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Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology.

Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology, by John A. Mills. New York, New York University Press, 1998. x, 238 pp. $37.50 U.S. (cloth).

"Watson founded behaviorism because everything was all ready for the founding."(1)

According to the eminent historian of psychology, Edwin G. Boring, the functionalism and evolutionism characteristic of American psychology preceding the founding of behaviourism were "natural to the temper of America" and were but "different aspects of the same attitude towards human nature."(2) No less discerningly, John Mills argues that "forms of behaviorism, usually unacknowledged and unnamed, pervaded American social science from the beginning" (p. 23). Locating behaviourism's roots in the pragmatism of the Progressivist movement, the objectivism of the newly emerging and institutionalized social sciences, and the philosophical functionalism of the New Realists, Mills writes that "American psychologists welcomed them [various behaviorist positions] not because they were novel or because they were familiar" (p. 38). Behaviourism suited America's social and political meritocracy.

Preceded by an masterly overview of the divergent character of Psychological behaviourism, Mills in seven chapters presents an accounting, "at a very general level" (p. 185), of the course of behavioural science in American psychology from before the turn of the century to the mid 1960s. Perhaps what is remarkable about Mill's history is that he devotes; individual chapters to the major figures of psychological behaviourism, J.B Watson, E.C. Tolman, C.L. Hull, and B.F. Skinner, and understands their often divergent theoretical views from within a common intellectual, philosophical, and social-cultural context. Writing with an uncanny appreciation of behaviourism's unifying and programmatic research objectives, Mills convincingly documents its particular innovative and ingenious researches and its dominating force as the discipline's philosophy of science. Mills is similarly appreciative of behaviourism's scientistic and ideological foundations and practices, its pathetic failures even of its prized achievements, and its naivety in matters concerning human nature, society, and, importantly, science.

Much has been written about behaviourism's roots in Western Philosophical tradition of empiricism, utilitarianism, and nineteenth-century positivism. But Mills's account of the birth of radical behaviourism, its early demise and revival in neobehaviourism and, eventually, its pretence to behavioural science and social engineering, finds its locus in the institutionalization of American psychology. In an effort to steer clear both of the biological sciences and the philosophical speculations concerning mind and consciousness, the discipline's transplantation from its German origins to American soil left behind any conception of psychology as a Geisteswissenschaft. Embedded in the Progressive reform movement of the 1880s, American social science understood itself in service of society, shaped its theories by its practices, and assumed the individual to be the mere focus of objective social forces. This social pragmatism produced a indigenous form of positivism, of "behaviorism" Mills argues, that held sway in sociology, economics, political science, and psychology well into the first quarter of this century.

Mills astutely uncovers the influence of this unnamed behaviourism on realist turn in American philosophy. Rejecting idealism, subjectivism, and vitalism, the New realists, and their critical realist followers had, in turn, an important albeit largely indirect influence on the development of psychological behaviourism especially in the work of E.C. Tolman who, together with E.G. Boring and others, would exploit the logic of operationism essential to the revival of neobehaviourism in the 1930s. The realists' emancipation of metaphysics from epistemology and their vindication of the ordinary material world dovetailed nicely with the functional treatment of mind as a natural object, and the rejection of the mental in favour of purely external relations between organism and environment.

Other early forms of behaviourism anticipating, and in many ways Surpassing in philosophical sophistication, J.B. Watson's 1913 behaviourist manifesto, were those of Max Meyer and A.P. Weiss who found their inspiration in German objectivism. Mills's account of the origins of behaviourism also gives due recognition to the contributions of such very different transitional behaviourist theories as J.R. Kantor's interbehavioural psychology which was largely overshadowed by Skinner's radical behaviourism, W.B. Hunter's anthroponomy which anticipated later neobehaviourist developments, and the physiological behaviourism of Zing-Yang Kuo which was later echoed in the transition of behaviourism to cognitivism. However by the middle 1920s it was John Watson, America's pre-eminent early comparative psychologist, who would claim priority for the early origin for his radical behaviourism. Characteristically, Watson expressed distrust of Darwinian theory, allocated a principle role to the study of the acquisition of habits in the ontogeny of organisms, and showed a commitment to experimental laboratory research. But if, as Mills notes with some irony, "Watson's animal work shows no trace of a behaviorist position" (p. 57), the question concerning Watson's founding claim remains.

In fact Mills traces Watson's formulation of behaviourism to his Collaboration with Adolf Meyer, the prominent psychoanalytically-oriented psychiatrist, who shared Watson's vision of psychology as a rigorously experimental, unified, and, above all, useful science. Meyer was critical of Watson's failure to embrace a thoroughgoing psychobiology, but he helped kindle Watson's interest in human psychology, and the latter began to read psychoanalysis under Meyer's tutelage. Watson used Freud's theories as his starting point, convinced of their truth, but sought to ground these in the language of conditioned responses. Mills writes:
 Watson's position was a foretaste of what was to come in the Behaviorist
 movement. Throughout its history, behaviorism has treated psychoanalysis as
 both enemy and source of inspiration. Behaviorists have used the concept of
 habit as a surrogate for the psychoanalytic unconscious. Habit structures
 acquired early in life purportedly exerted control over adult behavioral
 patterns, thereby playing the same role as the complexes in psychoanalysis.
 Watson's thinking looked backward toward his own genetic method and forward
 to the conquest of psychoanalysis and its assimilation into behaviorist
 doctrine (p. 72).


