Ernest Gellner: Selected Philosophical Themes - Vol. 3

By Ernest Gellner | Go to book overview

Chapter 20

Eysenck: seeing emperors naked

Together with Skinner and Monod, Eysenck is perhaps the most influential of contemporary proponents of what might loosely and without prejudice be called scientism, and which is expounded and applied in his recent collection of essays. 1 Once upon a time this position might have been called materialism or even empiricism. Professor Eysenck is pleased to recognize Descartes on animals, and La Mettrie and Condillac on man, as intellectual ancestors, and speaks of 'the natural affinity of behaviourism and materialism'. Later on in the course of the same argument (a mere two pages later, in fact) he seems to change his mind and declares that 'metaphysical behaviourism…is of no interest to anyone…and…does not say anything sensible, and it is not specifically behaviouristic… because…behaviourism implies a completely empirical attitude, i.e. a denial that such a priori arguments can have any sense whatever'. For we had just been told that Descartes, La Mettrie and Condillac 'were philosophers and metaphysicians, primarily concerned with the mind-body problem', whereas real behaviourists such as Watson, Skinner and Thorndike 'did not care about this problem in the slightest, and never thought about it-they took it for granted that stimuli and their effects determine human conduct, and went on from there to elucidate the actual laws according to which this determination takes place'. Some might say that this does not amount to having no ideas about the mind-body problem, but on the contrary having rather rigid ones, 'not thinking' in a rather pejorative sense, and incidentally prejudging the interesting and plausible possibility that though human behaviour is law-bound, the laws cannot possibly be put into a stimulus-response form, or into any complex variant of that basic principle.

What has happened here is, of course, that Eysenck is a modern kind of behaviourist-materialist, trying eagerly to kick away the ladder by which he has ascended to his position. The intellectual ancestors knew they had a position to defend. Eysenck vacillates between hailing them as pioneers, and being embarrassed by the

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