Remembering Gibson Symposium
Bill Mace: All right, so . . . the only one I know of who’s missing right now is David Lee, so I guess we can start. We all know David and we’ll find him a spot when he comes in.
Welcome to this very informal session, which I hope you’ll all enjoy. I got the idea for this when I got in touch with Philip Kaushall, who is one of Jimmy Gibson’s last students, and who lives in San Diego. Philip expressed interest in getting back together with people he knew long ago but hasn’t had contact with for a long time. I thought having him here in addition to the ones I knew were going to be here will give us an opportunity to have in one place a rather large number of people who have worked personally with Jimmy Gibson in one capacity or another. There are more and more people in our group who didn’t know Jimmy Gibson, didn’t know Jackie Gibson, didn’t have a contact with the family that many of the earlier generations had. With so many of them together, I thought we could maybe create something that hadn’t been done before, which was the discussion of what was like to be around the Gibson’s in the 60’s and 70’s.
The assembled group that we put together includes people who officially did dissertations under Jimmy Gibson, which is, John Kennedy here, Hal Sedgwick and Philip Kaushall. And we then have . . . In 1970 there was a major conference that was organized to go over the ideas of ecological optics; we call it the ecological optics conference. A description of that was published in Ed Reed and Becky Jones’ book “Reasons for realism”; otherwise it never would have been published. Sverker Runeson was a young visiting graduate student from Uppsala at this conference. Sverker was an avid photographer who photographed the conference extensively and has made this occasion one for to bring a large set of his photographs. . . .Here is David.
David Lee: Yes, I’m sorry.
Pat Cabe: You should point out that this was so long ago that the pictures were taken with film. (Laugh)
Mace: (Laugh) That’s right. Pat pointed out that Sverker’s pictures are made with film (laugh). He printed them himself, and kept them in wonderful condition for many years and then recently digitized them and has them now in a wonderful digital form.
So at this ecological optics conference, besides some of people I’ve already mentioned to you, were Herb Pick . . . Pat, were you there?
Mace: Pat Cabe, Sverker, Bob Shaw, and David Lee. They will all appear in some photographs.
There are several features of working with Gibson that I thought would be worth bringing to people’s attention. One thing that has always interested me is what it was like to be Gibson’s dissertation student, that is, how did he work with students, what would their dissertations represent in terms of his own ideas?
Secondly, he had a lab out at a small airport, which seem like an institution. People always talk about the airport lab as its own unique environment. It’s worth hearing about what that was like.
Jimmy was known for regular Thursday afternoon seminar. Every Thursday afternoon there was a seminar and he never knew if it was officially one people could get credit for or not, whether people should get graded or not. But there was always something at Thursday afternoon if he was in town, and many people here experienced that seminar.
Finally there were social occasions of all sorts and the ecological optics conference. The core of tonight I thought would be Sverker’s photographs and discussion around them. That is, as we see pictures we can start to identify who’s in them what they are doing; what the issues were. Plus, there are a few people that some of us haven’t identified yet and anybody who can help identify them would be greatly appreciated.
So, with that, I think we’ll get started. I think, I might ask Hal or John to talk a little bit about working with Jimmy on dissertations, say, if you think there are any sort of typical experiences, and go from there.
John Kennedy: I came to Cornell to work with Jimmy Gibson in 1966. I was there for 4 years. I never called him Jimmy, the whole time. It was always “Mr. Gibson”. And amongst graduate students, we never called him Jimmy. That was reserved for his colleagues. We called him “J.J”. It took me years, many, probably decades, before I said anything else to him. We all held him in wonderfully warm regard. He was an astonishingly pleasant warm person. When you see that picture of him smiling and holding up one finger and looking at you, what you are actually missing is the movement of the mouth. It would sort of twitch up and down, “ding ding ding ding”, as he was talking. He had this quizzical look all the time.
What he loved was discussion, ideas. I’ve been to lots of universities now, but I have very rarely been to a place that had the same kind of intellectual ferment that just constantly surrounded Jimmy Gibson. And other people had often commented on the fact that “I like to go to the cafeteria with my students and talk about ideas”. And then I’m not sure why they’re commenting, ‘cause I think this is normal, and this is what he did all of the time. And there were wonderful occasions at his house when there would be visiting speakers from who knows where, Metelli from Italy, Johansson, etc. I remember the time Rudy Arnheim came and he turned out to be an exception, cause what we would do was . . . we would have listened to him talk, then we would all be friendly and pleasant, and we gathered at Gibson’s house and we would kind of circle like wolves and wait for an opportunity for the real meat of the evening to start.
