A Short Refutation of Behaviourism

Behaviourism began with the aim – we might say Heideggerean ideal – of practicing a science which does not think. Instead of the subjective methods of interview and introspection, behaviourists constructed an ‘objective’ observational model, in which, allegedly, antecedents and consequences would be causally strung together without the need for conjecture or inference. All of this was pinned to a transformation of the human subject into an object, and moreover, an object which functioned primarily as a learning machine, and whose workings could be understood without any reference to an inner world. (Not to mention without reference to others’ inner worlds – it was not for nothing that Wittgenstein considered behaviourism a kind of solipsism).
This approach did not last very long. By the 1950s and ‘60s, numerous strands of thought stood against it. Bowlby’s attachment theory demonstrated that early relationships (and not just subsequent learning) were an influence on psychological life. Carl Rogers and others questioned the behaviourist imperative to ‘predict and control’ on humanist grounds. But it was behaviourism’s embarrassing treatment of language, demolished by Chomsky, which ought to have dispelled any lingering illusions of relevance that remained for the behaviourists. The use of learning as a catch-all explanatory mechanism, coupled with a complete ignorance of language should have been the end of things.


This failure ought to have been evident from the outset. The simplest, most comprehensible tenet of the behaviourist paradigm is that of Pavlovian, classical conditioning. Yet even this necessitates the use of speculative interpretation on the part of the ‘objective’ observer, who has to assign phenomena to the category of either stimulus or response, and then establish causal relations between them. Since the ‘behaviour’ in question includes any speech act, physical movement or glandular response, and since stimuli include all these plus the ‘environment’, attributing causal chains between them is nothing other than the wildest metaphysical conjecture. In other words, as Lacan put it in Seminar XX, the behaviourist simply resurrects everything which Aristotle postulated regarding the soul, but reasserts it at the level of the nervous system.

This is particularly clear with regard to anxiety. Practically any object whatsoever can function in the place of phobic object, notwithstanding learning or ‘reinforcement’. One need not have experienced a literal mishap in an MRI machine, for instance, to have a phobia about submitting to one. The meaning of the phobic object to the subject, and its place in the subject’s imagination and fantasy – notions anathema to behaviourism – are arguably the key explanatory elements. Of course, there is no necessary causal link between predicting/controlling and comprehending.
Undeterred by decades of failure, behaviourism lives on in the form of functional analysis, a non-Skinnerian approach to behaviour modification that aims to bring more subtlety to the causal chain, but which still rests upon the hubristic delusion of unmediated observation. The behaviourist has a more complex model to work with this time, but still must observe phenomena, attribute an identity to it, and then assign it to a place within the causative system. Yet it is obvious to anybody who is not a behaviourist that at the very first step, a ‘behaviour’ (or ‘motivation’, or ‘response’, or whatever) attains its identity not in itself but only through language. In a sense, no two behaviours by a human are strictly the same; they receive their identity through the signifier. Yet to speak is, necessarily, to interpret, and thus behaviourists, ‘functional’ or not, are led back into the same speculative labyrinths of old. Their systems are an effect of language, not ‘objective’ observation.
Naturally, none of this precludes behaviourism from being an important didactic tool for pigeons with pellets, but it does have some rather unpleasant implications for speaking beings. The effect of the behaviourist’s intervention is to reductively impose his interpretation of things onto the subject from without. The subject is caught in a surveillance mechanism in which the behaviourist determines the meaning of the subject’s acts and speech, and attempts to graft this meaning to the subject for the purpose of manipulation. Or, to put it differently, the clinician uses his  own linguistic associations, rather than those of the patient. This procedure is particularly abusive when applied to ‘at-risk’ or maltreated children, but I will examine that topic on another occasion. (Let nobody object that it is ‘useful’ for children – in these cases, the ‘use’ is always for the adults – parents, teachers, case managers – and not for the child).
In any case, we are back where we started, with behaviourism once again tripped up by language. And this is the one objective thing that one can say of behaviourism: it doesn’t learn.

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