Behaviorism Reconsidered


Materialistic philosophers of mind, thinking to identify thought with yet uncomprehended computational processes (in the yet unexplored medium of the brain) have spent the last twenty five years or so bashing behaviorism. To the protests that behaviorism has always evoked from dualists, Chomsky, Fodor, et al. have added their voices in frequent, almost ritual, denunciation. Against this background, recent work in the philosophy of language, building on Putnam's and Kripke's characterizations of natural kind terms as nondescriptional rigid designators, proves unsettling. Whatever the neurophysiological or computational process or state, "it seems clearly possible that the [mental state] should have existed without the corresponding [neural or computational] state; or that that [neural or computational] state should have existed without the [mental]" (Kripke 1971: 99n17); contrary to the would-be necessity of the proposed essential identification. The upshot has been, on the one hand, an unfortunate resurgence of the dualistic idea that thought -- since it seems not to be identifiable with any physical process (whether neurophysiological or computational) -- must be some sort of paraphysical process; and, on the other hand, an equally unfortunate flirtation with the eliminativist notion that predications of `thought' falsely attribute nonexistent processes. Here, one appalled by both the dualistic and eliminativist alternatives is apt to feel the attractions of metaphysical behaviorism anew. Unlike functionalism, identity theory, and dualism, such behaviorism denies there is any hidden (procedural, neurophysiological, or qualetative) essence of thought to be discovered; yet, in refusing to identify thought essentially with any "yet undiscovered process" -- because it construes mental terminology as broadly dispositional rather than theoretical (hidden-process or hidden-structure denoting) -- behaviorism, unlike eliminativism, does not take the existence of thought to be impugned by this denial. Such a view is not only defensible against the usual canards, but theoretically well-connected and eminently plausible on its own head.

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