Pragmatic Selectionism: The Philosophy of Behavior Analysis
Moxley, Roy A., The Behavior Analyst Today
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. 12-13) and factories with reference to a self-regulation yet to be understood (Ure, 1861/1969, pp. 13-15). Over time, action by contact (e.g., through the "ether") became less important than a positive affirmation of certainty in empirical elements and their relations.
Among the spokesmen for the new "mathematical and experimental philosophy" of the Seventeenth century, there were some who claimed to rest their scientific conclusions on simple deductions and/or generalizations from the "facts" of observation. This claim, from time to time, has been revived by enthusiastic scientists interested in affirming a unique kind of rationality or objectivity for their results as well as by empiricist philosophers interested in using science to support a positivist theory of knowledge. This positivist view of scientific argument is, however, deceptive: scientists always approach their investigations with specific problems in mind and view the phenomena or processes that they study with the hope of shedding light on those problems. As a result, scientific discoveries are typically arrived at not by generalizing from preexisting facts but by providing answers to preexisting questions. (Toulmin, 1983, p. 101).
In a later summary of modernism, Toulmin (1990) said, "All the protagonists of modern philosophy promoted theory, devalued practice, and insisted equally on the need to find foundations for knowledge that were clear, distinct, and certain" (p. 70).
As a positivistic modernism proceeded in various cultural areas, it arguably exhausted its formal possibilities (Calinescu, 1987, p. 277). Speaking of the avant-garde spread of modernism in the arts, Eco (1984) said,
"[It] destroys the figure, cancels it, arrives at the abstract, the informal, the white canvas, the slashed canvas, the charred canvas. In architecture and the visual arts, it will be the curtain wall, the building as stele, pure parallelepiped, minimal art; in literature, the destruction of the flow of discourse, the Burroughs-like collage, silence, the white page; in music, the passage from atonality to noise to absolute silence." (p. 530)
Austere abstraction and streamlining dominated the values of many leaders of Western culture during the early beginnings of behaviorism.
In philosophy, modernist values achieved a high point of sorts in logical positivism, which became the dominant philosophy of science. According to Day (1980), "In the 1930s psychology assumed an epistemological orientation that was dominated by logical positivism" (p. 235). A prominent advocate of such an epistemology was Bertrand Russell, who (1950) said, "I am, as regards to method, more in sympathy with the logical positivists than with any other existing school" (p. 9); and he (1919, pp. 7-8; 1926; 1926/1960, pp. 57-59; 1927/1970) advanced the stimulus and response behaviorism of John Watson. Skinner (e.g., 1976/1977, pp. 298-99; 1979/1984, p. 10; 1989, pp. 121-122; 1977/1978, p. 113) credited Russell, a particularly strong influence on his early views (Moxley, 2003; Wood, 1986), for leading him into behaviorism and giving him (1931/1999, p. 475) the clue to the definition of the reflex. In line with Russell and logical positivism, Skinner (1938/1966) said of his scientific method, "It is positivistic" (p. 44). Looking back, Skinner (1979/1984) said, "As far as I was concerned, there were only minor differences between behaviorism, operationism, and logical positivism" (p. 161). Later, in a seeming continuation of his S-R behaviorism, Skinner (1969) said, "Man is a machine" (p. 294), and analogies between factory psychology and Skinner's work have been made (e.g., Schwartz, Schuldenfrie, and Lacey, 1978). But Skinner's 1969 analogy was to a "very complex" machine with feedback (which requires a three-term conception of input, output, and feedback) that is presently "far beyond the powers of men to construct" (p. 294). Perhaps reflecting that his point about complex machines might be misunderstood, Skinner (1981) later said, "Living things are not machines" (p. 504). Skinner's fundamental conception for operant behavior was no longer in terms of the S-R reflex.
In brief, the dominant modernist philosophy was an if-then philosophy in a tradition from Descartes to Russell and the logical positivists. In an if-then analysis, the particularly problematic issue as far as empirical evidence goes is establishing the "if" and its certainty. What is? This translates into: What is to be assumed? The "then" follows automatically by logic or mathematics. The troublesome if can be by-passed by assumptions such as assuming an underlying determinism and assuming positively certain elements of sensation. Contexts, including consequences, can be left out or relegated to a subordinate position. Stimulus and response (S-R) psychology exemplified an if-then approach and was supported in positivistic philosophy (with eventual reservations).
