[Marxism] Behaviorology and Dialectical Materialism: On the Way to Dialogue (from Operants - Issue III 2017 (http://www.bfskinner.org/behavioral-science/operants/)

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sun Nov 19 08:46:10 MST 2017





Behaviorology and Dialectical Materialism: On the Way to Dialogue

Alexander A. Fedorov, PhD

Alexandr Fedorov is the associate professor and chair of Clinical
Psychology at the Institute of Medicine and Psychology of Novosibirsk
State University in Novosibirsk, Russia. He received his doctorate from
Tomsk State University in 2013. His PhD research was focused on the
status and position of psychology within the major classifications of
the sciences of the XIX century. Since 2002, he has lived and worked in
Novosibirsk, Russia. He translated into Russian two significant works of
B. F. Skinner (“Beyond Freedom and Dignity” and
“Science and Human Behavior”) and several canonical articles, including
“Behaviorism at Fifty”. He is also an author of numerous articles in the
Russian language focused on theoretical problems of behaviorology and

Every science needs philosophy. Perhaps, it is true that in the laboratory
we are neither idealists nor empiricists nor dialectical materialists, but
experimentalists, but as Skinner wrote, “a theory is never overthrown
by facts, but only by another theory.” A theory underlies facts, and
philosophy underlies a theory. Therefore, philosophy is inescapable, and
behaviorology is forced to seek after its philosophy as any other science.
Following Ernest A. Vargas, we define behaviorology as science that
addresses the contingent relations between actions and other events. He also makes a
very significant remark that “Its Skinnerian contingency-based framework of
interpretation, with its firm exclusion of agency, distinguishes
behaviorology from other sciences of behavior”

There are many interpretations of Skinner’s works, and behavioral
materialism is the most authentic one. My main thesis is that dialectical
materialism is compatible with behaviorology, but there are some problems here.

a) Firstly, dialectical materialists are often inclined to interpret Skinner’s theory as mechanistic materialism. They are obviously wrong in this case.

b) Secondly, there are a lot of forms of dialectical
materialism, and some of them are even incompatible
with materialism itself. Many dialectic materialists
in-cautiously use traditional psychological terms
(mind, consciousness, motive and so on), and this
leads to a mess. Some consider dialectical materialism
as a form of contextualism. We also know that
contextualistic interpretations of radical behaviorism
exist too. Nevertheless, it was Watson who fairly stated,
“behaviorism is new wine that cannot be poured into
old bottles.” This is also true in respect to dialectical
materialism (in behavioral sciences especially). It needs a
new vocabulary, and Skinner’s theory can provide it.
So, what is dialectical materialism? “Dialectical” means (1) that the
universe as an integral whole in which things are interdependent rather
than a mixture of things isolated from each other, and (2) that the material
world is in a state of constant motion. “Materialism” holds that the only thing that
exists is matter. Dialectical materialism combines the elements of naturalism
of Marx, Hegelian philosophy and French positivism.

What does dialectical materialism mean in the behavioral sciences? It
is fallacious to believe that it is the direct application of the theory
of dialectical materialism to the problems of behavior. As Lev Vygotsky wrote, “we are in
need of an as yet undeveloped but inevitable theory of biological
materialism and psychological materialism as an intermediate science which explains the
concrete application of the abstract theses of dialectical materialism
to the given field of phenomena.” Vygotsky fell into a net of traditional
terms, but his main idea is clear. Dialectical materialism in behavioral sciences is
behavioral materialism. By some amazing fluke, behaviorologists gave the same name
to the scientific philosophy underlying behaviorology. In his writings
Jerome Ulman suggests the following terms: scientific materialism (the materialist
Operants 27 orientation among natural scientists), selectionistic
materialism (the materialist orientation among researchers in
the life sciences); and behavioral materialism (the materialist
orientation in behaviorology).

For true dialectical materialists, attributes
“dialectical-materialist” or “Marxist” in fact means
“scientific”. For example, Vygotsky wrote, “everything
that was and is genuinely scientific belongs to Marxist
psychology. This concept is broader than the concept
of school or even current. It coincides with the concept
scientific per se, no matter where and by whom it may have
been developed.”

