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 …
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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.
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