Selectionism and Pragmatism
Introducing "radical behaviorism" and other new views in "The Operational Analysis of Psychological Terms," a later Skinner (1945) wanted to address "a wider range of phenomena than do current streamlined treatments, particularly those offered by logicians (e.g., Carnap) interested in a unified scientific vocabulary" (p. 271). Commenting on his 1945 paper, Skinner (Blanshard & Skinner, 1966-1967) said, "The physicalism of the logic al positivist has never been good behaviorism, as I pointed out twenty years ago (Skinner, 1945)" (p. 325). Skinner (1945, p. 380) also attacked the positivist reliance on rules or logic, referring to the positivists Herbert Feigl and Rudolph Carnap for illustration. Rules did not come first, probabilistic three-term contingencies came first.
Afterwards, Skinner associated early behaviorism with the logical positivism he was rejecting. Skinner (1990/1999) said, "Anticipating logical positivism, [Watson and other early behaviorists] argued that an event seen by only one person had no place in a science" (p. 671). Rejecting his early positivist orientation, Skinner turned to views that were similar to natural selection and pragmatism, which will be presented first in their order of historical development and then in their order of Skinner's adoption.
In his autobiography, Darwin (1887/1958) indicated he needed three concepts for his theory: variations, selection, and the differentiating role played by the conditions of life. The first concept, variation, was brought home to Darwin (1872/195) in his voyage on the Beagle:
"During the voyage of the Beagle I had been deeply impressed by discovering in the Pampean formation great fossil animals ... secondly, by the manner in which closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southwards over the Continent; and thirdly by the south American character of most of the productions of the Galapagos archipelago, and more especially by the manner in which they differ slightly on each island.... [Such facts ... could be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified; and the subject haunted me." (pp. 118-119)
Extensive variations support evolution, but they do not give the means for it. Darwin (1872/1958) recounted how he had pursued this means and discovered it in the second concept of selection:
"After my return to England.... I soon perceived that selection was the keystone of man's success in making useful races of animals and plants. But how selection could be applied to organisms living in a state of nature remained for some time a mystery to me."
"In October 1838, that is fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work." (pp. 119-120)
However, a third concept was missing to complete Darwin's (1872/1958) theory:
"But at that time I overlooked one problem of great importance.... the tendency in organic beings descended from the same stock to diverge in character as they become modified. That they have diverged greatly is obvious from the manner in which species of all kinds can be classed under genera, genera under families, families under suborders, and so forth; and I can remember the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me; and this was long after I had come to Down. The solution, as I believe, is that the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature." (pp. 120-121)
These places provided the niches for adaptation and explained the tendency for diversification, particularly in a changing environment. Otherwise, natural selection would weed out the unfit and tend toward uniformity and a perfection of sorts. The variation of organisms and the selection of the fittest could not be explained without taking the environment into account. Darwin prominently referred to this third concept as The Conditions of Life. Darwin (1872/1958) said, "Natural Selection [emphasis added] ... implies only the preservations of such variations as arise and are beneficial to the being under its conditions of life [emphasis added]" (p. 88). These three terms--The Conditions of Life, Variation, and Selection--were frequently repeated in The Origin of Species. Afterwards, Darwin tended to assume the first term, The Conditions of Life, without expressing it; and he often spoke of variation and selection without making an explicit connection to The Conditions of Life. And of course Natural Selection alone came to pack in all three concepts.