But if Watson's view of the goal of psychology was the prediction of the response or, given the response, the prediction of the effective stimulus, there was nothing to substantiate this ideology -- deceptively offered to the American public as science -- of equating practice and theory either in Watson's comparative research or his brief foray into human experimental research on conditioned emotional reactions.

The speculative behaviourism of the 1920s was generally viewed With embarrassment by those who would, under the influence of various developments in the logic of science both within and outside of the discipline, usher in a new era of neobehaviourism and behavioural science. Mills's historiography is at its best when he examines the influence of operationism on the emergence of learning -- mind as a mode of behaviour exhibits above all else learning -- at the core of neobehaviourist thought. He traces the origins of operationism to the functionalist program of German experimental psychology, and finds that within the pragmatic context of American psychology operationalism underwent various formulations depending on its adherents' realist or positivist commitments. Perhaps most philosophically sophisticated among the behaviourists, E.C. Tolman promulgated in the 1930s and 1940s a conception of behaviourism, and a theory of learning, that was realist while avoiding the reductionism of positivist thought. Appealing to intervening variables as dispositions operationally under the control of the experimenter, it was Tolman who nevertheless affirmed the ultimate theoretical interest of discipline: the prediction and control of behaviour.

Operationism became, and largely remains, the language of Experimental psychology. In the context of neobehaviourism, experimental psychology aimed at the laboratory simulation of real-life situations in an attempt to tease apart, relying on inferential statistics and its neo-Galtonian premises, those purportedly universal causal facets that brought to fruition a conception of individuals as "mere conduits for the prediction of data caused by forces operating equally in and on all" (p. 102). This full-fledged vision of behaviourist explanation found its apologists in the formal efforts at precise quantitative predictions of Clark Hull's hypothetical-deductive postulate system, and the enterprising behavioural technologies exemplified in B.F. Skinner's negative utopia, Walden Two. With a thorough grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of Hull's attempt at staking out a unified conception of psychology as a "behavior system," as a science of the laws of molar behaviour, Mills reveals neobehaviourist aspirations to formalization and quantification to be theoretically eclectic, and ultimately sterile, and empirically a failure. Skinner's resolutely positivistic rejection of the mental, most notably in his work on verbal behaviour, and his appeal to reinforcement in the explanations for organismic behaviour, proved to be "corrosively constrictive" (p. 141) in case of animal behaviour, and scientifically pretentious in case of the social technologies constituting a behavioural program that would obviate the need for genuine social-political thought.

Recognizing that psychological behaviourism finds its most Complete expression in the ideology of the behaviour modification movement, Mills renders a fascinating account of the parallels between the history of the mental health movement in America and the history of behaviourism. He writes:
 With respect to mental health, the American lay public over the course of
 this century has consistently entertained two incompatible propositions. On
 the one hand, they believe that our lives are controlled by impalpable and
 unconscious forces that can be understood only by experts. On the other
 hand, they believe that mental dysfunction resembles physical illness in
 that its cause can be discovered and remedies instituted (p. 177).


The scientism and instrumentalism that characterized behavioural Science offered psychologists, following World War II, unlimited social and economic opportunities for the application of conditioning techniques, first developed by neobehaviourists in the laboratory using animals, to human behaviour. The development of behaviour therapies with their focus on the reinforcing context of individual behaviour assimilated psychoanalysis, and its historical conception of the individual, to learning theory in a move, Mills critically refers to as "a standardized model of normal mental life, in which a person's role was limited to adjustment to a predetermined social niche" (p. 162).

The hegemony of neobehaviourism in psychology lasted well into the 1960s and was driven by a scientistic worldview that was largely programmatic rather than substantive. Hostile to philosophical speculation, the behaviourists' instrumentalist and utilitarian approach to theory and practical concern with prediction and control, reflected a commitment to pragmatic versions of positivism, most notably in the form of operationism and, as Mills argues, an adherence to an implicit materialism. While much of behaviourist theory was derived from laboratory research withcanimals (rats and pigeons) as surrogates for human beings, in its paradigmatic concern with the controlling environmental influences on learning it remained, remarkably, rather distant from evolutionary thought. Intriguing is Mills' discussion of the behaviourist approach to experimentation which, in the absence of a realistic conception of theory, he maintains, borders on the non-scientific!

Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology sets a new standard for historiography within the discipline and about science. Intelligent and thoroughly knowledgeable, John Mills's narrative has far-reaching implications for the understanding of our past and for unsettling our confidences in the present. His careful exposition and interpretation of the course of behaviourism brings to bear the full weight of social criticism and philosophical reflection in an account that yet leaves the reader astonished at the distance between science and life. If we are on good grounds in understanding behaviourism within the context of the "natural temper" of America, then the risk of confounding life with science is ever present. Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology is the challenge of an ahistorical science that demoralized our understanding of ourselves and others, and one that Mills tells with vigilance and an irreverence becoming to the nature of our self-understanding.

University of Alberta

(1) E.G. Boring, A History of Experimental Psychology, 2nd Edition (New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957), p, 506.

(2) Ibid., p. 508.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Mos, Leendert P.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1999
Words:1925
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