To Whom Behavior Happens


In the late nineteenth century, psychologist and philosopher William James wrote in his Principles of Psychology, “So far as I know, the existence of such states [of consciousness] has never been doubted by any critic, however skeptical in other respects he may have been…. All people unhesitatingly believe that they feel themselves thinking… I regard this belief as the most fundamental of all the postulates of Psychology…” (185). James might have felt a bit naïve had he lived eighty years later and read the work of B.F. Skinner. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner is very skeptical of internal mental states, especially with regard to their scientific usefulness. The 20th-Century behaviorist writes, “…we do not need to try to discover what personalities, states of mind, feelings, traits of character, plans, purposes, intentions, or the other perquisites of autonomous man really are in order to get on with a scientific analysis of behavior” (15). Skinner believed that, in order to standardize psychology and elevate it to the norms of a rigorously objective science like physics or biology, the scientist need only observe and describe real phenomena so as to make physical conclusions about them, rather than derive its conclusions from “autonomous man”, the indwelling being from whom all behavior supposedly emanates. In his book, Skinner describes a history of science in which people first attributed physical and biological events to nonphysical agents in order to determine their origin. For example, an arrow might move forward because of a certain impetus it contains. Science could only advance, he writes, when it rid itself of these indwelling agents and assessed only observable cause and effect. Similarly, psychology would need to do the same. Skinner writes that the autonomous man “naturally loses status as we come to know more about behavior” (14). The autonomous man has throughout history received the perquisite of living beyond what is physical only as a substitute for our true understanding of cause and effect, Skinner believed. It seems as though we must call on the supernatural until we finally understand the natural. As far as science is concerned, then, the autonomous man is dead weight. He is a superfluous step in the scientific process, and we can leave him at the coat rack.

But, then again, there is a specific reason autonomous man has survived until this point, and it is something more than human superstition – it is the fact that every human can contemplate his or her self and know that it would be cheating to claim that physicality is all that’s present. That is, there will always be a certain Cartesian “I” that the scientist can never get around. The reconciliation of behaviorism with autonomous man seems to require a certain act of recognition on the part of the behaviorist.

René Descartes writes in his Second Meditation, “I am, I exist,” and it seems to be this very idea that most of psychology according to Skinner has hinged on (Descartes 21). Psychologists assume that there is an internal agent because they perceive one within themselves and, therefore, project an equivalent onto the rest of humanity. It could even be considered irresponsible to discard an entity that probably exists in other people, even if it isn’t a physical entity. As far as science goes, the indwelling spirit that constitutes consciousness in people is, in fact, a necessary result of a simple inductive proof: “If a physical object that behaves a certain way is conscious, then other physical objects that behave similarly are probably also conscious by association. The scientist is conscious. Therefore, others like the scientist in their behavior are probably conscious.” Thus, science does concern the nonphysical simply because of its relationship with the scientist who studies it. The scientist seems to have no way of denying the basis – that his or her own inner self exists and behaves in an unobservable, nonphysical way – that is, it thinks. This basic, individual knowledge then allows for interpersonal discussions about inner selves involving a vocabulary that Skinner despises. Terms like “personalities,” “states of mind,” “feelings,” “plans,” and so on are descriptors of inner behavior. In fact, as James points out, there are two modes of observation when a psychologist deals with people and behavior. James summarizes one by writing, “These four squares contain the irreducible data of psychology. No. 1, the psychologist, believes Nos. 2 [The Thought Studied], 3 [The Thought’s Object], and 4 [The Psychologists Reality], which together form his total object…” (184). Thus, one mode involves sensory observation and its following conclusions. Summarizing the other, James writes, “Introspective Observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always. The word introspection need hardly be defined – it means, of course, the looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover” (185). The second mode, dealing with a nonphysical realm, involves observation that is independent of the senses. It involves an immediate knowing of the facts that seem to constitute one’s entire mental world. The existence of such observation is undeniable because it is the truism that precedes any other fact. That is, if only the physical world exists, then, in a sense, it might as well not because there is nothing there to perceive it and affirm its existence. Of course, Skinner writes, “Physics did not advance by looking more closely at the jubilance of a falling body, or biology by looking at the nature of vital spirits…” (15). But psychology, on the other hand, can be an honest science only by recognizing that it studies a physical reality that accompanies a mental one.

The word “technology” seems to imply something physical. “A Technology of Behavior,” the title of the first chapter of Skinner’s book, evokes the idea that physical means can have behavioral consequences. Skinner’s central point is that any type of science in a physical world, and particularly a science of behavior, should only be concerned with physical rules and entities, as he says that we do not “need” to concern ourselves with the “perquisites of autonomous man.” Thus, despite the sheer obviousness of one’s own internal being, such a thing and its corresponding descriptors are not scientifically useful. Skinner writes, “The contingencies of survival responsible for man’s genetic endowment would produce tendencies to act aggressively, not feelings of aggression” (14). Skinner consigns such feelings to a status of “at best by-products” (14). In making a claim about the superiority of a behaviorist scientific approach, Skinner, in fact, makes a claim about our own language. Implicitly, he claims that any physical description of behavioral phenomena can supersede a mentalistic description. For every statement “One feels x,” there is a truer statement, “One behaves f(x),” that should replace it. In that sense, there is an isomorphism between statements of one’s mental status and statements of one’s behavioral status, such that every physical interpretation of either statement is captured by its alternative. At one point, Skinner protests the use of mentalistic statements for their lack of new information: “If we ask someone, ‘Why did you go to the theater?’ and he says, ‘Because I felt like going,’ we are apt to take his reply as a kind of explanation. It would be much more to the point to know what has happened when he has gone to the theater in the past…” (12-13).

The truth is that “I felt like going” does capture a certain amount of behavioral information. Skinner even notes that we are likely to accept such a statement “as a sort of summary of all this and are not likely to ask for details” (13). It says that one’s behavior is within a set of behaviors that, when considered, have in common a certain feeling-like-going associated with them. The listener to such a statement can determine which behaviors are being referenced by recalling what behaviors are within his or her own similar set. Skinner is correct in that “I felt like going” doesn’t list a single antecedent event to a behavior. However, it puts large constraints on what antecedent events are possible.

If such an isomorphism exists, then it should be perfectly acceptable to talk about one’s own thoughts and feelings in a scientific context. The very problem of dualism is that it involves an interaction between the physical world and an indwelling, nonphysical self. This interaction isn’t just roughly parallel – that is, there aren’t just certain thoughts that decide to become physically manifest and others that stay in the subjective realm – it is exact. It is isomorphic. The two, in fact, seem one and the same, and by neglecting one, one neglects the other. Skinner is correct in implying that physical and behavioral phenomena are subject only to physical rules. But if mental rules are actually physical rules, then everything is subject to both.

Skinner’s central quarrel with the scientific recognition of “autonomous man” is summed up in his statement, “The world of the mind steals the show. Behavior is not recognized as a subject in its own right” (12). But, evidently, from the fact every individual can know that he or she is an individual – something that in its most real sense is not actually physical (though it perceives a physical world) – and realize that his or her own reality has a type of dualist nature to it, behavior, at the most fundamental level, does not exist in its own right as a physical phenomenon. At the most fundamental level, there will always be a certain “I” whom behavior happens to.

Works Cited

Descartes, René. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” The Nature of Mind Ed. David M. Rosenthal. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 21-9.

James, William. The Principles of Psychology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002.

Julian Grove (’10) is a Cognitive Science major at Johns Hopkins University.


Note: Homepage thumbnail taken from Tsuki-wo-Nusumu’s deviantART.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *