How was the shift from behaviourism to cognitive psychology ‘revolutionary’ in the Kuhnian sense?

The advent of cognitive science at the centre of studying psychology is widely portrayed to be a revolutionary event.  It was in the 1950s that the shift from behaviourism to cognitive psychology took its first bold step.  There has been no reverting back to behaviourism as the dominant paradigm within psychology ever since. Cognitive psychology is one of the disciplines in psychology that focuses on studying internal mental processes.  How individuals perceive, conceive, recall from memory, articulate their views and arrive at conclusions, etc, are studied. As opposed to Behavioural psychology, Cognitive psychology adopts a scientific analytic method rather than introspective or speculative theorizing.  At the outset, it acknowledges the presence of such internal mental states as knowledge, belief, motivation, desire, etc. This essay will evaluate how ‘revolutionary’ an event, in the Kuhnian sense, was the placement of cognitive science at the centre of psychology.

Before Cognitive Psychology attained recognition Behaviourism was the dominant school of thought.  Intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Alfred Adler have contributed enormously to the later development of this school, by way of its critical reprisal.  Under Behaviourism, much of human agency is thought of as a product of conditioned responses, where, rewards are used to reinforce desirable behaviour and punishments used to deter unwanted behaviour.  Chomsky, in particular, challenged these assumptions and offered a radically new model of mental development that draws on the innate and intrinsic human potentialities as opposed to learned behaviour. (Neisser, 1997, p.44)  While behaviourism’s relevance for studying psychology has diminished, it’s utility to other disciplines within humanities remains.  Proponents of behaviourism believe that, even within psychology, it has made significant contributions.  Hence, it is fair to assume that the cognitive revolution is not an undisputed fact.

Thomas Kuhn was one of the intellectuals who took issue with the orthodox view of scientific progress.  The orthodoxy proclaimed that scientific knowledge develops incrementally, by way of accretion.  In this view, “new knowledge does not supplant the old, but rather, new discoveries are added to the extant ‘stockpile that constitutes scientific technique and knowledge’”. (O’Donohue & Ferguson, 2003, p.87) Kuhn took objection to this view and cited the examples of Copernicus, Lavoisier, Newton, Plank, Einstein, Darwin, etc.  He showed how, rather than merely ‘adding’ to existing knowledge, their theories and concepts radically altered conventional wisdom. Such a radical change is both the cause and effect of the ‘Gestalt switch’ in which these scientists perceived basic phenomena in a fundamentally different manner.  While revolution in scientific progress in thus backed up by empirical evidence, it still does not lead to the conclusion that cognitive psychology is one such.

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