C-19. Concepts and pseudo-theory

Concepts are engaging. They capture particulars of more or less similarity. They range in their similarity; from categories whose instances possess some similarity to classes whose instances possess a striking similarity. (So, Hayakawa’s Bessie the cow is a member of a class until she becomes a member of a category such as an economic commodity. Category members may not resemble each other much at all [e.g., various games] but a three-legged cow is indubitably a cow.) They attract the territorial interests — and claims – of professional observers. They sort things, more or less. (They do not, in the British slang sense, sort things out.) They grasp to include but, unfortunately, their including offers a tenuous grasp. Conceptual terms provide endless grief in their inevitable demand for definition (V). Conceptual usage is addictive. We become habituated to thinking in and with these terms (IV). Thus, for example, once acquired, one may see “stimuli” and “responses” at every turn of behavior, imposing an impediment to the better understanding of behavioral conditions.

Gathering up instances of similar particulars, concepts perform a summary function for observers and for the sharing of observations. Theory too has a summary function. But summary is not the only, nor is it the most consequential, function of theory. Along with prediction and control implications (i.e. as an informative structure), theory provides – at least it should – explanation. Concepts do not, although they may be employed in an explanation. However, as Kaplan points out, there is a difference between seeing an explanation and having one. A concept may purport to explain, as when it collects relationships, even very globby relationships – which are all too common in our anatomy-impoverished views of behavior. They may allude as metaphor as if to explain. But behavioral concepts, especially, too often resemble glorified common nouns, labels employing classification, a procedural tool (App. VII), in pursuit of generality via sorted particulars (IV).

All this conceptual pretension to explanation is pseudo-theory. (Note what happens to Bessie.)

When it comes to behavior, explanation is arguably the most needed theoretical function. Summary, prediction and control capabilities cannot furnish all the capability that our enduring incompletely instructed condition imposes on us. If we are going to become able to look forward more effectively we need explanation to complement what prediction can contribute. This forward-looking capability has its roots in the general principles of the Nature of Things: the persisting general conditions and their implications, especially behavioral requisites and imperatives for effective agency, plus an understanding of behavioral anatomy, the structure of the behavioral molecule. But it needs further development. BFPS offers a theoretical scaffolding to help and to support that effort. (See App. VII.)

(c) 2011 R. F. Carter