Pragmatic Selectionism: The Philosophy of Behavior Analysis

By Moxley, Roy A. | The Behavior Analyst Today, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

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 organizations according to probabilistic three-term contingencies, but at different levels, Darwin for species, pragmatists for meaning. Peirce shows key similarities with Darwin, and the later Skinner shows key similarities with Darwin and Peirce. In contrast to his early S-R behaviorism supported by mechanism and positivism, the philosophy that characterized Skinner's later work was a pragmatic selectionism.

Keywords: Darwin, Dewey, evolution, James, Peirce, positivism, pragmatism, selectionism, Skinner

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To the extent that behavior analysts support Skinner's radical behaviorism in contrast to his earlier S-R behaviorism, the following presents the 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 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 ("In his article in the Encyclopedia Britannica Watson [had also] traced a concern with the consequences of behavior to C. Lloyd Morgan and Edward L. Thorndike," Skinner, 1981/1987, p. 188). The originator in each historical series is revealing. Descartes advanced the if-then stimulus and response reflex, and Skinner (1931/1999) saw that by definition the relation between the stimulus and the response was one of "necessity" (p. 449) and an essential part of the mechanistic theory he was then advancing. Skinner 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 other pragmatists, and eventually the later Skinner. Against the background of his early S-R behaviorism, an outline of Skinner's subsequent pragmatic selectionism follows.

Modernism and Its Support for Early Behaviorism

S-R behaviorism fits in with a cluster of ideas referred to as modernism, a period extending mainly from the 17th to the 20th century (cf. Toulmin, 1983). The sciences and their philosophy in the early years of this period were commonly characterized as mechanistic. Highlighting the Cartesian values 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). Modernist values in philosophy reached a high point of abstraction in logical positivism, which became the dominant philosophy of science. According to Day (1980), this dominance extended to psychology: "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. …

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