Mind Self and Society

Section 14 Behaviorism, Watsonism, and Reflection

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

I have been discussing the possibility of bringing the concept or idea into the range of behavioristic treatment, endeavoring in

(101) this way to relieve behaviorism as presented by Watson of what seems to be an inadequacy. In carrying back the thinking process to the talking process, Watson seems to identify thought simply with the word, with the symbol, with the vocal gesture. He does this by means of the transference of a reflex from one stimulus to another-conditioned reflex is the technical term for the process. The psychologist isolates a set of reflexes which answer to certain specific stimuli, and then allows these reflexes expression under different conditions so that the stimulus itself is accompanied by other stimuli. He finds that these reflexes can then be brought about by the new stimulus even in the absence of that which has been previously the necessary stimulus. The typical illustration is that of a child becoming afraid of a white rat because it was presented to him several times at the moment at which a loud sound was made behind him. The loud noise occasions fright. The presence of the white rat conditions this reaction of fright so that the child becomes afraid of the white rat. The fear reactions are then called out by the white rat even when no sound is made.(1)

The conditioned reflex of the objective psychologists is also used by Watson to explain the process of thinking. On this view we utilize vocal gestures in connection with things, and thereby condition our reflexes to the things in terms of the vocal process. If we have a tendency to sit down when the chair is there, we condition this reflex by the word "chair." Originally the chair is a stimulus that sets free this act of sitting, and by being conditioned the child may come to the point of setting free the act by the use of the word. No particular limit can be set up to such a process. The language process is peculiarly adapted to such a conditioning of reflexes. We have an indefinite number of responses to objects about us. If we can condition these responses by the vocal gesture so that whenever a certain reaction is carried out we at the same time utilize cer-

(102) - tain phonetic elements, then we can reach the point at which th e response will be called out whenever this vocal gesture arises. Thinking would then be nothing but the use of these various vocal elements together with the responses which they call out. Psychologists would not need to look for anything more elaborate in the thinking process than the mere conditioning of reflexes by vocal gestures.

From the point of view of the analysis of the experience involved this account seems very inadequate. For certain types of experience it may perhaps be sufficient. A trained body of troops exhibits a set of conditioned reflexes. A certain formation is brought about by means of certain orders. Its success lies in an automatic response when these orders are given. There, of course, one has action without thought. If the soldier thinks under the circumstances he very likely will not act; his action is dependent in a certain sense on the absence of thought. There must be elaborate thinking done somewhere, but after that has been done by the officers higher up, then the process must become automatic. What we recognize is that this statement does not do justice to the thinking that has to be done higher up. It is true that the people below carry out the process without thinking. Now if the thinking is done higher up under the same conditions the behaviorist evidently falls to bring into account what is peculiar to planning. Something very definite goes on there which cannot be stated in terms of conditioned reflexes.

The unthinking conduct of the soldier in carrying out the order, so that the mere giving of the order involves its execution, is characteristic of the type of conduct in lower animals. We use this mechanism to explain the elaborate instincts of certain organisms. One set of responses follows another; the completion of one step brings the form into contact with certain stimuli which set another free, and so on. Great elaborations of this process are found, especially in the ants. That thought which belongs to the human community is presumably absent in these communities. The wasp that stores the paralyzed spider as food for larvae that it never will see and with which it never has come

(103) into contact, is not acting in terms of conscious foresight. The human community that stores away food in cold storage, and human community that stores away later makes use of it, is doing in a certain sense the same thing that the wasp is doing, but the important distinction is that the action is now consciously purposive. The individual arranging for the cold storage is actually presenting to himself a situation that is going to arise, and determining his methods of preservation with reference to future uses.

The statement which Watson gives of the conditioning of reflexes does not bring in these parts of experience. Such a treatment has been experimentally applied only in such experiences as those of the infant. Watson is trying to work out a simple mechanism which can be widely applied without taking into consideration all the complications involved in that application. idea to find its widest application and then meet the specific difficulties later. Now, is it possible to recast our statement of behavioristic psychology that it can do more justice to what we ordinarily term a consciousness of what we are doing? I have been suggesting that we could at least give a picture in the central nervous system of what answers to an idea. That seems to be what is left out of Watson's statement. He simply attaches a set of responses to certain stimuli and shows that the mechanism of the organism is able to change those stimuli, substitute one stimulus for another stimulus; but the ideas that accomplish such a process are not accounted for simply by this substitution.

