Academic journal article Behavior and Philosophy (Online)

On Defining Behavior: Some Notes

Academic journal article Behavior and Philosophy (Online)

On Defining Behavior: Some Notes

Article excerpt

There are many definitions of behavior in the scientific and philosophical literature, and scant consensus (apparently even among the practitioners within particular behavior research programs) as to how to define it (see, e.g., Bergner, 2011; Levitis, Lidicker Jr., & Freund, 2009). To give some examples, Tinbergen (1951) defines behavior as "the total of movements made by the intact animal" (p. 2); several authors (e.g., Davis, 1966, p. 2, p. 4-5; Lehner, 1996, p. 8; Pierce & Cheney, 2004, p. 1) define it as "anything an organism does" (or "what an organism does"); several others define it in terms of any activity in which an organism engages (e.g., Donahoe & Palmer, 1994, p. 3; S. T. Watson & Brown, 2011, p. 221); still others (e.g., Jessor, 1958, p. 172-173; Maturana, 1995, p. 151- 152), in terms of a relation between the organism and its environment; Dretske (1988, p. 1ss) defines it as a process of an inner entity bringing about a bodily movement or environmental outcome; and so on. (For other definitions of behavior, see, e.g., Bergner, 2011, p. 148-149; Hebb, 1958, p. 2; Holt, 1915, p. 371-372; Hornsby, 2006; Levitis et al., 2009, p. 108; Marken, 1982; Miller & Dollard, 1942, p. 59; Millikan, 1993, p. 135ss; Moore, 2008, p. 66-68; Watson, 1919, p. 14). Among these and other definitions of behavior, which ones, if any, turn out to be reasonable enough? This boils down to the question: what is an accurate set of conditions or criteria that determine what counts as behavior? (As will become clearer later on, I am not assuming that they must be individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. Nor am I assuming that there can be only one possible definition of behavior that is plausible enough).

I take this question to be of considerable importance. First of all, it has a philosophical interest in its own right. Behavior is one of those concepts that have a central place in our ordinary interpretative practices and of which, nevertheless, there is usually only a tacit mastery (in contrast to an explicit understanding of its features). Besides, arguably, it has relevant connections to several categories that are of central concern in some areas of philosophy (e.g., connections to ordinary mental concepts, studied in philosophy of mind). So I believe that the availability of one or more accurate definitions thereof may help us avoid some conceptual confusions in these areas and make progress in the analyses of such categories. Similarly, the question is of importance to the empirical sciences. It merits attention as far as we want prevent certain conceptual confusions in scientific practices (see, e.g., Todorov, 2012) and to achieve greater integration among distinct behavior research programs (see Bergner, 2011; Levitis et al., 2009). (I do not assume that such integration depends on there being overall acceptance of a unique definition by different behavior research programs. However, I believe that once we have a larger agreement as to what makes and what does not make sense to say that behavior is, our chances of sharing more common ground increase.)

This article attempts to suggest some conceptual preliminaries to a definition of behavior, thus setting the stage for answering our question. The article is structured in the following way. (1) It starts off by distinguishing some different senses of the concept, to wit: (i) behavior as the occurrence of an organism's action or reaction; (ii) behavior as a class or pattern; (iii) behavior as group behavior; and (iv) behavior as a change or movement of an object. Emphasis is given upon (i), which is overall the intended definiendum (i.e., the thing being defined) in the definitions here at stake. I especially try to call attention to certain teleological features thereof. Subsequently, (2) I provide a brief survey of different types of definition, so as to pick out those among them that can in principle be suitable for the definiendum, as well as for the context here relevant. …

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