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Selected Writings from a Connectionist's Psychology: A Book Review


by Mark A. May - 1949

Review of E.L. Thorndike's book: Selected Writings from a Connectionist's Psychology. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, 1949.


PROFESSOR Thorndike has rendered a valuable service to teachers and students of psychology and education by putting together in one volume important articles and selected portions of some of his books2 that "may go out of print."1 The volume will be particularly useful to those who want an authentic text of Thorndikian psychology, but who have neither the time nor the patience to read through the 100,000 or more pages of his writings. It may be read with profit by social scientists who are looking for the psychological foundations of human abilities, wants, and behavior.


The selections are arranged in an orderly sequence, beginning with the principles and conditions of learning and thinking, followed by chapters on mental abilities, heredity and environment, valuations and personality, and ending with selected articles on language, semantics, labor, values, and Darwin's contributions to psychology. This arrangement, plus the interstitial "tissue" of comments which tie the chapters together, gives the volume a coherence and unity that lift it out of the class of a loosely connected collection of writings.


Learning occupies a central position in Thorndike's psychology. Approximately the first half of this book is samples of his experimental work, and conclusions drawn from it, on the essential conditions of learning. He presents materials on the influence of reward, punishment, belongingness, repetition, mental systems, primacy, and the selective processes. Practically all of these selections are from his later work on human learning.


Basic to education is the ability to learn. Early in his career and owing largely to the influence of Darwin and Galton, Thorndike investigated individual differences in native abilities, which led eventually to the preparation of his scale for measuring intelligence. He has included in this volume only selections from his basic research on mental abilities and heredity and environment.


After the first few years of life, the bulk of human learning is linguistic or symbolic. Out of the abundance of his material on words, sentences, and their meanings he has included two selections, one on "The Origin of Language" and the other on "The Psychology of Semantics."


Although the word "connectionist" occurs in the title, there is nothing in the book about "connectionism" in contrast to "gestaltism" or any other general psychological theory. In fact there is very little theory in the book except in the first three chapters, where the author includes selections that state his view on the nature of reinforcement (as a confirming reaction) and on why punishment does not subtract strength from a connection. Practically every chapter in the volume contains factual material, but not in the detail that is characteristic of most of Thorn-dike's books.


I am glad that Professor Thorndike has included so many selections in which he has, from time to time during his career, stressed the fact that modern psychology is a natural science. The mind and spirit of man are just as natural and amenable to scientific investigation as his anatomy and physiology. Thorndike's article on "Darwin's Contribution to Psychology" was written just forty years ago. In it he points out that Darwin taught two great principles: first that of the continuity of life from some unknown beginning down to the present day; and second that the minds of men as well as their bodies are parts of nature. He (Thorn-dike) says, "It is only because our intellects and morals—the mind and spirit of man—are a part of nature, that we can be in any significant sense responsible for them, proud of their progress, or trustful of their future."


In the chapter on "Analytic and Selective Processes" there is a passage that I have often quoted to my students as characteristic of Thorndike's firm conviction that thinking is a lawful process subject to scientific study.


There is no arbitrary hocus pocus whereby man's nature acts in an unpredictable spasm when he is confronted with a new situation. His habits do not retire to some convenient distance while some new mysterious entities direct his behavior....A closer examination of selective thinking will show that no principles beyond the laws of readiness, exercise, and effect are needed to explain it.


Again, in the chapter on "Science and Values" he takes sharp issue with the position that the role of science is limited to helping man get what he wants and has no part in determining what is good or best for him. Values are derived basically from satisfiers, which are parts of nature and amenable to scientific study. They do not reside in some exalted sphere that is inaccessible to science.


It is certainly undesirable for men of science to restrict their thinking to what is and will be, leaving to propagandists and reformers and talkers the decisions about what ought to be.


The natural science of psychology is or should be the foundation on which to erect a more useful social science. In a comment appended to his autobiography, which is the introductory chapter, Thorndike refers to an effort that he made from 1934 to 1940 to make psychology a basic part of anthropology, sociology, economics, law, and other social sciences. He wrote Human Nature and the Social Order (1940) and Your City (1939) and contributed a number of articles to leading social science journals. Yet he says now (1948) that these books and articles have had little influence on teaching or research in the social sciences.


I may venture two comments on this. First, in due time some social scientists may "discover" these excursions of Professor Thorndike's and make good use of them. Second, for several years some social scientists took a lively interest in "instinct theory" as a basis for economic and political behavior, but found later that the psychologists had abandoned it. Recently some anthropologists and sociologists have found that "learning theory" constitutes a much more substantial foundation for their sciences than instinct theory ever did. I cite as one example Professor G. P. Murdock's recent book on Social Structure.


Although books like Your City may make little or no dent on academic sociologists, yet I predict that the time will come when a knowledge of the principles and conditions of learning will be a standard requirement for advanced degrees in the social sciences. One of the required readings may very well be Selected Writings from a Connectionist's Psychology, by E. L. Thorndike.


The foregoing review of Thorn-dike's Selected Writings was written and sent in to The Record just before his death. I append here a few words of tribute to the memory of a former teacher, friend, and wise counselor.


Thorndike was undoubtedly one of the greatest psychologists of modern times. He was one of those rare geniuses who appear every hundred years or so and suddenly advance the frontiers of science. His scientific career is comparable to that of Darwin, Pasteur and others who, by careful observation and experiment, amassed facts that reveal basic principles of natural phenomena. Thorndike's Law of Effect is, in my judgment, comparable in scientific significance to Darwin's principle of natural selection.


Another mark of Thorndike's genius was his ability to relate the principle of pure science to practical problems. In the field of education, no psychologist since Herbart has exerted so great an influence on teaching and on the writing of textbooks for elementary schools. His famous three volumes of Educational Psychology (1913-14) set a pattern for almost all texts on this subject that have appeared since. His ideas concerning original nature, learning, and individual differences have played a prominent role in education despite the challenge of gestalt psychology. Toward the end of his career he became interested in the application of psychological principles and methods to the problems of economics, sociology, and ethics but did not live to see the fruits of his labors in these fields.


I am glad that he was able to put together this collection of his writings as his last book. It is doubtful if any of his students, or any committee of psychologists, could have selected and edited 360 pages from his voluminous works that so truly represent his contributions to the growing science of human behavior. Although it is not a systematic textbook of connectionism, nor an outline of his psychology, yet it does reveal the scope of his basic ideas.


Some of his students and other psychologists may regret that he did not see fit, or take the time, to write a systematic outline of his psychology. But those who knew him best will agree, I believe, that such an attempt would have been out of line with his interests and his character as a scientist. The present volume is much more representative of his career.


Thorndike's contributions to science will be reviewed and appraised elsewhere. I should like to end this review with a word of testimony and of gratitude concerning his influence on the work of the Institute of Human Relations at Yale. Those who are familiar with the publications of this organization are aware of the prominent role played by Thorndike's laws of learning, particularly the Law of Effect.






1 By E. L. Thorndike. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, 1949.

2 The books on which he has drawn most heavily are The Fundamentals of Learning, 1932; The Psychology of Wants, Interests and Attitudes, 1935; The Psychology of Learning, 1913.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 51 Number 1, 1949, p. 31-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5243, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 11:19:42 PM

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