Pre-Gibsonian observations on active touch

Hist Psychol. 2016 May;19(2):93-104. doi: 10.1037/hop0000028.


James J. Gibson's (1962) now-classic "Observations on Active Touch" demonstrated the superiority of active over passive touch in object discrimination tasks and thereby exposed the paradigmatic limits of preceding research. Before Gibson, according to the received view, the sense of touch had been treated as a mere receptive channel, ignoring the hand's explorative movements. This article challenges this common narrative by juxtaposing Gibson's article with research published in the German-speaking parts of Europe between the early 19th and mid-20th centuries. The concept of "active touch" did not originate from Gibson's paper alone, nor should earlier appearances of the term be treated simply as exceptional cases. On the contrary, throughout the 19th century, the concept facilitated fundamental theoretical, cross-disciplinary discussions and ultimately evolved into an object of experimental study on its own.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Austria
  • Germany
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Psychophysiology / history*
  • Switzerland
  • Touch*