Then we would attack the guy’s ideas, root and branch. This was what you thought you were supposed to do. That’s what you did. Also with your colleagues and fellow students. It was a wonderful experience. I remember being in his seminar and saying to people “ Look, what I want you to do is that I’d like you to listen to what I have to say before you attack it.” and so I said “I’d like you to listen till I get through to the end of the paper and then you can have a go at it. It was actually about the Butler’s work with monkeys. The thing he’s discovered was that if they were in some little enclosure with a monkey. . . there were a monkey and a snake, and there was a pull string, to turn the light on. So there’s a snake, the monkey scared, the light goes out. The monkey no longer sees the snake. Does he breathe the sigh of relief? No. He turns the light on as fast as he can. Because the way the snake went out of view is not information that the snake no longer exists, right? So I was going through that analysis and then whole lot of other possibilities, other things you can do to remove the snake, and suggested things what this would mean epistemologically. And I just insisted with, Kaplan who was fierce, how wonderful, incredibly fierce guy. Everybody in child development was frightened of people in experimental psychology. Everybody in experimental psychology was frightened of people in perception. And all of us in perception were frightened of George Kaplan. And George was frightened of his wife, Eleanor. (Laugh) But you argued fiercely with all of these people. And you had a great time doing it. And it went on all of the time. How did this then finally get along being a thesis?
Well, I thought it was normal at the time. And I have discovered just how far away it is from many people’s experience since then. I wrote some stuff, and I gave it to Gibson, he got back to me with comment. I rewrote it, I gave it back to him, I got it back from him with comments, I wrote it again and each time the time was getting shorter and shorter until finally he worked all night and I picked up my thesis in the morning at breakfast time he was asleep worked on all day and gave it to him at night. And this went on day after day after day. As he was making fresh and interesting comments and I was constantly rewriting this day until we both felt “Din, din, din din”, perception action cycle finally result in something invariant and that was the thesis. And it was a great experience. And with very little tweaking. it turned into a book, a nice little book. I have told my colleagues frequently this is the most important thing I ever wrote ‘cause everything in it is wrong. And I spent rest of my career attacking 1974 book.
You know it’s a funny thing I can’t remember meeting Gibson, Jimmy, J.J., for the first time. It’s like the accretion never occurred. He was always somehow there. And the warmth, the pleasantness, the sociability, the evenings, the dinners. We were going to a Thanksgiving in his house and afterwards he got out fencing masks and swords, foils ‘cause we learned both did fencing. And we fenced up and down in his dining room. It was super, what a time, fascinating. And that warmth, you will still find it in Jean, Gibsons’ daughter. I was just amazed. I had a dinner with her a couple years ago at Cornell on the occasion of the celebration of Mrs. Gibson’s life. I had dinner with her. It was unnatural how attracted that I felt to Jean. The same warmth is still there in that family. They were wonderful people.
You know, many people got frightened of other psychologists who argue with them. I was certainly frightened of Julian Hochberg. And I was very happy to hear that Herb Pick was just as frightened. (Laugh) Because there’s something in the way he did things that you felt challenge. But when Gibson argues with you, you felt that’s really interesting. I will close with the one story, how did he just challenge you and excite you at the same time, so here it goes.
I was really interested in the notion of reality and appearance. And you know, the classic, one of the classic problems is the bent stick in water. It goes back to Greek times. Actually, often you talked to Jimmy Gibson you realized whatever problem you were talking about with him he knew its intellectual history. So he thought in the enormous context. So we have a bent stick in water, it looks straight. And we have a straight stick in water, crossing the air-water boundary. and it looks bent. And sitting on the table of Thursday afternoon seminar, I took it 8 times for credit. I thought this was normal, actually, until I went out to work. And I was just delighted at Harvard where I taught there and one guy took my seminar three times for credit and quite a few took it twice for credit. I think this is a super idea. Don’t go through a set of ideas once. Go through again, again and again till it gets deeper. So there’s a bent stick in water and Al Yonas, who was also a really good critic of ideas, was looking at these things and just started twiddling with it. And you know what happens when you take the stick that looks bent and you turn it. The answer is it stays where it is. It maintains its profile. If it was truly bent, it would do that (gesturing with finger). A four-year old, when I showed to him what I discovered said, “Hey, It’s straight” when they looked at the bent stick that maintains profile in motion. So that was fascinating. So I was describing to Gibson what we would do, how it would do when we take a bent stick and rotate, and he said “Yes”, and it’s going to maintain its profile and he said “Yes”. And the one that’s truly bent when we would take that, it’s going to start wobbling and it’s going to be very interesting then it would distort back to apparently straight. “Yes”. And we have some sticks outside the water, one of them would be bent, one of them would be straight, and ask the kids to match them, since not just talk. “Yes”. “So what do you think?” And he said, “What’s the straight stick?” (Laugh) ”Well, straight is a..” I had like seven definitions started coming into mind. And I realized he starts really low and thinks very basically, very simply and you have to get the basics right and then a lot of other stuff will become important. And so that’s the way he challenged and when he challenged you felt that’s a really good question. And it was a treat to be around this very warm and inspiring mind. Thank you.
