Franklin Fearing

  • Reflex Action

    A Study in the History of Physiological Psychology

    Franklin Fearing

    Faith in the new cybernetic technology has led many people to discern mindlike behavior in automata and to predict that soon we shall have machines that exhibit most of the qualities of the human mind. This modern attitude is not unlike the seventeenth-century faith that mechanical principles would explain the sensibilities and actions of animate bodies.

    Fearing's account begins, as it must, with Descartes, who invented a mechanical model—the reflex—to interpret action. Descartes, though, exempted mind from the same explanation; he found the products of mind too complex to be grouped together with the actions of machines of the type then known. His qualms were not shared by successors such as La Mettrie whose L'Homme Machine established a new tradition, now given great encouragement by modern developments in computing machinery.

    Beginning then with this contrast between Descartes and his near contemporaries, we find a duality of concern in what becomes reflex doctrine. The three centuries following have witnessed recurring debates on the various issues centered around attempts to explain both man's action and thought in terms of the mechanics of the reflex. The division corresponds roughly to the difference between the labors of the nerve physiologist and the explanatory programs of the philosopher-cum-psychologist.

    It may be surprising to those who have viewed reflex action as a topic in physiology that the author of this most complete history of the topic was, in fact, a psychologist. But this fact is thoroughly explicable in terms of the role that reflex notions had come to play in the psychology of the time when this book was originally published in 1930.

    Throughout the book Fearing takes pains not only to detail progress in clarifying the physiological basis of the reflex but also to explicate the debates that centered around naturalistic interpretations of animal and human action. He presents these developments with complete scholarly detachment.

    The fate of the reflex interpretation of behavior more than illuminates past efforts at comprehending the behavior of animals and men—it also introduces some sobering thoughts for the future of such efforts.

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