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

Monday, September 29, 2014

The once and future behaviorism - Ralph Barton Perry

Perry was a Harvard Philosophy Prof, a major student of William James, and James's first biographer. There are excerpts from his 1921 paper "A Behaviorist View of Purpose." These notes are part of a continuing effort to reconstruct a better history of behaviorism... or, perhaps, a history of the better behaviorism that never quite happened.

The article is good, overall, but it has some problems. These are mostly in its leaning towards stimulus-response formulations and not properly contextualizing the place of neuroscience insights. Perry shouldnt' make these mistakes, given his familiarity with Dewey (e.g., the "Reflex Arc" paper) and Holt (e.g., the "Recessions of the Stimulus" concept), but que sera. I'm only quoting some choice sections below, so those shortcomings won't be apparent. The article gives some insight into the connection between James's work and the rapid acceptance of behaviorism, and is relevant to some emerging movements today.

The difference between psychology and physiology ceases to be a difference of subject-matter, like the difference between entomology and ornithology, where each deals exhaustively and exclusively with a class of objects; and becomes a difference of method and approach like that between chemistry and physics, where two sciences deal with interpenetrating type-complexes which contain common elements and are found in the same objects. Psychology deals with the grosser facts of organic behavior, and particularly with those external and internal adjustments by which the organism acts as a unit, while physiology deals with the more elementary constituent processes, such as metabolism or the nervous impulse. But in so far as psychology divides the organism it approaches physiology, and in so far as physiology integrates the organism it approaches psychology. (p. 85)

Now many will object that this is to leave out "consciousness." But what is this "consciousness" we are under obligation to include---is it a datum or a theory? It was once said that psychology omitted the soul. And so it did, in so far as the term "soul" was the name for a theory formulated in theology or "rational" psychology. But psychology never deliberately neglected any of the facts or problems lying within the field of the mental life of man; and as a result of omitting the older theory of the soul it reached a very much better understanding of the actual mode of existence in question. No one would now think of conceiving the soul as a simple, indivisible and incorruptible static entity, or as a naked act of pure reason. In every [current] philosophy the soul is now a process; or a flowing, and more or less complexly organized, experience. When, therefore, we say the soul is lost, what we really mean is that a theory is more or less obsolete, as a result of its having been successfully ignored. The soul as an existent fact having a nature and an explanation, is not lost, but found.

Now something of this same outcome may with reasonable safety be predicted in the case of  "consciousness." If a behaviorist be enlightened he will have no intention of omitting any facts, but only of abandoning a theory which he believes has proved unsatisfactory. He does not abandon consciousness, but the introspective theory of consciousness. This consists in taking the data of introspective analysis as the ultimate constituents of the mental life, the units which in their own peculiar aggregations and sequences compose mind. Psychophysical parallelism and atomic sensationalism are developments of this theory, and are evidences of its weakness. It has in fact never worked. The most illuminating things that psychology has said have been said when it has allowed itself liberties with this theory, and introduced as much of the outlying physical and organic field as proved convenient. The behaviorist has emphasized the failure of the introspective theory to yield results comparable to those obtained in kindred sciences, and proposes to try another. He does not deny or intend to neglect any of the data of introspection. He merely believes that this is not the best place to begin, because the introspecting mind is a peculiarly complex form of the mental life. He regards an animal reflex or habit as a more elementary mental phenomenon than an introspectively discriminated sensory intensity.... The behaviorist concedes that introspection and all its works must find a place in any comprehensive and adequate view of mind. When they do find their place they will perhaps have lost their present outlines, because of having been broken up and redistributed. But in so far as the new theory is more successful than the old, consciousness as a group of facts, as something that exists and happens, will have been found and not lost. (ibid, p.87-88)