University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
expand section 
expand section 

expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
collapse sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 


It has been argued throughout this article that be-
haviorism, as an historical phenomenon, has been a
loosely knit collection of doctrines and theories woven
round a central prescription about the proper method
to use in developing a science of psychology. Behav-
iorism, first of all, has often been associated with the
metaphysical doctrine of materialism. Nowadays there
is less reluctance to discuss metaphysical problems than
there was in the heyday of behaviorism and of “the
revolution in philosophy” (Ryle, 1956). Materialism has
been revived, though it has few adherents amongst
philosophers (Smart, 1963; Armstrong, 1968). One of
its problems has been to state coherently what could
be meant by saying that mental and bodily processes
are identical (Hamlyn, 1964).

It would be difficult to maintain that, in the sphere
of scientific theory, behaviorism has advanced the un-
derstanding of behavior in any major respect. The
theory which was most widely employed was that of
associationism which was as old as Hobbes, Hume, and
Hartley. The behaviorists merely transferred this the-
ory from the realm of ideas to the realm of movements.
What occupied them most was disputes amongst
themselves within this type of theoretical framework.
There were two major issues which divided them. The
first related to the importance of reward or rein-
forcement in setting up S-R connections. The second
issue concerned the relative importance of central as
distinct from peripheral processes. It was not really
surprising that the behaviorists in fact contributed little
in the way of theory to the understanding of behavior;
for basically most of them were not interested in ex-
plaining behavior or even learning for that matter.
They were interested in conditioning. Even at the
animal level it is extremely doubtful whether rats, dogs,
cats, and monkeys in fact learn much by conditioning
in a normal environment. Ethological studies certainly
cast grave doubt on the omnipresence of this type of
learning. It is probable that this type of learning is
an artifact of the situations in which animals have been
confined. The extrapolation of this type of learning to
the human level, where the pattern of life is deter-
mined largely by social rules and purposes, was largely
programmatic. However, behaviorists showed that as-
sociationist principles might well apply to the learning
of simple reactions and motor habits. Little more could
in fact be claimed for their contribution to psycho-
logical theory.

Many of the defects in behavioristic theorizing, es-
pecially their programmatic extrapolations to the
human level, derived from their lack of clarity about
such concepts as stimulus, reinforcement, and response.
Underlying these particular confusions were funda-
mental confusions about the concept of behavior itself,
due to their aversion to assuming the existence of
consciousness. Guthrie was most sensitive to this diffi-
culty. He made the distinction between acts and
movements and tried to arrange an experiment which
dealt only with movements; for he realized only too
well that descriptions of behavior at the molar level
are in terms of acts and not in terms of mere move-
ments. And we identify their acts by reference to what
human beings have in mind when they make certain
movements. For example, an act involving the same
movements of the arm is identified as either signalling
to a friend or fanning the face (Hamlyn, 1953).

Skinner, in his distinction between operants and
respondents, actually hit upon a distinction which is
crucial for getting clearer about the concept of action.
Respondent reactions like salivations and eye-blinks,


which can be dealt with reasonably well by classical
conditioning theory, are indeed reactions which can
be correlated with stimuli. But they are not, strictly
speaking, actions; they are events that happen to us.
When, however, we pass to Skinner's operants, to
things done as instrumental to an end, we are entering
the sphere of action proper. Such actions, at the human
level at any rate, cannot either be described or ex-
plained as mere movements exhibited at the reflex
level. For an action is not simply a series of bodily
movements; such movements as are necessary to it are
done for the sake of something, as Aristotle pointed
out in his criticism of the mechanists of the ancient
world. They are classed as belonging to an action
because of their assumed relevance to an end (telos).

Similarly, on the perceptual as distinct from the
motor side of behavior, the importance of consciousness
is inescapable. Human beings, and probably animals
as well, do not often simply react to stimuli in terms
of their purely physical properties, as the Gestalt psy-
chologists pointed out in their distinction between the
psychological and physical or geographical properties
of the environment. They see things as meaning some-
thing; they respond to features of situations which are
interpreted in terms of their understanding of them.
Skinner, for instance, was grossly misleading when he
claimed that what we call emotions are names for
classifying behavior with respect to various circum-
stances which affect the probability of the behavior's
occurrence; for the circumstances are those which are
interpreted by the subject in a certain light, e.g., as
dangerous in the case of fear, as involving somebody
else having something which we want in the case of
envy. The relationship between circumstances and the
subject is not one of purely physical causality (Peters,

In brief even what the behaviorists called “behavior”
includes a range of phenomena between which there
are very important distinctions, let alone other purely
mental phenomena such as remembering and dream-
ing, which may have no overt expressions and which
may lead to no overt actions. Many more distinctions
than these can be drawn which would complicate the
picture even further. But this would not affect the two
cardinal points that need to be emphasized: first, that
it is impossible to make such distinctions without ref-
erence to consciousness and, second, that behaviorists
tend to think that the form of description and explana-
tion applicable at the lowest level of reflex behavior
can be extrapolated to explain the much more complex
phenomena at higher levels.

About the methodological doctrine that was the
kernel of behaviorism—that psychology should base
itself as a science on the type of publicly observable
data that biologists use when theorizing about ani-
mals—the first point to make is that it is an example
of the long-standing delusion that success in science
depends upon following a particular method. A study
of the history of science gives no support for the belief
that science has in fact been advanced by following
any particular method, if this is interpreted as meaning
following a particular procedure for making discoveries
or arriving at laws. It is impossible to formulate any
method for arriving at hypotheses; all that can be done
is to lay down general rules about testing them.

Is there then anything to be said for the behaviorists'
prescription as a procedural rule relating to the testing
of hypotheses rather than to their formulation? If they
had been concerned solely with animal behavior their
prescription would have been unexceptionable but
otiose; for there is no possibility of obtaining intro-
spective reports from animals. Insofar, however, as they
studied animals partly with the intention of making
extrapolations to human behavior, their prescription
seems to be very much a self-denying ordinance, for
in science it is advisable to obtain all the evidence
available. Also the sort of observations which are ap-
propriate depends upon what is being studied. If it is
reactions such as salivation, knee-jerks, and simple
motor skills, which were the main field of interest
amongst behaviorists, introspective reports may not be
of great significance. If, however, hypotheses about
dreams, perception, delusions, remembering, emotional
phenomena, or moral development have to be tested,
it is very difficult to see how much relevant evidence
could be accumulated without recourse to reports by
the subject. And it simply will not do to say that the
experimenter is then relying on another form of be-
havior, namely verbal behavior. Furthermore, this
move by behaviorists is a form of conceptual behav-
iorism. The methodological doctrine, which is distinc-
tive of behaviorism, would evaporate if a subject's
reports were re-admitted as evidence because they too
were regarded as forms of behavior.

Historically, therefore, behaviorism was a salutary
corrective that was pushed to inordinate extremes. At
a time when psychology was largely preoccupied with
examining the minutiae of a subject's introspections
there was some point in drawing attention to what
could be publicly observed. But this injunction unfor-
tunately was not accompanied by any suggestion of
new hypotheses that might be tested. It functioned
mainly as a new recipe for continuing the old associa-
tionist program. The widespread implementation of
this recipe, however, had very important consequences
for psychology generally. It enhanced the status of
psychology as a science amongst the scientific commu-
nity. Psychologists could now wear lab-coats like biol-


ogists and be admitted to the Faculty of Science.
Although behaviorism was basically a philosophical
movement psychologists were now able to part com-
pany with philosophers and set up on their own.

Whether this separation has been beneficial in ad-
vancing our understanding of human behavior is an-
other question; for the basic problem in the central
spheres of action, motivation and emotion, perception,
learning, remembering, etc., is to decide what is a
psychological question. In the sphere of learning, for
instance, in which behaviorists evinced most interest,
how much depends upon the conceptual and logical
relationships involved in what has to be learnt and how
much depends on general empirical conditions about
which psychologists might reasonably test hypotheses?
The work of theorists such as Jerome Bruner and Jean
Piaget, who have been concerned with human learning
and development in a concrete rather than a program-
matic way, raises such problems in an acute form. But
it is difficult to see how much progress can be made
until issues of this sort are squarely faced. But to face
them would involve a revolution in psychology as
radical as the methodological movement which Watson
himself initiated.