[Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology]

By Mills, John A.; Danziger, Kurt | Canadian Psychology, August 1999 | Go to article overview

[Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology]


Mills, John A., Danziger, Kurt, Canadian Psychology


JOHN A. MILLS

Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology

New York: New York University Press, 1998,

246 pages (ISBN 0-8147-5611-5, US$37.50, Hardcover)

Reviewed by KURT DANZIGER

Another history of behaviourism? The title of John Mills' book promises more than that, and it is a promise richly fulfilled by the text. Behaviourism in the narrow sense may now be a topic of essentially historical interest, but behavioural science is quite another matter. American (including Canadian) psychologists, as Mills reminds us, "are trained to think behavioristically from their earliest undergraduate years, usually without being made aware, or realizing, that this is the case" (p. 1). Within this academic culture, behaviouristic assumptions and precepts have acquired a self-evident status that goes with low visibility.

If better vision is desired, Mills' book will supply the necessary corrective. It does so by stepping outside the present and examining the stations on the path followed by behaviourist thought and practice in its conquest of the discipline. Although these broader effects are a constant presence, the examination is conducted with scrupulous attention to specific historical evidence. Mills not only engages the considerable secondary literature in fruitful discussion but also marshals important facts and insights gained from his own archival research on the unpublished correspondence, diaries, and seminar notes of key figures. Without such evidence, who would have suspected, for example, that behind the apparent aridity of Hull's neobehaviourist system there lurked a determination to offer a homegrown American alternative to the alien import of Gestalt psychology?

But if such revelations are to become more than historical curiosities they need to be seen in broader perspective. And Mills' book provides the basis for that too. To continue with the example, the Americanism of the behavioural approach emerges in several different contexts and at a number of levels. Not only were there early and persisting links between this approach and the politics of American Progressivism, but in its ultimate values and commitments behavioural science was deeply beholden to the pragmatic variants of positivism current in North America rather than to the logical positivism imported from Europe.

Such insights into the social and intellectual context of behaviourism and its progeny are not new, but Mills certainly offers the most comprehensive, accessible, and elegantly argued account of the topic that is currently available. Moreover, he balances contextualist history with detailed analyses of significant issues that arose in the course of psychological research in the behaviourist mode. Here you will find all you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask about such topics as Hull's goal gradient hypothesis or Skinnerian autoclitics.

Mills' most important contribution, however, lies in his masterly analysis of the presuppositions that characterize the behavioural approach. …

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