Tolman, Edward C.

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Tolman, Edward C.



Edward Chace Tolman (1886-1959), American psychologist and civil libertarian, lived out a meaningful life of paradox.

Tolman was a professor who was too shy, felt too inept, and did not have the desire to seek faculty leadership on his campus. Yet, during Berkeley’s “Year of the Oath” (1949-1950, when there was a controversy over loyalty oaths at the University of California), it was Tolman (a member of the national board of the American Civil Liberties Union) who led the faculty in full battle against the university regents—a battle that saved academic freedom at the university.

Tolman was a behaviorist, but his research and theory evoked from his behavioristic colleagues an agonized search for hidden errors and the fear that he was undermining the development of “objective psychology true and narrow.” By the middle of the century, most of his researches, having been tested and retested, were admitted into the official behavioristic corpus and forced a recasting of many of the dominant behavioristic theories.

Tolman the experimental psychologist was a “rat man”—unapologetically dedicated to the investigation of the behavior of the laboratory rat (he flaunted his rodent orientation by inscribing his major work, Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men[1932], to M.N.A.—Mus norvegicus albinus). But just as Tolman’s behaviorism was suspect to his fellow behaviorists, so was his rat psychology suspect to his fellow “rat men.” He found his most enthusiastic supporters among the psychologists concerned with human cognition.

When this unpretentious man died on November 19, 1959, his death was noted not only by psychologists (both animal and human) and other learned men (both scientific and humanistic) but also in the nation’s capital, where the Washington Post wrote in its editorial: “His death last week is a loss to the nation as well as to the whole academic community.”

Autobiography . In the History of Psychology in Autobiography, Tolman has written an autobiographical essay in which, so he tells us, he “tried to think out, as a very amateur clinical psychologist, what kind of person I think I am and how I think I got that way …” (1952, p. 328). His testimony deserves a full hearing. What follows, however, are only some mercilessly telescoped excerpts from his essay—perhaps they will indicate the nature of the whole.

I was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1886. I went to the Newton Public Schools, …and then went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I obtained a b.s. in electrochemistry in 1911. I went to M.I.T. not because I wanted to be an engineer, but because I had been good in mathematics and science in high school and because of family pressure….

My father was president of a manufacturing company. … My brother, who was five years older, and I were, first one and then the other, expected to go into our father’s business…. My brother, however, escaped by becoming a theoretical chemist and physicist and I, having read some William James during my senior year at Technology, fancied that I wanted to become a philosopher. Upon graduating from M.I.T., I went to the Harvard summer school and took an introductory course in philosophy with Perry and one in psychology with Yerkes. … I decided then and there that I did not have brains enough to become a philosopher (that was still the day of great metaphysical systems), but that psychology was nearer my capacities and interests. It offered, at that date, what seemed a nice compromise between philosophy and science….

Although we lived in a well-to-do conventional suburb with stress on appearances, there still persisted in our family …the legacy of reformism, equal rights for Negroes, women’s rights, Unitarianism and hu-manitarianism from the earlier days of the “Flowering of New England.” These social tendencies were combined with the special Bostonian emphasis on “culture” together with … a special dose of moral uplift and pacifism…. The rebellion of my brother and of myself against parental domination was in directions which the parents themselves could not too greatly, or too consciously, disapprove….

In the fall of 1911, therefore, after only one summer session course in philosophy and one in psychology, I began at Harvard as a full graduate student …in the joint department of philosophy and psychology. The courses I remember most vividly were: Perry’s course in Ethics, which laid the basis for my later interest in motivation and, indeed, gave me the main concepts (reinforced by a reading of McDougall’s Social Psychology as part of the requirement of the course) which I have retained ever since; Holt’s course in Experimental …Langfeld’s course in Advanced General, using Titchener as a textbook, which almost sold me temporarily on structuralistic introspectionism; Holt’s seminar in Epistemology in which I was introduced to, and excited by, the “New Realism” and Yerkes’ course in Comparative, using Watson’s BehaviorAn Introduction to Comparative Psychology, which was just out, as a text….

At the end of my first graduate year at Harvard …I spent a month in Giessen with Koffka, …and so got my first introduction to Gestalt psychology…. And in the fall of 1923 I went back to Giessen for a couple of months to learn more.

After getting my doctor’s degree at Harvard in 1915 I was instructor for three years at Northwestern.

During the summer of 1918, … I was offered …an instructorship at California. From the very first California symbolized for me some sort of a final freeing from my overwhelmingly too Puritanical and too Bostonian upbringing.