John and I were in the same seminar 8 times? I think I came a little bit later to Cornell. But I also took J.J’s seminar 8 times. I’m thinking back, I’d like some help with this from some of you ‘cause I’m trying to remember what it was about all those 8 times. ‘Cause he didn’t actually do the same thing every time. I remember one year we did, one semester we spent going through Koffka’s “Principles of Gestalt Psychology” as far as we got.
Bob Shaw: And we did Helmholtz.
Sedgwick: And one semester we did Helmholtz. J.J. believed in close reading. So you start with a page and take a sentence and you can argue about it for an hour or two hours as I recall. I think most of the other times we went from J.J’s own writing, that is, he would be writing something. And I guess at that point, his 66 book was done and out and he was starting to think about things that would ultimately end up in 79 book, although I’m talking about late 60s, early 70s. So I remember there were whole series of meetings about affordances where he would come in one week with, those are the days of the mimeograph. So I guess he would write something up there were something he had written during the course of the week and maybe a few pages and get it mimeographed up and pass it out. I remember one week there’d be “affordances”, and then next week there was about “more on affordances” and then the following week “still more on affordances”. And, who can help me here?
Kaushall: “They were called <a href="http:www.trincoll.edu/depts/ecopsyc/perils">"purple perils.” </a>
Sedgwick: They were called purple perils, right. I recall he would sort of start reading. He would read a sentence or two, and then people would object and argue about it and maybe in the course of a couple of hours, we might get through these few pages.
It’s interesting to try and think about what the nature of his interaction was that facilitated the sort of openness to people saying what they thought. I mean because if you think of somebody who likes to discuss, the strong center of arguing, you tend to think that is a closing down discussion. But it was really just the opposite. And I think there was just the sense of a… maybe in part confidence. He didn’t feel like, if you disagreed with him, that he would somehow be wounded in his ego or feeling defensive about it. He would be, if he thought you were right, he would say so. And there was just a kind of intellectual, I guess genuine intellectual curiosity and openness. And so over the course of years, I had the feeling of really getting somewhat inside of his mind. You may think that’s saying too much. But getting the feel for a way of thinking and a way of talking about the world of perception, action and so forth.
I was taking them [the seminar] for credits, too. As I recall, at least if you’re taking credits, you have to write something. And I don’t remember him saying anything about what to write. There was just an expectation that you would write something somehow during the course of the semester, something that would come to mind. And I would write it. I think it was one of the first semesters I was reading through his books during the seminars. And I think there was a footnote in his 1950 book that I puzzled over a bit, ended up kind of writing a paper on it. And I got the paper back, with not a lot of comments, but he seemed to like it. And then some years later when I was thinking about doing a dissertation, I guess I had an idea and then I talked to him about it. He didn’t say a lot, believing it wasn’t going anywhere. So I got back and thought again. And I thought back to this paper and then I talked to him about that, he said that seems like a good idea. It was different from John’s experience, I think. But there was certainly the sense of openness of interests. As I recall, J.J. was a late night person. And the seminar I think was at 4 in the afternoon on Thursday. And J.J. would come in sometime after lunch maybe 2 or something. And he would sit in the office with the secretary go through his correspondence and so on. And he would come in at the seminar and then he would sort of retreat to his office. I guess he worked there or at home very late into the night. But the time I was there he was really focusing on his writing and more than on doing research, and doing experimental stuff. So I had a feeling of being a bit on my own in terms of getting that part of things together and so on. He loved to talk about things and argue about them, but at that point he spent a long time in putting things together. I remember there was one seminar that was I think he was working on the section where he talks about evidence for direct perception and that was the seminar for one semester. I don’t remember to what extent he had specific topics every semester. Anybody else want to talk about that?