Behaviorology is the scientific study of behavior (within Skinnerian
contingency-based framework), so we can carefully examine if
behaviorology contains dialectical elements. If Vygotsky is right, we
will find them. However, let us take a step back. I have already written
that dialectical-materialist psychologists are inclined to interpret
Skinner’s theory as mechanistic materialism, but this is not the only
accusation of behaviorism.

Boris Teplov, a well-known figure in the Soviet
psychology, wrote, “Dialectical-materialist psychology is
directly opposed to behaviorism. The basic task of Soviet
psychology is to discover the materialist explanation of
man’s psyche and consciousness.” He also contended
that behaviorism springs from idealism because it asserts
that “the psyche and consciousness are only accessible
to introspective knowledge and so cannot be studied by
objective method.” If there is any truth in these statements,
it concerns methodological behaviorism. Skinner stated,
“thought is not a mystical cause or precursor of action, or
an inaccessible ritual, but action itself, subject to analysis
with the concepts and techniques of the natural sciences
and ultimately to be accounted for in terms of controlling
variables.” Moreover, “no major behaviorist has ever argued
that science must limit itself to public events.” Therefore,
behaviorology takes the view that private events including
thinking are accessible to the methods on natural sciences.
Another prominent dialectic-materialist psychologist, Rubinstein, pointed out that “behaviorism
follows the mechanist schema: stimulus – response. Its
description of external connections between stimulus and
reaction is in keeping with the pragmatic, generally positivist
methodology.” So dialectical materialists assert that
behaviorism is not only mechanistic, but also positivistic.
But radical behaviorism is aligned with materialism, not
with pragmatism or positivism. Skinner wrote himself, “the
physicalism of the logical positivist has never been good

There is a reason why Soviet psychologists
deprecated behaviorism so much. And the reason is that
psychology and behaviorology are incommensurable. This
incommensurability springs mainly from dualism that
predominates in psychology, though often latently. Despite
the fact that Soviet psychologists formally dissociated
themselves from dualism and interpreted psychic processes
materialistically as the product of highly organized matter, they were
still dualists who used mentalist terminology. We should understand that
dialectical materialist psychology is not a natural science. Let’s look
at the theory of Bonifaty Kedrov, a notable Soviet researcher,
philosopher, logician, chemist,  and psychologist who specialized in
philosophical questions of the natural sciences. Kedrov’s views on the
position of psychology among sciences were generally
accepted. He followed Engels’ division of the world into
three domains (nature, society, and thought) and suggested
the triangular classification of the sciences.
A circle unifies sciences in the order of emergence of
forms of matter (nature → society → thought | natural sciences
→ social sciences → philosophy). We see that psychology
falls out from this circle of sciences. It is neither a natural
science nor a social science nor a philosophical science,
though it has its closest ties with philosophy. At the same
time, behaviorology is no doubt a natural science so it is
incompatible with psychology even from the dialecticalmaterialist
point of view.

