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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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It has been argued that behaviorism was basically
a methodological movement in psychology which laid
down restrictions on the data on which a science could
be properly based. In the case of its founder, J. B.
Watson, this central doctrine was supported by an
inductivist view of scientific method flanked by the
metaphysical doctrine of materialism and by the asso-
ciationism of a peripheralist, or S-R, type as a psycho-
logical theory. Few of the later behaviorists shared all
these assumptions. In commenting, therefore, on the
main features of their theories special attention will
be paid to their adherence to or departure from these
other tenets of Watson which have come to be loosely
associated with behaviorism.

1. Early Materialists. Some of Watson's more im-
mediate contemporaries had more in common with his
bold, metaphysical brashness, than his later followers.
Albert P. Weiss, for instance, published a book entitled
A Theoretical Basis of Human Behavior in 1925 in
which he banned consciousness and introspection from
psychology and claimed that all behavior could be
interpreted in terms of physiochemical processes. Nev-
ertheless he argued that what is distinctive of a human
being is that his environment is social. Psychology is


therefore a bio-social science which is particularly
concerned with the impact of the social environment
on a biological organism. Weiss was particularly inter-
ested in child development and learning, but he never
seriously tackled the conceptual problems facing his
reductionism, of how features of the social environ-
ment, such as commands, promises, and moral exhorta-
tion can be analyzed in purely physical terms.

Another early behaviorist, who showed equal naiveté
about the environment, was W. S. Hunter. He held
that consciousness or experience for the psychologist
is merely a name which he applies to what other
people call “the environment.” This suggestion epito-
mizes the epistemological innocence of most of the
early behaviorists, against which Koffka reacted so
strongly. Hunter, however, distinguished himself in
other ways. He thought that the new look in psychol-
ogy deserved a new name and attempted, without any
success, to substitute “anthroponomy” for “psychol-
ogy.” He also was the first to use the temporal maze
for the study of motor learning.

A more ingenious and interesting theorist of early
behaviorism was E. B. Holt. He was one of the first
to try to deal with Freudian phenomena within a
behavioristic framework and his The Freudian Wish
and its Place in Ethics
(1915) is a classic in this tough-
minded tradition, which was later to include O. H.
Mowrer, J. Dollard, and N. E. Miller. Holt also devel-
oped Watson's idea that thinking is subvocal talking
and theorized about the connections between language
and conditioning. He thus anticipated later much more
ambitious, if abortive, attempts to exhibit language as
a system of conditioned responses.

Karl S. Lashley was a pupil of Watson's who made
distinguished contributions to the physiology of the
nervous system. This, however, did not prevent him
from making pronouncements about the subject matter
of psychology and about its methods, for instance, that
introspection is “an example of the pathology of scien-
tific method” (Lashley, 1923). His physiological find-
ings, however, as expressed in his Brain Mechanisms
and Intelligence
(1929), did not support other doctrines
of Watson. His postulates of equipotentiality—that one
part of the cortex is potentially the same as another
in its capacity for learning, and of mass action—that
learning is a function of the total mass of tissue, favored
a centralist theory of learning rather than Watson's
peripheralist theory. He became very critical of S-R
theories which postulated a simple connection between
stimulus and response and which ignored the role of
intervening cortical processes. The simple switching
function accorded by Watson to the brain, which he
inherited from Descartes, was denied.

Lashley, however, never departed from Watson's
materialistic standpoint. Like Weiss and Hunter he
believed that ultimately behavior could be describable
in the concepts of mechanics and chemistry. It is also
significant that all these early behaviorists shared an
inductivist view of scientific method. They thought of
the different sciences as having different subject mat-
ters and as consisting of generalizations about them
derived from reliable data drawn from these subject
matters. In this respect they shared not only Watson's
methodological recipes but also the view of scientific
method from which these recipes arose (Peters, 1951).

