Adapted from the version published in Educational Studies 26,1/2, Spring/Summer 1995. 12 - 22
A Critical Review of B.F. Skinner's Philosophy
with focus on Walden Two(New York. MacMillan. 1976) ISBN 0-02-411510-X
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki
I have only one important characteristic, I'm stubborn. I've had only one idea in my life -- a true idée fixe. the idea of having my own way.
B.F. Skinner was arguably the P. T. Barnum, if not quite the T. D. Lysenko, of 20th Century academic psychology. Skinner's most important product, that which still sells today, is ideology. He claimed just the opposite: he was just a practical guy working at the nuts-and-bolts level looking for regularities among the things he could see. However, throughout his works Skinner invoked a variety of supporting theories -- one often inconsistent with the next, even within the same work -- ever declaring himself an atheoretical pragmatist.
Walden Two represents a significant transition in Skinner's writings. On its own merits it is a period piece of science fantasy (1) of less predictive accuracy than say, Orwell's 1984 . However, Walden Two is also the Gospel of a politically significant discipleship of institutional functionaries for whose old wines of compulsion and torture Skinner has provided the new bottles of Operant Theory.(2) Therein lies Walden Two's continued importance.
A Peculiar Rationalism: Skinner's Idiosyncratic "Science"
I have never faced a Problem which was more than the eternal problem of finding order. I never attacked a problem by constructing a Hypothesis. I never deduced Theorems or submitted them to Experimental Check. -- B. F. Skinner (3)
All his life Skinner chided psychologists for being "theorists." He, himself, however, was a metaphysical speculator on a grand scale. He conceived the universe as broken into parts having "natural lines of fracture."(Generic Nature" p. 40). To each part corresponds an experimenter-accessible "defining property." He writes, "One fact that seems to be sufficiently well-established is that there are defining properties." (ibid. 48.) That is, to each class of events there corresponds a defining property that sets it off from non-members of its class. "... the defining property of a stimulus is actually the logical product of all observed instances."(ibid. 60) That there are defining properties is an observable fact (ibid., 62), claims Skinner, although it is difficult to specify these properties precisely (ibid. 49). Experimentally, they are specified, but perhaps not explicitly.(ibid..48)
These strongly self-contradictory assertions, e.g. logical products are observables, basic properties are specified non-explicitly, support nothing like the atheoretical position Skinner professed throughout his career. It is hard to believe that the author of "The Generic Nature of the Concepts of Stimulus and Response," was the same person who pronounced anathema on Cognitive Science at the 1990 meeting of the American Psychological Association after branding it as the "Creationism of Psychology.". In his highly dramatic -- though inaccurate (5) characterization of their goals as a search for the "inner self that initiates behavior" -- Skinner rebuked Cognitivists for "resort to theory," mouthing the words "resort to theory" as though they were bile on his tongue (6).
Despite his labeling his assumptions "observed facts" it is clear that Skinner has an a priori theory of the world, a kind of materialistic atomism. But in "The Generic Nature of the Concepts of Stimulus and Response," he argues for a kind of "experimenter choice" that clearly places him outside the Empiricist tradition. "Data" for Skinner are not merely what present themselves to the experimenter, but that subset of the presented that fits into the experimenter's preconceived theory: for Skinner, a "smooth" functional curve. It is this option to choose what counts as data which reappears in his later works, importantly in Walden Two, to allow him to know better about people's motives (7) than they, themselves; and that will enable Skinnerian behavioral managers in any kind of institution to ignore data when data inconveniences their search for order.
