As a boy he had had no interest in science; rather, his early bent had been toward English, a field to which he indirectly returned much later via word counts, semantic and phonetic studies, the authorship of dictionaries, and a theory of speech origins. He pursued the standard classical curriculum at Wesleyan, graduating in with honors, including membership in Phi Beta Kappa , but still without a commitment to any field.
A scholarship to Harvard University permitted him to sample several disciplines, and after study under James, Thomdike decided upon psychology. Although he had no intention of specializing in comparative psychology, Thomdike began experimental studies of animal learning, convinced that the existing research was impoverished and unsound.
A substantial fellowship at Columbia University took him to New York City in to complete his doctoral study. Columbia offered additional training in biology and statistics, and James McKeen Cattell provided him with laboratory space. The next year Thomdike published his doctoral dissertation, Animal Intelligence Academic career. On the recommendation of William James he returned to New York City in for a one-year trial as instructor in psychology and child study at Teachers College, Columbia University; thus began a forty-year association with that school.
In he became adjunct professor and, in , professor of educational psychology. He took on additional duties in as director of the division of psychology at the new Institute of Educational Research connected with Teachers College. He died in the early morning of August 9, , at Montrose, New York, a few days short of his 75th birthday.
He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth Moulton, whom he had married in , and their four children: Elizabeth Frances, born in , a mathematician; Edward Moulton, born in , and Alan, , both physicists; and Robert Ladd, , a psychologist. Thomdike was awarded numerous honors during his lifetime: the presidencies of several scientific societies and honorary degrees from American and foreign universities.
Foreign recognition brought him. In , for his contributions to psychological measurement and its applications to education, Columbia University awarded Thorndike the Butler medal in gold, granted once every five years for the most distinguished contribution made anywhere in the world to philosophy or to educational theory, practice, or administration.
He served on various committees and commissions and was head of the comparative psychology department at the marine biology laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, from to A theory of learning. In Animal Intelligence Thorndike set down what proved to be a lasting framework for his theory of mind and the laws of learning.
The desirable consequence was then gradually associated with the one correct movement that would bring it about, and the unrewarded errors were eliminated. According to Thorndike, mind has no separate identity as such, being merely a collective name for the brain cells, nerve cells, and chemicoelectric operations by which man reacts to internal and external stimulation. Thorndike had an unremitting bias in favor of physiological and biological explanations.
Vaguely implied in the writings of Alexander Bain and the British animal psychologist C. Lloyd Morgan, the law of effect was made an articulate and heuristic principle of learning by Thorndike. His research showed that learning any one skill has little effect upon the rate or ease of learning another, even for quite similar tasks. Determinants of human abilities. Thorndike believed that intellectual and achievement differences between people are quantitative, not qualitative.
Individuals differ in the number and complexity of the connections that they possess and, beyond that, in their capacity to form connections. He held. He scorned environmental explanations and was interested in eugenics as a means of improving human beings and society, thus perpetuating the views of Galton, for one.
Furthermore, Thorndike supported an established American belief: expressed in common-sense terms, it asserted the triumph of character over circumstances, the faith that the ingredients of success are in a man and not around him. The cultural ethos had emphasized character, perseverance, intuition, and good judgment; Thorndike added a high order of intelligence as a basic ingredient in the American success story.
With refinements in measures of individual variation and their more extensive use, the heredity-environment debate became more heated. The validity of political, educational, welfare, and religious policies was at stake, and social science research was called upon to justify opposing views. While his later writings acknowledged the importance of chance factors, such as opportunity, in determining whether innate potentialities would be realized, he consistently believed that heredity was prepotent and that the egalitarian vision of a true parity— whether attempted through education or a welfare state—was indeed just a dream.
Practical applications. Large numbers of people were trained in test construction and administration. Furthermore, public attention was called to the great and inborn physical, intellectual, and educational differences found in the population and to the inequalities resulting from regional isolation and inadequate local schooling, which failed to develop the natural abilities of thousands of people.
