James J. Gibson on the Concept of Space

I am also asking the reader to suppose that the concept of space has nothing to do with perception. Geometrical space is a pure abstraction. Outer space can be visualized but cannot be seen. The cues for depth refer only to paintings, nothing more. The visual third dimension is a misapplication of Descartes’s notion of three axes for a coordinate system. The doctrine that we could not perceive the world around us unless we already had the concept of space is nonsense. It is quite the other way around: We could not conceive of empty space unless we could see the ground under our feet and the sky above. Space is a myth, a ghost, a fiction for geometers. All that sounds very strange, no doubt, but I urge the reader to entertain the hypothesis. For if you agree to abandon the dogma that “percepts without concepts are blind,” as Kant put it, a deep theoretical mess, a genuine quagmire, will dry up. [1]

James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception

Instead of calling it a space it would be better to call it a world. The conception of an empty space of three dimensions was a conception of philosophers and physicists. It was appropriate for the analysis of the abstract world of events defined by Newton. It was and still is of enormous value for analysis in the physical sciences. But the fact that it simplifies such problems does not make it the best starting point for the problem of visual perception. Space, time, points, and instants are useful terms, but not the terms with which to start the analysis of how we see, for no one has ever seen them. The world with a ground under it… is the prototype of the world in which we all live [2]

James J. Gibson, The Perception of the  Visual World

At RSaP – Rethinking Space and Place, that ‘world’, which is inclusive of all perceptual fields and kinetic fields regarding the movements of people through the physical environment, is what I call ‘place’. No ‘space’ really exists in nature: only places within places, within places… It is the total amount of such places that constitutes ‘a world’. To understand such ‘a world’ as ‘space’ can be a misleading abstraction which puts a veil on (‘it simplifies…’ Gibson says) many fundamental processes that happen in the real world (on this specific issue see also the article The Treachery of Space).


[1] James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (New York: Psychology Press Classic Editions, 2015), xv-xvi.

[2] James J. Gibson, The Perception of the  Visual World (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1950), 60.

Works Cited

Gibson, James J. The Perception of the  Visual World. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1950.

Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. New York: Psychology Press Classic Editions, 2015.

Image Credits

Featured Image: The change of the optic array brought about by a locomotor movement of the observer, in James J. Gibson, The Perception of the  Visual World (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1950), 65.

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  • JWS
    Posted June 6, 2021 5:22 pm 0Likes

    Of all the interrogatives, one stands supreme.
    Who bows to its seeming indifference?
    What materializes the essence.
    When heralds with dawning anticipation.
    Where provides a fleeting glimpse.
    Its ultimate expression creates awareness, or in some cases, veils reality from the ignorant.
    A wise man once witnessed the chance meeting of the Moirai with this supreme Questor on a narrow, deserted road. Clotho fumbled, Lachesis became stifled and Atropos waxed indecisive.
    All three fates simply vanished.
    Firmly within its grasp is the truth of existence.
    The King of Seekers is its moniker.
    Judgment springs forth from its echoing aulos.
    A penultimate query that lays bare all enigmas.
    Pray tell us why you puzzle over its reality?

    • Alessandro Calvi Rollino
      Posted June 7, 2021 6:12 pm 0Likes

      Searching for the how – which, I’d dare to say, is a missing part in that suggestive picture – I’ve discovered that we often mistake ‘a fleeting glimpse’ for ‘the essence’. Where – the fleeting glimpse – for What – the essence: a question of space, place and matter. If we, human beings, make plans without fully realizing the limits or extension of their applicability, what can we expect? Limits, extension: a question of space, place and matter. Typically, we act in space (an abstract concept, ‘a fleeting glimpse’) believing it is ‘the essence’ of reality (a concrete place, to begin with). In this metaphorical short-circuit, which we often and unwittingly transform into a logical error — the fallacy of misplaced concreteness —, we may trace the origin of our fatal relationship with Nature, i.e., the self-creating and orderly structure of reality. There is much at stake behind the concepts of space, place, and matter: not just beautiful buildings… Finally, I’ve also discovered what’s behind the name Moira.

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