He writes, "Our control over the response is almost exclusively of this sort -- specification. We have the refusal of all responses not falling within the class we have set up."(8) Responses are not identified as belonging to a response-class merely on the basis of pre-specified criteria, but rather on the basis of whether their acceptance or rejection produces "smooth curves" in the attempt to specify a functional relation between stimulus and response. Indeed, experimentally, if we try to restrict responses through differential reinforcement procedures so that non-defining properties are culled out, the smooth curves are damaged.(9) In any enterprise but what Skinner calls his "Science," the practice of "Selection of Facts"(10) would be called "cooking the data." (Cf. "A Case History Of Scientific Method" p.35)
Neither evidence, nor careful reasoning, but, rather, wishful thinking provides the foundation for Skinner's theories, both psychological and educational. He was a skillful polemicist for behavioral control; but was he a scientist? Let us cite Skinner himself to address this question:
Science is a willingness to accept facts even when they are opposed to wishes. Thoughtful men have perhaps always known that we are likely to see things as we want to see them instead of as they are, but thanks to Sigmund Freud we are today much more clearly aware of "wishful thinking." The opposite of wishful thinking is intellectual honesty -- an extremely important possession of the successful scientist. -- B. F. Skinner,Science and Human Behavior, (New York: Free Press, 1953) p.12.
B.F. Skinner's early career demonstrates that constricted experimental treatments produce constricted theory, even if that theory is disavowed as such (11). Early on, Skinner was faced with the fact that his speculations on behavior were becoming increasingly obsolete. Even his own apparatus could be used to yield results that undercut his pronouncements. And even among Behaviorists, experimenters like Edward Tolman(12) were demonstrating that concepts like 'expectancy' were necessary to account for experimental outcomes. And so, with the original publication of Walden Two in 1948, Skinner turned to a broader, presumably less critical audience:
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Governance and Gender in Walden Two
...(C)ontrol your conditions and you will see order. -- attributed to I. A. Pavlov by Skinner in "A Case History..." p.31
Walden Two is a parody on Plato's Republic. A protagonist expounds doctrine and minimally critical objections are occasionally raised by other characters to give the appearance of debate. Whereas Socrates is Plato's main theoretical exponent, Skinner splits the job of exposition between Frazier, the founder of Walden Two, and Burris, the visiting psychology professor. Frazier can be allowed annoying idiosyncrasies to balance off those of Castle, a caricature of a 19th Century philosopher, while Burris' equanimity supports with a veneer of disinterestedness the theoretically critical points made by Frazier.
As in the Republic, a managing elite governs. Just as Plato's Philosopher-kings rule on the basis of their direct perception of the Good and the natures of the lower classes, so Walden Two's managers structure "contingencies of reinforcement" in pursuit of a Walden Two that is "naturally satisfying" to all its inhabitants.(ibid. p.195) Walden Two, explains Frazier, unlike other conceptions of Utopia, is inclusive. Addressing the satisfactions of all its members is of concern to the managers (ibid. p.195). However, if Walden's scientific management, which uses only "non-punitive" techniques cannot provide someone satisfaction, that diseased person would likely naturally separate himself or herself from the community (ibid. p.161).
Walden Two is in many ways a WWII period piece. Skinner's depiction of gender relations and sexual discussion illustrate this. For example, he writes that, "objective" discussion of sexual relations demands the affectation of a "Bohemian" perspective (ibid. p.127). (Just ordinary college professors, could not -- one supposes -- achieve such objectivity.)
When Burris remarks how "attractive" all the women look, Frazier explains that they "manage to appear beautiful" because dress is not restricted (ibid. p.28), although they take pains not to get too far out of fashion.(ibid. p.29). Guest rooms in this Utopia are, in accord with a 1940's sense of propriety, sexually segregated (ibid. p.13), as are washrooms for workers (ibid. p.72). Frazier confesses himself not competent to speak of "things of interest to the ladies" (ibid. p.24). A Mrs. Meyerson is brought along to give the women visitors "a more accurate view of Walden Two than they could expect from Frazier" (ibid. p.32). But in response to one of Frazier's displays of intellect she says lightheartedly "Oh, you are beyond me!" (ibid. p.76).
In Walden Two childbearing is "the duty or privilege of woman" (ibid. p.122) -- it seems not to matter much to Frazier whether it is a duty or privilege. Burris suspects that it's hardest to convince women of the advantages of community life. Women, like exploited workers, Frazier agrees, stand the most to gain and are always hardest to convince because of a system of beliefs implanted within their skins. "It's sometimes almost a hopeless task to take the shackles off their souls, but it can be done."(ibid. p.137)
This exchange reveals what is very much a theory of "false consciousness." Such a theory permits rejection of data, e.g. the expressed desires of the governed, when they are inconvenient to the governor, presumably wise and insightful enough to see through to "real" desires and needs. This example of refusal to accept, or what Skinner as "scientist" calls Selection of Fact, is not Behaviorist, however, but Totalitarian.
