History Of Behavioral Psychology

The earliest human communities undoubtedly appreciated the systematic application of rewards and punishments as an effective means to control behavior. The domestication of animals throughout prehistory, and the numerous early historical references to the proficiency of animal trainers, further establish a form of behavioral psychology as the most venerable of the folk psychologies. Thus, if the term behavioral psychology is taken to mean only a set of techniques useful for the prediction and control of behavior, then its history is coeval with human history.

As it is generally understood, however, behavioral psychology is not merely a collection of methods for controlling behavior. It also represents a judgment on the nature of psychology itself—a position informed by identifiable traditions within philosophy and the philosophy of science, as well as by the larger scientific context within which psychology seeks a proper place.

Understood in this light, the subject has its origins in the first great age of modern science, the seventeenth century— the century of Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Galileo, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton, to mention only some of the more celebrated figures. Setting aside the many and fundamental conceptual and scientific disagreements of this era, a coherent theme exists; namely, that an unprejudiced and objective inquiry into the operations of the natural world will yield lawful and useful knowledge. The older world of logical analysis, occult powers, hidden forces, revealed truths, and scriptural authority was now to be replaced by the more modest—but more solid—discoveries of direct experience. The knowable cosmos, from this perspective, is just the observable cosmos.

The two divisions of science most fully developed in the seventeenth century were mechanics and optics, and both of these served as models and metaphors for phenomena only poorly understood. The well-ordered Hobbesian state, the clockwork precision of the Newtonian heavens, and Des-cartes's stimulus-response psychology are all based upon the metaphor of the machine, as well as on the conviction that fuller explanations in these areas will be drawn from the science of mechanics. Descartes's (1596—1650) psychology of animal behavior, which he extended to include those aspects of human psychology not dependent upon language and abstract thought, is entirely mechanistic and behavioristic, even in the more modern senses of these terms. His explanations for all animal, and most human, behavior were grounded in what would now be called instinctual reflex mechanisms and acquired (but still reflexive) habits. The nervous system, in this view, is an elaborate input-output system organized in such a way that specific patterns of stimulation lead to organized and adaptive patterns of behavior. The tendency to focus on Descartes's famous dualistic solution to the mind—body problem, and his emphasis on the cognitive, rational, and linguistic uniqueness of human beings should not obscure the essentially behavioristic content of his overall psychology.

Criticized in Descartes's own time by Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Gassendi, among others, Cartesian psychology was stripped of its introspective features in the eighteenth century, where it survived within progressive circles as a primitive biological psychology. In British philosophy, David Hartley (1705-1757) stands out in the movement to adapt Newtonian and Cartesian mechanistic principles to the needs of an emerging mental science. His Observations on Man (1749) provides a richly argued and illustrated defense of a behavioristic psychology grounded in (Humean) associationistic principles operating within the sort of reflex framework advocated by Descartes. In France, Julien de La Mettrie's L'Homme-machine (1748) presented an uncompromisingly materialistic psychology, at once antispiritual, reductionistic, and behavioristic. The circle of French philosophes included stridently mechanistic theorists (e.g., Paul-Henri Dietrich, Baron d'Holbach), but also those with a radically environmentalist^ orientation (e.g., Claude-Adrien Helvetius), who insisted that social and familial pressures were totally responsible for human psychological development.

As the philosophes and natural philosophers of the eighteenth century were assembling strong rhetorical arguments on behalf of a fully naturalistic psychology, the medical and scientific communities were broadening and deepening its empirical foundations. Robert Whytt's (1714-1766) pioneering studies of spinal reflexes are illustrative. These were accomplished while La Mettrie was offering little more than polemical defenses of psychological materialism. Whytt's research exemplified the steady, modest, and entirely experimental approach of scientists loyal to what they took to be the methods of Newton and Bacon. Early in the nineteenth century, programmatic research of this sort had unearthed the distinct sensory and motor functions of the spinal cord (the Bell-Magendie Law) and had put the mechanistic-behavioristic perspective on firm anatomical foundations. By the 1830s, Marshall Hall (1790-1857), in a tradition of Scottish medical science that includes Whytt and Charles Bell, would put the concept of "reflex function" at the very center of a nascent biological psychology that would influence the ultimate character of modern behaviorism.

It should be noted that it was during this same period (1750-1850) that the so-called animal model became accepted, and, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, a single laboratory might perform vivisection on thousands of animals, none of them anesthetized. Cartesianism, in still another sense, was the gray eminence here, fortifying the scientific community in the belief that nonhuman animals were merely a species of machinery. This perspective, shorn of its horrific surgical practices, would survive in the confident antimentalism of twentieth-century behaviorism.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the medical clinic was also yielding an ever more coherent account of the causal efficacy of the nervous system in human sensory and behavioral functions. By the end of the century, and as a result of his own original and exhaustive studies (including postmortem examinations of exceptional as well as feeble and felonious persons) Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) would offer the "science" of phrenology as a developed and systematic psychology—a psychology grounded in the principle that all sensory, motor, affective, and cognitive functions are brought about by conditions in the brain and its numerous subsystems. Once again, the evidence all pointed to a quasi-mechanistic system, both complex and law-governed, functioning in such a manner as to adjust (or fail to adjust) behavior to the demands of the environment.

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