2. E. C. Tolman. One of the most influential and
forceful converts to behaviorism was E. C. Tolman;
for he was calling himself a “purposive behaviorist”
as early as 1920, though his definitive work entitled
Purposive Behavior in Animals and Man did not appear
until 1932. He aligned himself with the behaviorists
because he accepted their central methodological doc-
trine about the sort of evidence on which a scientific
psychology should be based. He did not indulge, like
Watson and Weiss, in metaphysical assertions about the
sorts of entities which there are in the world; he ad-
mitted that, at a common-sense level, men introspect
and manage well enough with mentalistic terms. What
he doubted, however, was the adequacy of this termi-
nology for scientific purposes. “Raw feels” are scien-
tifically useless, and mentalistic terms can be translated
into the language of observable behavior. Tolman, in
other words, was a conceptual behaviorist rather than
a materialist, as well as being a behaviorist in his
explicitly stated methodology.

In the conceptual sphere Tolman made at least three
contributions, two of which were of permanent impor-
tance. Firstly he called himself a purposive behaviorist
because he maintained that the concept of purpose was
irreducible. As has been mentioned (sec. I, 2), he dis-
tinguished between the molecular and the molar level
of behavior, whose unity as segments of behavior is
provided by the ends towards which movements persist
and in the attainment of which they are docile. He
accused Watson of not distinguishing clearly between
the molecular and the molar levels of analysis and
maintained, against Hull, that behavior at the molar
level is an “emergent” which has descriptive and de-
fining properties of its own. Descriptions of it cannot
be reduced to or deduced from analyses at the molecu-
lar level.

Secondly Tolman made rather bizarre attempts to
translate mentalistic terms, which had application at
the molar level, into a behavioristic type of termi-
nology. “Consciousness” became “the performance of
a 'sampling' or 'running-back-and-forth' behavior.” He
even suggested that Freudian personality mechanisms
can be translated into this type of terminology.


Thirdly, Tolman introduced into psychological the-
ory the notion of intervening variables. Terms like
“instinct” had previously been used, e.g., by
McDougall, not simply to postulate that certain pur-
posive behavior patterns were unlearned; they also had
a metaphysical dimension to them—a suggestion of
Aristotelian entelechies, of dynamic mental atoms ac-
tivating behavior. Tolman argued that it was perfectly
legitimate for a behaviorist to use a term like “drive”
which did not denote an unobservable entity, but
which was a shorthand symbol for stating a correlation
between antecedent conditions, e.g., food-deprivation,
and variations in behavior, e.g., eating.

This conceptual clarification helped to set psychol-
ogy free to theorize without fear of metaphysics. It
led on to the use of hypothetical constructs, which did
commit theorists to postulates about unobservables
usually of a physiological sort. (For this distinction see
MacCorquodale and Meehl, 1948.) Tolman thus con-
tributed to ridding psychology of the inductivist myth,
shared by the early behaviorists, that scientists must
never go beyond what is observed. In fact, however,
the postulation of unobservables to explain the ob-
served has been one of the most potent sources of
scientific advance.

In the details of his psychological theory Tolman was
eclectic. He stressed the importance of both demand
variables and cognitive variables in behavior, and at-
tempted to state more precisely assumptions of the sort
which McDougall had incorporated in his theory of
instincts, i.e., of innate dispositions to pay attention
to and behave in specific ways towards objects of a
certain class.

In his account of the demand variables Tolman dis-
tinguished first-order drives, which are linked with
specific antecedent physiological conditions and con-
sequent states of physiological quiescence (e.g., food-
hunger, sex-hunger) from second-order drives (e.g.,
curiosity, constructiveness) which are not so obviously
linked. This distinction, which was later to become that
between biological and acquired drives, was important
in the history of behaviorism. On the cognitive side
Tolman postulated “means-end readinesses” for
“means-objects” which are innate but docile relative
to the success of the organism in attaining its goal.
Also in his account of “behavior supports” he tried
to escape the sensory atomism of stimulus-response
psychology. He also developed the concept of the
“sign-Gestalt expectation” to incorporate the findings
of Gestalt psychology into his assumptions about the
organism's perceptual field.

Although Tolman emphasized the importance of
innate appetites and aversions in behavior he was
equally emphatic on the importance of learning, in
which he stressed the role of cognitive variables. He
argued, also, that the evidence of latent learning was
inconsistent with Throndike's law of effect. In trial and
error learning a refinement of sign-Gestalts takes place.
A kind of cognitive map develops of the different
possibilities as the various alternatives are explored.

