Peter Sedgwick

Behaviour and Action

(Winter 1966/67)

Peter Sedgwick, Behaviour and Action, International Socialism (1st series), No.27, Winter 1966/67, p.37. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The structure of behaviour, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Methuen, 35s

The explanation of behaviour, Charles Taylor, Routledge, 40s

Both these books are essays in the philosophy of behavioural science, and devote a series of arguments to an attack on ‘stimulus-response’ or ‘reflex’ psychology of the sort that derives ultimately from Pavlov. They are, however, written front very different standpoints. Merleau-Ponty was a neo-Hegelian writer in the ‘phenomenological’ tradition, which seeks to achieve a satisfactory description of reality by inspecting the contents of the philosopher’s consciousness of his world. In The structure of behaviour, he discerned several different orders of ‘signification’ in nature. There is a physical plane, applying to non-living structures, an organic plane, and a mental plane, whose cardinal feature is goal-directed action.

There is supposedly no causal link between one level of significance and another, but when function at a higher plane breaks down we are to bring in an explanation at a lower level.

A good deal of this argument is interesting. Merleau-Ponty had a much more positive interest in science than most other European philosophers in this school. He explicitly attacks the idealism of Sartre’s split between ‘thing-in-itself’ and ‘thing-for-itself,’ which is a fairly traditional matter-mind dualism. However, Merleau-Ponty’s own triple division of the world has a strangely anti-scientific flavour, especially insofar as he excludes causality from the explanation of normal behaviour. Causal explanation is said to apply only in pathological cases; however, since the question of what is pathological or queer partly gets decided by social criteria, there is little to be said for operating a sharp logical division between explanations of the normal and the abnormal.

There are brilliant foreshadowings and hints throughout the hook, and as a polemical exercise it has its uses. However, much of the experimental reportage is outdated, nothing being cited after the early 1940s (when the original edition came out). The ungainly, literal translation makes a difficult work incomprehensible most of the time; no scientific glossary is given, though many terms and expressions are unfamiliar even to a scientifically sophisticated reader.

The project of ‘phenomenological reduction’ undertaken by Merleau-Ponty looks like a piece of grand self-deception. This exquisite and eloquent logical exercise is supposed to arise from a straight inspection of the way in which objects display themselves in perception. The unity of each piece of behaviour, for example, is said to be revealed by ‘pure description’ (author’s emphasis). In much the same way, British philosophers have imagined that their sophisticated constructs about perceptual atoms represented some irreducible given in consciousness (or that an elaborate theory about the unity of the body and mind was an elucidation of ordinary language, a ‘descriptive metaphysics’). Just as a Freudian’s unconscious is invariably quite different from that of a disciple of Jung, the philosopher’s method of inspecting consciousness to discover the basic logical features of the universe produces startling discrepancies among different observers.

Charles Taylor’s book deals mostly with fairly recent theories of animal behaviour. Taylor is sympathetic to the Continental tradition of philosophy, but on the whole uses the style of logical rather than phenomenological analysis. A lot of his criticism of neo-Pavlovian theory is close in-fighting; it is hard to tell whether the writers under attack would have an effective rebuttal, since behavioural theories have an unfortunate habit of sprouting corollaries and complications in great abundance in order to cope with special cases. Much simpler qualifications in behaviourist theory, amounting to a new approach, have in any case been made by cybernetic writers on the basis of empirical research. Like Merleau-Ponty, Taylor takes the view that there is a logical gap between explanation in terms of cause and explanation by purpose. You can explain only ‘movements’ by cause; ‘actions’ must have purpose. However, the cybernetic psychologists have produced quite a number of explanatory models, some of them embodied in actual machines, which are both causally determined (indeed, self-determined) and capable of flexible, goal-directed action. Taylor hardly deals with these, and in the end leaves it very unclear whether the ‘intentionality’ he offers in opposition to causal determining simply means ‘goal-directedness’ (in which case even an automatic washing-machine displays it) or else is some kind of mental splodge. There are some sensitive descriptions of animal behaviour at the end of the book, but the only explanatory principle that is offered is to the effect that animals have a propensity to make their way in the world. Well, if they didn’t, they would have died out; it is still interesting to ask ‘What are the structures that evolution has selectively favoured and which enable them (and us) to cope?’

Both these writers would like to think that there is an extra ‘something’ in the explanation of behaviour, a boundary beyond which natural science cannot go. It is possible to take a different path, and attempt to evolve a view of action which can do justice to the assumptions of both life and the laboratory, integrating man’s social with his biological nature. Such a prospect is at least more feasible now, in the light of cybernetic developments, than at any time previously. The theologian and the existentialist appear to have a vested interest in denying this possibility. In the end, Taylor is content to leave the question open for experiment to decide. It will be interesting to see if ‘the philosophy of behaviour’ can maintain an independent function as the implications of scientific advance in this field are further developed and publicised.

Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 20.12.2007