Consequently, "politics" is abjured. Political action, insists Frazier, is no use in building a better world (ibid. p.10). A Golden Age, without conflict, is out of the reach of politics and government (ibid. p.81), since government is no more than the power to compel obedience (ibid. p.180). That specific governments have long offered incentives in the form of charters, patents, tax exemptions, land grants, subsidies, etc., are historical facts with which Skinner -- if apprised of them -- seems not to want to inform his considerations.
There is nothing original in the behavior management exercised in lieu of government at Walden Two, continues Frazier, since Society "already possesses the psychological techniques needed to obtain universal observance of a code -- a code which would guarantee the success of a community or state" (ibid. p.153). The old winery needs only a new bottler.
Just as politics is reduced to psychology, so is economics. Frazier insists, "No one can seriously doubt that a well-managed community will get along successfully as an economic unit. A child could prove it. The real problems are psychological" (ibid. p.73). An underlying assumption seems to be that scarcity does not exist. Walden Two is a community that has devised "a very high standard of living with a low consumption of goods." (ibid. p.57).(When one postulates economic problems away -- as it is the fiction writer's prerogative to do -- then there are no such things as economic problems. This is one of the rare instances of logical consistency in the entire corpus of Skinner's writings!)
How are political problems avoided? Frazier is at heart, a Hobbesian: "Each of us has interests which conflict with the interests of everybody else. That's our original sin, and it can't be helped. Now, 'everybody else' we call 'society.' It's a powerful opponent and it always wins" (ibid. p.95). Between individual and "society", Skinner allows for no intermediate collectivities that might require him to concede that some of us may have interests that might be maintained despite the pressures of "society" to relinquish them.
Walden Two's Code
Walden Two has a formidable code of behavior whose particulars are scattered throughout the book. (Scattering is a technique which Skinner employs in much of his writing: it works to avoid the appearance of "theory.") This Code of Behavior assumes, it would appear, non-conflicting interpretations of that code by all the members of Walden Two. The Code directs that everyone must do menial, physically hard work (ibid. p.50). They must avoid unnecessary possessions (ibid. p.57). No gratitude is to be expressed (ibid. p.75). Individuals are not to be compared. (ibid. p.117). One must avoid gossip about personal ties (ibid. p.128). No exclusive time is to be spent with one's own children (ibid. p.132). One shouldn't talk to outsiders about community affairs (ibid. p.150). Personal competition should be discouraged (ibid. p.156). In Walden Two there are no heroes (ibid. p.35) nor is history relevant (ibid. p.106). Marriage plans are voided by tested-for psychological incompatibilities (ibid. p.125). Members are not to argue about the Walden Code with members-at-large; but, to see the managers.( ibid. p.152) No one is to act for the benefit of anyone else except as an agent of the community (ibid. p.220).
The argument as to whether these are good or bad rules is not so much of interest here.( ibid. p.13)(13) Much more interesting would have been a depiction of how reinforcers ("rewards", in that non-science-fiction English that Skinner vacillates in using) can be arranged so that everyone in the community conforms to the Code. Suppose, for example, a Walden Two member were to tell the managers that she considered following the Code to be menial, yet hard, labor. Therefore, only if she were permitted to forego other labor requirements yet receive high amounts of labor credits could she conform to the rest of the rules. It is naive to imagine that even in "cooperative" communities such strategy and bargaining behavior would be absent. But this political behavior may be forestalled if resources of all kinds are sufficient and the objects of desire not unique. Skinner's fantasy proposes to allay jealousy by the use of alternatives: "one and only", as Frazier puts it, is more an expression of singleness of opportunity, than of "constancy of heart." This is "as true of the choice of a girl as of a profession." (ibid. p.47)
What if people don't cooperate? Are there "incorrigibles?" "Poor work by a capable man is a form of illness."(ibid. p.159) It needs treatment, not punishment. And if switching jobs and other incentives still results in poor work?, asks Castle. Frazier replies, "It's more likely that he would long since have gone of his own accord."(ibid. p.160) Why? The point is not elaborated on.
