Methodological Versus Metaphysical Behaviorism

Philosophically, one must distinguish two main justifications for rejecting mentalism and choosing behaviorism. A methodological behaviorist concedes that mental events and processes are real, but maintains that they cannot be studied scientifically. The data of science, says the methodological behaviorist, must be public events, such as the motions of the planets or chemical reactions that all researchers can observe. Conscious experience, however, is necessarily private; introspection may describe it (often inaccurately), but does not make it public for all to see. Therefore, to be scientific, psychology must study only overt behavior and reject introspection. However real and however fascinating, consciousness, methodologically speaking, cannot be scientific psychology's subject matter. The exploration of subjective experience is left to the arts.

The metaphysical behaviorist makes a more sweeping assertion: Just as the physical sciences have rejected demons, spirits, and gods, showing them to be myths, so the psychologist must reject mental events and mental processes as mythical. This is not to say that mental concepts such as "idea" are necessarily meaningless (although they may be), any more than the concept "Zeus" is meaningless. We can describe Zeus and account for why people believed in him, while nevertheless asserting that the word Zeus never referred to anything that ever existed. Similarly, says the radical behaviorist, we can describe the conditions under which people use "idea" or any other mental concept, and account for why they believe they have minds, and still assert that "idea" or "mind" and so on do not refer to anything that really exists, except perhaps certain behaviors and certain stimuli. Therefore, psychology must be behav-ioristic because there is no mind to investigate: Behavior is all there is.

Watson's own position is unclear. He typically defended behaviorism on methodological grounds but, especially in his later writings, asserted the metaphysical claim, too. The various neobehaviorists came down on different sides.

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