The Import of Skinner's Three-Term Contingency

Behavior and Philosophy 24 (2):145 - 167 (1996)

Skinner moved his behavior analysis into a selection-by-consequences tradition that largely if not completely replaced the mechanistic apparatus in the mechanistic tradition of early behaviorism. However, remnants of that apparatus have not been abandoned by some behavior analysts who have appealed to Skinner for support. For example, some behavior analysts have made claims in support of Newtonian mechanism, physical determinism, predominant similarities between the views of the mechanist Jacques Loeb and those of Skinner, and interpreting Skinner's operant as a two-term contingency. These claims have been made with appeals to Skinner for their validity. Such claims support a realignment of Skinner's behavior analysis with the mechanistic tradition that served as a framework for many early behaviorists. But Skinner's account of his three-term contingency does not support such claims. The view presented here argues that Skinner's operant is integrated as a three-term unit within a selectionist tradition that has explanatory origins in probabilistic relations and random variation. This tradition is fundamentally opposed to a mechanistic tradition that has explanatory origins in determinism and its manifestations in paired connections of if-then necessity.
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