Phenomenological Behaviorism

Phenomenological Behaviorism

Could it be that there is an element of truth in behaviorism? Behaviorism is usually presented as a third-person view of the human mind—what we know of the mind by external observation. It often goes with a materialist metaphysics. It therefore naturally incurs the charge of ignoring the first-person perspective—of overlooking the mind’s phenomenology. But can’t we also motivate it by taking an inward view—by considering what the mind is like from the inside? Thus consider pain: isn’t the experience of pain essentially bound up with avoidance behavior? When you feel pain you instinctively avoid the painful stimulus—you withdraw from it, are averse to it, avoid it at all costs. You don’t feel pain and find yourself attracted to the painful stimulus, or indifferent to it—you want to get away from it, so that it stops hurting you. You behave in a certain way as a result of the pain, and this behavior is written into the experience: pain is inherently that which initiates avoidance behavior. Even if you can’t actually behave this way, you are strongly inclined to—you desire to, urgently. Pain is not behaviorally neutral; and this is a matter of its phenomenology, not just something tacked on. The same can be said of pleasure, only now the behavior is attraction not repulsion, approach not avoidance. Desire is much the same: you want to do what will satisfy your desire—you want to behave in a certain way, e.g. eat. These mental states are partly behavioral: not wholly, because there is also a subjective aspect, but partially. The state is a kind of hybrid of the phenomenal and the behavioral, to put it crudely. Behaviorism might thus be said to be partly true: behavior (or dispositions to it) is certainly not the whole of the mind, but it is at least a part of it—necessary if not sufficient. And this is a phenomenological fact not the result of a methodological stipulation: the mind feels behavioral–from the inside, from the first-person point of view. Just remember your last serious pain and how intensely your body wanted to escape the painful stimulus. The pain is subjectively behavioral—its subjective mode is AVOID.

            This is not to say that actual behavior is necessary to the existence of mind: paralysis is possible with full mental preservation. It is to say that behavioral inclinations, desires, plans, tendencies and urges are part of the experience of pain. Let me put it this way: the body image is integral to sensation—if not the physical body itself. We mentally represent our own body—proprioception being the main vehicle of bodily representation—and this representation is built into our sensations. Sensations are intertwined with the body image, including its dynamic aspects. This is equally true of perceptual sensations: visual experience is intertwined with awareness of the eyes as they point and move; tactile experience with the whole touchable and mobile body; auditory experience with the ears; smell with the nose; taste with the mouth. All of this is behavioral, because the sense organs move and orient themselves: they are behaving organs. The same is not true of the brain: we have no brain image that accompanies our every mental episode—as we have no liver image or kidney image. The muscles and the mind, however, are deeply interconnected—those makers of movement, large and small. Emotions too have their behavioral expression: flight, fight, laughter, and copulation. They are not indeed exhausted by their behavioral manifestations, but the behavior is part of their phenomenological character—as real as any other part. We are accustomed to recognizing that mental states have intentionality—they are about things—but we must also recognize that they have a kind of secondary intentionality in relation to the body: they represent the body in its active mode. Time is also part of their phenomenology, in addition to the objects they are about; and the body is yet another dimension of phenomenology. A visual experience, say, is made of the following components: an intentional object, an experienced time, a subjective mode, and an ocular organ.[1] It is not some sort of primitive atom of subjectivity, as in the mosaic model of consciousness, but a tightly structured other-referring entity—and the body’s (apparent) behavior is part of this complexity. The movement of the eyes, much studied by psychologists, is built into the phenomenology of vision: I experience the visual object as seen by my mobile eyes, detected and scanned by those nimble bodily organs. Visual experience is behaviorally imbued. Thus behaviorism is a phenomenological fact—subjective first-person behaviorism. Mentalistic behaviorism not materialistic behaviorism: behavior as initiated and apprehended from within, part of the body image. Consciousness itself is behaviorally inflected. Phenomenology is always bodily phenomenology—partly at any rate.

            Consider those tireless winging bats again (our philosophical helpmates): when they use their sense of echolocation they simultaneously and inextricably mentally represent their own flying bodies, particularly ears and mouths (where the echoing shrieks originate). That is the behavioral phenomenology of bat echolocation. This is something we can in principle grasp—for we know what it’s like to be aware of our ears and mouths. We may not grasp the subjective modality of the bat’s experience entirely, but we do grasp an aspect of it—the behavior-directed aspect. We know what it’s like to be a sense-organ aware creature. We grasp the nature of the bat’s body, so we grasp the behavioral aspect of bat experience (they are mammals after all). There is, we might say, an objective aspect to the bat’s subjective experience—the aspect corresponding to the bat’s behavioral phenomenology. Just so, the blind man can grasp the objective aspect of visual experience, i.e. the part that involves ocular awareness (he is aware of his eyes by proprioception). So sensory experience is partly objective, because partly behavioral, though not wholly so. Partial behaviorism affords partial objectivity, i.e. general availability. The mistake of old-time behaviorists was to push the element of truth in behaviorism too far: first, by exaggerating its reach; and second, by adopting a third-person perspective. But there is room for a type of phenomenological behaviorism that acknowledges the first-person perspective; indeed, such a behaviorism seems unavoidable, given the embodied nature of the mind. The mind is phenomenologically in the body, directing it, responding to it: it is part of what the mind is constantly aware of. We (and other animals) are phenomenological activists, steeped in awareness of our own behavior.

