... the organism is here conceived as a completely automatic entity; that in our approach to behavior theory there is no entelechy, no disembodied mind, soul, or spirit which in some way tells the various parts of the body how to cooperate behaviorally to attain successful adaptation, i.e., how to achieve survival (Hull, 1952: 347).

Consciousness carries an implication of agency and control, which unconscious but animate entities - insects, zombies, industrial robots, pick your favorite example - lack (Farber and Churchland, 1995, 1298).


1. Overview
2. Gestalt Psychology
3. Edward Tolman
4. The Birth of Cognitivism
5. An awkward or awful thought

1. Overview

The year 1912 marks the beginning of the end of an era of Western European history. A war in the Balkans involving Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro would lead, in 1914, to the declaration of hostilities across the continent from Britain to Russia. Culturally, the scene was vibrant. Synge's 'Playboy of the Western World' premiered in Dublin; Chagall, Picasso and Modigliani were producing some of their major pieces, and new works by Ravel, Delius, Schonberg and Strauss were first performed. Wilson invented the 'cloud chamber' that led to photographic evidence of the reality of electrons and protons, backing up the predictions of Rutherford's theory of atomic structure published a year earlier. Scott made it to the South Pole; Piltdown Man was 'discovered'; F.W.Woolworth Company was founded; the 'Titanic' sank; and Boston won the world series.

In Psychology, 1912 was an important year. Watson began what was to become the behaviorist school. Thorndike fully stated his views between 1911 and 1913. Adler and Jung published their individual views of psychoanalysis, leading to their break with Freud. McDougall published his 'Psychology: the study of behavior', fully formulating his view of purpose in behaviour; and Gestalt psychology was founded.

2. Gestalt Psychology

The three names associated with this approach in psychology, Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler, were working together in Frankfurt in 1912. Wertheimer was conducting experiments on the perception of motion, using Koffka and Kohler as his subjects. The problem they were working on relates to what became known as 'flicker-fusion frequency'. An example of this occurs when you use electric light to illuminate your home. An electric light produces the same effect as a candle: but whereas the candle continuosly produces light, the electric light bulb is actually going on and off at the frequency of the cycles of the AC mains feed to it. So, how is it we don't see the light going on and off like a strobe, but experience continuous illumination? The same question arises when you watch a film in the cinema: a series of stills separated by darkness as the film moves forward and projects successive still images is seen as continuous movement. It was this latter form of movement perception that the three men were investigating (again demonstrating how technological advances interact with the asking of questions in psychology).

A lot of what was written and theorised from this experiment appears rather quaint now, but the notion that has endured is that 'the whole is more than the sum of its parts'. At some point, the structural properties of our nervous systems create a direct experience of a reality that is not really there! Our nervous systems create for us an integrated perception across both space and time that results in our experiencing patterns and orders that cannot be found in the 'elements' of the input. This is the ressurection of a notion put forward by Thomas Brown of the University of Edinburgh in Lecture 10 of his 1820 book Lectures on the philosophy of the human mind:

As in chemistry it often happens that the qualities of the separate ingredients of a compound body are not recognizable by us in the apparently different qualities of the compound itself - so, in this spontaneous chemistry of the mind, the compound sentiment that results from the association of former feelings has in many cases ... little resemblance to these constituents.
In Lecture 45, Brown also notes that:
There is an original tendency ... of the mind, by which, on perceiving together different objects, we are instantly ... sensible of their relation in certain respects ... coexistence and succession ... resemblance ... difference ... proportion ... degree ... the number of relations, indeed, being almost infinite.
It was this 'organization of the relation between things' that the Gestalt psychologists were most concerned with. Their 'laws of perception' or principles of organization are discussed in the text (pp. 172-77).

The organization brought to sensory inputs by the structure of the organism's nervous system was the point at which the Gestalt school was most clearly opposed to that of behaviorism. This is how Kohler put it:

The stimulus-response formula, which sounds at first so attractive, is actually quite misleading. In fact, it has so far appeared acceptable solely because Behaviorists use the term 'stimulus' in such a loose fashion ... When the term is taken in its strict sense, it is not generally 'a stimulus' which elicits a response. ... A man's actions are commonly related to a well-structured field, most often to particular thing-units. The right psychological formula is therefore: pattern of stimulation - organization - response to the products of organization ... The stimulus-response formula ... ignores the fact that between the stimuli there occurs a pattern of organization, particularly the formation of group-units in which parts acquire new characteristics (1947: 164-5, 200).
Something psychologically relevant must be going on inside the organism. This 'something' became the focus of cognitive psychology.