Analogies. Darwin's view of natural selection was soon seen in analogy to other processes in the culture at large. One process was the political economy, particularly as described by Adam Smith. Another process was that of feedback mechanisms, which had received prominent display as regulators on steam engines. Schweber (1977) not only related Smith to Darwin, but also related feedback mechanisms to Darwin's natural selection by way of Smith and others:
There is one other strand, which relates Adam Smith to Darwin. Gruber in the introduction of Darwin on Man, p. 13, points to the importance of the development of "self-regulating machinery" and "the concept of society as a self-regulating system," which became "prominent in the work of Adam Smith and others"; see Otto Mayr, The Origins of Feedback Control (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970). Charles Lyell in the eleventh edition of his Principles of Geology which appeared in 1872, commented that "when first the doctrine of the origin of species by transmutation was proposed, it was objected that such a theory substituted a material self-adjusting machinery for a Supreme Creative Intelligence." This view probably reflected his reading of A. R. Wallace's article "On the Tendency of Varieties To Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type," J. Proc. Linn. Soc., August 1858, which states that "the action of this principle is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor of the steam engine." Recall that in the 1830's Lyell had regarded the earth as a self-regulating geological machine (pp. 278n-279n).
Such analogies have continued to be advanced as well as some differences between them; e.g., Skinner (1969, pp. 26-27) said in contrasting operant behavior with feedback, "Operant behavior is observed only when there are 'responses uncorrelated with observable stimuli'" (p. 27), but the equivalent analogous relation for input, output, and feedback may be constructed so as not to show uncorrelated output (similarly, natural selection requires a gap in time between observed variations and selection that is not required in the response-consequence relation of operant reinforcement). Pragmatism
Each of the major American pragmatists showed the influence of evolution on their thinking at a time when Darwin's views were still controversial in the scientific community. Peirce saw that Darwin's natural selection was analogous to other processes. Peirce (1871/1992) said, "The law of natural selection ... is the precise analogue in another realm of the law of supply and demand" (p. 105; also cf. Marx, 1979, p. 157); and Peirce (1986) saw a close parallel between habit and natural selection: "Habit plays somewhat the same part in the history of the individual that natural selection does in that of the species; namely, it causes actions to be directed toward ends" (p. 46). In his "Minute Logic" of 1902, Peirce (1931-1958) also generalized three-term probabilistic relations as cutting across the discovery of laws of nature, the improvement of inventions, and natural selection:
We here proceed by experimentation ... What if we were to vary our procedure a little? Would the result be the same? We try it. If we are on the wrong track, an emphatic negative soon gets put upon the guess, and so our conceptions gradually get nearer and nearer right. The improvements of our inventions are made in the same manner. The theory of natural selection is that nature proceeds by similar experimentation to adapt a stock of animals or plants precisely to its environment, and to keep it in adaptation to the slowly changing environment .... Just as a real pairedness consists in a fact being true of A which would be nonsense if B were not there, so we now meet with a Rational Threeness which consists in A and B being really paired by virtue of a third object, C (2.86, vol. & par.).
This AB-because-of-C formulation is a general statement that the relation between an event (B) and its context (A) is because of consequences (C). Applied to natural selection, the relation between (A) the environment and (B) the stock of animals adapted to it exists because of (C) the consequences that occurred for previous AB (environment-animal) relations. Applied to Skinner's later three-term contingency, the relation between (A) the setting and (B) behavior exists because of (C) consequences that occurred for previous AB (setting-behavior) relations. The idea that reinforcement strengthens the setting-behavior relation rather than simply strengthening behavior conforms to what Skinner (1945) said, "[T] he contingencies of reinforcement ... account for the functional relation between a term, as a verbal response, and a given stimulus" (p. 277; also cf. DeGrandpre, 2000).
James (1890/1983) found Darwin's view "quite convincing" (p. 1275), and he (1880) suggested the evolution of new conceptions in analogy with Darwin's natural selection:
[N]ew conceptions, emotions, and active tendencies ... are originally produced in the shape of random images, fancies, accidental outbirths of spontaneous variation in the functional activity of the excessively unstable brain, which the outer environment simply confirms or refutes, adopts or rejects, preserves or destroys,--selects, in short, just as it selects morphological and social variations due to molecular accidents of an analogous sort (p. 456).
For James (1978), Darwin had introduced a new way of looking at thinking in which remarkable design might evolve from chance, "Darwin opened our minds to the power of chance-happenings to bring forth 'fit' results if only they have time to add themselves together" (p. 57).