Philip Kaushall: I was at Cornell for 5 years. I arrived as a MA and wanted to be out in two. So you can see what happened to me, seduced by the intellectual atmosphere that were very stimulating. And I attended the seminar faithfully the whole 5 years, so I beat your records. And actually the seminar was also held during the summertime if you are around. In the summers, school was over, on vacation periods, he would be there. I think Christmas and Easter maybe he didn’t come. And the Koffka’s book I remember, my memory of the book stops when Koffka talks about an anecdote of an, Koffka is trying to differentiate between the behavioral world and the phenomenal world of the observer, right? There’s a story in the book of a travelers arrives at an inn in the middle of the snowstorm. And the innkeeper says “How did you get here? Which way did you come?” And the traveler indicates with his hand, “Well, I came from that way.” And the innkeeper says in amazement, “You just walked across the Lake Constants.” On hearing this, the traveler falls over dead of a heart attack. I suppose that was supposed to demonstrate the difference between the behavioral world and the phenomenal world, to Koffka’s satisfaction. That was probably where we stopped. But I thought Gestalt Psychologists were the spring of Gibson’s ideas. I don’t know why people find Gibsonian ideas or paradigm so antithetical or so difficult. I came to Cornell because I was converted before I got there. I was at Simon Fraser in Vancouver and I read “The perception of the visual world” I think. And this is just terrific stuff. And my professor happened to be, though he was not in perception, ex-Cornelian, and so it helped facilitate my very late application to graduate school of Cornell. My dissertation was all over the places, I was interested in sway, I was interested in locomotion, I was interested in the optical array, and transformations of various kinds, trying to get the basics of perceptual adaptations, normalizations of perception, and the viewing conditions study. And I was trying to take adaptation further into the active observer self paradigm. I didn’t follow up much ‘cause I went to San Diego. The reason I went to San Diego wasn’t for intellectual reasons. I was in love with my wife. She’s got post doc at the department of neurosciences, and I had to go along. So we ended up there I got post doc for the, guess what, The Center for Human Information Processing.
But anyway, I found Gibson incredibly stimulating the whole time I was there. And he did have his wonderful way of challenging you without putting you down. I think it’s a gift. Not many people have that. I now turned into a psychologist. I work with brain injury and whole bunch of things. I have to try very hard to be like that, challenging people without putting them down. Challenging their way of life, challenging their ideas, challenging their life styles, and all those sorts of things in order to get them straight. And it’s very hard to do that without scaring people or intimidating them, or demeaning them.
He was a terrible driver by the way. I don’t know if anybody here has driven with him. I had an occasion and I couldn’t believe he was the guy who is Mr. Perception, Mr. Locomotion, men. I don’t think he had an accident, but he scares hell out of me. I scare the hell out of people when I drive so….
Kennedy: Do you know why he was such a bad driver?
Kennedy: The story is, according to him, he had been tested and his peripheral vision was very good, it was exceptionally good. So he could drive while looking at his passenger. Driving along, looking at you, talking to you and theoretically observing everything else peripherally.
Kaushall: I don’t know, he seemed to know what is doing, though. I never did have an accident with him.
Mace: So, I think this is a good time to move to the pictures because everyone else can join in and…
Shaw: About Jimmy’s driving. My wife and I were at Cornell 69 to 70. Since we were new, we lived around the corner from him, and he often entertained us with Jackie. One night we were going to a party that students were holding. And we were driving along, in the town where he’d lived, at that time for what? 30 years? and they were looking at a map, trying to find where the student lived. And they would begin arguing about whether to turn left or to turn right and so on. And finally my wife looked over the shoulder at the map they were holding and said, “Jimmy, you are holding the map upside down.“ So here are two great perceptionists, and they are reading map upside down. So we went on toward the party. And Jimmy was driving erratically as he often did. It was snowy and we were worried about ending up in a ditch. And he didn’t really know quite which direction to go and he slams on his brakes. And the car behind him almost skids into him. And Jackie said to him, “Jimmy, that man almost ran into you.” And he said, “Oh, let me go ask him directions while he’s stopped.” (Laugh). And he did. (Laugh).
Mace: [photograph now projected on screen]. Here are some familiar folks. These are from the famous ecological optics conference in 1970. Sverker here was the photographer. And so he had the photographer’s point of view, and you’ll see here is participants. So how many recognize some of you at the table in this picture?
How many days was this conference?
Sverker Runeson: It was a one week conference. It was the week after midsummer. The last week of June in 1970.
Mace: Notice the ashtrays on the table.
Runeson: Yes, right. I’d like to say that when Bill Mace invited me to the session here, I got all the pictures I took at this occasion. I was a very enthusiastic photographers in the 60’s and 70’s. And I decided that that would be my project when I retired -- to take care and do something out of this. The materials, all my negatives, are collected. I had to do this in a rush and I have to apologize for some imperfections in the application of all the digital possibilities that are now available in taking care of these photographs.
Bill Warren: So what was the disagreement between Hochberg and Gibson at this meeting? Does anybody remember the wide issue?
Runeson: Everything. Laugh. I think we may see something on the blackboard in later pictures that might indicate the issue.
This is Tony Barrand.
Mace: So, all of you. . . Tony Barrand is one of Gibson’s last students. And he is a professional musician. You can look on the web and find a lot of his music. English folk music.
