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Behaviorism. methodological behaviorism. Classical Conditioning. While investigating the digestion of dogs, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) observed that the dogs in his laboratory would salivate when they saw the people who brought their food. Classical Conditioning.

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Methodological behaviorism

methodological behaviorism

Classical conditioning

Classical Conditioning

While investigating the digestion of dogs, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) observed that the dogs in his laboratory would salivate when they saw the people who brought their food.

Classical conditioning1

Classical Conditioning

Pavlov theorized that he could make the dogs salivate to any thing or event, if he had first presented it with food.

Animal behavior vs psychology

Animal Behavior vs. Psychology

Pavlov won a Nobel prize in physiology and medicine for this work.

He was a physiologist, not a psychologist.

At the time, psychology was mostly the study of conscious experience (e.g. William James).



Pavlov’s research suggested something like this:

Animal behavior is controlled by the environment. Animals are born behaving in certain natural way, and learned behavior is through a process of association.



At the time, psychology was focused on individuals reporting details of their conscious experience. To make this rigorous, there was a heavy focus on expertise:

  • Wundt required his subjects to perform 10,000 introspective observations before they were considered sufficiently trained.

  • Titchener wrote 1000 page training manual for experimental introspection.


Training was supposed to provide subjects with:

  • An increased capacity for attention

  • An ability to properly distinguish such facets of experience as ‘tonal intensity’ and ‘tonal clearness’

  • An ability to avoid confusions such as ‘stimulus error’ – the description of the object experienced as opposed to the experience itself.


Famously, however, none of the psychological labs got the same results! For example, they couldn’t agree whether one could introspect imageless thoughts.

John b watson

John B. Watson

The American psychologist John B. Watson was the progenitor of methodological behaviorism.

Psychology as the behaviorist views it

Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It

In “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” Watson re-characterizes psychology as:

  • ‘purely objective’

  • ‘a branch of natural science’

  • Concerned with ‘prediction and control of behavior’

  • NOT concerned with conscious states

  • Opposed to introspection

  • Recognizing no difference between human and animal

Watson s critique of introspectionism

Watson’s Critique of Introspectionism

“If you fail to reproduce my findings, it is not due to some fault in your apparatus or in the control of your stimulus, but it is due to the fact that your introspection is untrained… If you can't observe 3-9 states of clearness in attention, your introspection is poor.” (pg. 6).



The conclusion Watson draws is very extreme: we must get rid of all references to consciousness. We shouldn’t even use terms like ‘mental state’, ‘consciousness’, ‘mental image’, or even ‘mind’. These aren’t scientific terms.

The vocabulary of psychology should only involve terms for behavior, stimulus, and so on.


Psychology, according to the behaviorist, is about the control and prediction of behavior.

B f skinner

B. F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner was an influential behaviorist after Watson. He believed that mental states were explanatorily inert and that society could and should be structured in a way to control people’s behavior.

Operant conditioning

Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning sets up an association between two external stimuli.

Operant conditioning sets up an association between a behavior and a subsequent reward/punishment.

Skinner box

Skinner Box

The law of effect

The Law of Effect

Rewarded behaviors increase in frequency, punished ones decrease.

Cf. Darwin & the prevalence of traits.

Skinner s radicalism

Skinner’s Radicalism

Watson was primarily concerned with methodology – we shouldn’t talk about internal mental states because they cannot be objectively studied.

Skinner believed that we shouldn’t talk about internal mental states because the entirety of a person’s behavior can be explained in terms of the stimuli in their environment – internal mental states don’t have an explanatory role.

Are mental states suspect

Are Mental States Suspect?

We can’t see or hear or feel or taste mental states. The methodological behaviorists assumed they were therefore not objective or scientific.

BUT, lots of unobservable things are completely objective and scientific: electrons, dinosaurs, the earth’s core.

Against methodological behaviorism

Against methodological behaviorism

Chomsky vs skinner part 1

Chomsky vs. Skinner Part 1

Noam Chomsky wrote an influential critique of Skinner’s views.

In particular, he argued that stimuli didn’t control our behavior. From one stimulus, lots of behaviors were possible.

The rembrandt

The Rembrandt

  • “Dutch.”

  • “Wow!”

  • “It’s a Rembrandt.”

  • “This old stuff really bores me.”

  • “Let’s steal it!”

  • “Can you believe the city paid $32 million USD for that?”

Chomsky vs skinner part 2

Chomsky vs. Skinner Part 2

Chomsky thought the environment didn’t directly control your behavior– your mental states mattered too.

In particular, he thought that we had innate (in-born) knowledge that determined our behavior.

Universal grammar

Universal Grammar

Chomsky thought that in order to learn a language, you had to know in advance that certain thing were impossible, because you were very unlikely to get evidence that agreed or disagreed with them.

Philosophical behaviorism

Philosophical behaviorism

Philosophical behaviorism1

Philosophical Behaviorism

According to the philosophical behaviorists, mental states do exist.