Motivational variables are, of course, important in
learning in that they determine which aspects of a
situation will be emphasized. But learning depends
primarily on the expectancy of achievement and on
confirmations of the expectancy. In learning animals
and men make predictions and the maps which they
use to do this are refined more and more as experience
confirms or falsifies them. As Tolman developed his
theory he became more and more interested in and
convinced of the importance of cognitive variables. It
is therefore understandable that behaviorists became
increasingly embarrassed by Tolman's claim that he
was one of them.

3. C. L. Hull. Behaviorism was basically old philos-
ophy masquerading as a new scientific theory. In the
1930's philosophers began to be extremely critical of
the old inductivist view of scientific method, which
most of those in the empirical tradition had accepted,
though Whewell in the nineteenth century had been
an acute critic of this view. The role of hypothesis
and deduction in science, which had been so prominent
in the work of Galileo, was emphasized. Psychology
began to be influenced by this change of emphasis in
the philosophical climate. It was suggested, notably by
Kurt Lewin and by Clark Hull, that psychology was
in a state of disarray, split into warring factions, be-
cause it had not yet entered its Galilean phase. Lewin,
a Gestalt psychologist, wrote a detailed methodological
polemic to this effect in his chapter on “Aristotelian
and Galilean Modes of Explanation” in his A Dynamic
Theory of Personality
(1935). He envisaged the use of
the resoluto-compositive method of Galileo to erect
a field theory in psychology employing postulates taken
from dynamics.

Clark Hull, unlike other prominent behaviorists, was
not trained in an animal laboratory. He had established
a reputation for himself as an ingenious and talented
designer of experiments in concept formation, hypno-
sis, and suggestibility. He next turned to Pavlov's laws
of conditioning, and Hull's love for mathematics led
him to set up a hypothetico-deductive model of learn-
ing. He became more and more ambitious and revived
Hobbes's dream of a mechanical system in which the
laws of human behavior could be deduced from postu-
lates about “colorless movements” at the physiological
level. He accepted Tolman's distinction between mo-
lecular and molar behaviorism, but differed from
Tolman in thinking that behavior at the molar level


could ultimately be explained in terms of movements
at the molecular level. In 1943 he set out his ambitious
program in his Principles of Behavior, and in 1951 he
published a revised and more formalized version of his
system in his Essentials of Behavior.

There was little original in the actual content of
Hull's system save the appearance of exactitude created
by his technical constructs and mathematical form of
expression. Hull started from the biological postulate
of self preservation and maintained that the organism
is in a state of need when there is a deviation from
optimum conditions for survival, e.g., lack of food,
water, air. These needs are reduced by adaptive ac-
tions. The pattern of actions which lead to a reduction
of a need becomes reinforced—as in Thorndike's law
of effect. A stimulus which leads to a need-reducing
action may become associated with another stimulus
in accordance with principles of conditioning, though
Hull believed that there is no conditioning without

Hull acknowledged the importance of what Tolman
had called “intervening variables” in theory con-
struction, and also took over his concept of “drive.”
He regarded needs as producing primary animal drives,
which enabled him to correlate observable antecedent
conditions—e.g., of food deprivation with the energy
expended in behavior, e.g., in eating. He classified
drives on the Darwinian principle of whether they
tended towards survival of the individual organism or
of the species. Whereas, however, Tolman only postu-
lated such drives in order to explain the activation of
behavior patterns, Hull postulated them to explain
their acquisition as well, and their consolidation into
habits. Tolman, as has already been explained, was
critical of the law of effect. Hull, on the other hand,
tried to provide a mechanical theory to explain its
operation. He also rejected Tolman's emphasis on cog-
nitive variables and claimed that they could be derived
from his fundamental postulate of stimulus-response
association. Like Watson he was basically a periph-
eralist and an associationist in his orientation. He
merely attempted to formulate these assumptions more
precisely as part of a mechanical system.

