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Lecture 6.....
Instructor:  Jeremy Jackson   |    Jan 4, 2017

Location:    Online    |   Blackboard


Key concepts - you will be responsible for knowing a number of definitions of key concepts. You may be asked to give an accurate definition and example of any of the key concepts. Key concepts are in italics, bolded and colored red throughout the notes.

Discussion questions - the lecture notes contain three discussion questions. These are to be answered on Blackboard at the times given in the syllabus.

Critical points - there are some points that require extra emphasis because they are fundamental to the example or concept being discussed. Critical points are bolded, in italics and colored orange.

Course learning objective questions - These are the questions given in the learning objectives document.


Operationism and Positivism

Let's begin

What are operationism and positivism? How did they influence the transition of psychology from the functionalist to the behaviourist era? Are we purely operationist in psychology today? Why or why not?

To illustrate how the operationist/positivist thinks about how science should be done I am going to quote to you some of Ernst Mach’s original work on the concept of Mass. This piece was taken from “The Science of Mechanics: Critical and Historical Account of it’s Development”, by Ernst Mach.

"Now that the preceding discussions have made us familiar with Isaac Newton’s ideas, we are sufficiently prepared to enter on a critical examination of them. We shall restrict ourselves primarily in this, to consideration of the concept of mass and the principle of reaction. The two cannot, in such an examination, be separated; in them is contained the gist of Newton’s achievement. In the first place we do not find the expression “quantity of matter” adapted to explain and elucidate the concept of mass, since the expression itself is not possessed of the requisite clearness….If, however, mechanical experiences clearly and indubitably point to the existence in bodies of special and distinct property determinative of accelerations, nothing stands in the way of our arbitrarily establishing the following definition: All those bodies are bodies of equal mass, which, mutually acting upon each other, produce in each other equal and opposite accelerations.….In our concept of mass no theory is involved; ‘quantity of matter’ is wholly unnecessary in it; all it contains is the exact establishment, designation and denomination of a fact".


There are 3 important things to note about this quotation:

1) The problem about the nature of mass to Mach is NOT the true essence of mass, its real nature. He is not engaged in a metaphysical or theoretical exercise designed to identify the essence of mass or what mass really is. So he is not doing what Wundt was doing when he engaged in philosophical speculation about the nature of consciousness. He does NOT have A THEORY ABOUT THE NATURE OF MASS.

2) This is VERY important. Mach is making the claim that definitions in science are arbitrary. He is saying that there is no true essence to the nature of mass. He is saying that mass is what ever we define it to be.

Now, let's look at the implication of this idea for Wundt's theorizing about the nature of consciousness. Mach would say of Wundt that he is wrong to speculate about the nature of consciousness. He would say that consciousness is what ever we have defined it to be and nothing more. He would say that consciousness is a state of self-awareness. This is what it has been defined to be and so it is nothing more.

Mach is saying that it is not necessary to invoke a theory to establish what something (e.g., mass) is. Mach is not theorizing about what mass is, he is defining it. He is making it what he thinks it should be for the purpose of clarity.

So, definitions are arbitrary in the sense that they are chosen to be what they are. So, for example, mass is not part of any essence of the universe, it is what ever is denoted by our concept of mass, which we make up as we deem fit.

Hence, the “what is mass” question is answered with the definition of mass. Now, this definition may be very complex, perhaps requiring entire chapters of a text to give, but nevertheless, this is what determines what something is to the operationist and/or positivist.

3) What was Mach doing above? He was attempting to remove the possibility for subjectivity in the determination of the mass of an object. He was saying that ‘mass=quantity of matter’ is unclear and/or ambiguous. When concepts are unclear and/or ambiguous, this invites the possibility for subjectivity/confusion in their use.

When faced with the question “what is it”, the operationist/positivist develops an extremely well defined technical definition of a usually new concept (i.e., the chemist develops the concept of H2O, they do not attempt to work with the every day concept of water).


This view of science begins in ancient Greece. Esper writes:

"The history of positivism might be said to extend from ancient times to the present. In ancient Greece it was represented by such thinkers as Epicurus, who sought to free men from theology by offering them an explanation of the universe in terms of natural law, and the Sophists, who wished to bring positive knowledge to bear on human affairs. The cumulative successes of the scientific method in the 17th and 18th centuries increasingly favored the acceptance of the positivistic attitude among intellectuals."


The idea behind the positivist view was really pretty simple. The basic issue to the positivist is the admissibility of hypothetical, theoretical, and/or unobservable phenomena in science. The positivist argues that the only thing that we can be sure of is that which is publicly observable. Since others can verify publicly observable phenomena, they are acceptable to a scientific practice in which verification and replication of results is essential.