In the illustration I gave of offering a chair and asking a person to sit down, the asking may take the place of the particular perception of the chair. One may be occupied entirely with something else, and then the stimulus is not the stimulus operative in the original reflex; one might come in and sit down without paying attention to the chair. But such substitution does not give to us the picture of the mechanism which in some sense answers to the chair, or the idea of what the person is asking him to do. What I suggested was that we have such a mechanism in the central nervous system that answers to these elabo-

(104) -rate reactions, and that the stimuli which call these out may set up a process there which is not fully carried out. We do not actually sit down when a person asks us to, yet the process is in some sense initiated; we are ready to sit down but we do not. We prepare for a certain process by thinking about it, mapping out a campaign of conduct, and then we are ready to carry out the different steps. The motor impulses which are already there have stirred up those different paths, and the reactions may take place more readily and more securely. This is particularly true of the relation of different acts to another. We can attach one Process of response to another and we can build up from the lower instinctive form what is called a general reflex in our own conduct. Now that can be, in some sense, indicated by the structure of the nervous system. We can conceive of reactions arising with their different responses to these objects, to what, in other words, we call the meanings of these objects. The meaning of a chair is sitting down in it, the meaning of the hammer is to drive a nail-and these responses can be innervated even though not carried out. The innervation of these processes in the central nervous system is perhaps necessary for what we call meaning.

It may be asked at this point whether the actual nervous excitement in a certain area or over certain paths, is a legitimate substitute for what we call the idea. We come up against the parallelistic explanation of the seeming difference between ideas and bodily states, between that which we call psychical and the physical statement in terms of neuroses. It may be complained of the behavioristic psychology that it sets up a number of mechanisms, but still leaves what we term consciousness out of play. It may be said that such a connection of different processes as I have been describing, such an organization of different responses in the central nervous system, is after all not different from what Watson referred to. He, too, has a whole set of reactions that answer to the chair, and he conditions the response by the vocal gesture, "chair." It may be felt that that is all we have done. And yet, as I have said, we recognize there is some-

(105) thing more to consciousness than such a conditioned response. The automatic response which the soldier gives is different from the conduct which involves thought In regard to it, and a consciousness of what we are doing.

The behavioristic psychology has tried to get rid of the more or less metaphysical complications involved in the setting-up of the psychical over against the world, mind over against body, consciousness over against matter. That was felt to lead into a blind alley. Such a parallelism had proved valuable, but after it had been utilized in the analysis of what goes on in the central nervous system it simply led into a blind alley. The opposition of the behaviorist to introspection is justified. It is not a fruitful undertaking from the point of view of psychological study. It may be illegitimate for Watson simply to wipe it out, and to say that all we are doing is listening to the words we are subjectively pronouncing; that certainly is an entirely inadequate way of dealing with what we term introspection. Yet it is true that introspection as a means of dealing with phenomena with which psychology must concern itself is pretty hopeless. What the behaviorist is occupied with, what we have to come back to, is the actual reaction itself, and it is only in so far as we can translate the content of introspection over into response that we can get any satisfactory psychological doctrine. It is not necessary for psychology to get into metaphysical questions, but it is of importance that it should try to get hold of the response that is used in the psychological analysis itself.

What I want to insist upon is that the process, by means of which these responses that are the ideas or meanings become associated with a certain vocal gesture, lies in the activity of the organism, while in the case of the dog, the child, the soldier, this process takes place, as it were, outside of the organism. The soldier is trained through a whole set of evolutions. He does not know why this particular set is given to him or the uses to which it will be put; he is just put through his drill, as an animal is trained in a circus. The child is similarly exposed to experiments without any thinking on his part. What thinking

(106) proper means is that this process of associating chair as object with the word "chair" is a process that human beings in society carry out, and then internalize. Such behavior certainly has to be considered just as much as conditioned behavior which takes place externally, and should be considered still more, because it is vastly more important that we should understand the process of thinking than the product of it.

Now, where does this thought process itself take place? If you like, I am here sidestepping the question as to just what consciousness is, or the question whether what is going on in the area of the brain is to be identified with consciousness. That is a question which is not psychological. What I am asking is, where does this process, by means of which, in Watson's sense, all of our reflexes or reactions are conditioned, take place; For this process is one which takes place in conduct and cannot be explained by the conditioned reflexes which result from it. You can explain the child's fear of the white rat by conditioning its reflexes, but you cannot explain the conduct of Mr. Watson in conditioning that stated reflex by means of a set of conditioned reflexes, unless you set up a super-Watson to condition his reflexes. That process of conditioning reflexes has to be taken into conduct itself, not in the metaphysical sense of setting up a mind in a spiritual fashion which acts on the body, but as an actual process with which the behavioristic psychology can deal. The metaphysical problems still remain, but the psychologist has to be able to state this very process of conditioning reflexes as it takes place in conduct itself.

