B.F. Skinner - A Reappraisal
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B.F. Skinner - A Reappraisal

Marc N. Richelle

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B.F. Skinner - A Reappraisal

Marc N. Richelle

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B.F. Skinner died in August 1990. He was praised as one of the most influential psychologists of this century, but was also attacked by a variety of opponents within and outside the field of psychology. Originally published in 1993, this introduction to his work is first of all a guide to a correct reading of his writings, a reading void of the distortions and misinterpretations often conveyed by many commentators, including psychologists. It frames Skinner's contributions with reference to major European traditions in psychological sciences, namely Pavlov, Freud, Lorenz and Piaget. Crucial aspects of Skinner's theory and methodological stands are discussed in the context of contemporary debates: special attention is devoted to the relation of psychology with biology and the neurosciences, to the cognitivist movement, to the status of language and to the explanation of novelty and creativity in human behaviour. Finally, Skinner's social and political philosophy is presented with an emphasis on the provocative aspects of an analysis of current social practices which fail to solve most of the urgent problems humankind is confronted with today. Both in science proper and in human affairs at large, Skinner's thought is shown to be, not behind, as is often claimed, but on the contrary ahead of the times, be it in his interactive view of linguistic communication, in his very modern use of the evolutionary analogy to explain the dynamics of behaviour, or in his vision of ecological constraints. Written by a European psychologist, the book departs from traditional presentations of Skinner's work in the frame of American psychology. It will provide the reader, who is unfamiliar with the great behaviourist's writings, a concise yet in-depth introduction to his work.

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A Matter of Controversy
Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born on 20 March 1904 in Susquehana, a small town in Pennsylvania. He died on 18 August 1990, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His will undoubtedly remain among the dozen great minds who have shaped twentieth-century psychology, side by side with his contemporaries, Piaget and Lorenz, or with Pavlov, Thorndike and Watson, his elders. He has been a leading figure of a school of thought, behaviourism, that has dominated the scene for more than half a century. His name is associated with a procedure designed to study the behaviour of animals in the laboratory, often labelled the “Skinner box” but more appropriately named a “conditioning chamber”; with a concept, operant conditioning, that is now part of familiar categories in a psychologist’s mind; with a theoretical endeavour, aimed at the explanation of behaviour, be it in animals or in humans, in terms of control by consequences; and with a social philosophy, grounded, at least in Skinner’s own view, in scientific evidence that has been largely overlooked, and is still overlooked today, to mankind’s misfortune.
These various contributions to the science of psychology and to its philosophical by-products will be described and discussed at length throughout this book. It would seem at first sight that one can proceed with introducing Skinner’s work as one would do for any other great psychologist, or, for that matter, any other great scientist: usually, one would have to describe a methodological approach, to recount an empirical or a conceptual breakthrough, or both—since it is rarely the case that facts are discovered independently from concepts—to evaluate a theory, and eventually to discuss attempts at deriving some general philosophical view from the scientific work proper. To remain within the limits of psychology, all four levels of activity can be found in Pavlov’s, Piaget’s or Lorenz’ long and impressive work, just as they are in Skinner’s.
There seems to be something special about the latter, however, something that is not easy to capture and characterise, but that is reflected in the numerous and various expressions of hostility towards Skinner’s ideas and person. Of course, scientific ideas, like other ideas, are exposed to criticism, and no one expects complete agreement on scientific issues, especially in a field still as precarious as psychology. But criticisms addressed to Skinner have been unusually violent and passionate. Their authors are not exclusively psychologists, presumably competent to appraise a colleague’s work; many intellectuals pertaining to other fields of science, as well as laymen with very different, even opposite, ideological backgrounds, have crusaded against him.
A complete list of relevant quotations would cover more than half the present volume. A sample of selected opinions will suffice to illustrate the general spirit. The following are drawn from European and American sources, newspapers, political discourses, scientific journals or books. They were written or pronounced at various times of Skinner’s life, or in obituaries shortly after his death:
On behalf of a so-called “neo-behaviourist” psychology, exclusively focused on pure behaviour, a man called Skinner, a psychologist at Harvard, calls for robotisation.
All radios make it a point of honour to invite this dangerous fool, close to Soviet Pavlovians, who asserts that man is no special state of nature; that he is but one animal among others; and that, as such, he must be trained in such a way as to react, as other animals do, to a number of external stimuli of the environment. Forget man. Consider only the animal. Analyse its conditioning by having the environment act upon it. Find out the most efficient of them and multiply them 
 Skinner calls that “operant conditioning”. There is another word for it: it is Nazism.
Michel Lancelot1
Clearly, we in France are more cool-headed. Skinner’s book [i.e. Beyond freedom and dignity] does not seem to have filled many here with enthusiasm or shock 
 This conception calls for strengthening of order; it provides an answer to criticisms against culture and society. It recommends control in order to ensure survival, hence reproduction of what exists. In contrast, freedom and dignity—core ideas of extremists—appear as bubbles of the past, based on prescientific theories. The America of Mr Nixon and Mr Agnew must take care of its own salvation, it must dare to punish and reward where and when it is needed.
Serge Moscovici2
America as a society was founded on respect of the individual and an unshakable belief in his worth and dignity 
 Skinner attacks the very precepts on which our society is based saying that “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were once valid goals, but have no place in 20th-century America or in the creation of a new culture as he proposes.
Spiro Agnew3

