Roots of ecological psychology I

March 10, 2009

Yesterday we started to revise some concepts of ecology to be useful in our learning context. So i had to come back an look at some theory books.

Harry Heft writes in Ecological Psychology in Context

Heft (2001): There is a dynamic realm of thoroughly natural, co-evolved entities functioning in a web of environmental interdependencies. The structural and functional properties of natural entities, and the interdependencies they share, reflect their ongoing mutual history. This view underlines an ecological perspective.

The founder of ecological psychology is William James (1842-1910). He was among the first generation of psychologists to introduce evolutionary perspective into psychological theorizing. His philosophy of radical empirism can be employed as a philosophical foundation to ecological psychology.

James identified pure experience as the ground of all knowing. Pure experience embedded as it is in a person-environment relation is poised to be dynamically differentiated. The defining characteristic of knowing is selectivity.

Immediate experience consists of things and relations. Knowing is an activity that traces out lines of potential structure in immediate experience, structure is not imposed on experience.

The knower appears from the outset in relation to the thing known. The knower and object known each become realized as different constellations of relations themselves coexisting ultimatively in a ground of pure experience.

Experience is unitary, but at the same time, it can simultaneously be part of two constellations of relations, that is, a part of two distinguishable contexts. The object known and the knower are each embedded in contexts of relations that have their own distinguishable structures.

Selection of structure in experience involves following a set of relations in experience. Relations in experience are “transitional experiences which the world supplies” (James, 1912/1976, p. 14). The lines of structure selected out by the knowing function are not imposed on the thing known, but are identified and discovered in it.

Three basic claims characterize James’s philosophy:
– only those things that can be identified or discovered in experience are to be included in one’s philosophical system.
– the relations between things, conjuctive, as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience.
– the world itself possesses an inherent discoverable structure.

In radical empirism, knowing refers to a functional relation in experience between the knower and an object known.

Perceiving is ongoing, continuous, unbroken and multimodal. The continuity of perceptual flux is punctuated by boundaries that gradually flow one into the next. “Boundaries” is misleading, suggesting an edge that is rigid and impermeable. Better put, there are transitions in perceptual experience, which are overflowed by what they separate and whose parts compenetrate and diffuse into its neighbours.

Perceiving is a direct, unmediated, selective discovery of structure in immediate experience.
Perceiving is an action that entails selection of a flow of immediate experience out of the potential ground that is pure experience.

Thinking or conceiving entails selecting and fixing particular parts of this perceptual flow. Through this process, concepts are carved out of immediate perceptual experience at a remove from action and are abstracted from it. The system of concepts is selected out of the perceptual flow. “Concepts extracted from the perceptual flow, ” verbally fixed and coupled together (let us) know what is in the wind for us and get ready to react in time (james, 1912/1976, p. 47).

Forming concepts and beliefs is something complex biological creatures do in order to be better in touch with the flow of experience, rather than uncovering fixed and transcendent universal truths. It is a natural process of complex animals attempting to function adapatively in relation to changing environment-person relations.


One comment

  1. I am also a fan of James. His cosmology was not based on the simple Alexandrian model and he was absolutely appalled at the rise of “natural realism” so interpreting James in our modern age is difficult at best.

    See Radical empiricism vs New Empiricism

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