The Comparative Psychology of Paul Schiller

By Dewsbury, Donald A. | The Psychological Record, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

The Comparative Psychology of Paul Schiller


Dewsbury, Donald A., The Psychological Record


SCHILLER, P., & HARTMANN, G. W. (1951). Manipulative completion of bisected geometrical figures. American Journal of Psychology, 64, 238-246.

SCHNEIRLA, T. C. (1952). A consideration of some conceptual trends in comparative psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 49, 559-597.

SEWARD, J. P. (1963). The structure of functional autonomy. American Psychologist, 18, 703-710.

SHURCLIFF, A., BROWN, D., & STOLLNITZ, F. (1971). Specificity of training required for solution of a stick problem by rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta). Learning and Motivation, 2, 255-270. The work of Paul H. Schiller is generally treated in a fragmentary manner. Them is no comprehensive overview of his oeuvre. I review the system developed by Schiller and the research related to it and relate both to the work of other researchers. Schiller's system was organized around innate motor patterns and the manner in which they are integrated into functional patterns of action related to the environment. His diverse studies are cited in various contexts and it is especially interesting to note how a single result can be adapted to different contents. Although Schiller died in 1949 many aspects of his work are relevant to research in comparative psychology in the 1990s.

As befits his background, the comparative psychology of Paul Schiller is a creative blend of influences from Gestalt psychology, comparative psychology, European ethology, and other developments in psychology in both Europe and North America. Because, as with most psychologists, his psychology changed over time, it is somewhat deceptive to present a single system. However, I have tried to characterize some of the features of his psychology based especially on his published works in English and his unpublished, revised Analysis of Action: An Outline of Psychology (Schiller, 1947a). I cover both his system and his empirical research and the relevance of each to more recent work.

The System

There has been a tendency in the literature to cite only those fragments of Schiller's work that are relevant to particular problems. One thus sees citations of Schiller's work only in relation to problems of the evolution of aesthetics, play, problem solving, or motor learning. All, however, are a part of Schiller's overall approach and system. Although his system was unfinished and admittedly vague in places, I believe it is important to examine the interlocking nature of the fragments of research in relation to his whole system, incomplete though it may be. The specific experiments that made Schiller's reputation and, to some degree, mark his genius stemmed from this system.

Basic Concepts and Their Operation

Innate motor patterns. The animal possesses a repertoire of organized, innate motor patterns that are activated as the joint product of excitations from within and outside of the animal. Although these patterns are unlearned, they can be modified by repetition or reinforcement (Schiller, 1952). Whereas the patterns are innate, they mature as the organism develops. Schiller did not fall into the trap of believing that because something might be regarded as innate it was immune from environmental influence either before or after its first expression. Schiller believed that the complete catalog of these movements of a species must be developed before further study could be undertaken.

Stimulus-response connections. Schiller's views on the possibility of innate stimulus-response connections appear to have changed over time. According to Schiller (1947a, p. 51), organisms may respond to certain aspects of the surroundings without any opportunity to learn. For Schiller (1952), however, the expression of innate motor patterns in particular situations is learned. Thus, in 1952 Schiller differed from Konrad Lorenz in not believing that the stimulus-response connection was necessarily innate (Schiller, 1952, p. 178). Indeed, Schiller (1952, p. 180) went so far as to suggest that "there is no evidence of any specific motor relation to complex perceptual configurations in higher animals. …

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