Anti-Intellectualism and the Academic Life
If Burris speaks for Skinner, then Skinner did not think much of Academia. But his deprecation goes far beyond the usual ennui with the Ivory Tower to attacking much of what is the virtue of the scholarly life. Early in the book Burris seems to rue his being, as a professor, less than heroic: all he had to show for his life was his students' "pitiful display of erudition" (ibid. p.2). So far as changing the world was concerned, interest and good will were ineffectual (ibid. p.4). Having difficulties conversing with a young woman he is attracted to, he blames "the bastard tongue of the academy" with which he is damned (ibid. p.62). He even looks forward to physical labor as better than grading blue books or reading term papers (ibid. p.67) -- one of many indications that Walden Two is a romance.
Attending a concert presented at Walden Two, Burris remembers an interest in "The Aesthetic Experience," and automatically considers looking for something in his university library on it. But seized with a violent revulsion, "almost a retching," he wonders if he "could ever escape the world of books?" (ibid. p.85)
Arguing with Castle, Frazier explains that in Walden Two no one takes pleasure in "the sophistical, the disputative, the dialectical." (ibid. p.103). Most importantly, history in Walden Two is honored only as entertainment (16). It isn't taken seriously as food for thought.(ibid. p.106). "Historical research can take the place of scientific inquiry and give one time out for an honorable snooze, while pretending to carry on." (ibid. p.291).
But even science is dispensible, if it comes from an academic tradition outside Skinner's own. As Frazier recounts some of the experiments conducted in Walden Two, Burris asks an important question as to whether the experimentation was repeated on some kind of control group (ibid. p.162). Frazier says, "To go to all the trouble of running controls would be to make a fetish of scientific method." (ibid. p.163) To the reader, Burris explains his worries about control groups as "academic carping." So far as separating cause and effect is concerned (17), goes on Frazier, "It's not the separation that counts, but whether the relation between cause and effect are obvious" (ibid. p.164) Selection of Facts, apparently -- or Omniscience --at work again (18)
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...in the long run man is determined by the state. (ibid. p.257)
To be useful to a would-be totalitarian, an ideology in our society must have three properties: camouflage, complexity, and idiosyncrasy. Without the camouflage of "Science" and "Humanism", an ideology such as Skinner's would lack prima facie legitimacy. Without complexity, not only would its faults be obvious, but it would lack the entertainment value which apparently has kept Skinnerism alive in Academia all these years. Finally, without idiosyncrasy, it would be useless as a tool to those who would legitimate their selfish or whimsical exercises of power. We have seen how Skinner's principle of "Selection of Fact" enables idiosyncrasy. Complexity, exacerbated by often not-too-subtle reconceptualization, is evident, also. In addition to his incessant invocation of "Science" to camouflage his a priori commitments, Skinner in Walden Two appeals to what has come to be known in the last fifty years as "Humanism" -- also with a suspicious capital first letter.
To the beginning explorer of Skinner's written product it is astonishing that the author of this well-written, apparently deeply humane and moral book could also be one of the most disingenuous propagandists it is the mixed fortune of the discipline of Psychology to call its own. To anyone who has been long involved in cooperative enterprises, the attraction of Walden Two is palpable. It presents an image of a society based on principles many feel to be self-evident: e. g. health is better than sickness and unpleasant labor should be minimized and shared.( ibid. p.147). Also, opportunities should be provided for everyone to exercise talents and abilities and to find congenial spirits. Attitudes of domination and criticism should be discouraged in pursuit of the goal of general tolerance and affection (ibid. p.148).