A slight aside for a moment, but from the evolutionary perspective being adopted here, one of Kohler' main works was his Mentality of Apes book, published in English in 1925. His studies were a combination of the observational and experimental, and he focussed interest on creative or 'insightful' problem solving in chimpanzees. He came to the view that these animals did not solve all problems presented to them by trial-and-error, but appeared to be able to 'detach' themselves from a direct attempt at a problem, and then come back to it with a strategy worked out that enabled them to solve it. Kohler took this as an indication that apes were able to manipulate the elements of the problem in their 'minds', somehow. Thus this work also added a momentum to the recognition of the reality of internal psychological processes.

3. Edward Tolman

Tolman, using a different perspective, came to a similar conclusion. He is credited with having been the first to have clearly formulated the concept of the intervening variable within the behavioral tradition (1935; 1938; 1948). That is, something is going on inside the organism that mediates the link between what is perceived and what behaviour is performed. In the case of rats learning mazes, Tolman's views provide another springboard to cognitive psychology, for here Tolman argues that rats build up a mental representation or cognitive map of the environment they are in. Thus, in theory, a rat can respond to an environmental event (a stimulus) not by a direct motor response, but by referring the stimulus to its cognitive model, thereby assessing its significance by some mental process, and only then doing something about it (see his paper (1948) Cognitive maps in rats and men).

Tolman characterized his views as molar behaviourism, as opposed to what he termed Watson's molecular position. In Watson's view, behaviour could be defined as muscular responses caused by the stimuli with which they had become associated: in Tolman's view, a response category was associated with a stimulus. For example, if a person learned to withdraw their finger from an electrode when a warning signal preceded an electric shock, then the molecularist would say that a specific conditioned reflex has been learned. By contrast, a molar behaviourist would claim that a global avoidance response had been learned. Wickens (1938) did the experiment to distinguish these two predictions in this particular situation. Teach the above response, and then turn the subject's hand over. The Watsonian position predicts that a new reflex will have to be learned, as the original one will drive the finger into the electrode, while Tolman's position predicts that the subject will immediately avoid the shock since they have learned shock-avoidance, not a specific reflex. The results supported Tolman.

Tolman's students were also producing empirical results suggestive of animal's having cognitive processes. For example, that they learned expectancies, rather than S-R associations, or more radically, that they were constructing mental maps of situations. An experiment by Tinklepaugh (1928) illustrates the first point; and another by Macfarlane (1930) the second. Both are briefly discussed in the text (pp. 166-8).

What Tolman lacked was a metaphor. We find him in 1920 rejecting the view associated with Watson of 'organisms as slot-machines' in which any given stimulus elicited a reflexive response, as putting a coin into a vending machine does. Rather, Tolman saw an organism as 'a complex machine capable of various adjustments such that, when one adjustment was in force' a given stimulus would produce one response, while under a different internal adjustment, it would call out a different response. These adjustments could be caused by external stimuli or by changes within the organism. The metaphor Tolman needed was the computer, where the response to an input depends on its programming and its internal state.

4. The Birth of Cognitivism

There is no single 'true' story that can be given of any transition in intellectual history, so what I say here is just 'a' story, but I've tried to capture some of the changes that occurred during the 1950's and 60's that led to a marked shift in the dominant approach to psychology.

First, Skinner's radical behaviourism apart, the behaviourist's were beginning to move away from seeing all behaviour as caused by environmental events, and towards an acceptance of there being 'things within an organism' that played a role too. A number of these factors are discussed in Chapter 5 of the text. One of these needs emphasizing. From both the schools of Hull and Tolman, psychologists began to conceive of there being internal processes within an organism that 'mediate' the link between environmental stimulus and the organism's overt response. A stimulus could provoke an internal response which then acted as the stimuls that elicited overt behaviour.