Kennedy: I think I should tell you that was the worst talk I ever gave in my life. And part of the reason, you can see on my right, it’s the beer. It was wonderful to be at that conference and to drink beer and be the audience. I thought you could drink beer and give a talk. And I discovered you can’t. I got lost in my notes and I got confused. And Jimmy, thank god, said “Let’s take a break.”
Mace: David, there was somebody who was asking what you were talking about.
Lee: Jimmy didn’t really go with this experiment, but it was a . . . you rotate that in one about one per second, and you stereoscopically illuminate it. It is just non-ecological. Good. And you see a sheaf of lines going around, depending on how fast you do it. You can count the number of them in sheaf and you can get a measure of visual persistence. But as I said, it’s a, it wasn’t really awesome. Jimmy was always very skeptical.
Runeson: There were picnics, just about everyday after the sessions.
Shaw: My wife and I were in charge of the picnics. My wife was organizing things and I was carrying things.
Mace: Jerry Gibson is head epidemiologist for the state of South Carolina. And interestingly enough, George Kaplan, who was at this conference as a two-year graduate of Cornell left academic work for something related to film as I recall. When Jackie Gibson passed away, George Kaplan contacted me somehow and said that he has gone into epidemiology also, and was a permanent, if not, department chair of the University of Michigan. Epidemiology. [ Founder, Center for Social Epidemiology & Population Health (CSEPH) at Michigan].
Runeson: Well that was all of the pictures from the 1970 meeting. I’d like to tell you an anecdote from my first meeting with Jimmy Gibson that occurred in Uppsala in 1968, when Gibson was invited as a main attraction to the annual Norwich meeting for theoretical psychology. I was a graduate student at the time and an assistant to Gunnar Johansson, who had been visiting Gibson previously and they had had some contact. Anyway, the meeting was for two days, Thursday and Friday, and it was arranged that in Saturday morning Gibson would come to the lab, so that Gunnar Johansson would demonstrate things with my help, which we did. And then I guess we had a light lunch and after that we got back to the lab, and Gunnar Johansson said “Oh yeah, it’s Saturday. See you on Monday.“ And he walked away. Actually, he said “See you on Sunday”, because they have arranged that Jimmy Gibson would be taken to Gunnar Johansson’s summer home. But anyway, there was something strange about it. People had been talking about how social person Jimmy Gibson was. And this was not a kind of situation that he would appreciate. Me and my wife, we didn’t dare to do anything about this for a while, but we knew Jimmy Gibson was wondering if he should stay there, wandering back and forth, you know, not knowing what to do. But finally he came to us and said that he wondered if we had a newspaper where he can find a movie to go to. Then we see what he was looking for. He was looking for company. (Laugh) So, we did find a newspaper and we did find a movie, which we all went to, and it happened to be one of these absurd Czech movies. (Laugh) Very strange one. They were speaking Czech of course, and we are seeing Swedish subtitles. (Laugh) He said he enjoyed that. Then we asked if he would come to our apartment to eat something. And he said “Oh no, you know, if you want to dine, come to my hotel.” So we were invited and spent a long evening with him eating and talking.
Then it was a very natural thing for me in 1970 when I heard about this conference coming out, and stimulated by Jim Maas who was at Uppsala in the spring, making movies about Gunnar Johansson’s research. So he told me, “Write to Jimmy and say you want to come.” Thus I got there. Well, O.K., I’ll get you out of pictures. (Applause)
Cabe: I’ll be next and be brief. First I would like to thank Bill for inviting us to get together for the last time. (Laugh) I understand there are ambulances and stretchers waiting outside the door. I just have a couple of vignettes from my exposure to Jimmy Gibson. The very first one was in the spring of 1968 when I visited as a prospective graduate student, and in Jimmy’s office I had a one on one conversation for about an hour. I was too dumb to be intimidated by it. I had been working with a human factors lab in Ohio and we were doing things that we thought look like perception. So I described some of these things to him. And in a way that was forceful but gentle he attempted to dissuade me for what I was doing made no real sense. But I went away with this and had more feeling that this is the guy you could carry on the conversation with and who would talk to you and discuss the kinds of ideas that you might have and offer what, at least, were intended to be helpful suggestions. The other couple of vignettes that come to mind is that the seminar covered a lot of territory and there were intensive discussions about topics that became prominent in, at least, the 79 book. But it had a long gestation period during these discussions around the seminar. One of those was the whole problem of events and event perception, which we take as not a big deal anymore, but in the late 1960’s, early 70’s, this was something that we just didn’t have grasp of. And there’s a lot of discussion back and forth, what would it mean to talk about an event, how would you characterize event, what sorts of regularities in stimulus might allow the perception of events and so forth. Well, I can’t say that we came to firm conclusions about that. It was kind of interesting to see some of these ideas emerge in the 79 book when it appeared.