 consider a well-run concentration camp with inmates spying on one another and the gas ovens smoking in the distance, and perhaps an occasional verbal hint as a reminder of the meaning of this reinforcer. It would appear to be an almost perfect world
 Within Skinner’s scheme there is no objection to this social order. Rather, it seems close to ideal.
Noam Chomsky4
What accounts for the success of Skinner’s views in spite of all their logical pitfalls? In my opinion, it is their adherence to a set of American values that are largely exported by the government of the USA along with other goods.
J. Jacques VonĂšche5
[the Skinner box] has been described as a bloodless method of decerebrating the animal. Some think the same could be said of the effects of Skinnerian theory on his adherents 

The Guardian, 28 August 1990
Finally, I do not deny that there are a few remaining Skinnerians; after all if you count fossils, there are still many dinosaurs in the world.
Stuart Sutherland6
While psychoanalysts believe in the complexity of the individual, and therefore in his freedom, behaviourists are not concerned with consciousness, and prefer to stick at scientific observable data, rediscovering altogether the virtues of authority and the recipes of the carrot and the stick. However, thanks to his cage, Skinner had yet succeeded in teaching birds how to play piano and dance.
Frank Nouchi7
This is obviously not the usual style of polemics about scientific theories, except when they deeply disturb the conception that man has of his nature and of the world around him, as was the case for Galileo or for Darwin, or when they hide some perverse misuse of science aimed at ideological domination, as is unfortunately sometimes the case in our civilised societies. In some of the quotations above, the latter interpretation is clearly suggested: some authors, like Chomsky, the famous linguist, did not hesitate to accuse Skinner of Nazism, by resorting to unambiguous metaphors.
European critics often discard Skinner’s contribution as a typical product of American society, which does not fit in the context of European culture, or that should be looked at with suspicion in order to avoid contamination. These quotations from Moscovici and VonĂšche illustrate this somewhat contemptuous judgement. Those critics do not answer embarrassing objections to their ethnocentric appraisal of Skinner’s work. They tend to ignore the fact that, like it or not, things which originate in the USA eventually invade Europe sooner or later—as with popular soft drinks, computers, or indeed the student revolution that received the 1968 date only because of a persistent European illusion of being at the start of everything important. They do not give their reasons for accepting sympathetically other American productions, such as humanistic or cognitivist theories, to remain within the field of psychology. (One explanation, as given by VonĂ©che, is to point to the European origins of those acceptable approaches, pointing to Piaget as the originator of American cognitivism! This explanation proceeds from the same Eurocentrism denounced above.) Above all, they do not explain why attacks against Skinner were far more numerous and violent in his home country than anywhere else, nor why personalities as different as Noam Chomsky and Spiro Agnew (the former a brilliant linguist and a famous active libertarian; the second a rather conservative Vice-President of the USA, who did not finish his term because of a financial scandal) joined in fighting against the Harvard psychologist, though resorting, of course, to quite opposite arguments.
When a man is attacked from many different horizons, by people usually opposed to each other, it is likely that he has disturbed all of them, possibly because he is saying important things that nobody wants to hear. His adversaries then resort to a common strategy: they overshadow his work. If the work is written, they convey a misrepresentation of it, or they themselves fail to read it correctly. Second-hand treatment makes for a generalisation of the distortion. Trusting prominent critics, people neglect to read the work first-hand, and unfounded arguments are reproduced and amplified. This mechanism has been at work with respect to Skinner’s writings and ideas throughout his career, as we shall see. The main example, and undoubtedly the most decisive one, has been Chomsky’s critique (1959) of Skinner’s book Verbal behavior (1957).
But many other cases can be pointed out, notably in two important publications devoted, in the 1980s, to Skinner’s contribution. One is a special issue of the highly praised journal The Behavioral and Brain Sciences8 entitled Canonical papers of B.F. Skinner, in which more than 100 authors were invited to write “open peer commentaries” on Skinner’s reprinted selected papers. The second is a book edited by S. Modgil and C. Modgil under the title B. F. Skinner: Consensus and controversy (1987). About two dozen authors argue for or against a number of aspects of Skinner’s view. Both publications—besides acknowledging the place that Skinner still holds on the scientific stage—abound in misrepresentations and errors of interpretation, even under the pen of otherwise serious authors.