It would seem meet to indicate the main sources from which I think my ideas have come. First of all most of the credit, if it be credit, should go to all the students whose ideas I have shamefully …adopted and exploited …and ended up by believing to be my own. Secondly, it should go to my teachers at Harvard who taught me to think, to be critical, to be complicated but to remain naturalistic. Next, it should go to the Gestalt psychologists, but especially to Kurt Lewin…. Again, it should go to …Egon Brunswik, who opened my eyes to the meaning and the viability of the European psychological tradition, both academic and psychoanalytical…. (1952, passim)

Systems and psychology . Tolman flourished during the era of the system builders (roughly the period between the two world wars, 1918-1939) when every American psychologist of note had his private system—or at least a “significant variant” of a more commonly held system. This was the period when new men working in new laboratories were becoming increasingly critical of the reigning psychological system elaborated by Wundt in Germany and Titchener in America. And as the inadequacies of structuralism and of its introspective method became more obvious, there began to appear new claimants to the system throne.

This throne could not remain vacant. Psychologists had a “felt need” for a system. Certainly this need was not due to the fact that psychology had amassed so many solid observations and had formalized so many general laws that higher-order abstractions were essential to give aesthetic harmony to the whole. It was precisely because psychology did not know what its proper domain was and because it had few reliable facts, general laws, or even acceptable methods that it seemed to require a system. Such a system might give at least a semblance of order to the accumulated heterogeneous observations called “psychological” of legitimacy to one’s methods; and of philosophic sophistication to the proliferating ad-lib conceptualizations.

In the United States it was John B. Watson who was the most vigorous “pretender” to the Titche-nerian throne. Behaviorism was revealed by Watson in 1913 with his publication of “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” and thus was known to Tolman before he had finished his graduate studies. It did not immediately get into Tolman’s blood, either as a nutrient or as an irritant—later it became both. At Harvard, Tolman was as impressed by the philosophers as he was by the psychologists. In addition, he had been exposed to gestalt psychology. He found it difficult, therefore, even after becoming converted to behaviorism, to remain faithful to Watson’s dogma, which professed to see nothing of value in what had gone before 1913, either in philosophy or psychology. And so, in keeping with the imperatives of his time, Tolman set out to build his own system.

The development of this system—named by Tolman “purposive behaviorism”—began about 1920 and came into official existence with the publication of his Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men in 1932. It continued to evolve and change as long as Tolman lived; his last theoretical paper, “Principles of Purposive Behavior,” bears the publication date of 1959, the year of his death.

Purposive behaviorism . Tolman’s first formal proposal for a new system is found in his 1922 essay, “A New Formula for Behaviorism.” In this paper Tolman expressed his dissatisfaction with “the archbehaviorist, Watson” and his muscle-twitch behaviorism. Tolman believed that Watson’s self-styled “stimulus-response” psychology is a pseudophysiological approach to behavior. It makes a brave show of defining stimulus and response as physiology defines them, but finding this impossible in dealing with behavior, it ends up with a system which is neither physiologically nor psychologically consistent and which is not capable of adequate behavioral description. (This criticism he was, many years later, to level also at Clark Hull’s “neo-behaviorism".) But Tolman had a more basic objection to Watson. He could not agree that all of the problems dealt with by introspective psychology need be, or even can be, expunged from a scientific psychology.

And so Tolman proposed, in 1922, a “true non-physiological behaviorism,” in this respect antedating and setting the stage for Kenneth W. Spence’s variant of Hull’s system and B. F. Skinner’s variant of behaviorism [see Learning, articles On INSTRUMENTAL LEARNING and REINFORCEMENT; Drives]. This truly nonphysiological behaviorism, Tolman promised, “will bring under a single rubric all the apparently different and contradictory methods of actual psychology … [and] will allow for a more ready and adequate treatment of the problems of motive, purpose, determining tendency, and the like, than was made easy by the older subjectivistic formulation” ([1922] 1951, p. 8). Tolman was to devote the next 37 years to redeeming this pledge.

Tolman’s system-building was characterized by two major attributes. The first of these was breadth. Like all other system builders of his time, he was “obsessed by a need for a single comprehensive theory or scheme for the whole of psychology” (1952, p. 336), and like all the others, he was to fall short of this grand goal. But where the others sought comprehensiveness by exclusion (denying the existence of many psychological problems and phenomena) or by “monolithism” (attempting to stretch a very few “principles” or “axioms” to cover all behavior), Tolman’s approach was to welcome into his purview all that was animal and human and to insist that what he had welcomed was complex and multidetermined. For example, learning theorists of the time were dedicated to the search for one or two universal nostrums, such as “the law of effect” or “conditioning,” which would explain the learning process. Tolman’s experiments made it quite clear that the learning process is not amenable to easy analysis by these—or other—simple universals. Tolman’s formulation of the problem of learning was broadly conceived. It had room for motivational, perceptual, emotional, and many other variables and families of variables. He was the first psychologist to experiment in the area of behavior genetics and was the sole behaviorist to challenge the extreme environmentalism of the 1920s and early 1930s. Eventually he came to entertain the notion that several different kinds of learning processes exist (1949). [See Genetics, article on Genetics and behavior.]