Skinner seems to believe that these principles are easily operationalizable and will involve a minimum of interpersonal conflict. But any experienced cooperator knows that stating principles (and fantasizing Utopias) is the easy part of bringing an organization to realization. It isn't the principles, but the implementation procedures that distinguish totalitarian from participative societies. Just as do his political theory, philosophy and economics, so does Skinner's organizational theory suffer from ignorance.
|... Russia after fifty years is not a model we wish to emulate. China may be closer to the solutions I have been talking about, but a Communist revolution in America is hard to imagine. -- B. F. Skinner (1976) Walden Two Revisited, In Walden Two, p. xv|
Ironically, one might track the evolution of Skinner's own "Science" in terms of the same four factors. First, despite persistent invocations of "Behaviorism" and "Empiricism", it divorced itself from a wider community, particularly as concerns critical experimentation.(20) Secondly, with much promise and little product, it sprang into marketing, for example, "teaching machines." Third, Skinner himself became an icon, who could appear at conferences and just refuse to answer inconvenient questions without provoking scandal. Finally, institutional and professional power was often brought to bear to promote Skinnerism even where experimental evidence gave counterindication. McKeachie in "The Decline and Fall of the Laws of Learning", p. 10, offered this explanation for the popularity of Skinner's theory despite its inadequacy:
Those who buy this approach find that his basic ideas are simple to apply and work often enough to maintain their enthusiasm. This is no small matter. Anyone who can take discouraged, dispirited teachers, mental health aides or prison officials and revive their hope and vigor has done a great deal. Probably no one thing is more important in education than the teacher's enthusiasm and energy.
I take this statement to be a diplomatic sop to pacify the more zealous Skinnerians who might otherwise have found McKeachie's paper to leave little for the honest psychologist to hold to. But as a long time teacher, I reject McKeachie's condoning Skinner's offering his nostrums to a clientele supposedly too stupid to tell snake oil from real medicine. I can attest also, as a teacher of teachers, that the failure of Skinner's promises have generated an extreme wariness towards any systematic approach to educational problems. Even as psychologists decry the invasion of our schools by occultists, New-Agers and assorted gurus, they fail to recognize that, in consequence of the failed Skinnerian promises, teachers regard them, too, the academically trained psychologists, as one more variety of occult practitioner.
B. F. Skinner's later career demonstrates that, even in Academia, serendipity and celebrity more than make up for the paucity of one's self-anointed "Science." What if, in 1948, the disciplinary status of psychology had already equaled that of mathematics or physics? (Thomas A. Edison, for all his inventions, would not have been considered in 1948 to be a physicist!) What if Skinner had run his rats at, say, the University of West Virginia, rather than Harvard? What if Hebb or Spence or Tolman -- honest researchers all -- , rather than Skinner, had appeared on the cover of Life magazine as heralds of a New Science? (Popular culture is indulgent about talent, once celebrity has been established.) Suppose the Defense Department had not been impressed with the possibility of pecking-pigeon missile guidance systems? What if during the early '60's the Federal Government had been as ready to fund cognitive researchers as Skinnerian mimics? (Scientific rat-runners of that period enjoyed all sorts of scientific Federal support -- scientific coffee-makers, scientific refrigerators, scientific snack-foods, etc. disallowed to their less scientific Cognitivist brethren.) Although it is beyond the scope of this review to pursue this line of inquiry, I suspect this concatenation of disciplinary politics, Cold War and happenstance celebrity better explains the rise of Skinner's Behavioral Science than any productive outcome of it. Barring these historical accidents, those of us who have followed Skinner's work might well have foregone the musings of an emperor who not only had no clothes, but who told everyone early on he was naked. But who was listening?
In the almost fifty years since Skinner began working on Walden Two we have seen many Waldens come into being. Some persist. Others have disappeared. The Chinese Cultural Revolution, closer than the Soviet experiment to what Skinner had been talking about. Jonestown. EST. Dianetics. The managers of these Waldens have had their own vision, with or without natural lines of fracture, of the directly observable universe whose basic properties were also an obvious matter. They all practiced their own versions of Selection of Fact as assiduously as B. F. Skinner ever did. And Jim Jones and David Koresh did not control the behavior in their Waldens with any less skill at Behavioral Science than Mao Zedong did in his.
