facts of the consciousness; and, since it is unable to discover an inner connection
           between these facts, it splits up those components which belong together into a larger
           number of dissociated details.

As can be seen from this quote from Wundt, Wundt, in fact, saw himself as a holist and Brentano as a reductionist.  Or, more appropriately, Wundt saw Brentano’s epistemology (belief regarding knowledge development) as reductionistic and his own as holistic.  Wundt believed that he was confronting, in his methods, the mind directly.  Furthermore, he was reluctant to reduce peoples’ character to natural causes (“We cannot therefore decide immediately and empirically that personality in its inmost nature…is itself subject to natural causality.”).  Finally, he was reluctant to reduce mind to body (“…the assumption of a mental substance different from the various manifestations of mental life…involves the unjustifiable transference of a mode of thought necessary for investigation of external nature to a sphere in which it is wholly inapplicable; it implies a kind of unconscious materialism…What can this ‘substance’ do for us, a substance devoid of will, of feeling, and of thought, and having no part in the constitution of our personality?”).  Hence, Wundt was improperly designated as a physical reductionist…as such, Brentano had nothing to oppose on this position. 

In fact, both Brentano and Wundt believed that reality was present “in mind.”  Hence, by both Brentano and Wundt’s estimation, psychology was a different kind of science that made possible the direct understanding of experience (whereas, as noted above, other sciences, like physics, dealt with experience indirectly – using their “objective data” to form indirect meaning merely as they spur on and lead to specific reactions in human beings – the Kantian distinction between the noumena – the reality “out there” – and the phenomena – the reality as perceived, which is all that we have access to in reality). 

Brentano, then, felt that the physicist had to deal with assumed realities – realities that were assumed to be objective (in the noumena) but all the physicist really had to go on was his or her phenomenological data reported to him or her by a person.  Similarly, Wundt felt that not only must the physicist formulate a concept of reality in order to know objective reality, but the physicist must also, necessarily, depend on the indirect evidence (phenomenal evidence) provided by other individuals to the physicist about this or that datum.  Here, then, we see virtually identical beliefs about the difference between the frame of reference of psychological investigation versus other scientific investigation: psychology provided a direct route to understanding experience.

Still, there is a component of Wundt’s scientific outlook that would sensibly lead to a reductionistic perspective…the component which Titchener took from him and that Boring portrayed in his history of psychology.  As a psychophysical parallelist (mind/body dualist), Wundt felt that there was a distinction between what could be scientifically known, in the pursuit of objective fact, and philosophical exploration of grounding issues/questions.  Wundt understood that this led to conceptual problems that are intrinsic to mind/body formulations.  As long as there was evidence for this mind/body dualism, however, Wundt felt that we could proceed on the basis of those observations, without concern to the conceptual problems that plagued such formulations.  Though he believed that the investigation of such questions complemented empirical pursuits, he did not feel they needed to be a part of them.  So, when Titchener took Wundt’s empirical method and did not accept his philosophical formulation, Wundt’s belief that, in a sense, the empiricist leading the way with the philosopher clarifying the reported results, was adapated so that all that there was was the empiricist, without any philosophical clarification.  This, ultimately, meant that all questions of mind were reduced to the physical…allowing for Boring to paint Wundt, falsely, as a physical reductionist in opposition to Brentano’s holisitc position.

In the end, however, Wundt was not a physical reductionist; though, it is probably also not appropriate to paint him as a holist, either.  Still, it wasn’t this opposition (dualism versus holism) that is descriptive of the major differences between Brentano and Wundt.  Instead, it was the methods that they chose to use.   Brentano was more open to considering the philosophical questions in his method, whereas Wundt believed and made efforts to separate empirical investigation from philosophical questioning.

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

January 16, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment