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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Behaviorism (also called learning perspective) is a philosophy of psychology based on the proposition that all things which organisms do — including acting, thinking and feeling—can and should be regarded as behaviors. The school of psychology maintains that behaviors as such can be described scientifically without recourse either to internal physiological events or to hypothetical constructs such as the mind. Behaviorism comprises the position that all theories should have observational correlates but that there are no philosophical differences between publicly observable processes (such as actions) and privately observable processes (such as thinking and feeling).

From early psychology in the 19th century, the behaviorist school of thought ran concurrently and shared commonalities with the psychoanalytic and Gestalt movements in psychology into the 20th century; but also differed from the mental philosophy of the Gestalt psychologists in critical ways. Its main influences were Ivan Pavlov, who investigated classical conditioning, Edward Lee Thorndike, John B. Watson who rejected introspective methods and sought to restrict psychology to experimental methods, and B.F. Skinner who conducted research on operant conditioning.

In philosophy

Behaviorism is a psychological movement that can be contrasted with philosophy of mind. The basic premise of radical behaviorism is that the study of behavior should be a natural science, such as chemistry or physics, without any reference to hypothetical inner states of organisms as causes for their behavior. Less radical varieties are unconcerned with philosophical positions on internal, mental and subjective experience. Behaviorism takes a functional view of behavior. According to Edmund Fantino and colleagues: "Behavior analysis has much to offer the study of phenomena normally dominated by cognitive and social psychologists. We hope that successful application of behavioral theory and methodology will not only shed light on central problems in judgment and choice but will also generate greater appreciation of the behavioral approach."

Behaviorist sentiments are not uncommon within philosophy of language and analytic philosophy. It is sometimes argued that Ludwig Wittgenstein defended a behaviorist position (e.g., the beetle in a box argument)—but while there are important relations between his thought and behaviorism, the claim that he was a behaviorist is quite controversial. Mathematician Alan Turing is also sometimes considered a behaviorist, but he himself did not make this identification. In logical and empirical positivism (as held, e.g., by Rudolf Carnap and Carl Hempel), the meaning of psychological statements are their verification conditions, which consist of performed overt behavior. W.V. Quine made use of a type of behaviorism, influenced by some of Skinner's ideas, in his own work on language. Gilbert Ryle defended a distinct strain of philosophical behaviorism, sketched in his book The Concept of Mind. Ryle's central claim was that instances of dualism frequently represented "category mistakes", and hence that they were really misunderstandings of the use of ordinary language. Daniel Dennett likewise acknowledges himself to be a type of behaviorist, though he offers extensive criticism of radical behaviorism and refutes Skinner's rejection of the value of intentional idioms and the possibility of free will.

This is Dennett's main point in "Skinner Skinned." Dennett argues that there is a crucial difference between explaining and explaining away… If our explanation of apparently rational behavior turns out to be extremely simple, we may want to say that the behavior was not really rational after all. But if the explanation is very complex and intricate, we may want to say not that the behavior is not rational, but that we now have a better understanding of what rationality consists in. (Compare: if we find out how a computer program solves problems in linear algebra, we don't say it's not really solving them, we just say we know how it does it. On the other hand, in cases like Weizenbaum's ELIZA program, the explanation of how the computer carries on a conversation is so simple that the right thing to say seems to be that the machine isn't really carrying on a conversation, it's just a trick.) -- Curtis Brown, Philosophy of Mind

See also

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