But when we compare behaviorology and
dialectical-materialistic psychology, the key figure is already
mentioned –– Lev Vygotsky. I would like to provide a rather
long quote from Spanish psychologist Ángel Rivière where
the positions of Skinner and Vygotsky are juxtaposed:
Vygotsky’s solution had something in common
with that of Skinner’s: In order to explain
the origin of the higher mental functions,
he considered it necessary to go outside the
subject. These functions are considered to be
the products which originated in the culture
and were made subjective through processes
of social interaction. Higher mental functions
–– language and signs, even consciousness
itself, with its semiotic structure –– are nothing
but refined forms of interaction. A second
characteristic which draws Vygotsky somewhat
close to the position of Skinner is what we might
call “instrumentalism”. His [Vygotsky’s] unit
of analysis was instrumental behaviour. He
thought that the possibility of transforming the
material world by means of tools established
the conditions for the modification of reflexive
behaviour and its qualitative transformation in
consciousness. This process is further mediated
by a special class of tools: those which permit
the realization of transformation of others. We
call these tools “signs” and they are essentially
provided by culture....[Thus,] the fundamental
path of development is that which is defined
by the internalization of those instruments and
signs, by the conversion of the external system
of regulation into means of self-regulation. It is
this notion which creates a decisive separation
between the instrumentalism of Vygotsky and
that of Skinner, because Vygotsky
thought the systems of self-regulation,
when internalized, dialectically modify the structure
of external behavior, which can
no longer be understood as an
expression of reflexes. In other
words, consciousness, which was
for him [Vygotsky] “social contact
with oneself”, exerts a causal
influence over behaviour.
We can see here that Rivière
considers that Vygotsky’s and Skinner’s
positions are rather close. And we can
conclude that cultural-historical theory
of Vygotsky may have a lot to offer
behaviorology in achieving a better
understanding of the nature of behavior.
Concerning the agencyism of Vygotsky,
however, we should say that there is no
generally accepted solution in that case.
Rivière writes that in Vygotsky’s words
consciousness exerts a causal influence
over behavior. But can consciousness
be an agency if “consciousness does
not occur as a specific category, as a
specific mode of being” as Vygotsky wrote in “Consciousness
as a problem of the psychology of behavior”? Vygotsky
stated that consciousness is “a very complex structure of
behavior,” and Skinner pointed out that self is “a device for
representing a functionally unified system of responses.” To
my mind, they agree in views at this point, and I dare say
that for Vygotsky consciousness is not an agency, though
his contradictory works allow coming to the absolutely
different conclusion. In this respect, Skinner has one
indubitable and inestimable advantage over Vygotsky: he
created a consistent scientific language while Vygotsky used
traditional terms and thereby his works may be read this
way and that. However, Vygotsky’s works can be regarded
as a manual to apply the dialectic method to psychology,
and behaviorologists can take advantage of it.
Summing up this point, we can compare Skinner’s
and Vygotsky’s positions using dialectical laws. First of all,
Rivière correctly points out that both of them “go outside
the subject” in order to explain human behavior. In fact, it is
the application of the law of negation that is the first law of
dialectics. On the one hand, Skinner and Vygotsky negate
the inner entity, which is the cause of itself. On the other
hand, both of them negate the former psychology.
Then, Vygotsky tries to use the law of the negation
of the negation. Strictly speaking he goes inside the subject
turning back to inner causes. As Rivière notes, “the systems
of self-regulation, when internalized, dialectically modify
the structure of external behavior.” And exactly at this point
Vygotsky commits a blunder. He did not take into account
that the return to the former language is impossible. He
fol-lows a right direction but by a wrong bus. It can sound
strange enough but a behaviorist has also to go inside the
subject if he tries to follow dialectics. Ant it is the problem of
privacy that concerns the problem of “going inside”. We can
construct a logical argument.

1. Skinner considers the
“being” of private events. In
fact, they are bodily conditions
and covert behavior.
2. Nothing can be in
existence out of interaction.
Mutual connection and
mutual conditionality of the
phenomena of a material
world is one of the axioms of
3. Private events exist,
consequently they are causes
of something and effects of

Covert behavior does have an
influence upon overt one. But we
should understand that private events
do not cause behavior in the sense that
cause is used in traditional psychology.
First of all, causation is not necessarily
direct. Skinner wrote that “the private
event is at best no more than a link in
a causal chain, and it is usually not
even that. We may think before we act in the sense that we
may behave covertly before we behave overtly, but our
action is not an “expression” of the covert response or the
consequence of it.” So Skinner considers that private events
may be at least “a link in a causal chain”. And secondly,
causation is not a universal necessity. It has a probable