Dewey (1909/1977) noted how Darwinian evolution had challenged belief in "the superiority of the fixed and final" which had treated "change and origin as signs of defect and unreality" (p. 3). Darwinian thinking was different: "[In] treating the forms that had been regarded as types of fixity and perfection as originating and passing away, the Origin of Species introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge" (p. 3). Applying Darwinian thinking to human behavior, Dewey (1918/1988) said, "[T]he psychologist ... must take for his object a certain event studied in its context of other events--its specific stimulus and specific consequences" (pp. 13-14); and one term needed to be understood in relation to the others: "[W]e are aware of the stimuli [emphasis added] only in terms of our response [emphasis added] to them and of the consequences [emphasis added] of this response" (Dewey, 1925/1988, p. 253; also cf. 1933/1989, pp. 225-231; 1916/1966, pp. 15-16, 29-33). Dewey was insisting on a three-term contingency.
Among the representatives of pragmatic ideas, Peirce, James, Dewey, and Quine as well as Mach and Poincare (who shared some similarities with pragmatism although Mach also shared some similarities with positivism) were cited by Skinner and were most likely to have been read by him. His friend Willard Quine would have provided opportunities for discussion. However, Skinner may also have read or discussed other pragmatists who contributed to the cultural climate of pragmatism (cf. Thayer, 1981). In addition to other early American pragmatists, British philosophers with similarities to the American pragmatists included F. C. S. Schiller, Alfred Sidgwick, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In a book Skinner (1979/1984, p. 92) bought, Sidgwick (cited by Ogden & Richards, 1923) succinctly stated the pragmatic position on meaning and truth: "MEANING depends on consequences, and truth depends on MEANING" (p. 162). Peirce (1933-1958) was particularly interested in the meaning of difficult concepts and considered there extended as well as immediate contexts and consequences; all the consequences of a concept determined meaning, now and later. Final truth was a long-term affair (5.507, 5.565) that Dewey (1991, p. 343n) accepted. James also seems to have largely accepted Peirce's views here; but James speculated further on which consequences to select; for example, in comparing the consequences of different beliefs. Some beliefs could be considered to have more effective consequences than other beliefs, and the belief with the more effective consequences can be selected for acting upon. Just as the meaning of a belief requires a consideration of extended contexts and consequences, a selection between sets of consequences depends upon a similar consideration. However, pragmatism in general and James in particular have been accused as claiming only momentary conveniences may be considered. As a partial result, opponents of pragmatism have often dismissed it as justifying whatever is convenient for the moment, a philosophy for the shortsighted and unscrupulous. Peirce (1992) considered a truth-by-what-I-fancy view: "If the settlement of opinion is the sole object of inquiry, and if belief is ... a habit, why should we not attain the desired end, by taking any answer ... we may fancy, and constantly reiterating it?" (p. 115), rejected it, and insisted on truth by a community in the long run. A neglect of future events wasn't for James's (1956) either, "[W]e must go on experiencing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true; but to hold any one of them ... as if it never could be reinterpretable or corrigible [is] tremendously mistaken" (p. 14). The differences between Peirce and James over pragmatism were in how far and in what way to use consequences. In Keywords, Williams (1983) distinguished Peirce's pragmatism as a method of understanding from James's pragmatism as justification, which gets at their differences but suppresses their similarities. Williams quotes from Peirce in paragraph 2 of the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol. 5. However, immediately after the location of that quote in the Collected Papers, the editors inserted a definition of pragmatism by William James, which focused on understanding and showed no inconsistency with Peirce. In paragraph 3, however, Peirce expressed some hesitancy in going as far as James did elsewhere: "In 1896 William James published his Will to Believe, and later his Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results, which pushed this method to such extremes as must tend to give us pause."
Skinner's Pragmatism and Selectionism
The following is one of Skinner's (1968/1969) more complete definitions of his later operant of probabilistic three-term contingencies and is highly consistent with pragmatic views:
We construct an operant by making a reinforcer contingent on a response, but the important fact about the resulting unit is not its topography but its probability of occurrence, observed as rate of emission.... Any stimulus present when an operant is reinforced acquires control in the sense that the rate will be higher when it is present. Such a stimulus does not act as a goad; it does not elicit the response in the sense of forcing it to occur. It is simply an essential aspect of the occasion upon which a response is made and reinforced.... An adequate formulation of the interaction between an organism and its environment must always specify three things: (1) the occasion upon which a response occurs, (2) the response itself, and (3) the reinforcing consequences. The interrelationships among them are the "contingencies of reinforcement" (p. 7).
