I am a behaviorist

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post, I said something about what I am not.  Now it is time to say something about what I am.

Psychologists tend to divide themselves into cognitivists and behaviorists.  The behaviorists study behavior of people or of experimental animals.  Cognitivists tend to study beliefs, thoughts, and the like.  It sometimes seems as if those two groups are at war.  Cognitivists are often pointing out what they see as flaws in behaviorism, while behaviorists are often pointing out what they see as follies in cognitivism.  It sometimes seems to me that each side is about right in its criticism of the other side.

The terminology from psychology has been carried over into philosophy, so that some philosophers consider themselves behaviorists and others consider themselves cognitivists or mentalists.  For example, Quine is sometimes said to be a behaviorist.  The term “behaviorism” seems to be rather broader as used in philosophy than its counterpart in psychology.

Traditionally, philosophers describe knowledge as justified true belief, and idea that apparently goes back to Plato.  That’s a cognitivist (or mentalist) view of knowledge, in that knowledge is defined in terms of beliefs (or mental states).  I have often indicated my dislike for that way of looking at knowledge.

Perhaps the classic case for behaviorism in philosophy, was that made by Gilbert Ryle in his 1949 monograph “The Concept of Mind.”  Ryle was criticizing Cartesian dualism, which he described as the idea of the ghost in the machine.  As part of his critique, he suggested that knowledge should be described in terms of knowing how (or knowledge as ability) rather than in terms of knowing that (knowledge as belief).  I see that as a far more useful way of looking at knowledge.  And that’s part of what makes me a behaviorist.

My interest in such questions comes from my interest in human cognition.  I have tried to look at cognition in terms of how it might have evolved, and how understand the evolution of cognition, intelligence, etc, might help us better understand cognition itself.  Evolution is usually described in terms of natural selection.  And it has seemed to me that nature wouldn’t give two hoots about our beliefs.  Rather, it would be our behavior that is selected for by evolutionary processes.  So the behaviorist viewpoint seems to be a natural fit.

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11 Responses to “I am a behaviorist”

  1. Yes, however it should be noted that behaviorism broadly includes thinking (even if it’s thinking in terms of beliefs). Both “knowing how” and “knowing that” are behaviors. This of course depends on if one is a radical behaviorist (methodological) or not. Do you treat mental states as causes of behavior or do you treat mental states as a form of behavior in themselves. Obviously a large issue is the amount of speculation when it comes to mental states, which is why most psychologists look at external behavior and tend to ignore mental states (in terms of changing them, and even learning about them in depth). If external behavior is modified through changes to the environment, then whether or not internal states have changed to “this” or “that” becomes less or not at all important.

    Radical behaviorists on the other hand propose that the action of all organisms are determined and not free. This would make you an illusionist (or some form of determinist), which you seem to reject based on our previous discussions regarding free will.

    I also think that the “knowing how” vs. “knowing that” are difficult to distinguish. One can say that the “knowing how” is just another form of “knowing that”. If I know how to do anything based on my abilities, one can always argue that it is a result of a collection of “knowing that”s.

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    • No, I am not a radical behaviorist.

      I’m not at all convinced that “mental states” is a useful expression. Whatever it is supposed to mean, it is far too vague to be useful.

      I do consider informational behavior (how we get and use information) to be important. And that covers a lot of what cognitivists consider important, but from a behaviorist perspective.

      I also think that the “knowing how” vs. “knowing that” are difficult to distinguish.

      They seem importantly different to me. It is a “knowing how” that gives you the ability to “know that”.

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      • “They seem importantly different to me. It is a “knowing how” that gives you the ability to “know that”.”

        Could you expand on this?

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        • Could you expand on this?

          My whole blog is an expansion of that. Maybe take a look at the epistemology category.

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          • “My whole blog is an expansion of that.”

            “It is a “knowing how” that gives you the ability to “know that”.” ”

            No, what I’m asking specifically is why you think that knowledge as ability gives a person
            knowledge as belief. However, in retrospect I realize that you and I disagree on what knowledge is, as despite the distinction you’ve made you don’t really believe that knowledge as ability gives a person knowledge as belief, rather you seem to believe that knowledge as ability is the only knowledge there is, and this in turn can give a person beliefs (which you don’t think is knowledge at all based on your anti-platonic stance). Correct me if I’m wrong here.

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          • Facts don’t come for free.

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          • Yes, I agree. We just disagree what the “cost” actually is.

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  2. Isn’t behaviorism heavy on reductionism though? In some contexts i think it’s the wrong approach but I respect your path.

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    • Isn’t behaviorism heavy on reductionism though?

      Radical behaviorism (BF Skinner’s version of behaviorism) is heavily reductionist.

      I am not a fan of radical behaviorism. J.J. Gibson’s ecological approach to perception is more to my liking.

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