Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Ontario

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By William MacDougall (1929b)

The demand for the reprinting of the foregoing discussion affords an opportunity to add a few remarks, an opportunity which, I feel, should not be allowed to slip by. For the years which have elapsed since Dr. Watson and I undertook to debate our differences before a large and distinguished audience in Washington, have shown that the forecast with which my remarks were brought to an end was too optimistic; it was founded upon a too generous estimate of the intelligence of the American public. The world outside the United States, that barbarian world which America regards with an increasing disdain, has continued to smile with an indulgent toleration at the antics of the thorough-going Behaviorists, a fact which was clearly illustrated at the recent International Congress of Psychologists at 1 September, [p. 87] Groningen. But in America Behaviorism pursues its devastating course, and Dr. Watson continues, as a prophet of much honor in his own country, to issue his pronouncements. The vote of the audience taken by sections after the Washington debate showed a small majority against Dr. Watson. But when account is taken of the amusing fact that the considerable number of women students from the University voted almost unanimously for Dr. Watson and his Behaviorism, the vote may be regarded as an overwhelming verdict of sober good sense against him from a representative American gathering. Yet it is the success of his appeal among young students that is the disturbing fact for those who hope much from the splendid development of American universities now going on so rapidly.

Dr. Watson, consistently pursuing his wise policy of abstaining from all attempt to reply to criticisms, has issued a new book[l] a restatement of his views as bald as the palm of my hand, and more bare of any indications of regard for reason and [p. 88] good sense.[2] The foundation of all the negations, which constitute the chief substance of the book and its chief claim to originality, is the denial of the fact of post-natal maturation of inborn tendencies of human nature. No one, says Dr. Watson, can prove to me that human nature comprises any tendencies which are not manifest in the earliest period of infancy and which become operative through a gradual process of maturation; therefore I deny the existence of all such tendencies, and assert that the human being is endowed by Nature with no more than the beggarly array of reactions which I have observed in very young infants.

In this and other ways the book goes far to justify Dr. Watson's contention that his thinking processes are nothing more than the mechanical play of his speech-organs. It might have been hoped that the weakness of its reasoning and the inconsistency of its dogmas with many evident [p. 89] natural phenomena, especially the multitudinous facts of the maturation of organs and functions, would be obvious to the meanest intelligence. Yet, as I am credibly informed, the book is enjoying a great success in America.

In connection with this topic of maturation, I would draw attention to the recent work of Dr. Charlotte Bühler.[3] She has reported observations of the behavior of infants, made with delicacy, precision, and insight, which seem to reveal clearly the maturation and coming into play of inborn tendencies that have escaped the rough and ready methods of Dr. Watson; especially those two tendencies which I have long ago described as playing a fundamental rôle in all social intercourse, namely, the submissive and the self-assertive tendencies. It is to such fine observational work, rather than to hasty denials based on oversights induced by theoretical prejudices, that we must look for the true answer to this fundamentally important question, the question of the nature and [p. 90] extent of the inborn or native tendencies.

I, for one, have foresworn all further effort to combat the essential absurdity of strict or Watsonian Behaviorism, namely, the proposal to ignore completely all introspectively observed facts. But the other feature of the Behaviorist creed as defined in my foregoing remarks, namely, the mechanistic assumption or dogma, is of more general and enduring interest; and I am glad of this opportunity to draw the attention of readers of this booklet to several of my more recent publications on this topic.

In an article in the Psychological Review, of 1922 ("Mechanical or Purposive Psychology") I showed how the late Prof. Münsterberg, after figuring for many years as a leading exponent of mechanical psychology based on the mechanistic dogma, revoked in a thoroughgoing manner in his last book, and openly espoused a purposive psychology, freely recognizing that the mechanical psychology he had formerly expounded was incapable of being applied to the practical and urgent problems of human life and society. [p. 91]

In my Presidential Address to the Psychological Section of the British Association (Toronto, 1924) published in Science under the title, "Purposive Striving as the Fundamental Category of Psychology," I urged that psychologists should boldly assert the autonomy of their science, should cease to feel themselves restricted to the categories current in the physical sciences, and, while reserving judgment on the ultimate or metaphysical questions of monism, dualism, or pluralism, should frankly recognize that it is the nature of man to strive towards ends or goals, and should cease to feel themselves under obligation to explain away this fundamental feature or aspect of human life, as a mere appearance, a disguised manifestation of mechanical causation.