This formulation is directly opposed to formulations for stimulus-response reflex physiology in virtually every feature, including Skinner's (1938) early operant formulation of two paired reflexes in necessary relations that dominated his self-styled "positivistic" (p. 44) approach in The Behavior of Organisms. Speaking of that book's commitment to the reflex, Skinner (1989) said, "Unfortunately, I decided to use reflex as the word for any unit of behavior. In doing so, I no doubt contributed to the fact that you will still find a behavioral analysis called stimulus-response psychology" (p. 131). The following shows pragmatism and selectionism in the order of their development in Skinner's views.
Several behavior analysts have noted the similarity between Skinner's radical behaviorism and pragmatism (e.g. Baum, 1994; Day, 1980; Hayes & Brownstein, 1986; Lamal, 1983; Leigland, 1999; Morris, 1988; Schneider, 1997; Zuriff, 1980). In "The Operational Analysis of Psychological Terms," Skinner (1945) introduced radical behaviorism with its acceptance of private events and advanced consequences in a pragmatic way:
The ultimate criterion for the goodness of a concept is not whether two people are brought into agreement but whether the scientist who uses the concept can operate successfully upon his material--all by himself if need be ... this does not make agreement the key to workability. On the contrary, it is the other way round. (pp. 293-294).
Dewey and Bentley (1947) favorably referred to Skinner's 1945 essay. Later, speaking of the distinction between rule-governed and contingency shaped behavior, Skinner (1966/1969) referenced the issue to the American pragmatists:
The distinction between rule-governed and contingency shaped behavior resolves an issue first raised in its modern form by C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey: the distinction between truth and belief. Truth is concerned with rules and rules for the transformation for rules ... Belief is a matter of probability of action and the probability is a function of the contingencies (pp. 170-171).
Perhaps Skinner's strongest identification with pragmatism came in his response to the question, "Do you see operant conditioning as close to any existing philosophical system?" Skinner (1979) singled out C. S. Peirce's pragmatism as "very close ... to an operant analysis":
The method of Pierce was to consider all the effects a concept might conceivably have on practical matters. The whole of our conception of an object or event is our conception of its effects. That is very close [emphasis added], I think, to an operant analysis of the way in which we respond to stimuli (p. 48)0
Skinner also said, "I think Peirce was right. He was not a positivist" (p. 48). It is interesting to note that not-being-a-positivist was a point in Peirce's favor. Skinner was responding, at least partly, to Raymond Williams's (1983, pp. 240-241) account of the term pragmatic. But it is questionable that Skinner was responding exclusively to the two snippets of quotations provided by Williams when Skinner said that Peirce's pragmatism was "very close ... to an operant analysis." Statements by Peirce (1923/1998) closer to radical behaviorism and an operant analysis can be found in Chance, Love and Logic, included in Skinner's (1979/1984, p. 41) growing library. The second essay in that book was "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," and Skinner's statement that Peirce's method was very close to an operant analysis is more understandable if Skinner had read that essay. In it, Peirce (1878/1992) said of private events,
[S]ince belief is a rule for action, the application of which involves further doubt and further thought, at the same time that it is a stopping-place, it is also a new starting-place for thought. That is why I have permitted myself to call it thought at rest, although thought is essentially an action ... The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit; and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise (pp. 129-130).
Belief was a rule for action, and thought was essentially an action. Skinner (1974) also considered potential behavior as a kind of action or as rules for action:
[O]ur knowledge is action, or at least rules for action ... There is room in a behavioristic analysis for a kind of knowing short of action and hence short of power. One need not be actively behaving in order to feel or to introspectively observe certain states normally associated with behavior (pp. 139-14.).