Although the positivist view is often attributed to Auguste Comte , there was another very influential player that helped to establish positivism in physics. The same Ernst Mach I quoted above argued that scientific concepts must be defined only in terms of the procedures or operations used to measure them. In this way, scientific phenomena could be guaranteed to be publicly observable, verifiable and repeatable. Later, another physicist called Percy Bridgman would formalize this idea. In so doing, Bridgman invented a scientific rationale called operationism, which is, I believe, the philosophical basis for modern physics and chemistry (but not psychology).



Operationism essentially states that all concepts in science must be clearly and unambiguously defined. In operationism, definition is a human, rule-guided practice in which definitions serve as rules for the application of scientific concepts. Generally, the operationist holds that definitions are arbitrary in the sense that they are made up by the scientist to suite the purpose of scientific investigation – uniqueness, clarity, public observability, and consistency of use.

Let’s look at these 4 ideas more closely:

1) Uniqueness – the idea here is that there should be a single definition for any given scientific concept. The same thing should not be defined in multiple different ways. Take a look at the following:

On October 14, 1960, the Eleventh General Conference on Weights and Measures redefined the International Standard of Length as 1,650,763.73 vacuum wavelengths of light resulting from unperturbed atomic energy level transition 2p 10 ­ 5d 5 of the krypton isotope having an atomic weight of 86. The wavelength is

λ = 1 m / 1,650,763.73 = 0.605,780,211 µm

This is the definition of the meter as it was given in 1960. The 11th general conference represents a consortium of over 100 countries around the world that sign an agreement to define the meter as it is given here.

At any given point in time, the definition of the meter is unique. We all use the same definition.

Under this logic, for example, it would be wrong to say something like:

“What a meter is to you is different than what it is to me”.

Here, a meter is required to be the same thing for all of us.

The same logic applies to any concept. Take beauty for example. The operationist would say that it is wrong to say that:

"what beauty is to you is different than what it is to me."

Please note that this does not mean that we should all think the same things are beautiful. What beauty is is the same for you and me. But what particular things we each find beautiful may be different for you and me. I think Porsche's are beautiful, you may think Ferrari’s or VW Beetles are beautiful.

Under this logic we can have different opinions about what particular types of things are beautiful but not different opinions about what beauty is.

2) Clarity – the idea here is that definitions must be as clearly given as possible. Part of the reason for this highly technical definition of the meter that you see above is to make sure that we are extremely clear about what it is.

3) Public observability – the idea here is that the definition be stated in terms of publicly observable procedures of measuring. Private definitions are not allowed here. You are not allowed, for example, to have your own, private definition of beauty under this logic. What beauty is must be defined in public terms.

According to this logic, this is the role the dictionary plays in common language. It serves as the rule book for what things are. What beauty is is given in this book and this book is a public document.

Now, this holds for consciousness as well. What consciousness is is given in the dictionary. That is the public, shared source we all use as the standard of correctness on what consciousness is.

4) Consistency of use – this idea is related to uniqueness but it’s a little different. The idea is that we try to keep word meanings as consistent as possible over time. In operationism we do not want to constantly change definitions of things.

Now, it’s important to realize that point 4 does not mean that an operationist never allows definition to change. Under operationism it is admissible to change the definition of a concept. Operationists do not necessarily think that definition should be forever fixed.

However, the operationist does not welcome definition change. They do not really want to change definitions if they can help it. Why? Because once the definition of something is changed it now means that all of the research done with the old concept is now irrelevant. Consider the following example.

The following story was printed in the Toronto Sun on Thursday August 24 th, 2006. I have italicized and colored for emphasis.

PRAGUE (AP) — Leading astronomers declared Thursday that Pluto is no longer a planet under historic new guidelines ( a better word here would have been criteria, not guidelines….JJ ) that downsize the solar system from nine planets to eight.

After a tumultuous week of clashing the International Astronomical Union stripped Pluto of the planetary status it has held since its discovery in 1930. The new definition of what is — and isn’t — a planet fills a centuries-old black hole for scientists who have labored since Copernicus without one (Not exactly true. There did exist a definition of a planet. Just look in all the science textbooks. The problem was that the definition was not clear enough for the purpose of ongoing scientific work - JJ) .

The decision by the international group spells out the basic tests (instead of tests a better word here would have been criteria) that celestial objects will have to meet before they can be considered for admission to the elite cosmic club.

Much-maligned Pluto doesn’t make the grade under the new rules for a planet: “a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” (This is the new technical definition of planet - JJ)

Pluto is automatically disqualified because its oblong orbit overlaps with Neptune’s.

Instead, it will be reclassified in a new category of “dwarf planets,” similar to what long have been termed “minor planets.”

