Behaviourism

14Mar08

Another direct response to this form of skepticism is behaviourism, which in philosophy is associated with Skinner, Carnap and Ryle. In psychology, behaviourism is the view that all human activities (including inner mental life) are exhaustively described by accounts of behaviour. In philosophy of mind behaviourism is the thesis that when we refer to psychological states we refer to concepts whose meaning is exhausted by descriptions of behaviour. You can read more about behaviourism here and here.

For the behaviourist, there is nothing that exists ‘only in the head’ and no such thing as a private mental life. When we talk about ‘desires’, ‘beliefs’ and so on, all we are ‘really’ doing is describing particular behavioural dispositions.

Advantages of Behaviourism:
1. Overcomes the problem of the ‘private theatre’.
2. Behaviourist accounts of mental life are generalisable and available for all to see.
3. Behaviour can be explained in terms which do not themselves presuppose the mental states that are to be explained.
4. Avoiding circular explanations of behaviour. Skinner charges that since mental activity is a form of behavior (albeit inner), the only non-regressive, non-circular way to explain behavior is to appeal to something non-behavioral. This non-behavioral something is environmental stimuli and an organism’s interactions with, and reinforcement from, the environment.
5. For the behaviourist, the problem of other minds does not emerge.

Problems with Behaviourism:
1. Some mental descriptions do not seem to be reducible to behavioural dispositions.
2. Behaviourists seem committed to the belief that there are no mental entities whatsoever.
3. The behaviourist cannot appeal to his own mental experience to understand his mental state—he needs the empirical data of his behavior to inform him of what his mental state actually was.
4. Behaviourism understands the mind as a passive entity which only reacts to its environment.
5. When we talk about pain, do we simply mean ‘pain-behaviour’? What about if we pretend to be in pain?

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