Logical or Linguistic Behaviorism

Many philosophers are attracted to behaviorism's original emphasis on observable external behavior, either for metaphysical or methodological reasons. Some want to escape from Cartesian mind—body dualism—from "the ghost in the machine," as Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) put it—though this may be done without resorting to behaviorism. Members of the positivistic Vienna Circle, an influential group of scientifically oriented philosophers who flourished in Vienna from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s, wanted to avoid introspective methodology, and so do those influenced by them. They are attracted to the behavioristic methodology of theoretically redefining mentalistic language in terms of external, overt, publicly observable behavior because of its compatibility with the empiricist, or verification criterion, of meaning: that meaning consists exclusively in sensory reference.

Logical, or linguistic, positivism attempts to analyze or redefine the meanings of concepts and beliefs in terms of sensory reference and verifiability. Many recent and contemporary philosophers with a bent toward this form of positivism have tried to formulate in observable behavioral terms the meanings of psychological concepts such as thought, understanding, intelligence, doubt, imagination, and memory, as well as the classes and manifold subclasses of feelings, sensations, pleasures, pains, emotions, desires, and purposes.

Gilbert Ryle, a prominent British linguistic philosopher, was convinced that ordinary language is a behavioristic language, and that ordinary meanings of psychological terms are behavioral meanings. Without denying the existence of inner mental events, he believed that the ordinary meanings of mental concepts can be captured by reference to observable behaviors (or the dispositions to manifest them), without appeal to private or privileged access. Most philosophers and psychologists since Ryle, however, have believed that psychological concepts in ordinary language and "folk psychology" cannot be analyzed purely behaviorally without an important loss of significance. Many see this as a reason for abandoning familiar psychological terminology for a technically or theoretically constructed psychological vocabulary. Others have found self-awareness to be too evident and significant to be abandoned, believing that a purely behavioral outlook only fosters trivialities and ignores the obvious.

Although Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), a highly influential linguistic philosopher, did not deny the existence of consciousness and its contents, features of his philosophy of mind can be interpreted to support a behavioristic outlook. He argued convincingly against private languages and purely private experience, contending that human infants originally learn to use psychological concepts by reference to behavioral criteria in a social setting, and that these criteria are themselves integral aspects of the meaning of such concepts. Few philosophers today would deny this intimate connection between mental concepts and behavior. Nevertheless, "How do we learn mentalistic concepts?" and "To what do mentalistic concepts refer?" seem to be very different questions.

Some of Wittgenstein's interpreters subsequently dropped his conviction that psychological concepts point to something internal and mental, adopting only the view that the meanings or referents of psychological concepts consist entirely in behavioral criteria. Thus, the meaning of pain consists solely in pain behaviors such as screaming, crying, or moaning, and internal states do not need external criteria, for there are no internal states. Psychological concepts are identical in meaning with their external criteria, just as good Watsonian behaviorists contended.

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