For example, Clark Hull asked toward the end of his 1937 paper Mind, mechanism, and adaptive behavior the question:

But what of consciousness?
Hull was of the view that consciousness, cognition and other lapses into 'anthropomorphic subjectivism' could not be of any theoretical significance. But, he didn't wish to go along with Watson's view that consciousness didn't exist, or that it was some kind of peripheral response such as just sub-vocal speech. Consequently, he brought 'consciousness' into his theorizing, but in a way that would not cause him any trouble. He surmised that consciousness could play two possible roles. First, it might be a response to some external stimulus. Alternatively, it might serve as the stimulus to an external response. This latter would be of 'peculiar significance', for consciousness:
does not itself produce any change in the external world; neither does the act itself bring the organism any nearer to the food. What the act does is to produce the goal stimuli which evoke responses by the organism that tend to lead it to food, a mate, or whatever the goal or terminus of the action sequence at the time may be. In short, its function is strictly that of producing a critically useful stimulus in biological problem solution, i.e., it is a pure-stimulus act (Hull, 1952: 151).
The 'peculiar significance' of this is that in treating consciousness as a special case of the pervasive stimulus-response relationship, Hull could now argue that it is governed by the same laws as any other stimulus-response relationship.

Consequently, as Charles Osgood commented (1956): the great advantage of this solution is that, since each stage is an S-R process, we can simply transfer all the conceptual machinery of single-stage S-R psychology into this new model without new postulation'. All learning occurred by S-R association, in Osgood's view, but human learning involved internal associations as well as external ones.

This conceptual move worked to 'liberalize S-R theory' in the words of Neil Miller (1959). The problem with it was that the mediating links became increasingly complicated and cumbersome, as you will see if you go and look at Osgood's chapter in an early book on 'cognition' edited by Jermoe Bruner and his colleagues in 1957. Thomas Leahey's retrospective comments (1987) on these developments in behavioural theory strike me as a penetrating summary of the results of this 'liberalization' and what it contributed to over time:

While it was a major - perhaps the major - theoretical position in the 1950's, mediational behaviorism proved to be a bridge linking the inferential behaviorism of the 1930s and 1940s to the inferential behaviorism of the 1980s: cognitive psychology. ... The mediationalists' commitment to internalizing S-R language resulted primarily from their desire to preserve rigor and avoid the apparent unscientific character of 'junkshop psychology'. In essence, they lacked any other language with which to discuss the mental processes in a clear and disciplined fashion, and took the only course they saw open to them. However, when a new language of power, rigor, and precision came along - the language of computer programming - it proved easy for mediational psychologists to abandon their r-s life raft for the ocean liner of information processing (ibid: 395).

A second moving force towards cognitivism was a review of Skinner's (1957) book Verbal Behavior by a then young and obscure linguist, Noam Chomsky, in 1959 in the journal Language. This review is 'perhaps the single most influential psychological publication since Watson's behaviourist manifesto of 1913' (Leahey, 1987: 412). Aside from a blistering critical attack on what he saw as the inadequacies of Skinner's conceptualisation of language behaviour, Chomsky outlined a more credible alternative. In his view, the important thing about language is it's creativity. Every utterance is new, and Chomsky's argument was that no behaviourist theory can deal with creativity. The only way to do this is to work out the rule system that generates the utterances people come out with. These rules allow for regular patterns, but the individual words put into those patterns allow us to generate new sentences. These rules aren't learned (in fact, there are arguments that they cannot be learned), but are fundamental to language.

Chomsky describes language as having two levels of existence, which he distinguishes as 'deep' and 'surface' structures. Consider these two sentences: John is easy to please and John is eager to please. On the surface, these are the same structures, and, in grammatical terms, John is the 'subject' of both sentences. But underneath these surface similarities, Chomsky points out there are 'deep' differences: John is the grammatical subject of both sentences at the surface level, sure; but he is the logical object of the first sentence, and the logical subject of the second at a deeper level. Psychologically, the speaker has to know this distinction at this deeper level, otherwise speakers would apply their grammatical rules to these two sentences to come up with To please John is easy, which is OK, and To please John is eager, which is not. Chomsky's argument was that behaviourists, in their concentration on overt behaviour only, had restricted themselves to studying only the surface structure of language, and had thus entirely missed being able to say anything about the defining characteristics of language at the more psychologically important deep level.