The definition also lays out a third class of lesser objects that orbit the sun — “small solar system bodies,” a term that will apply to numerous asteroids, comets and other natural satellites.

The decision at a conference of 2,500 astronomers from 75 countries was a dramatic shift from just a week ago, when the group’s leaders floated a proposal that would have reaffirmed Pluto’s planetary status and made planets of its largest moon and two other objects.

That plan proved highly unpopular, splitting astronomers into factions and triggering days of sometimes combative debate that led to Pluto’s undoing.


In this story we see that the community of astronomers made-up a new definition of planet. They now share a clear, unique definition that they will apply consistently (all textbooks will use the same definition for example). But they have changed the old definition so Pluto is now not a planet. This means that, strictly speaking, every high-school textbook must now be changed. Facts about planets are now different (for example, there are now fewer planets than all the textbooks currently say there are).

Because of all the upheaval new definitions cause, there is often great resistance to changing a definition in operationism. The operationist is not cavalier about changing definitions!

Just watch this astounding video of the final day of the 2006 IAU conference as the assembly of astronomers debates, questions, and asks for clarification about how they propose to redefine the word planet. The video ends with the VOTE in which they DECIDE what the word planet is going to mean. Remember, this is operationism in practice!

By the way....you will never watch a more important video for your intellectual development than this one. The insight this gives in to how science and scientific language works within the operational sciences is enormous. If you ever wanted to understand the difference between psychology/sociology/criminology/political science and the hard sciences like physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy...this is the way to begin!


Watch the video....here.


So, in operationism then, we do not discover what things are simply because we make this up . In science, it is the scientist that determines the meaning of concepts and hence meaning can never be discovered. Critical to the logic of operationism is the operational definition. An operational definition is a precise statement of the procedures and operations used to measure the concept. In the above, for example, astrnomours were engaged in an attempt to get a definition as clear as possible in the multiple, varying contexts in which they imagined that the word planet would be used.

You may notice that the group was really struggling with the COMMON USAGE problem of the word planet. That is, that ordinary people would need to understand the definition and use the word. This made it next to impossible to take a purely operational approach and so phrases like "nearly round" and "dwarf planet" caused the definition to look a little unlike a real, very clear scientific definition.

We do have such definitions in psychology! Consider IQ.

We say things like "IQ is an operational definition of intelligence". IQ is a technical, scientific concept that was made-up for the purpose of scientific investigation. To the operationist, IQ is NOT THE SAME THINGS AS intelligence. To the operationist, what intelligence is is given in the dictionary. There is no mystery or need to speculate, theorize or engage in any other form of metaphysical speculation about what intelligence is.

But, to the operationist, intelligence is like many other everyday concepts in that it is not clear enough for the purpose of scientific investigation. The operationist’s solution is to operationally define a new, very clear, technical concept that roughly has something to do with the everyday concept and use this new concept in scientific work.

So lets look at the case of IQ and intelligence.

To the operationist, IQ is not intelligence but it is somewhat in the domain of it (but they don’t really care…they left intelligence behind when they defined IQ).

The definition of IQ is as follows:


IQ=15{(x- m )/ s } + 100



X= the individual’s percent correct on a given IQ test

m = the mean percent correct of the norm group

s = the standard deviation of the norm group


The norm group is a large number of subjects (say around 500) that have taken the given IQ test. Generally, the norm group is a group with a given nationality, gender and age range (for example, North American males between 21 and 50).

So let’s say that we give the WAIS-R (one of about 80 IQ tests in current use) to a 45-year-old Canadian male. The man scores 68% correct. Lets also say that the norm group we have is a group of 500 randomly selected American males between 21 and 50. Imagine that the average for this group is 60% and the standard deviation is 4%. The IQ of our Canadian male would be:

IQ=15{(68- 60)/4} + 100


Now, let’s look at this operational definition of IQ to see if it has the 4 qualities that the operationist wants to see.

It is clear? We get an objective number, no confusion and no subjectivity.

It is public? The procedures for determining the IQ are published in textbooks and can be followed in public view (just as I did now).

Is it used consistently? Consistency of use is high just because the definition of IQ has not changed much since the idea was introduced over 100 years ago.

Is it unique? Unfortunately, our definition of IQ is not unique. The reason for this is easy to see. Since we have about 80 different IQ tests in current use, any individual may have 80 different IQ scores. This is because the tests have different kinds of questions so individuals will not always perform at the same level on different tests. So, by definition, this means that each individual has 80 different possible IQ scores - one for each IQ test in current use.