And the of course all these social kind of things that occurred. One that stands out in my mind was a graduate student’s party that Hubert Dolezal organized, there were his pictures in several of the slides that we just looked at. And the party, he invited Jimmy to come along because Jackie was out of town some place, and Jimmy came. Appeared at the door, there was a knock on the door and Hubert answered it and Jimmy came in with his drink -- in a Mason jar.
And he was a warm guy who didn’t hold back very much when he had something, strongly honest mind. The papers that we were expected to write from the seminar, I still have one of those in my files that I treasure because it has Jimmy’s hand written comments on it. He didn’t like a word that I said, but I’m not going to throw it away because it’s the one close remembrance I have of the contact with him.
Kaushall: I kept, I believe, most of the purple perils. Have you explained why they are called purple perils?
Mace: Philip, we collected all of those we could find. And digitized them and they are on the web. So we have them for the many people who have discovered.
Kaushall: Good. Excellent.
Mace: Well, check it out. Maybe you’ve got something we don’t. .Herb, yes.
Herb Pick: I’ll just say a couple of things. One of the best, strongest, memories I have was how much Jimmy liked arguing, and intellectual discussions. And my image of the department at Cornell, when I was there, were Jimmy and Julie Hochberg walking down the hall just arguing. And the decibel level was extraordinarily high, and they would walk back and forth. And I think that infused the graduate students with that same way of exchanging ideas. Jimmy did the same thing with Ollie Smith, who was in some of those photographs. To come up that Jimmy was a night bird. He did work late into the night, sometimes all night. And there’s one wonderful occasion where he would never have a class to teach. We mentioned that the seminar started at 4 o’clock. But once in a while, he would be teaching a perception class that started at noon. And that was pretty early for him to show up. And Jackie would often start calling him about 11 o’clock in the morning to be sure he would get to school on time. But, one of my fellow graduate students was his teaching assistant. And one of his jobs is to go to Jimmy’s office about 5 minutes to 12 to get him to come to class. One day, Jimmy had a really well-prepared lecture that he wanted to give, and he came in especially early about 10 o’clock. And he was working away in his office. And this particular time, my fellow graduate student himself overslept. And he didn’t come to get Jimmy to come to class at 5 to 12. Jimmy suddenly discovered that about 12:30 and went to class, but nobody was there. Then my friend struggled in about a quarter to one or one o’clock and rushed up to Jimmy’s office and said, “Oh, Dr. Gibson, I’m so terribly sorry.“ And Jimmy said, “No, no, don’t think anything of it. Your mistake was sleeping late, and my mistake was depending on you.”
The last thing I want to mention was how much Jimmy kept working and re-working his ideas. David earlier said “I’m not talking about the tau in 1978 I’m talking about tau last night” or something like that. Jimmy came to Minnesota one summer and spent six weeks giving the seminar and talking about one of his ideas. One of the students that were in that seminar attending the summer workshop some of you might know was Dean Owen. Dean liked Jimmy’s ideas very much and worked very hard to understand them. And he came back to the subsequent seminar two or three years later that Jimmy was teaching, and he came up and said, “I thought through the ideas you have talked about 2 years ago, Jimmy. It’s really wonderful. I like the way you put this, that and the other things.” And Jimmy said, “Oh, yeah. That’s what I used to believe, but that’s all wrong.” He was personally revising his ideas and making it richer and better.
Kaushall: Jimmy was made a chairman of the psychology department for one disasterous year. I think the whole system ground to a halt. He couldn’t do the paperwork or something. He wouldn’t come to the office and I’m not sure what happened. I heard about that indirectly. Does anybody else know the details about that? Administrative career of
Kaushall: They didn’t get paid, is that it?
Runeson: Can I ask a question to the rest of you, whether the certain story about Gibson is true or not. I was told that when he was teaching class, quite often he was just reading from one of his books. And it happened more than once that in doing so after he read the passage he stopped and said “Hey, that’s a good idea. I’ve never thought about that before.” (Laugh). Might that have been true?
Kaushall: Sounds like a professor anecdote. But I don’t think he would say that.
Kennedy: There was a phrase that I recall which seem to get said more than once. And it was, “Remember what I was saying last semester or whenever. Let’s throw that away, and start again. Let’s start here, this time.” And he always had this sense that he was willing to dispense with stuff, and tried to be more systematic tried to be better, tried to find more fundamental place from which to begin. I thought that was just inspiring and wonderful and the sort of thing we should all try to emulate.