We can find part of the necessary mechanism of such conduct in the central nervous system. We can identify some of the reflexes, such as that of the knee jerk, and follow the stimulus from the reflex up to the central nervous system and back again. Most of the reflexes we cannot follow out in detail. With such suitable elements we can carry out the analogy, and present to ourselves the elaborate organization to which I have referred, and which answers to the objects about us and the more complex objects such as a symphony or a biography. The question

(107) now is whether the mere excitement of the set of these groups of responses is what we mean by an idea. When we try to undertake to carry over, translate, such an idea in terms of behavior, instead of stopping with a bit of consciousness, can we take that idea over into conduct, and at least express in conduct just what we mean by saying that we have an idea? It may be simpler to assume that each one of us has a little bit of consciousness stored away and that impressions are made on consciousness, and as a result of the idea, consciousness in some unexplained way sets up the response in the system itself. But what must be asked of behaviorism is whether it can state in behavioristic terms what is meant by having an idea, or getting a concept.

I have just said that Watson's statement of the mere conditioning of the reflex, the setting off of a certain set of responses when the word is used, does not seem to answer to this process of getting an idea. It does answer to the result of having an idea, for having reached the idea, then one starts off to accomplish it, and we assume that the process follows. The getting of an idea is very different from the result of having an idea, for the former involves the setting-up or conditioning of reflexes, which cannot, themselves, be used to explain the process. Now, under what conditions does this take place? Can we indicate these conditions in terms of behavior? We can state in behavioristic terms what the result will be, but can we state in terms of behaviorism the process of getting and having ideas?

The process of getting an idea is, in the case of the infant, a process of intercourse with those about him, a social process. He can battle on by himself without getting any idea of what he is doing. There is no mechanism in his talking to himself for conditioning any reflex by means of vocal gestures, but in his intercourse with other individuals he can so condition them, and that takes place also in the conduct of lower animals. We can teach a dog to do certain things in answer to particular words. We condition his reflexes by means of certain vocal gestures. In the same way a child gets to refer to a chair by the word "chair." But the animal does not have an idea of what he is going to do,

(108) and if we stopped with the child here we could not attribute to him any idea. What is involved in the giving of an idea is what cannot be stated in terms of this conditioning of a reflex. I have suggested that involved in such giving is the fact that the stimulus not only calls out the response, but that the individual who receives the response also himself uses that stimulus, that vocal gesture, and calls out that response in himself. Such is, at least, the beginning of that which follows. It is the further complication that we do not find in the conduct of the dog. The dog only stands on its hind legs and walks when we use a particular word, but the dog cannot give to himself that stimulus which somebody else gives to him. He can respond to it but he cannot himself take a hand, so to speak, in conditioning his own reflexes; his reflexes can be conditioned by another but he cannot do it himself. Now, it is characteristic of significant speech that just this process of self-conditioning is going on all the time.

There are, of course, certain phases of our speech which do not come within the range of what we term self-consciousness. There are changes which have taken place in the speech of people through long centuries-changes which none of the individuals were aware of at all. But when we speak of significant speech we always imply that the individual that hears a word does in some sense use that word with reference to himself. That is what we call a personal understanding of what is said. He is not only ready to respond, but he also uses the same stimulus that he hears, and is tending to respond to it in turn. That is true of a person who makes use of significant speech to another. He knows and understands what he is asking the other person to do, and in some sense is inviting in himself the response to carry out the process. The process of addressing another person is a process of addressing himself as well, and of calling out the response he calls out in another; and the person who is addressed, in so far as he is conscious of what he is doing, does himself tend to make use of the same vocal gesture and so to call out in himself the response which the other calls out - at

(109) least to carry on the social process which involves that conduct. This is distinct from the action of the soldier; for in significant speech the person himself understands what he is asked to do, and consents to carry out something he makes himself a part of. If one gives to another directions as to how to proceed to a certain street he himself receives all of these detailed directions. He is identifying himself with the other individual. The hearer is not simply moving at an order, but is giving to himself the same directions that the other person gives to him. That, in behavioristic terms, is what we mean by the person being conscious of something. It is certainly always implied that the individual does tend to carry out the same process as the person addressed; he gives to himself the same stimulus, and so takes part in the same process. In so far as he is conditioning his own reflexes, that process enters into his own experience.

I think it is important to recognize that our behavioristic psychology in dealing with human intelligence must present the situation which I have just described, where a person knows the meaning of what is said to him. If the. individual does himself make use of something answering to the same gesture he observes, saying it over again to himself, putting himself in the role of the person who is speaking to him, then he has the meaning of what he hears, he has the idea: the meaning has become his. It is that sort of a situation which seems to be involved in what we term mind, as such: this social process, in which one individual affects other individuals, is carried over into the experience of the individuals that are so affected.[2] The individual takes this attitude not simply as a matter of repetition, but as part of the elaborate social reaction which is going on. It is the necessity of stating that process in terms of behavior that is involved in an adequate behavioristic statement, as over against a mere account of the conditioned reflex.


  1. The child's fear of the dark may have arisen out of his being awakened by loud thunder, so that he is frightened in the darkness. This has not been proven but it is a possible interpretation in terms of conditioning.
  2. [See Sections 16, 24.]

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2