Do theory and philosophy even matter?

By Naomi Homayouni and Benjamin Witts

St. Cloud State University

*Special thanks to Dr. Billy Baum for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

Science and philosophy are closely related, both historically and currently. Consider that the term scientist is a relatively modern invention. The Oxford English Dictionary puts the first instance of “scientist” in the early half of the 19th century. Prior to that, those who practiced what we call science were known as natural philosophers. Science was born from philosophy. In essence, natural philosophy was concerned in one part with empiricism, or how we know what we know.

As science is concerned with prediction, control, and explanation, we must have a framework from which we judge and accrue knowledge (thus leading to prediction, control, and explanation). Different sciences, then, approach this framework differently. This is why cognitive psychologists and behavioral psychologists can study the same event, like someone conversing with a colleague, and draw different conclusions (knowledge) from the event. But as science progresses and evolves, we have many who would question the necessity of understanding the theoretical and philosophical core of science. They turn away from science in general, and focus instead on our particular science and its philosophy.

Behavior analysts can develop generally effective behavior change programs without special training beyond how to implement our technologies. Advances in staff training have even allowed us teach the behaviorally naïve to arrange and coordinate complex contingencies. When treatments fail or other problems arise, a greater understanding of core assumptions and basic behavioral knowledge can help with corrective actions.

So why, then, should the typical practitioner bother with theory and philosophy if it seems to bear no impact on the effectiveness of daily practice? As we will explain, an understanding of theory and philosophy has direct and profound benefits for our clients.

Understanding theory and philosophy helps us understand why we put in practice the procedures we do. It helps us understand what makes ethical, effective, and evidence-based practice, and helps us to recognize conceptually systematic approaches. These concerns will also come up for practitioners who work as part of an interdisciplinary team and need to advocate for a certain approach or, perhaps, defend against a potentially ineffective approach.

Take, for example, a consultant calling for sensory integration therapy as part of a protocol to calm a tantruming child. Whether the argument for this procedure is that it calms the child’s temper, corrects for neurological and chemical imbalances, or aligns various chakras, the practitioner well versed in behavior theory can point to the environment-behavior relations that emerge from sensory integration, as well as their subsequent impairment on learning and adjusting.

When we encounter other approaches, we can encourage buy-in by reframing our approach in terms of the other person’s science (their theoretical and philosophical underpinnings, if you will). We might think of this approach as “talking dirty” to help advocate for our client.

For some, the explanation that behavior is a function of internal states, rather than environmental-behavioral relations, is consistent with their philosophy of behavior. Why fight their philosophy? Can we not just use it to our advantage? We need to understand what their beliefs and goals are so that we can speak to how behavior analysis contributes to it. By doing so, we can build rapport, gain support, and work together to succeed in helping the client.

An understanding of theoretical and philosophical assumptions in behavior analysis will not necessarily alter how you select and implement programming. Philosophical understanding of behavior change probably won’t lead to any great epiphanies about how to speed up skill acquisition or more quickly eliminate a problem behavior. What an understanding of theory and philosophy will do, however, is make you a powerful advocate for your client which will in turn protect your client from all manner of behavior change snake oil.

Three Suggestions for Learning Behavioral Theory and Philosophy

1. Join the Theoretical, Philosophical, and Conceptual issues Special Interest Group from ABAI. They have an online discussion group (called a ListServ), and it’s a great place to ask questions, learn from others, and be part of a larger group of similar individuals. You can join the listserv by following instructions here

2. Read Johnston’s Radical Behaviorism for ABA Practitioners. It’s a wonderful introduction to the philosophy underpinning our science.

3. Head to ABAI’s annual convention and attend some Theoretical, Philosophical, and Conceptual talks (noted as TPC in the program book). Don’t worry if the material is difficult to grasp. As has been noted elsewhere (see Witts, 2015), it’s good to feel stupid.


Witts, B. N. (2015). On feeling stupid: An open letter to my fellow students. Behavior Analysis Quarterly, 1(3), 15-17.

Do you think theory and philosophy are relevant to your practice?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

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