Thorndike contributed both directly and indirectly to the development of efficient, scientifically based schooling, the desire for which had begun late in the nineteenth century. He was influential as a teacher of psychology to teachers: early books like Notes on Child Study , The Principles of Teaching Based on Psychology , and Education: A First Book turned teachers toward a concern for human nature and the learning process and enlisted their support for the scientific movement in education.
The Annual Report of the U. Bureau of Education disclosed the statistics on pupils leaving school before graduation, dramatizing the inadequacies of existing programs and the extent of school retardation and thus giving aid to reformers of curriculum and teaching methods. Thorndike contributed much to the growing awareness of individual differences and to plans for educating the whole range of American children. Thorndike was active in the preparation of school materials and tools; various achievement scales, especially for handwriting and drawing, were one result.
The psychology of school subjects became a preoccupation of some educational psychologists, and the Thorndike arithmetic and algebra texts were in widespread use. He also prepared college entrance examinations, a test for selecting students for the Columbia School of Law, and one of the best regarded of intelligence tests, the CAVD scale. The acronym stands for sentence completion, arithmetical reasoning, vocabulary, and the ability to follow directions. His counts of word usage established the basic vocabulary now used in virtually all school reading books, spellers, and spelling lists, and on achievement tests.
The Teachers College program of training in statistics and measurement as applied to education inspired other attempts to create a scientific approach to curriculum selection and to school administration. Experimental schools multiplied and research on city schools increased. Thorndike would have taken great exception to the poor controls, naivete, and pretentious pseudoscientism that often prevailed; nevertheless, the sponsors of these activities looked to Thorndike and to his institution for stimulation. Theoretical work. Each series was repeated two or three times in succession.
Thorndike regarded this as his most important contribution to scientific advancement. He first believed these to be simple opposites within the law of effect. He also showed that belief in a simple hedonism was unwarranted; small satisfactions usually work as well as large rewards. The implications of his findings about reward and punishment were neglected, Thorndike complained, by educational, governmental, and penal institutions and by welfare agencies. He had come to believe instead that exercise—mere repetition of a response—was of minor importance in explaining the formation and strengthening of connections.
As a result of this new conviction, he began a massive experimental program.
A series of books published in the s, Human Learning , The Fundamentals of Learning , and The Psychology of Wants, Interests, and Attitudes , reveal a theory trying to come to terms with data. As Leo Postman has observed, Thorndike clearly did not consider connectionism a finished product Postman , pp.
It was in the s and s that psychology became most highly fragmented into conflicting schools, each differing in its research methods, problems studied, and in its experimental results.
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His theoretical pre-eminence in the s was unquestioned; as Edward C. Tolman observed:. The psychology of animal learning—not to mention that of child learning—has been and still is primarily a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with Thorndike, or trying in minor ways to improve upon him. Gestalt psychologists, conditioned-reflex psychologists, sign-gestalt psychologists—all of us here in America seem to have taken Thorndike, overtly or covertly, as our starting point.
And we have felt very smart and pleased with ourselves if we could show that we have, even in some very minor way, developed new little wrinkles of our own. Interest in other social sciences. The economic and social conditions of the s stimulated the social sciences. The Carnegie Corporation, for example, offered Thorndike a large grant, which enabled him to apply his methods and theories to a.
While he was not interested in direct political activity, he had strong conservative and individualistic views, which emerged clearly in his writings of this period. At this time he was no longer primarily concerned with psychological theory. For instance, using census data and other statistics, he tried to analyze cities as he had earlier studied individuals.
This was yet another expression of his hereditarian position; it had no discernible influence upon urban sociology.
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His massive Human Nature and the Social Order was a compendium of information about human abilities, behavior, and wants, general psychological principles, and the facts of individuality. He contended that the social sciences require such knowledge of how humans behave, what people can be and do, and what they want to be and do, and he suggested applications of this knowledge to many fields: economics, government, philanthropy, religion, law, ethics.
In he wrote Man and His Works, which was similar in conception but on a far smaller scale.
However, the rapid growth of psychology may have indirectly favored development of the other behavioral fields. Some social psychologists now use Hullian principles, a synthesis of Thorndike and Pavlov; but they often take learning theory largely for granted. Thorndike himself always made motivation secondary to learning: men act the way they do because such behavior has previously been reinforced.