Skinner's first sentence of the above--when he says that "knowledge is action, or at least rules for action"--paraphrases in reverse order Peirce's (1878/1992) "belief is a rule for action" and "thought is essentially an action" (p. 129). Three paragraphs later, Peirce presents a three-term contingency for meaning that anticipates an operant formulation:
[W]hat a thing means is simply what habits it involves. Now, the identity of a habit depends on how it might lead us to act, not merely under such circumstances as are likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they may be. What the habit is depends on when and how it causes us to act. As for the when, every stimulus [emphasis added] to action [emphasis in original] is derived from perception; as for the how, every purpose of action is to produce some sensible result [emphasis added]. Thus we come down to what is tangible and practical, as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtile [sic] it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice (p. 131).
There are three distinct steps in Peirce's account of meaning: 1) a stimulus to act, 2) an action, and 3) a sensible result, which are against the background of Peirce's probabilism. Peirce's account of meaning is basically an analysis of meaning in terms of a probabilistic three-term contingency. Deliberately varying his terms, Peirce often used three-term formulations, but not always with the same terms. Peirce (1985), for example, also addressed the habit of belief in terms of occasion, act, and consequence: "A state of belief in a proposition is such a state that the believer would on every pertinent occasion [emphasis added] act [emphasis added] according to the logical consequence [emphasis added] of that proposition" (p. 912). In the second paragraph after his formulation of stimulus, action, and result, Peirce makes an early statement of his pragmatic maxim, a later version of which Williams quoted: "Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object" (p. 132). If Skinner was also responding to what he had previously read in this stretch of paragraphs, his conclusion that Peirce's method was very close to an operant analysis would be more understandable--with Peirce on private events in thinking as acting and a three-term contingency for habits. These points were not included in the citations by Williams. Skinner's Selectionism
After his pragmatic statements in 1945, Skinner (1953, p. 90; 1957, p. 483; 1963/1969, p. 132; 1966/1969, p.174; 1974, p. 205) identified a similarity between operant reinforcement and natural selection and spent more time linking his views with Darwin's than linking his pragmatic views with Peirce or any other pragmatist. In "The Phylogeny and Ontogeny of Behavior," Skinner (1966/1969) discussed how a habit may support the acquisition of an instinct:
[Darwin] seems to have assumed that ontogenic contingencies contribute to the inheritance of behavior, at least in generating responses which may then have phylogenic consequences. The behavior of the domestic dog in turning around before lying down on a smooth surface may have been selected by contingencies under which the behavior made a useful bed in grass or brush. If dogs now show this behavior less frequently it is presumably because a sort of phylogenic extinction has set in (p. 178).
Ghiselin (1984/1988, pp. 426-427) was in substantial agreement with Skinner here.
Further support for Skinner's concern with the importance of habits in evolution can be found in the many examples provided by Avital and Jablonka (2000) who detail the case for the inheritance of acquired habits:
In the late nineteenth century, J. M. Baldwin, Lloyd Morgan and Fairfield Osborne independently suggested how selection could bring about a transition from a learnt to an instinctive response. Their idea, which is now known as the Baldwin effect [or the genetic assimilation of learnt behavior], was clearly expressed by Morgan: Any hereditary variations which coincide in direction with modifications of behavior due to acquired habit would be favoured and fostered ... While still believing that there is some connection between habit and instinct, we may regard the connection as indirect and permissive rather than direct and transmissive. According to Morgan, " ... if learnt habits enable an organism to survive, selection will favour hereditary changes that mimic these learnt habits." (p. 317).
This is not a direct inheritance of acquired characteristics through a means such as Darwin's pangenesis, but an indirect transmission through operant behavior, social learning, genetic assimilation, and natural selection. Individual operant behavior and social learning will have successful behaviors selected; and natural selection through genetic assimilation will select structures responsible for successful behaviors and for making them more likely to occur at less cost (cf. Avital & Jablonka, 2000; Schneider, 2003, p. 146).
