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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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INTRODUCTION

It is sometimes said that La Mettrie, or Hobbes, or
even Aristotle was the first behaviorist. But such claims
ignore the cardinal point that behaviorism was essen-
tially a methodological movement in psychology which
can only be understood in the historical context of the
early twentieth century. Its basic tenet, proclaimed by
John B. Watson, its founder, was that psychology could
only become a science if it based itself on the sort of
objective observations and measurements that were
made by natural scientists and biologists. This claim
had point because it was made at a time when intro-
spective psychology had run itself into the ground with
abortive controversies about imageless thoughts and
when, by contrast, the study of animal behavior, which
had received great impetus from Darwin's theories, was
advancing rapidly. The time, therefore, was ripe for
Watson's polemical suggestion that the only way to
advance the scientific study of human beings was to
adopt the same sorts of observational techniques that
had proved so successful with the study of animals.
This was the kernel of behaviorism and, incidentally,
about the only doctrine which was common to all those
who later called themselves behaviorists.

Connected with this claim about the appropriate
data of science was a view about the proper function
of science. Watson held that the function of science
was not so much to explain events but to predict and
control them. Behaviorism therefore had close affinities
with certain aspects of American pragmatism as repre-
sented by John Dewey, Charles Peirce, William James,
and fitted in well with the general American tendency
to believe that the obvious way to improve the condi-
tion of man was to manipulate the external environ-
ment which was regarded as the main determining
influence on his behavior.

What, then, has led people to claim that previous
figures in the history of psychology, such as Hobbes
and Aristotle, might be termed behaviorists? Partly,
perhaps, the fact that many others before Watson had
approached the study of man objectively, but without,
in fact, relying much on introspective reports; for there
were previous thinkers who had proceeded more or
less in this way without erecting it into a methodologi-
cal doctrine. More important, however, was the fact
that there were other doctrines espoused by Watson
which fitted well with his methodological directives,
and previous thinkers had advanced these doctrines.

Watson, like many other behaviorists, held a tacit
or an implicit metaphysical doctrine about the sort of
entities that there are in the world. He was a materialist
who believed, for instance, that thought was identical
with movements in the brain and larynx. Connected
with his materialism was his view about the sort of
concepts that were appropriate in developing a science
of psychology. Like Hobbes before him and Hull after
him he believed that the concepts should be mechani-
cal
in character. This belief was shared by many later
conceptual behaviorists who were not prepared to take
up any position on metaphysical issues which, they
claimed, lay outside the province of science. Finally
Watson was an associationist in his theory. He believed
that simple reflex arcs were linked together in behavior
by principles of association. In this respect his theory


215

was quite unoriginal: for he merely transferred to the
sphere of simple bodily movements a theory which had
previously been put forward to account for the links
between simple ideas. He stressed the importance of
peripheral connections between stimuli and minimized
the role of central processes. He thus founded what
has come to be called the S-R (Stimulus-Response)
theory of learning.

When, therefore, assertions are made about the more
remote historical origins of behaviorism these usually
relate not so much to the methodological doctrine,
which was central to it as a movement in psychology,
as to other aspects of Watson's thought, which not all
behaviorists shared—to his materialism and to his use
of mechanical concepts and of associationist principles.
There was also the less self-conscious use of objective
methods by many before who studied human behavior.

This brief analysis of what was distinctive of behav-
iorism suggests a convenient method of treating it as
a phenomenon in the history of ideas. A few key figures
in the history of psychology will first be introduced
to substantiate the position here defended that only
in rather contingent respects could they be regarded
as precursors of behaviorism. This will pave the way
for the exposition of the more closely connected ante-
cedents of behaviorism as a movement in the history
of psychology.