Chalmers on philosophical progress, part 1.5: behaviorism

In part 1, I talked about Chalmers’ proposed kinds of philosophical progress, and expressed some skepticism about them. I was going to make the next post about the explanations Chalmers considers for why there hasn’t been more progress, but first, I want to deal with a possible response to my first post that’s kind of obvious if you know about the history of philosophy of mind (and totally unobvious otherwise).

The reply is that, whatever progress we’ve failed to make in philosophy of mind over the last century, at least we know that behaviorism is wrong. Now, it’s false to say that there are no, behaviorists left anymore; I had a professor in grad school (Don Howard) who called himself a behaviorist.

But when I heard other people talk about this fact, they regarded it as extremely quaint. My guess is that had behaviorism been an option at some point in the PhilPapers survey, self-described behaviorists would have been even rarer than idealists (who turned out to be 4.3% of the survey’s respondents).

So as Chalmers would put it, it looks like we’ve converged on not-behaviorism. But! What if all we’ve converged on is not calling ourselves behaviorists? Dennett gets accused of behaviorism sometimes, and if you know about Dennett and know about behaviorism, it’s easy to see why. And I did once hear a professor claim that accidental/closeted behaviorism is still fairly widespread in philosophy of mind.

I never heard Don Howard’s full defense of behaviorism, but he did mention that he though Chomsky had totally misunderstood what Skinner was up to in his book Verbal Behavior. I couldn’t say whether Don was right about that, but it strikes me as kinda plausible based on what I’ve seen in other areas of philosophy.

For example, some philosophers are very confident that they’ve got a simple refutation of Locke’s epistemology, but reading Locke’s Essay, it’s not at all clear to me Locke subscribed to the easily-refuted propositions attributed to him. Something similar could explain people ceasing to call themselves “behaviorists,” without the philosophical community as a whole shifting its views much.

Another issue is that behaviorism is often taken to be committed to a kind of implausible blank-slatism. Ignore the just-mentioned worries about what behaviorists actually thought and suppose it is. Then I agree behaviorism is wrong. But it seems like the reasons for rejecting bank-slatism are basically empirical, rather than involving any philosophical argument, so this may be an example of progress coming from outside philosophy.

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