Another line of Chomsky's attack was from the direction of ambiguous sentences such as Visiting relatives can be a nuisance; They are cooking apples; or The chicken is ready to eat. There are two different meanings for identical stimuli. Chomsky argued that when one hears a sentence then one analyzes its grammatical structure so as to make sense of it, and this is an act of one's mind, the mental structures involved are very real, even if they happen to be unobservable. To study only behaviour is to be unscientific! This point not only legitimates the unobservable, it changes the whole character of what the mediational behaviourists were starting to accept as to the nature of what might be unobservable but necessary in an explanation.

George Miller, who, along with Jerome Bruner at Harvard played a central role in the shift of psychology to a cognitive viewpoint, had held behaviourist views about language in the 1950s. As a result of Chomsky's work, Miller was able to say in 1962:

In the course of my work I seem to have become a very old-fashioned kind of psychologist. I now believe that mind is something more than a four letter, Anglo Saxon word - human minds exist, and it is our job to study them.
59 years after Watson's manifesto, and 'mind' was back in vogue.

The third force in this shift was Artificial Intelligence. I'm leaving this for a later lecture. But there's another issue to ponder here ...

5. An awkward or awful thought

What if, though for the wrong reasons, the behaviourists had a point: that mental or hypothetical entities are unnecessary fictions? Coming from a very different direction, the late philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein takes just this view. His arguments were directed against the Cartesian philosophy that Chomsky was invoking in his critique of behaviourism. He was of the view that it was this approach that had led, over a few centuries, to people actually believing that there are mental objects (such as sensations) and mental processes (such as memory) when there are in fact neither. This claim is a bit of a shock, really. It is embedded in a way of looking at human activity that states we cannot explain people's behaviour, but we can understand it if we take into consideration what he calls our forms of life. This takes us into deeper waters than I want to get into here, though I will come back to it at some point. But what I want to alert you to here is this: what if he's right?

We talk of processes and states and leave their nature undecided. Sometimes perhaps we shall know more about them - we think. But that is just what commits us to a particular way of looking at the matter. For we have a definite concept of what it means to learn to know a process better. The decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one we thought quite innocent (Wittgenstein, 1953: ).
Just bear this worry in mind for a while, especially when the notion of 'representation' crops up shortly.


Chomsky, N. (1959) Review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal behavior. Language 35: 26-58.

Farber, I.B. and Churchland, P.S. (1995) Consciousness and the neurosciences: Philosophical and theoretical issues. In M. Gazzaniga (Ed.) The cognitive neurosciences. Cambridge, MA: Bradford. Pp. 1295-1306.

Hull, C.L. (1937) Mind, mechanism and adaptive behavior. Psychological Review 44: 1-32

Hull, C.L. (1952) A behavior system. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kohler, W. (1947) Gestalt psychology: An introduction to new concepts in modern psychology. New York: Liveright Publishing Company.

Leahey, T. (1987) A history of psychology: Main currents in psychological thought. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Macfarlane, D.A. (1930) The role of kinesthesis in maze learning. University of California Publications in Psychology 4: 277-305.

Miller, G. (1962) Some psychological studies of grammar. American Psychologist 17: 748-62.

Miller, N. (1959) Liberalization of basic S-R concepts. In S. Koch (ed.) Psychology: Stady of a science, Vol 2. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Osgood, C. E. (1956) Behavior theory and the social sciences. Behavioral Sciences 1: 167-85.

Osgood, C. E. (1957) A behavioristic analysis of perception and language as cognitive phenomena. In J.S.Bruner, E.Brunswick, E.Festinger, K.F.Muenzinger, C.E.Osgood and D.Rapaport (eds) Contemporary approaches to cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Skinner, B.F. (1957) Verbal behavior Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Tinklepaugh, O.L. (1928) An experimental study of representative factors in monkeys. Journal of Comparative Psychology 8: 197-236.

Tolman, E. (1920) Instinct and purpose. Psychological Review 27: 217-33.

Tolman, E. (1935) Psychology vs. immediate experience. Philosophy of Science Reprinted in Tolman, 1966, Behavior and psychological man. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tolman, E. (1938) The determiners of behavior at a choice point. Psychological Bulletin 36: 1-41.

Tolman, E. (1948) Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological Review: 55: 189-209.

Wickens, D.D. (1938) The transference of conditioned extinction from one muscle group to the antagonistic muscle group. Journal of Experimental Psychology 22: 101-23.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

Back to Course Outline