            But here is the puzzle, the enigma: how does a mental state combine its behavioral dimension with its subjective (“qualitative”) dimension? It is not as if pain consists of an ordered pair of a quale and a behavioral disposition: the two do not just sit side by side without meshing together. On the contrary, the avoidance aspect is integral to the felt aspect: pain could not be anything other than an avoidance-inducing sensation. There could not be a being that experienced pain and yet felt no avoidance with respect to it (contrary to what is sometimes said about masochists): the sensation of pain is essentially an aversive phenomenon. This is, in the jargon, an a priorinecessity.  Moreover, the subjective and behavioral are internally connected not merely externally conjoined. We have a two-factor theory in which the factors are inseparable from each other. The sensation breaks down into two elements, but the elements are not really separable: we have a conceptual distinction without an ontological distinction. This is puzzling (more so than two-factor theories of propositional content)—the objectively behavioral seems to have taken up residence in the most subjective aspects of the mind. The eyes are a part of seeing! So let us accept that the truth of partial behaviorism leads to a deep puzzle, which may help to explain why it has not occupied a place in thinking about the mind. Total behaviorism at least avoids the problem of the subjective-behavioral nexus—as total subjectivism also does. The hybrid conception courts the problem without solving it. Not that this counts against the theory for a resigned mysterian—indeed, mystery is par for the course. The truth is often mysterious. Still, we should acknowledge that partial phenomenological behaviorism does give rise to a difficult problem (analogous to the general mind-body problem): the problem of integrating the behavioral with the subjective—or seeing the subjective as imbued with the behavioral. The behavioral follows from the subjective, rather than being opposed to it—and that is a puzzling fact. What is it like to be a bat? Look at the bat’s body and imagine its internal mental representation of its own body: that is part of what it’s like for the bat—along with the more elusive matter of its specific subjective experience. And that latter thing embeds the former thing inextricably.

            Nor are the puzzles quite over yet. What about thought, particularly abstract thought—does it have a behavioral aspect? That is not so obvious: does introspection reveal a phenomenological aspect relating thoughts to a bodily organ or part? Are there specific things that thought inclines us to do (like desire, pain, emotion, etc.)? Doesn’t it seem pretty damned disembodied? Maybe thought is an exception to partial phenomenological behaviorism—it has zero behavioral phenomenology. Maybe it belongs to the immortal incorporeal soul, as some have regarded Reason. One possibility is that it is connected to language and thence to speech: vocal behavior is its behavioral accompaniment (or sign language). It is just that its behavioral aspect is more remote than normal, but still essential. Or is the head somehow involved—clutching it, cradling it (as in Rodin’s Thinker)? It does seem right to distinguish degrees of behavioral involvement: some mental states have a larger behavioral component than others—pain a lot, perception rather less, belief even less. Maybe thought is just at the far extreme of behavioral disengagement—only tinged with the behavioral not flooded with it. It may not be purely subjective (removed from everything behavioral in its essential character) but has its finger lightly on the behavioral pulse. On the other hand, if it were resolutely non-behavioral that would be an interesting result, meriting the headline, “Thought Not Behaviorally Contaminated According to Scientists”. I won’t attempt to resolve the issue here, having merely noted it. The important point is that for many types of mental state a (partial) behavioral phenomenology is strongly indicated. The doctrine of behaviorism, which held sway for quite some time, is not completely without merit of motivation—though, ironically, its main rationale stems from introspection. The introspectionist psychologists should have been behaviorists! For we necessarily appear to ourselves introspectively to be behaving beings. Our consciousness is (partly) a behavioral consciousness. This is just to say that the body exists on the horizon of the mind.[2]

[1] More controversially, we could add the self to this list: an experience presents an object to a subject in such a way that the subject is part of the phenomenology too. There is a reference to the self in every mental act. An experience is thus a phenomenological quintuple consisting of a subject, an object, a subjective mode, a time, and a behaving body. This is a far cry from the simple “idea” or “impression” of traditional philosophy of mind—the analogue of an elementary atom of matter. I would call it a multi-aspect theory of mental phenomenology. The mental points in several directions simultaneously. 

[2] This is to be distinguished from the idea that the mind is as a matter of objective fact essentially embodied; it is rather the thesis that the mind is experienced as embodied (and no doubt is). The mind is embodied as a matter of its phenomenology, even when its intentional object is not the body itself. The behaviorism is virtual rather than real (though no doubt it is also real).

4 replies
  1. jeffrey g kessen
    jeffrey g kessen says:

    Not to sound too weird, but tickles and itches are the border-line cases of any pleasure/ pain analysis. Tickles, though pleasurable, often prompt aversive behavior (stop the tickle); itches, though disagreeable, often prompt a perseverative pleasure in the scratching. Hasten to add that this is only tangential to your Post, which I thought was great. Always appreciative when you combine a little psychology with philosophy.

  2. Davide Doardi
    Davide Doardi says:

    Very useful article. It sets a bridge between two domains of research and therapeutics that are at clash, most of the time.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.