On Skinner’s “About Behaviourism”

by Vered Arnon

How does Skinner’s “About Behaviourism” fit into the philosophy of mind generally?

Skinner presents an alternative to mentalism. He claims that self-knowledge can be analysed and explained in terms of observable behaviour and environmental conditioning, as opposed to appealing to unobservable “inner mental episodes”. He claims that if one goes beyond what one can observe, then one has gone too far, and the notions of “inner mental states” and private mental processes do not really account for the behaviour of an organism. In the spectrum of mind-body dualism, he is on the extreme end of endorsing the body, while disregarding (though not necessarily denying) the notion of mind. Cartesian dualism reifies the mind, but all the while there has still been the bias of the mind being a “thing” even though it doesn’t exist in “space”. Skinner claims that the body is a thing, and the body exists in space, and from direct physical observation one can find answers to all questions concerning an organism’s behaviour, without conjecturing about inaccessible mental states.

1. Skinner’s Basic Thesis.

Mentalism has a problem, Skinner claims. It depends on unobservable things that cannot be verified by consensus. In mentalistic inquiry, there can be no truth by agreement. Behaviourism solves this problem by bypassing and disregarding unobservable mental activity, and explaining self-knowledge and introspection as observation of the physical body. These observations are the result of genetic and environmental histories, and looking at these external things will provide answers that really explain behaviour.

2. Main arguments in support of thesis.

A. Argument for methodological behaviourism. Skinner is ultimately arguing in favour of radical behaviourism, but first he argues that methodological behaviourism pulled inquiry out of a rut that mentalism had gotten it stuck in.

Methodological behaviourism avoids the problem of mentalism by going directly to prior physical causes.

Mentalistic explanations make feelings and states of mind seem like causes when in fact there is no observable evidence that they are.

Mentalistic explanations cut short inquiry without satisfactory answers.

Methodological behaviourism focuses on observable genetics and environment. It is different from logical positivism in that logical positivism claims that no truth by agreement is available and thus sensations and perceptions cannot be measured, while methodological behaviourism reduces the concepts of sensation and perception to the operation of discrimination, thus enabling a measurement of a person’s capacity for discrimination, rather than concerning inquiry with unmeasurable sensations and perceptions. Enquiry can proceed without philosophical digression. It enables the study of lower species and it enables exploration of the differences and similarities between humans and other species.

But methodological behaviourism still leaves many questions unanswered, and raises more questions as well.

B. Argument for radical behaviourism. Methodological behaviourism runs into a problem when it seems to deny the existence of, or at least completely rule out of consideration, all features of mental life.

Radical behaviourism questions the nature of what is commonly called ‘mental life’ rather than denying the possibility.

Radical behaviourism claims that introspection and self-knowledge are observations of the physical body. Mind is not non-physical, ‘mind’ is the body’s observation of the body.

Radical behaviourism restores the balance between mentalism and methodological behaviourism.

Skinner goes on to explain how radical behaviourism works. In these sections, anticipated objections are addressed.

3. Anticipated objections?

A. Identifying the causes of one’s behaviour. “The experimental analysis of behaviour goes directly to the antecedent causes in the environment” Skinner writes. Objections to behaviourism claim that people do things because of how they feel. But Skinner says they do things because they are responding to what’s going on in their environment, and the feelings that causation is attributed to are misleading misinterpretations of the simple response to the environment.

B. Self-knowledge. Skinner claims that knowing is a behaviour and self-knowledge has social origin. What doesn’t make a difference isn’t significant, he argues, and anything that is completely private doesn’t make an observable difference. Reporting how one feels or reporting one’s behaviour or the causes of one’s behaviour develops out of the social value of such reports. Objections to behaviourism might accuse behaviouristic analysis of reports of self-knowledge and introspection of being ‘disingenous’ for not accepting the reality of mental life as a given. But Skinner argues that self-knowledge cannot be taken for granted and treated substantially. It’s not disregarded altogether – it does offer clues into past, present and future behaviour and conditions that affect behaviour. But there is limited verbal means of _expression to report these ‘feelings’, and the problem of privacy also prevents behaviourists from taking self-knowledge for granted. Mentalism, Skinner argues, has made no advances aside from coming up with a huge variety of different ways to describe consciousness and different notions of consciousness, but aside from description, it hasn’t actually made any advances in offering explanation. He gives as an example operant conditioning, to illustrate how behaviourism has come farther than mentalism in explaining how people increase their power to deal with their environment.

C. The feelings of reinforcers. An objection claims that reinforcers reinforce because of the feelings associated with them, and these feelings are mental states. But Skinner argues that the ‘feelings’ are not mental events, but behaviour. To ‘feel’ in a certain way towards a certain thing is to act in a certain way as a means to achieve certain consequences.

D. Wants, needs, desires and wishes. An objection claims that the terms of reinforcement in operant conditioning imply mental states of wanting, needing, desiring, and wishing. Skinner counters that the states of wanting, needing, desiring, and wishing are functional relations pertaining to presence, absence, lack of, reinforcers. The ‘feelings’ of mentalistic terms refer actually to the consequences of behaviour, Skinner claims. It’s easy, he claims, to explain behaviour as response to ‘feelings’ of wanting etc, when in fact it is the aversive environmental stimulation that causes the agent to act in thus and such ways.

E. Purpose and intention. Here Skinner deals with the objection that behaviourism cannot deal with purpose and intention. He says a lot of misunderstanding arose from the earlier representations of purpose as spatial. But the goal of something is not its ultimate termination. He gives the example that the purpose, the goal, of life isn’t to die even though that’s the ultimate termination. Purposes are a condition produced by reinforcement.

4. Critical evaluation of Skinner’s “About Behaviourism”

Over-simplifies. Missing step between perceiving stimuli and responding to stimuli: interpreting stimuli. Different people respond to things differently depending on their mental states.

Skinner doesn’t account for intelligence. What role does intelligence play, if all behaviour is merely the result of conditioning?

Skinner claims that behaviourism has made progresses beyond mentalism in exploring consciousness. But he takes for granted the mind-body dualism and also maintains that only one exists. Despite his attempts to justify himself and say that reports of feelings are ‘clues’, he really does disregard all inner mental activity in a way that is overly simplistic. He reduces people to machines. Behaviourism cannot account for intelligence or creativity and it cannot explain how people deal with new unfamiliar events. If people respond to new things the way that they responded to certain other things in the past, there has to be some internal step of interpretation, some thought process by which an individual compares the present with the past and then decides on a course of action.

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