Philosophy of Science, with Special Consideration Given to Behaviorism as the Philosophy of the Science of Behavior

By Moore, J. | The Psychological Record, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview
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Philosophy of Science, with Special Consideration Given to Behaviorism as the Philosophy of the Science of Behavior

Moore, J., The Psychological Record


The philosophy of science is the branch of philosophy that critically examines the foundations, methods, products, and implications of the activity called science. Representative topics in the philosophy of science include (a) the origin and nature of scientific language (e.g., terms, concepts, statements, laws, theories, explanations, predictions ), (b) the validity of scientific language (e.g., definitions, meanings, applications), (c) the nature of the scientific method, (d) the nature of scientific reasoning, and (e) models of scientific activity. This sketch reviews the historical development of the philosophy of science, representative individuals in the field, and topics of long-standing interest. The aim is to prepare readers for subsequent discussions of behaviorism, cognitive psychology, and the meaning of mental terms.


Auguste Comte (1798-1857) is credited with founding a philosophical position underlying much scientific reasoning: positivism. Positivism assumes that scientific knowledge is the highest form of knowledge, and that scientific knowledge comes from studying directly observable and measurable events. Other knowledge claims, for example, those based on religious or metaphysical assumptions, are held to be imperfect because they are not derived from actual publicly observable experiences. According to positivism, then, the world consists of laws and principles that are discovered through direct observation. If we do not know enough about some aspect of nature, we must study, measure, and otherwise directly observe our subject matter more closely. Indeed, if we cannot do so, we must assume that the purported subject matter does not even exist. Moreover, scientific knowledge has the degree of certainty necessary to be regarded as foundational, for example, as a basis for structuring society and thereby improving it.

Despite the popularity of positivism and empiricism, debates about the nature of scientific knowledge were prominent in late-19th-century Europe. For example, Ernst Mach (1838-1916) was a positivist in the sense that he emphasized that scientists should be strictly empirical: They should emphasize what they directly experienced as they worked--in Mach's words, their "sensations." According to Mach, scientific statements should be regarded as economical, abstract summaries or expressions of the facts of a scientist's interactions with a subject matter, rather than as metaphysical statements about a supposed underlying reality. In the area of psychology, Mach embraced the psychophysics of Fechner and the overall system of Wundt, because those positions emphasized the direct experience of the individual. However, Mach was skeptical about the existence of atoms, principally because they had not been directly experienced.

Henri Poincare (1854-1912), a mathematically oriented French theoretical physicist, took a slightly different approach. One of his concerns was "simultaneity": How was it possible to determine whether a clock striking noon in Paris was simultaneous with a clock striking noon anywhere else in France? An observer could not stand in one place and see both clocks at the same time. Poincare's solution was to rely on mathematics. The speed of electricity was known, and the distance between the two clocks was known. If an electrical signal could be sent from the first clock to the second clock, and the time on the second clock adjusted to compensate for the distance the electrical signal had traveled, the computation would yield the required simultaneity. For Poincare, therefore, higher order scientific concepts did not refer to things that could be directly experienced. Rather, higher order scientific concepts followed from the outcome of conventionally accepted procedures, like mathematics. The importance of any concept was determined by how well it promoted effective action.

Developments in physics in the early 20th century represented a particularly thorny matter.

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Philosophy of Science, with Special Consideration Given to Behaviorism as the Philosophy of the Science of Behavior


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