Skinner pointed out that “we cannot account for
the behavior of any system while staying wholly inside it.”
But can we study the behavior staying wholly outside? We
have to apply the law of negation of the negation and to go
inside the subject for more complete description of behavior.
But going inside we have to remember that, according to
Skinner, “A purely private event would have no place in
a study of behavior, or perhaps in any science; but events
which are, for the moment at least, accessible only to the
individual himself often occur as links in chains of otherwise
public events and they must then be considered. In selfcontrol
and creative thinking, where the individual is largely
engaged in manipulating his own behavior, this is likely to
be the case.” We have to save no space for dualism. Private
and public events are not physical and mental ones. And
if a private event may not be distinguished by any special
structure or nature, we can’t say that it does not have a
causal effect on behavior.
We can conclude that:

a) The distorted image of Skinner’s
radical behaviorism predominates
in dialectical-materialist psychology.
b) Dialectical-materialist psychology
got stuck in mentalist terminology.
It may be related to the paradoxical
fact that Marx was not a consistent
materialist, and psychology was
an easy target for this inconsistency
as compared with natural sciences.
In fact, Marx’s naturalism is distinct
from both idealism and materialism,
and unifies both of them.
c) However, dialectical materialism
is scientific materialism, first
and last. The dialectical method
demonstrates the power and
efficiency in natural sciences (e.g.,
biology and physics), and
behaviorology, as natural science,
can rely on this method too.
So should behaviorology dialogue with dialectical
materialism? I take the view that it should. And the most
essential thing that behaviorology should learn from
this dialog is why dialectical materialism miscarried as
materialism. Dialectical-materialist doctrine tried to stick to
the same ideas as behavioral materialism:

a) materialistic monism;
b) determinism;
c) selectionism;
d) study of human behavior within the
e) emphasis on change (control) rather
than description.

So why did dialectical materialism fail as
materialism in the field of behavioral sciences? The answer
on this question is something for the future, but we need
this answer. The historical records suggest that different
behaviorisms led to cognitivism, idealism, contextualism,
and so on. Idealistic interpretations of radical behaviorism
exist, and behaviorology should be aware of dead-end roads.
The listed similarities are rather general, so in
conclusion I would like to give two more concrete dialectical
elements of behaviorology.

Firstly, selection by consequences is in essence
model of interaction. Interaction is dialectical category that
rejects stereotyped notion that cause and consequence are
two invariably adversarial poles. Either of interacting sides
is cause of another one and con-sequence of simultaneous
influence of opposite side. Therefore, we can suppose that
selection by consequences is a dialectical model of behavior
determination. A consequence of a certain behavior (change
in the environment) is simultaneously a cause of that this
behavior will happen more often or rarely. Nevertheless,
we have to remember that causality and interaction are not

Secondly, laws of dialectic are applicable to
behaviorology. Take, for example, private and public events.
Skinner wrote, “Covert behavior often seems to be like overt
except that it occurs on a smaller scale.” Can we say that
quantitative change of behavior leads to qualitative change:
public event becomes private one (dialectical law of the
transformation of quantity into quality)?

There are three generally accepted domains of
science: physical, biological, and behavioral. In fact, this
division is a ladder of complexity of matter. Development of
physical events leads to the emergence of biological events,
and development of biological events leads to the emergence
of behavioral events. However, any biological event is at
the same time physical one, and any behavioral event is
biological and physical. Covert behavior emerges from
overt behavior, and can we say that it is the transition of
the same order as the transition from, for example, physical
level to biological. If it is so, then we can fairly assert that
private events are behavioral events, but at the same time
they possess some characteristics that are absent on overt
behavior level. For example, Vygotsky stated that inner
speech emerges from outer speech, but it has additional
properties, for example, it is abbreviated. Moreover, if it is
so, then private events open up possibilities to collaboration
of behaviorology and dialectic-materialist psychology.
On this way, both of them should change. Behaviorology
should pay more attention for private events, and dialecticmaterialist
psychology should be less mentalist.

Interestingly, B. F. Skinner had a firsthand opportunity to get a better
understanding of Vygotsky’s philosophy. In May, 1961, B. F.
Skinner visited Russia, then Soviet Union, as a member of an American
scientists delegation. He was hosted by Alexander Luria
and Alexei Leontiev, disciples and younger colleagues of Vygotsky. Upon
return to the US, Skinner wrote down his recollections
of the trip. You can read and download this article from the B. F.
Skinner Foundation’s website: http://www.bfskinner.org/

Jim Farmelant
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