Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

(Return to Classics index)


Glossary to:

Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it.
John B. Watson (1913).

First published in Psychological Review, 20, 158-177

First posted 1996; Revised October 1998; Revised March 2000; Revised March 2001


Introspection. The preferred method of many 19th-century and early 20th-century psychologists, by which one examines one's own conscious mental states and processes as they occur. Foremost among its advocates in America was Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927). Wundt also used introspective techniques, but not exclusively, as is often believed (see, e.g., Kurt Danziger's "The history of introspection reconsidered," in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences (1980, 16, 241-262).

No dividing line between man and brute. Many 19th-century psychologists believed the most important subjects of psychology -- such as reasoning -- to be exclusive to humans. They therefore rejected the study of animals as having significant application to the study of psychology. The Chicago functionalists -- viz., John Dewey (1859-1952), James Rowland Angell (1869-1949), and Harvery A. Carr (1873-1954) -- were among the first self-identified psychologists to reject this position, arguing for psychological continuity between humans and other animals. Watson obtained his Ph.D. under the supervision of Angell 1903.

Consciousness. Wundt's definition of psychology, for instance, was the "science of immediate experience" (1897, Outlines of Psychology, C. H. Judd, Trans., p. 3). Titchener's was the "science of mental processes" (1899, An Outline of Psychology, 2nd ed., p. 7). Angell's was the "science of consciousness" (1908, Psychology, 4th ed., p. 1).

Simple elementary constituents.Wundt, for instance, was widely believed in America to hold that sensations and feelings are the basic elements of consciousness, out of which more complex mental states are formed (though this has since been shown to be a vast oversimplification of his actual position). In America, Titichener was mainly responsible for advocating this position (and for attributing it to his one-time supervisor, Wundt).

Comparative psychology. The study of the similarities and differences between the mental processes (and behavior) of humans and (other) animals. It was sometimes extended to a comparison of the "normal" and "abnormal" mentalities, and even the comparison of "European" minds with those of other "races".

Bearing of animal work. Many philosophical psychologists spurned animal psychology. Most experimentally-inclined psychologists of Watson's day, however, saw value in comparative psychology. Even Wundt had written that "the mental life of animals shows itself to be in its elements and in the general laws of their combination everywhere the same as that of man" (1897, Outlines of Psychology, C.H. Judd, Trans., p. 276).

Facts of behavior. Notice here that Watson begins his argument for behaviorism with an appeal merely to include behavior among the topics of psychology. By the end of the paper he will be calling for a rejection of all but this from the discipline.

Absurd position. Notice that Watson begins by apparently accepting his imaginary opponent's argument against the significance of comparative psychology (viz., against the "analogy" of animal to human minds), only to turn that very argument against all of traditional psychology later for attempting to "construct" the conscious content of the human being.

Anthropomorphism. To impute human characteristics to the non-human realm. To think of a storm a being angry, for instance, is to take an anthropomorphic attitude with respect to the storm. Watson here is concerned with imputing human conscious states to animals, a "mistake" warned against by the English zoologist and psychologist C. Lloyd Morgan (1852-1936) in his famous canon: "In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of one which stands lower on the psychological scale (1894, An Introduction to Comparative Psychology). Morgan also invented the term "trial-and-error learning" and was a key advocate of "emergentism" with respect to mental phenomena.

Associative Memory. The physiologist Jacques Loeb (1859-1924) called the ability of some animals to "connect" old responses to new stimuli "associative memory" in his book Physiology of the Brain (1899). It is quite closely allied with Ivan Pavlov's (1849-1936) notion of the "conditioned reflex".

Psychic. It is important to note that by "psychic" Watson means only what we would call the "psychological," not "paranormal" phenomena, to which the term is now sometimes used to refer.

Phylogenetic Scale. The evolutionary scale of living things, from the simplest up to the most complex.

Paramecium. A single-celled animal.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882). British naturalist. Developer of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Author of several books, including Origin of Species (1859), Descent of Man (1871), and Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

Genus Homo. The phylogenetic genus to which humans belong. No other species in the genus survive today, but in earlier times there were the species of "primitive" humans called Homo habilis (about 2 million to 1½ million years ago) and Homo erectus (about 1 million to ½ million years ago)

Johns Hopkins. The university to which Watson was appointed. The "distinguished psychologist" may well have been the prominent developmental theorist James Mark Baldwin (1861-1934), who had given Watson his job.

Introspection is untrained. The reference here is to the many disputes between various German schools of introspective psychology (most notably Leipzig and Würzburg) over whether new findings were true discoveries or artifacts of poorly trained introspectors. Titchener's text, An Outline of Psychology (1897), describes a number of "errors" novice introspectors are liable to make.

Imageless thought. A concept first mentioned by the British philosophical psychologist G. F. Stout (1860-1944). It had traditionally been believed by many philosophical psychologists that all thought requires a mental image. To think of a table, for instance, is to form an image of a table. Consider, however, whether you require an image of any kind to think of the concept FOUR.

Bewusstseinslage. The name suggested by Karl Marbe (1869-1953) of the Würzburg school for "conscious attitudes" of, for instance, doubt, certainty, affirmation and dissent, that can accompany the conscious experience of a definite thought. The claim of their independence from the traditional elements of consciousness (sensations and feelings) led to a fierce debate with Wundt and his orthodox students.

Different training. This argument, and the one immediately below in the text, were typical of the disputes that frequently broke out among Wundt's European students. Wundt's debate with the Würzburg school, led by Oswald Külpe (1862-1915), was the most famous of these.

Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927). Founder of the "structuralist" school of psychology. Born in the south of England. After five years at Oxford, he moved to Leipzig in 1890 to study under Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920). After earning his doctorate in 1892, he moved to Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) to advocate what he took to be the "Wundtian system" of psychology in North America; a method of introspection on the elementary contents of consciousness such as sensations feelings. (Wundt's real interests have since been revealed to have been far broader than Titchener's method allowed.) The label "structuralist" was the product of his debates with the "functionalists" at Chicago viz., John Dewey (1859-1952), James Rowland Angell (1869-1949), and Harvey A. Carr (1873-1954), distinguishing their interests in mental processes from Titchener's in mental states.

Functional psychology. The American school of psychology led by Watson's doctoral supervisor at Chicago, James Rowland Angell (1869-1949), as well as James Dewey (1859-1952) and Harvey Carr (1873-1954). There was a branch of functionalism at Columbia University as well, led by Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949). It argued that psychological function, rather than structure (à la Titchener), should be the main topic of psychology. It was influenced by Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and regarded animal psychology more highly than any other school up to its time. Functionalists still believed consciousness (or "experience" in Dewey's case) to be the primary object of psychology, however. Here Watson breaks whatever ties he had maintained with his functionalist training.

W. B. Pillsbury (1872-1960). Student of E. B. Titchener's (1867-1927). Appointed to University of Michigan in 1896. Wrote books on the psychology of language, reasoning, attention. Conducted research on the kinesthetic and cutaneous senses. President of the APA in 1910. Founding chair of the Department of Psychology at Michigan which separated from the Department of Philosophy in 1929.

Parallelistic hypothesis. According to parallelism, the mind and body do not interact causally with each other. Rather, they act in parallel with each other. For instance, the desire to move one's arm (a mental act) parallels the movement of the arm (a bodily act); it does not cause it to move. Parallelism is supposed to avoid the pitfalls of interactionism -- the thesis that the mind and body are causally linked -- but it gives rise to the dilemma of explaining how this relation between mind and body arose. The most famous parallelist was the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), who believed that the harmony between mind and body had been pre-established by God. The psychological functionalists of the 19th and early 20th centuries did not have such an argument open to them. Watson, here, argues that the functionalists' parallelistic talk merely papers over an underlying interactionism, and all the problems which that brings (viz., how can an immaterial mind cause a material body to do anything if cause is a relation that holds only between two material objects?).

Interaction. According to interactionism, the mind and body are causally related to each other: i.e., thoughts cause the body to move, and sensory stimuli cause ideas to arise in the mind. This was the position of the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1750). It was almost immediately recognized to be problematic (viz., how can an immaterial mind cause a material body to do anything, or vice versa?). Watson is here attempting to show that the functionalist position is covertly interactionst on the relation between mind and body, and thus suffers from all interactionism's traditional difficulties.

Beer, Bethe, Von Uexküll, Nuel. German mechanistic psychologists who, in an 1899 article, argued that all ordinary psychological terms should be abolished in favor of "objective" terms such as reception (sensation), reflex (movement), and resonance (memory).

Tortugas. An island in the Gulf of Mexico. Watson and Karl Lashley (1890-1958) carried out some studies on the behavior of terns there.

Scientific aim. Notice that Watson seems to argue here that science not applied to everyday life is not science at all.

John Linck Ulrich (b. 1877, Ph. D. Johns Hopkins University, 1913). Published "Distribution of effort in learning in the white rat" in Watson's Behavior Monographs in 1915. Found that spacing trials led to better learning than massed trials.

Absolute and relative. The absolute threshold is the lowest level of intensity (dimness of light, softness of sound) at which a stimulus can be detected. A relative threshold is the amount that a stimulus of standard intensity must be changed in order for a difference to be noticed.

Talbot's law. Named after the English physicist and photographer, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), who discovered that when the cycle of a flickering light reaches so high a rate that it perceived as being continuous, its apparent brightness is equal to the mean of the brightness of the complete flicker cycle. Also known as the Talbot-Plateau law, after Talbot and the Belgian physicist Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau (1801-1883).

Weber's law. Named after the German psychophysicist, Ernst Heinrich Weber (1795-1878), who discovered that the just-noticeable differences in the intensity of various stimuli are proportional to the intensity of the original stimulus. For instance, if a 100 watt light must be increased by 5 watts in order for the difference to be perceptible, then an increase of 50 watts would be necessary for the change in a light of 1000 watts to be perceptible.

Purkinje phenomena. Named after the Czech physiologist, Jan Evengelista Pukinje (1787-1869), who discovered that as multicolored displays decrease in brightness, those colors at the "cool" end of the spectrum lose their brightness less rapidly than those at the "warm" end. It was later discovered that this due to the photosensitive cells in the retina responsible for vision in dim light (the rods) being more sensitive to light with shorter wavelengths (which corresponds to "cool" colors) than cells responsible for vision in bright light (the cones).

Nonsense syllables. This method of investigating memory was pioneered by the German psychologist Hermann von Ebbinghaus (1850-1909). His book Memory (1885, trans. 1913) is a classic in the field. Ebbinghaus' method was the standard until well into the 20th century.

Robert Mearns Yerkes (1876-1956). American psychologist who supported Watson in his effort to make psychology behavioristic. A leader in the effort to develop IQ tests during World War I. He conducted many studies on rats and, later, chimpanzees, developing the "multiple-choice" method of investigating their mental processes.

Consciousness an sich. The allusion is to ding an sich (thing in itself), a phrase used by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) to refer to the things of the world apart from our knowledge of them. Kant argued that we can never know the world directly, never know the ding an sich, but only its presentation in consciousness.


Author's note: I would like to thank Roger Thomas, Ryan Tweeny, William S. Verplank, and Andrew Winston for the their assistance in assembling this material.