I'm a little unclear on where exactly the distinction is made between logical behaviorism and functionalism. The ability to experience pain, for instance, would seem to increase my chances of survival if, say, I am in danger of being burned alive. The pain I experience would contribute to behavior aimed at removing the threat. Would this relationship between my brain states and actions then be an example of behaviorism or functionalism? Or would it be both?

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    – J D
    Oct 21, 2020 at 15:40

1 Answer 1


Short Answer

Both behaviorism and functionalism are related to the philosophy of mind, but they do so in slightly different ways. Functionalism is an idea about the relationship between material things such as brains and abstract things such as thoughts and minds and roughly maintains that it's not what the brain is made of that is important, but how it works that is somehow related to the mind. Logical behaviorism is a perspective that aspires to scientific objectivity in regards to the social sciences particularly psychology and was championed by the Vienna Circle and Oxfordians like Gilbert Ryle. Ultimately, some flavors of functionalism aspired to the same end as logical behaviorism by appealing heavily to behavioral dispositions for explanation without completely banning reference to mental states.

Long Answer

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Vienna Circle split radically with German Idealism and started down the path of the analytical tradition separating themselves from the coming Continental philosophy of the mainland. From Hempel's own The Logical Analysis of Psychology:

The method characteristic of the studies of the Vienna Circle can be briefly defined as a logical analysis of the language of science.

Further on, he goes to say:

Perhaps the best way to characterize the position of the Vienna Circle as it relates to psychology, is to say that it is the exact antithesis... that there is a fundamental difference between experimental psychology... and introspective psychology.

In short, men like Carnap, Hempel, and Neurath saw the phenomenological inherently connected to the noumenonological. The tension between the relationship between the physical and that which was endowed with meaning or the abstract was planted heavily in the Western conscience by Cartesian dualism, and this question of behavior and thought was again revisited by the philosophical clashes of psychologism before and during the time of Gottlob Frege, who is commonly called the father of analytical philosophy.

The Vienna Circle and philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle in his The Concept of the Mind attacked the dichotomy between the logical, psychological, and physical. In fact, Gilbert Ryle is known for his coining of the term 'categorical mistake' in his rejection of Cartesian duality, and maintained his own version of logical behaviorism. From 'Psychology', the last chapter of his book:

In the course of this book I have said very little about the science of psychology... [which is perverse] since the entire book could properly be described as an essay... in philosophical psychology... I have been examining the logical behaviour of a set of concepts all of which are regularly employed by everyone.

Hence, by analyzing language, logical behaviorists sought to show that the language which represented phenomenological expression was an artifact of science itself, and that the methods of Wilhelm Wundt should be applied equally to the analysis of logical basis of language as it was to neurophysiology, generally speaking. That is the nature of logical behaviorism. This was done by translating a set of statements about mental state to those of behavioral dispositions.

Functionalism is a different beast because it attempts to characterize the relationship between the physical and mental in a particular fashion by claiming that mental states are dependent not on material constitution, but function. From SEP: Functionalism:

Functionalism is the doctrine that what makes something a thought, desire, pain (or any other type of mental state) depends not on its internal constitution, but solely on its function, or the role it plays, in the cognitive system of which it is a part. More precisely, functionalist theories take the identity of a mental state to be determined by its causal relations to sensory stimulations, other mental states, and behavior.

Where the two meet is that a type of functionalism called by the same article "analytical functionalism" which attempts to preserve what is good in logical behaviorism. One of the methods of logical behaviorism was to reduce a statement about mental state to a statement purely in dispositional terms. To be hungry, in essence, was logically equivalent to occurrent and dispositional eating. But the problem with that is sometimes people are hungry and don't eat, and sometimes they eat and aren't hungry. At the end of Section 2.1:

[A]s many philosophers have pointed out... logical behaviorism provides an implausible account of the meanings of our mental state terms, since, intuitively, a subject can have the mental states in question without the relevant behavioral dispositions.

In Section 3.3:

Like the logical behaviorism from which it emerged, the goal of analytic functionalism is to provide "topic-neutral" translations... of our ordinary mental state terms... Analytic functionalism... permits reference to the causal relations that a mental state has to stimulations, behavior, and other mental states.

So here we have the crux of the difference. Whereas a logical behaviorist, much like psychological brother or sister would reject ANY reference to mental states, one form of functionalism strives to the same end, but softens the stance on using terminology in reference to mental state. In this way, explanations for behavior could be given in terms of the relation of one mental state to another attempting to bridge the explanatory gap created in a situation of why someone might eat who is not hungry, for instance, out of anxiety, which itself is a mental state not allowed to be invoked under logical behaviorism.

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