Language Creates Consciousness: Behaviorism and the Origin of Consciousness (A short account)

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The idea of consciousness has permeated our discussions all throughout subjects like psychology and philosophy. The phenomenon has been known by many different names; awareness, self-reflectiveness, self-knowledge, cognizance, internal supervision etc (for the sake of simplicity, I will simply call it ‘consciousness’). But, however, none have been able to accurately capture it’s essence, or even offer an exhaustive and complete description of it’s true nature.

Many might ask: is it nature or nurture, or both? Many theorists and past-to-present researchers suggest varying avenues and perspectives on consciousness. I neverthless want to offer a short account of one advocate, from the behaviorist tradition in psychology, who says consciousness is brought about by nurture.

B.F. Skinner believed the human was a tabula rasa (latin for ‘blank slate’) and being the fact that he assumed this, he believed that the human, or ‘organism’, as he called any living within the environment–to which it is always in interaction with–learns constantly from the environment; and is consistently shaped and conditioned in ways relevant to the surrounding environment. Humans in particular have advanced higher-order functioning that allows them to develop language. Which, then,  allows us to communicate ideas, feelings, thoughts to others as well as to conceptualize what we hear from others to manageable linguistic representations. These mental or linguistic representations are what we keep with us and use throughout our lives as we use language to communicate whatever ideas, feelings, thoughts we reflect back to others. It becomes a sea of language and meaning that impacts our development, and even what we perceive.

Skinner called this flow or exchange of language, institutions of language, or language constructs–whatever you might want to call it–verbal communities (1957). We, as a social species, participate, inevitably, in these verbal communities as a result of our developing in cultures or societies; groups. Groups need to communicate with each other. As was said, this communication (via language) has an impact on our development, from a biological, physiological, psychological, and sociological level.  One of those developments created by language, Skinner believed, is our consciousness.

As he summarizes this position he says(1988):

“I believe that all nonhuman species are conscious in the sense [that]…They see, feel, hear, and so on, but they do not observe that they are doing so[…]a verbal community asks the individual such questions as, “What are you doing?”, “Do you see that?”, “What are you going to do?”, and so on, and thus supplies the contingencies for self-descriptive behavior that is at the heart of a different kind of awareness or consciousness” –B. F. Skinner (p. 278-381)

(A contingency, for those of you who are not familiar with behaviorist terminology, is respondent behavior, or behavior that is dependent on a certain responses or provocations from the environment)

As mentioned earlier, the idea that language, in a sense, creates the phenomenon of consciousness was a position that Skinner was a proponent of when you consider the fact that he viewed the human individual as a blank slate–literally, the environment is our painter and we are the blank canvas. So it would be understandable from such a standpoint to see consciousness as a phenomenon of nurture. The interesting part, here, is that Skinner viewed that the verbal(social) community we take apart in as providers of questions critical to the development of our consciousness and self-reflective behavior. Educational institutions such as school, disciplinary, management, schools of philosophy or psychology teach us to “supervise” our behavior, to fully recognize that our actions have consequences that are either desirable or non-desirable within a context, be aware of psychological processes that underlie our behavior, or institutions that motivate us to ask powerful and profound questions that have perplexed people all throughout history about meaning, existence, and reality. All these questions come from different sectors of our educational institutions(verbal communities) causes us to direct our attention to ourselves, our own actions, thoughts, feelings, ideas; creating the phenomenon known as consciousness.

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it seems that Skinner’s position is very tenable. Society reflects these critical questions to us that cause us to ponder on our inner processes and behaviors, and so we become dependent on these variables in order to achieve consciousness, according to Skinner.

Spinoza as Behaviorist

One of the greatest reinforcers and, most likely, proponents of Skinner’s approach as a more explanatory and pragmatic view, is the philosopher Benedict Spinoza. Spinoza, who came far earlier than Skinner, was the first to provide an environment-dependent view of consciousness. He says(2005, 1677):

SPINOZA“[…] if we consider our mind, we see that our intellect would be more imperfect, if mind were alone, and could understand nothing besides itself. There are, then, many things outside ourselves, which are useful to us, and are, therefore, to be desired” (p. 189)

Understanding was an important aspect in Spinoza’s overall assertion in his philosophy (of which I will not elaborate further for purposes of staying on theme). He asserted that “things”(be it language or otherwise) are useful to us in the sense that we can perceive nothing besides ourselves. Seemingly encased in our mind, we cannot know the difference between our minds and other things; differentiation would be impossible. But consciousness, this self-reflective awareness who’s nature and etiology is still is a mystery to us today, is the differentiation of self and not-self; that is, in Spinoza’s terms, we have a  mind that we use to distinguish ourselves from and the other things, the ‘me’ and ‘the other’, as most people would agree.

Thus Spinoza, like Skinner, saw the importance of our surroundings in order to develop understanding/consciousness, self-awareness, or whatever you might want to call it. For understanding, or any significant notion of it, would be in its primacy without surroundings or an environment(and as Skinner believed; a verbal community) that provides us some sort of feedback that impacts and initiates our development of consciousness or understanding. How we would achieve this height, and as mentioned earlier, is through our society/group; the verbal community that our society/group embodies, and is.

Conclusion

Consciousness is a tricky thing to investigate thoroughly and to anyone’s satisfaction. So to describe it completely would be a daunting task. Many researchers and philosophers have given various accounts of consciousness, some agreeing and others diametrically opposed. But one thing is clear here, as far as my short illustration goes; consciousness is to some degree created by our surroundings and environment. And as Skinner held, society(i.e. language constructs), the verbal community to which we inevitably partake, is a crucial factor in the development and etiology of consciousness.

References:

Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.

Skinner, B.,F. (1988). Reply to commentaries on Behaviorism at Fifty, in The Selection of Behavior. The Operant Behaviorism of B.F. Skinner: Commentaries and Consequences. A.C. Catania and S. Harnad, eds. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp. 278-381.

Spinoza D., B. (2005, 1677). Ethics And On The Improvement Of The Understanding. Manhattan, NY: The Barnes & Noble Library Of Essential Reading.

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