Among some system builders it became the fashion to attempt to pare down one’s system to mathematical statements, fitted curves, or “hypo-thetico-deductive” predictions. Where others tried (because their formulations were simple enough to permit such attempts) and lost (precisely because their formulations were so simple), Tolman never tried at all. He ended with a “scheme”—not with a set of easily testable theories. This is Tolman’s strength and his weakness. Because he wanted to consider everything that mattered, the all-inclusiveness of his system gives a unifying appearance to the many-splintered thing called psychology. Clinical, social, industrial, cognitive, and learning psychologists have repaired thereto and have found comfort in Tolman’s scheme—a scheme which promises to show that psychology is a many-splendored, unified thing. Whatever the realities behind his promise to integrate all of psychology, Tolman’s system does have the negative, but not inconsiderable, virtue of discouraging the easy promulgation of vague and oversimplified descriptions of behavior and equally ambiguous and undernourished “explanatory principles.”

The second attribute of Tolman’s system-building was his belief that observed correlations between stimuli and responses could be gathered into general laws and could yield fruitful theory only through the use of “intervening variables”—his name for dispositions that direct behavior and that intervene between environmental stimuli and observable responses. Among the intervening variables that Tolman proposed were “cognitions,” “expectancies,” and “purposes.” These “mentalistic” concepts were in disrepute among the behaviorists, but Tolman proceeded to study them empirically using his rats and invented an experimental method for inferring cognitions, expectancies, and purposes in both animals and men from observable behavior. The result was that these concepts (despite their official banishment from psychology, first by Watson and then by Hull) continued to remain respectable among a respectable number of respectable experimental psychologists.

Tolman’s work took on new import in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the revival of interest in cognition by many experimental and physiological psychologists. Many of these latter-day cognitive psychologists found in Tolman’s “expectancies,” “cognitive maps,” “hypotheses,” and so on, the very concepts they needed. And so it appears that the greatest Tolmanian paradox of all may be in the making. Tolman’s system, which because of its lack of mathematical statement and quantification was so critically attacked by all other system makers, may become the system of choice for the game theorists, decision theorists, and information theorists in their mathematical model-building—precisely when the relicts of the more orthodox behav-ioristic systems have become disillusioned with curve fitting, “hypothetico-deductive” predictions, and even (if Skinner is to be taken at his word) with simple statistical analysis of data.

David Krech

[For the historical context of Tolman’s work, see Gestalt theory; and the biographies of Brunswik; Holt; Hull; Koffka; Lewis; Mcdougall; Titchener; Watson; Wundt; Yerkes. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see Learning; Motivation, especially the article onhuman motivation; thinking, article oncognitive organization and PROCESSES.]


(1922) 1951 A New Formula for Behaviorism. Pages 1-8 in Edward C. Tolman, Collected Papers in Psychology. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1932) 1951 Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men. Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press. → Tolman’s major work, containing a wealth of empirical data from his Berkeley laboratory and his first full-dress systematic presentation of purposive behaviorism.

1942 Drives Toward War. New York: Appleton. → Tolman’s Quaker background and his concern with the problem of peace found expression during World War Ii in this book. Here he examined the motives which send men to war and then suggested the kinds of social controls that a warless society would have to impose on these motives.

1949 There Is More Than One Kind of Learning. Psychological Review 56:144-155.

1952 Edward C. Tolman. Volume 4, pages 323-339 in A History of Psychology in Autobiography. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press.

1959 Principles of Purposive Behavior. Volume 2, pages 92-157 in Sigmund Koch (editor), Psychology: A Study of a Science. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Collected Papers in Psychology. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1951. → A collection of 19 of Tolman’s papers together with an evaluative foreword published by his colleagues and former students to commemorate his more than thirty years of service at the

University of California. Tolman himself chose the papers as those which to him meant steps in the development of his theoretical system. The 1922 paper referred to in the present article is the first paper in this collection.


Crutchfield, Richard S.; Krech, D.; and Tryon, R. C. 1960 Edward Chace Tolman: A Life of Scientific and Social Purpose. Science 131:714-716. → A brief biographical and appreciative note by three of Tolman’s former students and later colleagues at Berkeley.

[Editorial.] 1959 Washington Post November 25, p. A18, col. 1.

Leytham, G. W. H. 1962 In Memory of Edward Chace Tolman (1886-1959). British Psychological Society, Bulletin 49:21-28.

Ritchie, Benbow F. 1964 Edward Chace Tolman. Volume 37, pages 293-324 in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → Contains a list of Tolman’s “Honors and Distinctions,” as well as a 99-item bibliography of his published papers and books.

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Tolman, Edward C.

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