Dewey (1898) and the reflex arc

[From Bruce Abbott (960929.1245 EST)]

Psychology as an attempted science was only 20 years old when Dewey wrote
"The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology," a paper that appeared in
_Psychological Review_ in 1898. It is interesting to think about where
psychology would be today if Dewey's view had been adopted. Below, I quote
a selected section of the paper that gives the essence of that view.

  The older dualism between sensation and idea is repeated in the current
  dualism of peripheral and central structures and functions; the older
  dualism of body and soul finds a distinct echo in the current dualism
  between stimulus and response. Instead of interpreting the character of
  sensation, idea, and action from their place and function in the sensori-
  motor circuit, we still incline to interpret the latter from our pre-
  conceived and preformulated ideas of rigid distinctions between sensations,
  thoughts, and acts. the sensory stimulus is one thing, the central
  activity, standing for the idea, is another thing, and the motor discharge,
  standing for the act proper, is a third. As a result, the reflex arc is
  not a comprehensive, or organic unity, but a patchwork of disjointed parts,
  a mechanical conjunction of unallied processes. What is needed is that the
  principle underlying the idea of the reflex arc as the fundamental psychical
  unity shall react into and determine the values of its constitutive factors.
  More specifically, what is wanted is that sensory stimulus, central con-
  nections and motor responses shall be viewed, not as separate and complete
  entities in themselves, but as divisions of labor, functioning factors,
  within the single concrete whole, now designated the reflex arc.

  What is the reality so designated? What shall we term that which is not
  sensation-followed-by-idea-followed-by-movement, but which is primary;
  which is, as it were, the psychical organism of which sensation, idea and
  movement are the chief organs? Stated on the physiological side, this
  reality may most conveniently be termed coordination. This is the essense
  of the facts held together by and subsumed under the reflex arc concept.
  Let us take, for our example, the familiar child-candle instance (James,
  Psychology, Vol. I, p. 25.) The ordinary interpretation would say the
  sensation of light is a stimulus to the grasping as a response, the burn
  resulting is a stimulus to withdrawing the hand as a response, and so on.
  There is, of course, no doubt that is a rough practical way of representing
  the process. But when we ask for its psychological adequacy, the case is
  quite different. Upon analysis, we find that we begin not with a sensory
  stimulus, but with a sensori-motor coordination, the optical-ocular, and
  that in a certain sense it is the movement which is primary, and the
  sensation which is secondary, the movement of body, head, and eye muscles
  determining the quality of what is experienced. In other words, the real
  beginning is with the act of seeing; it is looking, and not a sensation of
  light. The sensory quale gives the value of the act, just as the movement
  furnishes its mechanism and control, but both sensation and movement lie
  inside, not outside the act.

  Now if this act, the seeing, stimulates another act, the reaching, it is
  because both of these acts fall withiin a larger coordination; because
  seeing and grasping have been so often bound together to reinforce each
  other, to help each other out, that each may be considered practically a
  subordinate member of a bigger coordination. More specifically, the
  ability of the hand to do its work will depend, either directly or
  indirectly, upon its control, as well as its stimulation, by the act of
  vision. If the sight did not inhibit as well as excite the reaching, the
  latter would be purely indeterminate, it would be for anything or nothing,
  not for the particular object seen. The reaching, in turn, must both
  stimulate and control the seeing. The eye must be kept upon the candle if
  the arm is to do its work; let it wander and the arm takes up another task.
  In other words, we now have an enlarged and transformed coordination; the
  act of seeing is no less than before, but it is now seeing-for-reaching
  purposes. There is still a sensori-motor circuit, one with more content
  or value, not a substitution of a motor response for a sensory stimulus.

  Dewey, John (1898). The reflex arc concept in psychology. _Psychological
      Review_, _3_, 357-370. (Quoted material from Pp. 357-359.)

To answer Dewey's question, "What is the reality so designated?", it is a
control system. Dewey correctly intuits that each element within the
"coordination" (as he calls the control system) simultaneously affects the
others, and that the result is not a stimulus-bound act but purposful
behavior. Moreover, he clearly understands that coordinations such as
directed "seeing" themselves participate in higher-level coordinations such
as visually guided reaching and grasping. And, of course, Dewey's insights
were given the same open-minded reception by the scientific community then
as they continue to receive today.