In two Powell lectures (published by Clark University in the volume entitled Psychologies of 1925) I endeavored to show that it is impossible, not only to interpret, but also to describe intelligibly and profitably, the behavior and bodily movements of men or animals, without using language which implies its purposive [p. 92] or goal-seeking nature, and without conceiving it in a manner that is rendered possible for each of us only by his own private experience of purposive striving, of intentional effort directed towards some goal.

I now realize, in a much clearer and more vivid manner than I did when I wrote my Body and Mind, that this question of mechanical causation versus purposive striving is fundamental in all the psycho-physical problems, and, in fact, in all biology, and even, one might add, in all philosophy.[4] For it is the concrete form of the question of the reality of Mind or Spirit in the Universe. If all the actions of man are mechanically determined, then we have no tenable ground for believing in the reality of spirit, of mind, of teleological guidance anywhere in the universe; and mankind is the helpless victim of some remote, fortuitous, and wholly unintelligible concatenation of events, a rigid chain within which he is but an insignificant link. But if we have good reason to believe that his strivings towards goals are effective in [p. 93] however slight a degree, then we may hope that mankind carries its destinies in its own hands, and that by the application of more knowledge and more intelligence it may yet raise itself above the dust.

Lastly, in my recently published Outline of Abnormal Psychology, I have endeavored to show that only a thoroughly purposive and hormic psychology is of an value as an aid to the interpretation, treatment, and prevention of mental an neurotic disorders. Here is the pragmatic test of our theories, the supreme test, ultimately the only test that we can applly when we seek to determine their relative values. In face of this test the atomistic mechanical psychology that operates with discrete sensations and reflexes stands utterly condemned.

It is interesting to note that German psychology is moving rapidly away from the mechanical dogmas of the nineteen century and its early experimental period. The movement represented by the school of Gestalt is somewhat timid and ambiguous in this regard. But there are other movements and other schools arising; [p. 94] that of the Geisteswissenschaftliche Psychologie, especially, proclaims the autonomy of psychology; as also the Verstehende Psychologie and the Personalistische Psychologie. And within the more strictly academic and experimental psychologies there are influential workers among the younger men who are breaking away from the older traditions and ceasing to ignore or belittle the purposive aspect of all our mental life.

Meanwhile in America the tide of Behaviorism seems to flow increasingly. The press acclaims Dr. Watson's recent volume in the most flattering terms. One leading daily says: "Perhaps this is the most important book ever written"; and another asserts: "It marks an epoch in the intellectual history of man." In England, on the other hand, the press is content to note that here is a system which claims "to revolutionize ethics, religion, psychoanalysis -- in fact, all the mental and moral sciences." It might have gone further and noted that it claims, not merely to revolutionize, but to abolish, all these august things. [p. 95]

Dr. Watson knows that if you wish to sell your wares, you must assert very loudly, plainly, and frequently that they are the best on the market, ignore all criticism, and avoid all argument and all appeal to reason. The response of the American press to his new book shows how sound these methods are. The susceptibility of the public to attack by these methods in the purely commercial sphere is a matter of no serious consequence. When the same methods make a victorious invasion of the intellectual realm, it is difficult to regard the phenomenon with the same complacency.

We have to face the prospect that in a few years' time many thousands, perhaps even millions, of young victims of this propaganda on behalf of crass materialism will be bringing up their families without other guidance than their blind faith in the Behaviorist's formulae. Having learned that all such words as effort, striving, ideal, purpose, will, are entirely meaningless, they will be seen throughout broad continent striving to form the character of their children by "conditioning" [p. 96] their reflexes" and pathetically endeavoring to gain their affection by stimulating their "erogenous zones"; for according to the gospel of Dr. Watson, that is the one and only way.


[1] "Behaviorism."

[2] He has also flooded the popular journals with articles which, in the reckless dogmatism of their denials, outrun even that book. By a skillful flourishing of Prof. Pavlov's term "conditional reflex" he introduces just enough plausibility to deceive hosts of young Babbitts.

[3] Soziologische und Psychologische Studien über das erste Lebensjahr. Jena, 1927

[4] This is a problem which, as it seems to me, is neither solved nor illuminated by the utterance of the now fashionable formula, "Emergent evolution."