Hull said that his book had been written “on the
assumption that all behavior, individual and social,
moral and immoral, normal and psychopathic, is gen-
erated from the same primary laws; and that the
differences in the objective behavioral manifestations
are due to the differing conditions under which habits
are set up and function” (Principles of Behavior, Pref-
ace, p. v). This was programmatic. In fact his defini-
tions and postulates were not well rooted in physio-
logical findings, and precise deductions to the level of
motor behavior were never made—if indeed they ever
could be made. Unobservables, such as drive-stimuli,
drive-receptors, etc., which were meant to fill in the
mechanical picture of the workings of needs and drives,
functioned more as hypothetical constructs relating to
entites whose existence was shadowy and whose inter-
relations were highly obscure. The main value of his
work was to formulate assumptions about animal
learning at the motor level in a precise enough way
to be refutable. And most of his assumptions were in
fact refuted, e.g., by Hebb, Young, Harlow, and others.
His system, however, became popular. Needs and
acquired drives proliferated which lacked even the
pretence of being anchored to physiological moorings
(Peters [1958], Chs. 4 and 5). Drive-reduction became
a classic example of twentieth-century metaphysics.

4. E. R. Guthrie. Hull had been content to state
empirical laws at the molar level in terms of actions
such as “biting the floor-bars” and “leaping the barrier”
on the assumption that laws at this level of description
could eventually be deduced from physiological postu-
lates. E. R. Guthrie, on the other hand, a contemporary
of Hull, eschewed physiological speculation and at-
tempted to reduce behavior at the molar level to
movements such as muscle contractions and glandular
secretions, between which correlations could be stated.
He claimed that all such correlations were derivable
from the old associationist law of contiguity namely
that stimuli acting at the time of a response tend on
their recurrence to evoke that response. He was an
S-R theorist par excellence.

Guthrie was one of the few behaviorists to stress the
difference between acts and movements. An act, he
claimed quite rightly, is a movement, or a series of
movements, that brings about an end and acts are
classified in terms of the ends which they bring about.
Learning, he argued, deals with movements, not with
acts. Thorndike's law of effect concerns acts, not
movements. It does not therefore deal with the basic
laws of learning which state correlations between
movements—e.g., between the stimulation of a sense
organ and a muscular contraction. In a famous experi-
ment which he did with Horton (Guthrie and Horton,
1946) he placed a cat in a box, release from which
was obtained by touching a pole in the middle of the
floor. It was demonstrated that the cat tended to repeat
the posture in which it first touched the pole and
obtained release. This experiment at least showed that
contiguity is an important principle of learning; it did
not establish that it is the only principle and later
experiments (e.g., by Seward) showed that improve-
ment in learning was brought about by providing an
additional reward. Whether Guthrie's experiment
showed anything about the wider issue of the impor-
tance of movements in learning as distinct from acts


is quite another question. It is significant that Guthrie
had to go to extreme lengths in constructing a situation
where no intelligence was required to escape from the
box, in order to make his reduction look in the least
plausible. Nevertheless Guthrie was an important figure
in the history of behaviorism because he at least saw
the importance of the distinction between movements
and acts, and because he saw it as an obstacle in the
path of any reductionist program.

5. B. F. Skinner. Skinner is the last survivor of the
great men of the behaviorist era, but in many ways
he is the most old-fashioned of all of them in his
methodology; for in Skinner we encounter the pure
strain of the inductivist doctrine of scientific method.
Skinner believes that a scientist must start from empir-
ical data and gradually move towards making inductive
generalizations or laws. Then, at some later stage, he
may be in a position to formulate a theory which unites
the laws. He must therefore be very careful to start
from reliable public data. Skinner admits that men
have “inner lives” which are of importance to them
as well as to novelists, as Skinner himself portrayed
in his novel Walden Two. But data drawn from this
source can never form a reliable basis for a science.
Skinner's polemics against other psychologists, such as
Freudians, who based generalizations on data drawn
from this inner realm, have been as forceful as Watson's
polemics against the introspectionists.

Skinner has also accepted the inductivist warning
that a scientist must never go beyond the observable
in order to explain the observed. He has had no more
use for physiological speculation about what goes on
inside the organism than he has had for mentalistic
constructs. He accords a limited importance to
Tolman's intervening variables such as “drive” pro-
vided that it is clearly understood that such terms are
shorthand symbols for designating the operations by
which the rate of responses can be measured. To speak
of hunger as a drive, for instance, is to pick out the
effects of operations such as deprivation on the proba-
bility of eating behavior.

