Modern Perspectives on B. F. Skinner and Contemporary Behaviorism

By James T. Todd; Edward K. Morris | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
Inquiry Nearer the Source: Bacon, Mach, and The Behavior of Organisms

Laurence D. Smith

The Behavior of Organisms is a strikingly positivistic work. Indeed, to read the book is to be reminded of Herbert Feigl ( 1981) designation of B. F. Skinner as "America's most brilliantly and consistently positivistic psychologist" (p. 41). The Behavior of Organisms was seen as representing a highly descriptive and positivistic approach when it appeared fifty years ago, and it can only be judged more so by today's standards. In the last half century, much of American psychology has moved away from positivistic formulations toward greater tolerance of hypothetical constructs and inferred entities and processes. It is no secret that the dominant philosophy of science in the 1930s--a version of positivism known as "logical positivism"--has fallen from favor in philosophical circles. Yet The Behavior of Organisms stands today as the founding monograph of a scientific tradition of research and practice that continues to flourish. This situation poses an interesting historical problem; namely, how has the scheme for psychological science laid out more than fifty years ago in The Behavior of Organisms maintained its viability--indeed, vitality--in the face of the general decline of positivism in the intervening years?

One key to tackling this question lies in situating The Behavior of Organisms in the tradition of positivist thought to which it properly belongs. Although the works of B. F. Skinner have sometimes been identified with logical positivism (e.g., Suppe, 1984; Wolman, 1968), there is ample evidence in his writings ( The Behavior of Organisms included) that Skinner all along subscribed to a different strain of positivism--one that antedates logical positivism and, in some respects, stands in opposition to it. The aim of this chapter is to place The Behavior of Organisms in the tradition of the descriptive,

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