Warren: I have a question. It’s sometimes said that Gibson was a very hard act to follow for the students. We have people here on panel who were the students of Gibson’s who stayed in the field, but there are many people in the photographs we saw who left the field for one reason or another. And there are many others we know their names on papers and so on who left the field. So I don’t know I haven’t done a count to see if that’s a higher rate. So here’s the question. Was Gibson, you know, asking such fundamental questions and doing such hard work that it was just very difficult for students to follow up on that?
Cabe: I took upon myself to go back to Cornell a few years ago and go through the old dissertation catalog to try to identify all the Gibson PhDs. And I have a list of that and if anybody is interested, send me an email and I would be happy to share that list and what other information I have as a part of that with any of you. It was interesting to look at that list and try to figure out where people had gone. George Kaplan, who was mentioned a minute ago, Harry Levin, in my hearing, said one time, George and Eleanor Kaplan were the two best graduate students who’d ever gone to the psychology program at Cornell. And to my knowledge, neither one of them is still doing psychology. Short answer to your question I think is that Gibson valued independent thinking in a way that promoted his students doing things that they thought were important and they weren’t necessarily Gibsonian perception or even, in many cases, psychology. I don’t know what those numbers look like, but there are a quite number of Gibson’s students, both Gibsons’, who did not stick to academia and did not persist doing perceptual research or perceptual development and learning. There seems to be substantial numbers who found their own paths, went other directions, and in substantial numbers of cases left psychology altogether.
Ph.D. Students of James J. Gibson
Ph.D. Students of Eleanor J. Gibson
Kennedy: There’s another factor there. When you went out, you had whole lot of Gibsonian arguments and ideas, and you then met, the average psychologists. In my experience, it was difficult to communicate. And some of the things you thought were absolutely vital people, other people just couldn’t see what was important about them. And often what they were doing looked, at least to me, shallow. And I had to learn that what you want to do is support your colleagues. The kind of vociferous interest in argument of the kind we engaged in at Cornell -- you didn’t want to do that with your colleagues. You wanted to be more supportive. You wanted to be clear to be supporting them, or clear you were having your own line of [unintelligible -- if anyone can make out this last word, let me know -- WMM].
Let me just give you one, for instance. John Bassili came up [to Toronto] from Cornell and gave a talk. He used the old Heider and Simmel movie. Things chasing around. You know there's social significance here. I'm a social psychologist and I want to talk about this. Endel Tulving said, "Isn't this just anthropomorphism?" And I said, "this is the BASIS for anthropomorphism." And John Bassili got the job. He tried to continue in the same line of work for about two years. But I don’t think of a single other social psychologist in the group who had any interest at all in what was doing. I think that was hard for him. He then adopted the other line of research, and did perfectly well on this. But it is clear for us to see that the lack of understanding [by other psychologists] and the effect it will have on young psychologist trying to make his way.
I think I learned something from Kevin Dunbar at McGill University, who studies in labs that are likely to win Nobel prizes, biology labs. And he says they all maintain two lines of research. The stuff that they think might work out and might get the Nobel prize. And the other stuff is bread and butter.
I know that I found it really important for my first five years to have bread and butter stuff that brought in publications, research grants, recognition from my colleagues, but I had something else that I thought far more fundamental. I might pay off in the long run. And as soon as possible, I basically dropped other lines of research and just stayed with the stuff that I really believed had something deep in it. Maybe a lot of other people coming out of Gibson lab ran into the same kind of thing.
I remember saying to Jimmy one time, which was “you know it’s really curious. The reviews I get, if I attack the Gibsonian idea, then they would be really supportive. If I’m supporting a Gibsonian idea, it’s like I run into a brick wall." That might have been really tough for some people who may not know how to crack that particular egg. Certainly I did, but I used numbers of techniques, then felt O.K.
I don’t have to do that anymore. But it’s also true, often other stuff I had to publish essentially as chapters in books before I can build up enough stuff. You have to have a really long view. So it wasn’t that easy to push the Gibsonian view. So I hope that’s a bit of response. What do you think?
By the way I think the game was virtually won and you have helped enormously, Bill, with all of your papers on flow fields, I think they just have been vital, and opening up the territory to a lot of people.
When David Regan attacked you on it, and then response to that just helped people understand a great deal what is going on.
Kennedy: I think that the Connecticut group, thank you guys, you have sort of created a club, in which a lot of the ideas you want to explore, you can very freely explore them. Thank you very much for keeping the stuff going and keeping a venue there. And David Lee just did an enormously important work, keeping the tau notion and the analysis of optic array, and simple mathematical functions, and the invariant That example has been the really important for me. Despite all this, let me point out, when I went to Uppsala, and gave what I thought was really wonderful talk, all kinds of things, but didn’t have to do certain areas. And Gunnar Johansson was there he had gotten out of the sick bed to come and listen to the talk. And then I looked over at the end of the talk, and sure enough the sick man had been listening, and there was his hand up first and I said “Please.” And his question was “Why are you not working on motion perception?”
