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Egon Brunswik and Edward Tolman

Nancy Innis
London, Ontario, Canada

In 1933-4 while on a sabbatical leave in Europe, Edward C. Tolman (1886-1959), the eminent American learning theorist, spent several months in Vienna. As part of the research for a biography of Tolman I'm working on, I am examining the ideas of people associated with the Vienna Circle and the Institute of Psychology at the University of Vienna at the time Tolman was there.

To put Tolman in context for those who aren't familiar with his work, following an MIT degree in engineering, he received a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard, under the supervision of Hugo Munsterberg, for studies of memory. In 1918, he joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he began to carry out research with animal subjects and to develop his own theory of learning - purposive behaviorism. He presented his system in detail in his 1932 book, Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men. The book was highly acclaimed, and Tolman's ideas were receiving widespread attention when he began his sabbatical in 1933.

In Vienna, Tolman spent much of his time with the group at the Institute of Psychology headed by Karl Buhler and soon developed a close professional association with Egon Brunswik. The two men met frequently in Viennese cafes to discuss psychology, and it soon became evident that Brunswik's probabilistic functionalism was very similar to Tolman's behavioristic approach. They began collaboration on a paper identifying the common features of their ideas, and "The organism and the causal texture of the environment" was published in the Psychological Review in 1935. The suggestion that the relationship between cues and objects or signs and goals was probabilistic rather than one-to-one led to major changes in animal learning research. The most positive outcome of Tolman's sabbatical in Vienna was that Egon Brunswik eventually obtained a position in America. As a result of his association with Tolman, Brunswik received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship and spent 1934-35 at Berkeley. By the mid-1930s, political conditions in Europe were worsening and prospects for advancement there were slim. Tolman began a campaign to find a position for Brunswik, and the Berkeley department was able to offer him a faculty appointment which he took up in 1937.

My current research involving Brunswik and Tolman focuses on examining the similarities and differences in their theoretical positions (as outlined in the Psychological Review paper) during the 1930s, and the influence each man had on the work of the other when they were colleagues at Berkeley.

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