A Note on Innate Perception

February 1967

A Note on Innate Perception

J. J. Gibson, Cornell University

The World Wide Web distribution of James Gibson’s “Purple Perils” is for scholarly use with the understanding that Gibson did not intend them for publication. References to these essays must cite them explicitly as unpublished manuscripts. Copies may be circulated if this statement is included on each copy.

It has generally been assumed without question that newborn animals and human infants are endowed with senses and thereby have sensations. On this assumption, the psychologist is faced with a puzzle for they show in some degree a seemingly innate capacity to interpret sensations without prior experience. Now there is something wrong with the idea that any newborn organism should “know” anything. It implies that he is experienced when he is in fact inexperienced. I am not referring to the difficulties faced by the theories of instinctive behavior (which are serious enough) but to this particular difficulty for any theory of innate perception. Philosophy, psychology, and biology have long been concerned with it. There are all kinds of attempts to resolve this contradiction but none are wholly successful. Biologists and psychologists tried for a while to avoid all references to perception and stick to behavior, but this is dodging the issue, and the trend seems to be waning. The difficulty must be faced so long as one assumes that newborns have basic senses (because they are endowed with sensory nerves) and have sensations (because the nerves transmit signals). The existing literature on the senses of animals and on the evolution of the senses seems to make this assumption.

What happens if we substitute the concept of perceptual systems for that of senses? This theory avoids the difficulty by asserting a process of direct perception not based on sensations. Logically, we can no longer speak of “sense-perception.” or “sensory cues,” or “interpretation of sensations.” We use only the commonsense meaning of the verb to sense, i.e., to detect. This demands an uncomfortable reorientation in our thinking but at least removes the uncomfortable problem of explaining how an inexperienced animal can nevertheless seem to be experienced.