In "The Shaping of Phylogenic Behavior," Skinner (1975) drew a parallel with the shaping of operant behavior; and in "Selection by Consequences," Skinner (1981) drew analogies between natural selection, the behavior of the individual, and the evolution of cultures:
Human behavior is the joint product of (i) the contingencies of survival responsible for the natural selection of the species and (ii) the contingencies of reinforcement responsible for the repertoires acquired by its members, including (iii) the special contingencies maintained by an evolved social environment .... Each of the three levels of variation and selection has its own discipline--the first, biology; the second, psychology; and the third, anthropology. Only the second, operant conditioning, occurs at a speed at which it can be observed from moment to moment ... Operant conditioning is selection in progress. It resembles a hundred million years of natural selection or a thousand years of the evolution of a culture compressed into a very short period of time ... anthropologists and historians have reconstructed the stages through which moral and ethical codes, art, music, literature, science, technology, and so on, have presumably evolved. A complex operant, however, can actually be "shaped though successive approximation" by arranging a graded series of contingencies of reinforcement ... at all three levels a sudden, possibly extensive, change is explained as due to new variations selected by prevailing contingencies or to new contingencies (p. 502).
Skinner made a fourth reference that implied feedback mechanisms, and generalized such accounts as replacing mechanistic explanations: "Selection by consequences is a causal mode found only in livings things, or in machines made by living things ... it replaces explanations based on the causal modes of classical mechanics" (p. 501). Skinner went on to develop further parallels in "The Evolution of Behavior" (1984/1987), "The Evolution of Verbal Behavior" (1986/1987), and "Genes and Behavior" (1988/1989).
It should be noted that Skinner's selectionism differs from the selectionism in Donald Campbell's evolutionary epistemology. Campbell (1974, p. 447) rejected pragmatism and formulated a selectionism different from Darwin's (Moxley, 2001a; Skagestad 1978; Thagard, 1980). The term pragmatic selectionism distinguishes Skinner's selectionism from Campbell's.
In brief, the underlying philosophy of behavior analysis that follows the later Skinner's radical behaviorism is a pragmatic selectionism: a probabilistic AB-because-of-C philosophy in the tradition of Darwin and the pragmatists Peirce, James, and Dewey. An AB-because-of-C analysis at the appropriate level applies to all our experiences. At the level of behavior, the relation between the setting (A) and the behavior (B) is because of consequences (C). It focuses on answering the questions, How do things come to be as they are? and How can things be changed? In one-way or another, the three-term contingency is applicable to all behavior including verbal behavior and meaning (Moxley, 2001-2002; Skinner, 1945, p. 271; 1957, pp. 1314; 1968, p. 203; 1974, pp. 90-92). This includes any statement about anything.
Positivists have primarily focused on what is. Pragmatists have primarily focused on how things come to be. Positivists begin with truth. Pragmatists begin with meaning. Positivists are puzzled as to how meaning can lead to truth. Pragmatists are puzzled by how the truth of any statement can be determined without knowing its meaning. The changes in Skinner's views from a positivist to a pragmatic perspective may be understood in parallel with the changes in Wittgenstein's views. Wittgenstein (1922/1981) wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus which highly influenced logical positivists, but he later abandoned the position he had adopted there and turned to views that were similar to pragmatism. Although he did not consider himself a pragmatist, Wittgenstein had a high regard for William James, saying, "That is what makes [James] a good philosopher; he was a real human being" (cited in Monk, 1990, p. 478); and Wittgenstein (1969) said, "I am trying to say something that sounds like pragmatism" (p. 54e). Day (1969) has discussed similarities between Wittgenstein and Skinner. The changes in Wittgenstein's views, however, are more clearly marked with less overlap than Skinner's changes. Another way of understanding Skinner's change in philosophical perspectives--regardless of the issue of direct influences--is to see Russell as a guide to Skinner's early views (Moxley, 2003) with help from others that Skinner (e.g. , 1931) cited and Peirce as a guide to Skinner's later views (Moxley, 2001a, 2001b, 2002) with help from James and Dewey. To the extent that behavior analysis has adopted Skinner's later views, this analysis is consistent with a philosophy of probabilistic three-term contingencies in which the relation between the first two terms is because of the consequences in the third term. Expanding on such a philosophy, Peirce (e.g., 1992, pp. 245-279) speculated that it applied to the entire universe and everything in it, including all its attributed natural laws. Behavior analysts might well consider the appealing consistencyof adopting a similar view.
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Publication information: Article title: Pragmatic Selectionism: The Philosophy of Behavior Analysis. Contributors: Moxley, Roy A. - Author. Journal title: The Behavior Analyst Today. Volume: 4. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2003. Page number: 289+. © 2007 Behavior Analyst Online. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.