behaviorists: not so bad after all

everyone loves to bash BF Skinner. Scratch that, in philosophy and the cognitive sciences, no one even talks about behaviorism. usually our only exposure to it is as the missing link between the advent of modern psychological thought and the glorious revolution of noam chomsky.

in the philosophy of language class scott and i took last semester, i approached the professor about writing my term paper on WVO Quine, a theorist i had immediately felt an affinity with. i was told that i should avoid Quine because a) he's depressing - he is known for his pessimism about science's ability to describe language. b) he works to undermine a lot of the foundations we'd established for philosophy of language. where does one go from quine? and, last but certainly not least, c) one has to be careful if one strays too far from what we've discussed in class: a lot of his work is tied up in behaviorism.

and i did recoil. a behaviorist? my newfound philosophical hero? i couldn't abandon my attachment to his ideas. he tied the field of philosophy of language up in knots, but the course continued on past him as if he'd left its foundations undisturbed. i, with my lack of attachment to traditional philosophy as a discipline, felt more and more that he was right. but it's very easy to dismiss a behaviorist.

why are we so afraid of behaviorism? because it is so clearly wrong? because it led to bad philosophy and bad science? some of these assertions could definently be argued. but apparently it also led some scientists and philosophers to abandon the divinity-of-man arguments that had previously infected all of the social sciences. behaviorists were the first to treat their study of man as the study of an animal. and, admittedly they went too far, but we could learn a lot from the openmindedness that required.

quine essentially proved that language isn't necessarily logical, or at least that logic is not the place to begin investigating language. if our only conception of science, language, and man is based on aristotle, of course we'll have to treat quine as a heretic. behaviorists don't have anything to prove. they don't need to prove that man is logical, that he has free will, that there's something perfect about him, (and, often, that there's something more logical, freer, more perfect about white males...) as many philosophical schools assume from the beginning.


Seb said...

Yeah--Hill's reaction to Quine in Epistemology was similarly violent--"Quine is depressing. For him, there's no truth; there's no love...." But he was always a favorite of mine as well. Interesting that he got himself intellectually blaclisted by being slapped with behaviorism--sort of the psychological/philosophical equivalent of reductio ad Hitlerum, or a McCarthian accusation of being a communist.

There's still something very chilling about behaviorism though: its denial of the mental world. When all of human activity is reduced to behavior, it's hard to avoid stopping to think to yourself, "But here I am thinking to myself! Am I all alone? Who are these robots all around me?"--it's hard for me to guess what behaviorists thought of their own mental life.

On the other hand, I'm totally with you on the idea that there heresy, and the hubris that drove it, were valuable for undermining the "divinity of man." It's too bad, I think, that so many people are still hanging on to it so tightly.

I really want to read Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity some time, if only for the thrill of playing with black magic.

Cristi said...

yeah, my first reaction to behaviorism in psychology was one of ire: "how can they be sitting here writing this, and planning these experiments and not see a flaw in their logic?" i'm not saying we should bring back their methods.

but my reaction to what is, apparently, all of philosophy's reaction to them is even angrier. philosophy really claims to ask all the big questions: what is free will? what is thought? but it clearly has an unstated agenda in many (or all) cases.

also, nice comment. long enough for a post, i'd say! i wrote about behaviorism in an attempt to get certain cog scientists to post... ahem.

Seb said...

Oh, I see how it's supposed to work.

Unfortunately, the post that I really have in the back of my mind is about vagueness, which the book has already been closed on, it sounds like. Would you have a problem with it being opened again for, say...two posts?

Scott said...

Post, young man! :)

Cristi said...

yeah, 'vagueness solved' was also intended to entice other authors to disagree... no topic is closed at invented usage!

Joshua said...

I've heard Skinner made his child deathly afraid of Santa Claus in order to prove that human behavior could be modified.

...Yeah, not too shocking that behaviorism has a bad image by now.

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