Explaining what epistemological behaviorism is is not an easy taskBecause it is mixed up with philosophical concepts which resort, to a greater or lesser extent, to mentalist terms that behaviorists did not regard favorably.
The epistemological foundations of behavioral science have been to legitimize psychology as a science, but in doing so in such a radical way that it could even be said that it lost a lot of information along the way, relevant but hidden in it. the mind. Let’s try to understand this problem a little more in depth.
Epistemological behaviorism and philosophical background
Psychology fueled the controversy between empiricism and rationalism when it tried to establish itself as a science in its own right, with the same rights as the all-powerful exact sciences, such as mathematics, physics and chemistry. . Before entering into the perspective taken by behaviorism, it becomes necessary to detail the vision of rationalism and empiricism on the acquisition of knowledge:
First, rationalism supports the idea that regularities can be found in the world, And that it is from these regularities that universal laws can be established. These universal laws would be obtained by means of reason.
Second, we have empiricism, a philosophical vision that considers that there is no way to achieve universalityIn other words, it is not at all possible to obtain universal laws since not everything can be presented regularly.
Empiricism defends the idea that it is not possible to think of an idea that does not come from the impressions of the senses. We learn about the world through our impressions, the judgments which we make thereafter are not, in fact, a learning itself, but a reflection. Knowledge, understood as general laws, would be nothing more than the generalization of facts from the habits of the mind.
Hume considered that the principle of causality, that is, of relating one event to another later (cause-effect), was made up of ideas associated with others through mental activity. But these ideas do not arise in the vacuum of the mind, but come through the sensory experience. The mind shapes habit and connects simple ideas by creating complex ideas or thoughts. It would be these more complex ideas that would make it possible to highlight the relation of events under the condition of causality.
The mind, by repeatedly observing events, associates the successive events and determines that one is the cause and the other is the effect. Thus, it is understood that the laws are, in fact, conjectures based on individual experiences and that, although it is believed that they are always conditioned, that they will always manifest one after the other, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The sciences, in their quest for transformation into an exact science, have resorted to the search for all causal relations but with universal regularities. Such has been, according to several authors, the case of experimental psychology. Psychology has found itself in the midst of the empiricist-rationalist debate, searching for cause-and-effect relationships and, by extension, regularities in all possible places. that they could make the behavior something predictable.
This is where we get into the epistemological foundations of behaviorism. The most classic behaviorists have tried to make explanations of human behavior considered scientific, but first it must be possible to find patterns that give it an explanation. These regularities must come in terms of cause and effect. An event causes the individual to adopt a certain behavior, as indicated by the most primitive version of behaviorism.
Behaviorism and associationism
From the background that marked psychology as a positive science, we can talk about Ivan Pavlov and other scientists who shaped the movement of Russian physiology. These are the antecedents of a scientific psychology which would become the associationist current, in which are included most of the physiologists and experimental psychologists who wanted to explain human behavior.
These based their explanations on the principle of causality, which is why their explanations were taken as the antecedents of scientific psychology, linked to the experimental current initiated by Wilhelm Wundt. They sought to be able to establish necessary and sufficient relationships between events or facts, in this case behavior and physiology.. Thus, psychology, understood as a strict science, seeks to explain and account for the variables that control human behavior.
But the concept of causation has been strongly associated in psychology with the stimulus-response behavioral model. Behavioralism, already in its origins, considered that all behaviors can be analyzed from concrete and objectivable movementsThat each of them is aroused by the effect of a stimulus located in the environment.
Perhaps this is the problem that has kept behaviorism from progressing more successfully over the years, as it was seen to be very focused on the stimulus-response model, while ignoring all of the subject’s internal processes. If one leaves the study of observable behavior, behaviorism, as a current, fails. It is seen as too limited a psychological current, determinist and antihumanist.
On pragmatic behavioralism
Some consider that describing behaviorism as a stream focused solely on explaining behavior from causal relationships between two variables is, in fact, a historical and conceptual inaccuracy. It is believed that causation should not be the concept upon which the historical development of behavioral science should be described. The premise is that the epistemological foundations of behaviorism should not be based on the notion of causality, but on pragmatism..
Many psychologists consider behaviorism to be rooted in empiricism, since behaviorists consider observation to be a fundamental tool in understanding human behavior.
However, here they run into a problem, and that’s it empiricism has not denied the existence or usefulness of internal processes as causes of its own conduct. In fact, empiricism, in Hume’s own mouth, maintains that the representation, the ideas of reflection, as pleasure or pain, arise from the fact that certain events affect the soul, more modern understood as spirit. Therefore, given the behaviorist position on the idea of mind, it is not appropriate to call behaviorists empiricists.
About Watson and Skinner
At the beginning of behaviorism, as a current, it occurs after John B. Watson published his Behaviorist Manifesto in 1913. In this text, it was about distort the dualistic explanations of the metaphysical character, specific to René Descartes, Which Cartesian rationalist psychology had inherited. Watson gave more importance to non-mentalist explanations, based on the objective study of behavior, which was transferred to the whole behaviorist stream that would later take shape.
For this reason, behaviorism has been considered, at least in its origins, physicalist, causal and, in a way, recurrent in the postulates of logical positivism. It has been argued that all behavioral epistemology stems from a physicalist schema, a causal relationship.
However, if we approach the figure of BF Skinner, we cannot fall into the error of thinking that his epistemology as a methodological framework is a logical positivism. Skinner did not understand the operator as an event that takes place in the internal and subjective world of the individual., But understood in purely behavioral terms.
Its methodology is not understood as a simple establishment of causes, something very particular in the model of the oldest and most classic stimulus-response, but it also performs a functional contingency analysis.
Skinner rejects all metaphysical concepts, tries to reject Kant’s essentialist metaphysics, avoiding resorting to terms such as mind, consciousness, spirit, ideas and the like that refer to processes that cannot be directly observed. Its epistemology is, in essence, of a pragmatic type, since it is based on the extent to which the rules which seem to govern, or not, the world are known, considering them in terms of relations but not of causality. strictly speaking.
- Posso-Meza, A. (2018). Ontological and epistemic aspects of BF Skinner’s behaviorism. Journal of Philosophy Students. 31, 1-12
- Romero-Otálora, California (2012). Epistemological foundations of behaviorism: from modern causality to pragmatism. Ibero-American Journal of Psychology: Science and Technology. 5 (2): 41-48