A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Animal Drives: Some notes on Word Magic

Here I am, flipping through Holt's Animal Drives and the Learning Process: An Essay Towards Radical Empiricism (1931). The book is not at all perfect. Some parts are long-winded, overly concerned with then-emerging-arguments which might now seem dated, and the volume as a whole exudes Holt's frustration with his contemporaries and the direction in which they were moving psychology and philosophy. That said, the good parts still exude penetrating insight. The first chapter is about "Physiology Versus Verbal Magic" and the final chapter about "The Organism as a Whole." Here are some passages from the first chapter which, though antiquated in vocabulary, are still worth critiques of contemporary psychology:

... let us consider, as in the eighteenth century La Mettrie considered, the general problem of animal drive. What impels man and other conscious animals to action? And then, what will account for the manner of their action?
The history of psychology discloses various attempts to answer this question. Most of these, in the earlier periods, try to find the source of action in some power of the soul, that is, in a 'faculty'; and in such faculties as those of feeling, desire, appetition, reason, and others; but most especially in that faculty which is so clearly nothing but another name for the phenomenon to be explained---the 'faculty of conation or will.' There have been efforts to analyze this conation or will, and almost always into strictly 'psychic' terms. Thus we have theories of volition couched in terms of conscious fiat, innervation feeling, motor image, or pleasure and pain; and they are often presented with a flourish of physiological terms to insinuate that the data of physiology have been duly taken into account. But in fact, if it were a question of any competent or serious study of it, all such theories leave the physiological organism, which is after all the actor, virtually ignored.
At present time all 'faculties' of the soul, if presented in that guise, are deemed old-fashioned, and the more active discussions of animal and human action center round other, apparently different, categories, such as 'instict' and 'purpose' and, one might add, Gestalt. For instance; man is impelled to action, it is said, by his instincts. If he goes with his fellows, it is the 'herd instinct' which actuates him; if he walks alone, it is the 'anti-social instinct'; if he fights, in is the instinct of 'pugnacity'; if he defers to another, it is the instinct of 'self-abasement'; if he twiddles his thumbs, it the thumb-twiddling instinct; if he does not twiddle his thumbs, it is the thumb-not-twiddling instinct. Thus everything is explained with the facility of magic---word magic.   (P. 3-4)

Of course, times have changed once again, from Holt's time. We are much better now than in Holt's time: That people remember an event is now explained by their having "memory", whereas a failure is explained by their having a "forgetting function". That people sometimes identify something as familiar, but not recall where they saw it previously is explained by their having both a faculty an instinct for module for process for "recognition" and "recall". That people act consistently by some criterion, but not others is explained by their having personality. Etc.

Oh, and just in case that last part didn't seem flippant enough, Holt continues:

In view of the general contempt in which 'faculty psychology' is held, it is remarkable that anybody can fail to perceive that 'instinct' as here employed is merely a synonym for 'faculty.' Yet so great is the reifying power of words that even in so flagrant a case as this the mere name of the phenomenon is accepted by many persons as the vera causa. One could have hoped that Moliere , in the seventeenth century, had given the  coup de grace to such verbal tomfoolery.... And about the same time Sinoza called attention to this same fallacy in his criticism of the 'will' and other faculties. There is in the mind, he said, "no absolute faculty of understanding, desiring, loving, etc.---these and similar faculties are either entirely fictitious, or are merely abstract or general terms, such as we are accustomed to put together from particular things.".... Thus every action, if only it is named, at once explains itself.
The case of a psychology of 'purpose' is not different. To hope to explain the operations of the body or the mind in terms of purpose, is merely to adduce as an explanatory category a faculty of purposing. And this appellation will do no explaining, even though possessiveness can in fact be correctly predicated of many human and animal activities. Since this pathetic subservience to words, this mistaking them for causes, shows no sign of abating, it may be permissible here to examine such a process a little more explicitly. (P. 4-5)


  1. This is an interesting issue. Obviously, labels alone can't constitute explanations, but they necessary components of scientific theorizing, even if they're imprecise (or not as precise as we'd like them to be). If we can't refer to explananda (more or less) directly, we're going to have a rough time of it.

    In addition, labels like 'memory,' 'forgetting function,' and 'recognition' aren't serving solely as (bad) explanations of behavior. For at least some researchers, the goal is to probe (ir)regularities in, say, forgetting functions or recognition across experimental conditions. This sort of work seems like a worthwhile pursuit to me.

  2. Noah, excellent point. The mistake comes (Holt claims, along with many others) not when we use such terms as abstractions or as references to collections of phenomena, but when we mistake the terms for explanations. For example, the forgetting function is an averaged result of things people do, NOT an explanation for why those things happened.

    You are certainly correct that science demands that we spend time probing situations that violate our expectations, but this should only emphasize the above point. If a scientist claims that the forgetting function explains forgetting, but what we are REALLY interested in is forgetting not explained by the function, then we are in even deeper trouble. Of course, such mistakes are rarely made so bluntly.