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(2) Cf. "Even though the treatment is unusually painful or causes unusual mental suffering, it may be administered to a prisoner without his consent if it is recognized as appropriate by recognized medical authority or authorities." From Ramsey v. Ciccone, 310 Supp. 600. 605 (W.D. Mo. 1971)
(3) B. F. Skinner, "A Case History in Scientific Method". American Psychologist. 11, (1956) 221-33. Reprinted in C. Lavetelli and F. Stendler Readings in Child Behavior and Development. Third Edition. (New York: Harcourt. 1972) p.35. Presumably, Skinner knows this by introspection, a "method" he usually deprecated as unreliable.
(4) Skinner, "The Generic Nature Of The Concepts Of Stimulus And Response". Journal of General Psychology. 12, (1935) 40-65.
(5) It was not atypical of Skinner to misdescribe work he found ideologically unacceptable. See comments on philosophy, political theory and history below.
(6) American Psychological Association. B.F. Skinner, Ph. D.Keynote Address. August 10, 1990 Boston MA. Videotape. Item 4500150.
(7) See Walden Two p. 245 for a peculiarly unBehavioristic characterization, i.e. behavior in the disguise of a neurotic symptom. Also, on p. 246 Frazier states that Behavioral Science controls not just behavior, but the inclination to behave, i.e. the motives, desires and wishes.
(8) "Generic Nature" p.48. In "A Case History..." p35, Skinner writes "...I also exercised a Selection of Facts but not because of relevance to theory but because one fact was more orderly than another."
(9) Skinner fails to consider that his inability to restrict a response or stimulus type down to its postulated defining property could be taken as empirical evidence against such a postulate. But then, he might say, he postulates nothing -- he only observes. Also, smooth curves do not necessarily indicate functional relations; nor do functional relations necessarily graph into smooth curves. Cf. Edward G. Rozycki, "The Functional Analysis of Behavior" Educational Theory, 25,3. (1975) 278-302.
(10) Wilbur J. McKeachie, in his 1974 APA Presidential Address entitled, "The Decline and Fall of the Laws of Learning" Educational Researcher, March 1974, 7-11, critiqued the claims Skinner had made in B. F. Skinner, "The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching" Harvard Educational Review, 24, 1954, 86-97. He argued that most of Skinner's assertions about teaching and learning are counterindicated by the research evidence.
(11) In "Generic Nature", Skinner concedes, "what we should call the defining property of a stimulus is actually the logical product of all observed instances. This is easily said... but ...what this means in terms of a central nervous system...is a much more difficult." He then goes on to insist that the "answer of the student of behavior ought to be that this is not his problem."(p. 60)
(12) Cf. Edward C. Tolman, Purposive Behavior In Animals And Men. (New York: Century, 1932). Or E. C. Tolman, B. F. Ritchie and D. Kalish, "Studies In Spacial Learning I. Orientation And The Short-Cut". Journal of Experimental Psychology, 36, (1946) 13-24.
(13) A really inquisitive Burris might have asked how it is that The Walden Code represents a change in the stimulus environment. Would printing it on green paper in an Old English font make a difference? Cf. Max Hocutt, "Skinner and the Word 'Good': a naturalistic semantics for ethics." Ethics 87,4 July 1977, 319-338.
(15) In "The Generic Nature" (p. 58) Skinner warns that vernacular usage may not be scientifically accurate. However, throughout Walden Two as well as, for example, Science and Human Behavior he indulges himself liberally
(16) Skinner seems to have changed his mind on the value of history in the writing of "The Origins of Cognitive Thought" American Psychologist. January 1989. 13-18. This article on the history of the "behavioral" meaning of words --with four references, one to a previous article of his and two of them dictionaries -- is a weak parody on Ryle's Concept of Mind.
(17) The seen "obvious" is an unquestionable datum for Skinner. In his 1990 APA speech, he says, "How can you be sure a theory is right until you can see what it is that a theory is about?" Atomic physics hasn't a hope of being "scientific" in the Skinnerian sense!
(18) See Skinner's "A Case History" pp. 36-37 for arguments that statistical controls are pointless. Other Skinnerian researchers were not so sure. White rats for experimentation were interbred to produce a genetic uniformity that wasn't supposed to matter anyway.
(19) A more realistic depiction of a Walden Two might be found in Anchee Min, Red Azalea (New York: Pantheon, 1994).