Pragmatism and A-Ontologicalism in a Science of Behavior

By Krageloh, Christian U. | The Behavior Analyst Today, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Pragmatism and A-Ontologicalism in a Science of Behavior


Krageloh, Christian U., The Behavior Analyst Today


Behavior analysis is intimately linked to radical behaviorism, the philosophy of the science of behavior. Ontological discussions in the latter are easily generalized to the former, in which case behavior analysis is not judged by its scientific merit, but evaluated on the basis of philosophical matters. According to pragmatism, the meaning of discourse is to be understood in terms of its effect on behavior, and ontological assumptions are essentially prescriptions on how behavior analysis is to be conducted. Dissemination of behavior analysis would be greatly facilitated if such prescriptions are framed in a form that is as a-ontological as possible, so that fruitless discussions can be avoided that distract from the main purpose of behavior analysis--prediction and control of behavior.

Keywords: ontology, verbal behavior, behavior analysis, behaviorism, pragmatism, philosophy

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Behavior analysis, the scientific study of behavior, has always been very closely associated with radical behaviorism, the philosophy of the science of behavior (Skinner, 1974). Of all areas of psychology, it is probably the one that is most intimately linked to a philosophical school of thought. Such a close alignment promotes conceptual coherence within and across different sub-areas of behavior analysis, whose scope has been expanding continuously, from experimental laboratory research with animal subjects, to applied settings, such as schools, work environments and interpersonal relationships. One can easily see the advantages of commonalities in the usage of terminology and in the formulation of behavioral theories.

Even though behavior analysis might have its historical origin firmly embedded in the philosophical framework of behaviorism, it is by no means inseparable from it. Any literature search of experimental behavioral studies would reveal that scientific investigation is only too happy to proceed without preceding philosophical discourse. Indeed, too close a link with philosophy could bring with it some dangers. Any rejection of behaviorism (be it from misunderstandings or even from more informed concerns) can easily be generalized to behavior analysis, in which case the latter is not judged by its scientific merit and predictive power, but rejected for philosophical reasons. Todd and Morris (1992) and Skinner (1974) listed a range of common misconceptions about behaviorism that have negatively affected public perception of behavior analysis.

Regardless of whether one considers a particular argument as justified or as a reflection of a misconception or prejudice, the persistent nature of criticisms forwarded against behavior analysis demands their attention. Behaviorists have frequently stressed the difference between methodological behaviorism and radical behaviorism and that the most common criticisms of behaviorism, such as how private events are dealt with, apply to the former, the older of the two (Skinner, 1974; Zuriff, 1985). Unfortunate choices of terms do not facilitate, but even hinder, efforts of clarification (Drash, 1988). It is difficult to blame the lay reader for believing that the term radical behaviorism, with its connotations of fanaticism and lack of willingness to compromise, refers to a form of behaviorism that exaggerates the unattractive peculiarities of methodological behaviorism, rather than to a form with the goal of consistently applying behavioral principles including covert behavior.

Misconceptions brought about by usage of terminology are already bad enough, with an audience that might not be very receptive to time-consuming clarifications. Other obstacles to a successful dissemination of behavior analysis involve more philosophical concerns, which, as I will argue in the present article, can be equally unnecessary and avoidable. According to pragmatism, ontological assumptions are essentially only methodological prescriptions on how behavior analysis is to be conducted.

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