Pragmatic Selectionism: The Philosophy of Behavior Analysis

Article excerpt

The following presents two sources for the philosophy underlying behavior analysis as it has come to be represented in the tradition of the later B. F. Skinner's radical behaviorism--Darwinian selectionism and pragmatism primarily in the Peircean tradition. Both show central organizations according to probabilistic three-term contingencies, but at different levels. Peirce shows key similarities with Darwin, and the later Skinner shows key similarities with Darwin and Peirce. In contrast to his early behaviorism supported by positivism, the philosophy that characterized Skinner's later work was a pragmatic selectionism.

Keywords: Darwin, evolution, Peirce, positivism, pragmatism, selectionism, Skinner.


To the extent that behavior analysts support Skinner's later views, in contrast to his earlier views, the following presents the underlying philosophy of behavior analysis as a philosophy of pragmatic selectionism. The early Skinner (1931/1999, pp. 478-487) traced the reflex back to Descartes in a history of physiology that included Marshall Hall and Pavlov. Later, Skinner (1963/1969, pp. 223-226) traced the history of his radical behaviorism from Darwin to Romanes to Morgan to Thorndike, all of whom advanced connections with natural selection, and to others who did not. The originator in each series is revealing. Descartes advanced an if-then analysis according to a two-term stimulus and response reflex. Skinner (1931/1999) saw that by definition the relation between the stimulus and the response was one of "necessity" (p. 449); and said, "The stimulus is an essential part of a mechanistic theory of behavior, whether the notion is arrived at through observation ... or argued from physical necessity or mechanical analogy, as it was with Descartes" (p. 480). In contrast, Darwin advanced an analysis according to a three-term probabilistic contingency of the conditions of life, variation, and selection. Darwin's views soon influenced the views of Peirce and the pragmatists, and notable similarities exist between Darwin, the American pragmatists--Peirce, James, and Dewey--and the later Skinner. Against the background of early behaviorism, a basic outline of Skinner's subsequent pragmatic selectionism follows.

Modernism and Its Support for Early Behaviorism

The S-R behaviorism of the early Skinner fits in with a cluster of ideas referred to as modernism, a period identified as extending from the mid 17th to the mid 20th century (Toulmin, 1983). The sciences and their philosophy in the early years of this period were commonly characterized as mechanistic. Later, the term positivism became more current with abstract developments. Early on, in A Tale of a Tub and The Battel of the Books attached to it, Jonathan Swift's (1704/1958) satire targeted some of the ideas that were identified with the Moderns. Among the ideas he attacked were the Predestination (pp. 192-193) of the Dissenters, the self-proclaimed superiority of the Moderns in Mathematics (pp. 231-234), their pursuit of a Universal Language (p. 237), and their Positiveness (p. 240). In Gulliver's Travels (1726/1948), Swift returned to the attack on Mathematics (part iii, chap. ii) and the Modernist pursuit of a Universal Language (chap. v). In time, these ideas took on various transformations or branches of meaning in addition to their earlier senses. Predestination became the determinism accepted by almost all philosophers of science. Positivism became a focus on the facts or the elements of experience that had the most certainty. Mathematics became the favored means for establishing the certain relations of these elements. And logical positivists pursued a universal or unified language for science.

Scientific modernism often appealed to mechanical metaphors (but typically not to feedback mechanisms in their three-term process of input, output, and feedback) to illustrate if-then connections, e.g., clocks (Boyle, 1686/1996, pp. …