Another significant feature of Skinner's approach is
his operationalism, which has recently been fashionable
as a theory about the language of science. (See I, 5
above and Peters, 1951.) To Skinner this meant “the
practice of talking about (1) one's observations, (2) the
manipulative and calculational procedures involved in
making them, (3) the logical and mathematical steps
which intervene between earlier and later statements,
and (4) nothing else” (Skinner [1945], p. 270). This
doctrine maintained that a term like “length” or
“hunger” refers not to a characteristic of an object or
to a state of an organism but to the experimenter's
operations of observing, manipulating, and measuring
it. It was an offshoot of positivism and of the verifica-
tionist theory of meaning which came to the fore
during the period between the two World Wars.

This theory of meaning has now been abandoned
by most philosophers. But it lives on in the meth-
odology of Skinner and some other behaviorists, where
it has the added appeal of being in line with the em-
phasis on control and manipulation of the environment
which was so characteristic of behaviorism in the
Watsonian tradition. Behaviorism was in many respects
an offshoot of American pragmatism. The experimenter
has not got to trouble his head with theoretical ques-
tions about why organisms behave as they do, espe-
cially if reference might be made to recondite inner
causes in order to answer them. It is sufficient to see
what forms of behavior develop if one environmental
variable is manipulated rather than another. This will
lead to predictions which will eventually enable the
experimenter to “shape” behavior.

Skinner claims that he has no “theory” of behavior
but only notes correlations. But this, of course, is either
naive or a matter of stipulation about the use of the
term “theory.” In fact his work has presupposed a
biological theory of a Darwinian type in which condi-
tioned reflexes are postulated as having survival value.
In formulating the laws in accordance with which these
“reflexes” are built up Skinner in fact revived many
of the established principles of associationist theory.

In formulating these laws Skinner made an important
distinction between “respondent” and “operant” be-
havior. This was facilitated by his introduction of the
Skinner box, which enabled him to study instrumental
conditioning in a much more controlled way than had
been possible in Thorndike's puzzle box. In a respond-
ent reaction there is a known stimulus, such as the
ticking of the metronome, with which a reaction such
as salivation can be correlated as in classical condition-
ing. In an operant response, however, such as lever
pressing, there are no known stimuli with which the
response can be correlated in this way. There may,
of course, be some form of internal stimulation, but
such speculations were ruled out by Skinner's opera-
tionalist approach. So operant responses must be re-
garded as functions of experimental conditions such as
food schedules which can be manipulated by the ex-
perimenter. As behavior consists largely of such oper-
ant responses, which are instrumental in obtaining a
variety of goals, Skinner thought that the study of
conditioned operants and their extinction must provide
the basic laws which would enable behavior to be
predicted and controlled. One day a theory might be
devised to unify these laws; but the scientist must
proceed to such “interpretations” in a Baconian man-
ner. He must not “anticipate” Nature by premature


theorizing—especially if this involves speculations like
those of Hull about the internal workings of the orga-
nism. Thus Skinner rejected the peripheralist approach
of Watson but has remained agnostic about the central
processes which mediate between stimuli and re-
sponses. Operant conditioning has been, in fact, an-
other way of reformulating Thorndike's Law of Effect,
in nonmentalistic terminology.

Like Watson, Skinner has not been averse to extend-
ing his conceptual scheme to cover other aspects of
behavior. For instance in his Science and Human Be-
in 1953 Skinner made pronouncements about
emotions, the names of which serve to classify behavior
with respect to various circumstances which affect its
probability. In spite, too, of his hardheaded positivistic
approach in his Verbal Behavior (1957), he outlined
an ambitious scheme for including language within the
behavioristic framework. This work, however, was just
about as programmatic as Hull's Principles of Behavior,
and has been severely criticized by philosophers and
linguists alike (Chomsky, 1959).

In recent times Skinner has been very much pre-
occupied with providing a technology of teaching in
which skills and sequences of material are carefully
broken down and the path of learning systematically
shaped by positive reinforcement. However, his con-
cept of “reinforcement,” which has always been criti-
cized for its obscurity and circularity, has undergone
such changes that his recipes for teaching amount to
little more than injunctions that material should be
logically analyzed and students should be taken
through it step by step in a way which minimizes the
repetition of mistakes, and which supplies constant
rewards for success. This type of procedure, as Skinner
himself has admitted, could be devised without much
reference to his elaborate laws of operant behavior.