At this point, one might ask the question: How is it that Skinner has been so frequently misunderstood and misrepresented? The authors of a recent essay have a simple and straightforward answer: the reason is that his message was neither clear nor consistent.9 In other words, when readers misunderstand a scientific author, one can only conclude that the text is not clear, and only the author can be blamed for it. Readers’ judgements are to be trusted. We are aware, however, of the various sources of bias that can bring readers, even of scientific material, to misinterpret what they have under their eyes. Readers are prone to perceive and read what they want to see. They do not easily give up stereotypes, and they occasionally go as far, in defending their own point of view, as to build straw men which replace the author they are actually reading. We shall see in Chapter 10 how Chomsky’s criticisms, for example, illustrate these mechanisms, to a point that might pass intellectual honesty. But persistent misreadings surprisingly also focus on the most basic, almost classical and unequivocal aspects of Skinner’s theory. For example, many psychologists have continued to characterise Skinner’s theory as typical stimulus-response (S-R) psychology in spite of his perfectly clear statements to the contrary.10 Skinner’s style is especially elegant and unambiguous, and although several lines of evolution in his thinking can be traced throughout his writings (the contrary would indeed appear unusual in such a long career),11 he has also made a point of re-stating his main ideas in several contexts, and at various levels of sophistication, for audiences with different backgrounds. Skinner cannot be blamed for obscurity, and we should look in other directions to account for misinterpretations.
If we want to know Skinner’s ideas, we must go back to his writings rather than rely upon distorted or oversimplified second-hand accounts. This is also the only appropriate way if we want to elucidate the ties between “philosophical” (or “ideological”) writings (those most widely read by non-specialists) and scientific writings (often misread by specialists themselves). Before dealing in some depth with what I consider to be the central issues in Skinner’s theory and in the debates around it, let us take a general look at Skinner’s work and point to some landmarks of his life and some features of his character.
The first scientific papers by Skinner were published in the early 1930s. He never stopped writing from then until the day before he died, and his now closed bibliography amounts to more than 200 titles, including a dozen books.
His contributions, however, have not been only in words. It should not be overlooked (as sometimes happens) that he has provided the psychological laboratory with a new and exceptionally effective technique that is now part of the tools used by many researchers, whatever their theoretical inclination, not only in the experimental study of behaviour proper, but in various fields where behaviour is important at some stage of inquiry, such as neurophysiology or psychopharmacology.
While contributing many empirical facts, Skinner has clarified, if not always solved, a number of problems in which experimental and theoretical psychology was sinking about 50 years ago. He has been seminal in the development of new applications, such as behaviour therapy and behaviour modification—now a well-accepted approach to helping people with psychological problems or suffering various handicaps—and programmed instruction (though their debt to Skinner is rarely acknowledged by those who apply his ideas today to computer-assisted learning).
Skinner’s theoretical endeavour has mainly consisted in elaborating further the concept of psychology as the science of behaviour, originally formulated by Watson early in this century. He has enriched and refined behaviourism, by adding to the initial definition many qualifications derived from knowledge accumulated over time and from his critical reflection, expressed in a less passionate style than Watson’s. But he has rigorously followed the basic principles of behaviourism more than any other psychologist after Watson, making that point clear by labelling himself a radical behaviourist. We shall elaborate on that point later.
Finally, Skinner has been bold enough to apply to human affairs at large the conclusions of his scientific analysis of animal behaviour. He has questioned the traditional view of human nature and man’s relation to his physical and social environment. In his Utopian novel Walden Two and in several papers and books—of which Beyond freedom and dignity is the main one—he has denounced our unwillingness to deal with matters of human behaviour by resorting to the scientific approach which we feel is appropriate, and indeed effective, in technological or medical matters. This part of his work is certainly responsible for irritating many of his readers...