But mental states aren’t private things: they are dispositions to behave in certain ways.



Philosophical behaviorism2

Philosophical Behaviorism

You believe that a lion is near = you run away OR you pull out your gun OR you climb a tree OR you say “there’s a lion” OR… when you see/ hear/ touch/ taste/ smell a lion.

You are afraid of the dark = you scream OR you tremble OR you cry OR you turn on the lights OR… when you are in the dark.

Mss don t cause dispositions

MSs Don’t Cause Dispositions

Ravenscroft makes clear that according to behaviorism, pain doesn’t cause me to say “ouch” when I’m hit.

Pain = me saying “ouch” when I’m hit.

Not about finding out

Not about Finding Out

It’s normally true that I find out about other people’s mental states by observing their behavior.

But normally we think we observe their behavior.

The philosophical behaviorist thinks we observe their mental states!

1 physical events cause mss

1. Physical Events Cause MSs

Ravenscroft says this is a plus for behaviorism:supposedly states of the world cause MSs. E.g. standing on a tack causes pain.

But is this true? Does standing on a tack cause me to have the disposition that when I stand on a tack, I say “ouch”? Usually I have that disposition prior to standing on tacks.

2 some mss cause actions

2. Some MSs Cause Actions

The glass broke when I dropped it because it was fragile. (Is this just Moliere again?)

5 mss represent things

5. MSs Represent Things

“The English word ‘dog’ expresses the property of being a dog… This semantical fact about English reduces to a certain fact about the behavioral dispositions of English speakers; viz, that their verbal response ‘dog’ is… under the control of dogs.” – Fodor, “A Theory of Content I,” describing Skinner’s view.

Mss correlated with brain states

MSs Correlated with Brain States

Analogy: fragility correlated with molecular structure. (Dispositional and categorical properties.)

1 st argument for phil behaviorism

1st Argument for Phil. Behaviorism

People’s behavior in certain circumstances is evidence for what mental states they have or lack. (E.g. wanting or not wanting something.)

If their mental states = behavior in certain circumstances, then it’s obvious why that is.

1 st argument for phil behaviorism1

1st Argument for Phil. Behaviorism

(Obviously this argument isn’t conclusive. No one thinks electrons are dispositions to bond in certain circumstances.)

Empiricist criterion of cognitive significance

Empiricist Criterion of Cognitive Significance

According to the logical positivists, in order for a sentence to have cognitive significance (to be meaningful), it had to have verification conditions.

(‘Verification’ is a Latinate English word < ‘veri-’ true + ‘facere’ to make. Verification conditions are conditions under which the truth of a statement can be conclusively established.)

Empiricist criterion of cognitive significance1

Empiricist Criterion of Cognitive Significance

In fact, the positivists maintained that the meaning of a sentence was its verification conditions. So a sentence with no verification conditions– where no experience can establish its truth– is meaningless.

Truth vs verification

Truth vs. Verification

Many philosophers (even today) have identified the meaning of a sentence with its truth conditions. These are the circumstances in which the sentence would be true. But the positivists went farther– they held that the meaning of a sentence was its verification conditions– the circumstances in which we would know the sentence was true.

The elimination of metaphysics

The Elimination of Metaphysics

This was part of a radical philosophical agenda, which included “the elimination of metaphysics.” The idea was to view many philosophical problems of the past (and also many religious claims) as meaningless disputes that could simply be ignored.

The elimination of metaphysics1

The Elimination of Metaphysics

Example: In a religion where God is beyond human experience, the positivists would say that “God exists” is neither true nor false but meaningless, since no experience could verify it.

Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger were also big targets for the positivists. Example Hegel quote: “But the other side of its Becoming, History, is a conscious, self-meditating process — Spirit emptied out into Time.”

Positivism for behaviorism

Positivism for Behaviorism

Since the way we discover whether people are in pain, believe that it’s raining, want coffee, etc. is by observing their behavior in certain circumstances, “X wants coffee” means “X drinks coffee when…”

Against philosophical behaviorism

Against philosophical behaviorism

Logical relations

Logical Relations


  • If Joe fails the final exam, he will fail the course.

  • If Joe fails the course, he will not graduate.

    It follows logically that:

    3. If Joe fails the final exam, he will not graduate.

Logical relations1

Logical Relations

If you believe:

  • If Joe fails the final exam, he will fail the course.

  • If Joe fails the course, he will not graduate.

    These beliefs can cause you to also believe:

    3. If Joe fails the final exam, he will not graduate.



It’s not clear how behaviorism can explain the rationality of mental processes.

We can have dispositions to behave in all sorts of ways that aren’t rational. (Outside control doesn’t respect rationality.)



Paralyzation and surgery. (Cf. Super-stoics.)



Pretending to feel pain.

Behavior depends on lots of mss

Behavior Depends on LOTS of MSs

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