We also do not specify in the definition of IQ exactly what norm group any individual should be compared to. We do not specifically say what group a 45-year-old Canadian male should be compared to. Is it admissible to compare a female to a male norm group? Nowhere in our definition above do we specify this.

Now, imagine there are 10 reasonable norm groups for any individual to be compared with. If so, each individual has 10x80=800 possible IQ scores.

So a true operationist would not actually like the current definition of IQ very much because it is not unique.

Now, it’s important to understand that much of early psychology was not operationist. The reason for this is that consciousness was not defined in terms of publicly observable phenomena. Mental elements are not publicly observable. I can’t inspect your mental elements and you can’t inspect mine. Much of the criticism of introspection as defined by Titchener (Chapter 5 in your text) is that introspection reveals only private impressions, feelings, sensations, etc, which are not open to public view.

It’s also important to understand that the orientation of most of the physical sciences is operationist in nature today. Psychology, however, is not solely operationist today. Although we use some ideas from operationism, we do actually take a different view on definition than the operationist. We will see this later when we encounter a method known as construct validity.

By the way, operationism is what makes physics and chemistry courses so difficult. Just to begin to understand the course material, the student must learn a new language and use the concepts of that language EXACTLY as they are defined. Ambiguity, sloppiness, unclarity, personal meaning, etc., just aren’t allowed.

Exercise: In this exercise, I want you to make up your own operational definition of a psychological concept. Create a new word, define it in the way an operationist would (clear, unique, public, shared) and prepare to give it as an example in our next class. For instance, an operational definition of stress might be:

SI=(hours/wk)*sqrt(# of dependants)*(debt)/(supporters+1)


SI=stress index

hours/wk=The average number of hours per week in paid work

# of dependants= the number of people that work directly for you+the number of people that depend upon your financial contribution to the home

debt=personal debt in 100's of thousands.

supporters=number of people in your home that take care of house-hold chores/duties for you.


So, for instance, if I work 60 hours per week, have 12 people working directly under me and have 4 children, a 500,000 mortgage and no-one at home (I'm a single dad with no help from grandparents) then:




Now, the job of the scientist is to discover things about the SI. For instance, what is the highest SI in BC? How is the SI related to risk of heart-attack, divorce, depression, etc?

A word about the relationship between social constructionism (lecture 2) and operationism. Some of you may be thinking that the process of making up defintions, as is done in operationism, is the same process proposed by social constructionism....that is that meanig is socially constructed...made-up by people and so arbitrary. If you noticed this link...well done. I'd like to caution you though not to view these two ideas as synonymous with each other. They are very different ideas.

Listen to the following for an account of the differences.




This position is strongly related to operationism. The idea here is just that science should not include any hypothetical constructs, theoretical constructs or speculation about the existence of entities that are not directly observable.

In fact, much of Wundt’s philosophy of consciousness contains a great deal that the positivist would object to. They would reject the idea of a mental element, apperception, tridimensional theories of feeling and so on. All of these concepts are theoretical/hypothetical in the sense that they are not and have not been directly and publicly observed. The answer to the request:


“Show me apperception”

Is a simple:


“I can’t”


Why not? Because apperception is a hypothesized process that we believe exists but cannot say for certain because we cannot show it to you.

Now, interestingly, there have existed hypothetical/theoretical constructs in physics and chemistry for a long time. We still have some today. Concepts such as the big bang, dark matter and spin particles are all hypothetical in the sense that they have not been directly observed.

So we have two issues with operationism and positivism. The issue in operationism is clear, precise, unique, public definitions of concepts. This is a generally accepted and followed view in physics and chemistry but not in psychology or philosophy. In positivism we have the view that only directly observable phenomena should be part of science. The positivist is not happy to include hypothetical constructs like mental elements, spin particles or the big bang. In my own experience with physicists, chemists, medical doctors, etc., positivism is tolerated as an annoying but sometimes useful evil. The physicist employs hypothetical constructs but does not respect these constructs in they way the respect observable phenomena. They certainly don’t welcome hypothetical constructs with open arms. One way to put it is to say that they are often skeptical about any entity that is hypothetical or theoretical.

But psychologists and philosophers take a very different view about positivism than does a physicist or chemist. As in physics we have hypothetical constructs in psychology. We have a lot of them. But in psychology, with the exception of the behaviorism era, which we will see in the next week or so, we have generally relished hypothetical constructs and accepted them as a necessary part of science. You will see later that cognitive psychology is founded upon a large number of hypothetical constructs. Psychological testing also involves a great deal of hypothesizing about the nature of phenomena like intelligence, personality and so on.

In my own view, the difference in how psychology views operationism and positivism are the fundamental differences between it and the physical sciences like physics, chemistry and medicine.

Now let’s get back to the history of psychology.


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