Shaw: When I went to Cornell from Minnesota, where Herb was one of my colleagues. We had a center there, and my job was primarily to make sense of rule governed behavior by generalizing off of the generative grammar from Chomsky and company. So I met Jimmy and Jackie Gibson in 1968 in one of our summer institutes. I was sitting across from Dean Owen, when I had an insight to what Gibson was saying, what he meant by direct perception, and he was talking about layout. We chatted, and then sometime next fall I got call from him asking me to come to Cornell and get a leave of absence. And I did, with a threat from my chairman, “Well, don’t bother to come back” kind of thing.
When I went, Jimmy said he’d got this Senior Career Development Award, and so there was money freed up that they can pay me to teach his perception course. I panicked. I called him back and said, “Jimmy, I never had a perception course. I went through verbal behavior. I went through my graduate training in a couple of years and I didn’t learn very much.“ And he said, “Well, best way to learn is teaching.” He said, “Besides, I’ll let you use my notes” and all. “O.K.”, you know. So when I got there that was time for me to start teaching these bright undergraduates at Cornell his course on topics that I knew nothing about. And I went to him and said, “Jimmy, can I have your notes now. I need to start planning my talk.” He said, “Oh, oh yes.” and he reached out and pulled up the thinnest folders I’ve ever seen. And I opened it and in it, it was saying, “Give the criticism of Helmholtz.” (Laugh) “Explain what layout means.” (Laugh) I was even more panicked, then. And so I think I’m really in trouble and said “Jimmy, someone can help me with this.” “Oh, yeah. Tom Toleno can be your senior assistant and David … can be your junior assistant.”
So I struggled through that year teaching Jimmy’s course being tutored before every class by two graduate students who knew lot more about it than I did. And I was lucky enough I had David as my office mate at the lab. I was always asking David to explain things to me. He’d probably thought I was an idiot wondered why I was in the office with him. But they did make me a job offer which I didn’t take. But sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had taken that job.
The other thing is, I was trying, as everybody did in that seminar, I was trying to write something. And also there’s the other job. David and I were supposed to be helping in teaching the seminar. Because we were both, you know,a little senior to the graduate students just because we had jobs.
Well I went through this transition, first I called him “Professor. Gibson”, then he would keep telling me “Call me Jimmy”. Then I heard that his students called him J.J. So then I got where I called him J.J., and he said, “Call me Jimmy”. And it was years before I can call him Jimmy. So I know exactly what that’s like.
So I wrote something trying to understand invariants. And he had comments and I saw them in the paper that I gave him, there were comments written all over and I said, “Could I see the comments?” And he said, “Oh, no. You don’t want to see those comments. Those are just for me.“ And I said, “Well, I would like to see them.” He said, “Well, you might get insulted.” And I said. “No, that’s all right. I can’t be insulted.” Well, I looked at the comments and they were something like this, in the margin. I was trying to, at that time, integrate Piaget, Gibson, Chomsky, and all kinds of garbage. And I was going through it. And there would be a question mark in the margin, and things would be underlined. Then also some things would be crossed out. There’d be some comment “Egad” and then it goes on down and he’d say, “What?” Then finally he’d say “Nuts” And then at the time I got to the end of the paper there was one word that said, “Hooey” (Laugh).
Kaushall: Comments on my paper, he was quite religious actually. He would say “Good god.” (Laugh)
Mace: So, before we part, we finish with David.
David Lee: I’d just like to say that Jimmy completely transformed my life. It happened actually when I was at Harvard. I come from doing graduate work in London and I had done courses in perception and I got completely disillusioned with everything. And I was speaking to somebody at Harvard and he said, “Have you ever read Gibson? And I said, “Who is he?” Because I had never been taught anything about Gibson, and the fact reflects a bit about what John was saying. Anyway, I read “The perception of the visual world” and was transformed overnight, just with the first few words actually, “This is about how we see the world, how we get around in the world”. All the other stuff I had been reading was about this experimental paradigm, that experimental paradigm and so forth. Anyway, it completely transformed me and I met Gibson later when I was at the EPA conference in Boston. Then I visited Cornell, and eventually came here and met Bob for a year 1969 –70. I had all the experiences that everybody else has been talking about. The warmth, the big arguments, the fact that you can never convince him as he was very dogged and you could be convinced of certain things you never get through. But it was a very stimulating atmosphere and very formative, and he was very pleasant to be around.
So I’m very glad to be here.
Mace: Thank you all.