Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Behavioral Science as the Art of the 21st Century Philosophical Similarities between B.F. Skinner's Radical Behaviorism and Postmodern Science

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Behavioral Science as the Art of the 21st Century Philosophical Similarities between B.F. Skinner's Radical Behaviorism and Postmodern Science

Article excerpt

Since B.F. Skinner's death in 1990, psychologists taking a historical approach are beginning to clear misconceptions of his philosophy: radical behaviorism. Contrary to the belief of many, radical behaviorism, continues to grow and branch into new areas. This paper attempts to explore the history of Skinner's assertions and place them within the context of contemporary western thought. Parallels are drawn between Skinner's science and diverse areas such as evolutionary biology and postmodern philosophy. The social construction of knowledge is one of the many lasting legacies of Skinner's work.


"Say what you like as long as it does not stop you from seeing how things are.... And when you have seen this there is plenty that you will not say"--(Wittengstein, 1953)

For many contemporary thinkers, the idea that Skinner's Radical Behaviorism and postmodernist philosophy of science are compatible would appear ridiculous, or at best superficial. After all both evolved from drastically different historical roots (Andresen, 1992) and some scientists have accused postmodern philosophers of being antiscience (i.e. Holton, 1993). For example, Lyotard's (1979) book The Postmodern Condition enjoys a special distinction for weaving together Postmodern art, with elements of the post structuralism philosophy, and a theory of postindustrial society. While the work has some clear seems, it is considered a good starting point. Lyotard attempts to define the postmodern by contrast to the modern:

"I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse...making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialects of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or creation of wealth."

Although Lyotard's statement holds for some postmodernists, much of postmodernism is not antiscience but rather the natural evolution of thinking following the discrediting of realism (Ross, 1996; Rorty, 1979, 1991). One can contrast the statement above with that of another recognized postmodernist Griffin (1988)"physics no longer disenchants our stories; physics itself provides us with a new story which can become a common, unifying story underneath our more particular stories." (p. 15ff).

As we will see central tenets of the postmodernism trend were factors that most contemporary sciences adopted in the early part of this century (long before even the word postmodernism was considered) with the notable exception of psychology and linguistics, which still seem to be dominated by realistic thinking and methodology. On the other hand, within psychology, Skinner has been wrongly described to epitomize the logical positivist movement. Some erroneously argued that Skinner was a realist, a "copy theorist indistinguishable from other behaviorists" (Paiget and Ingelder, 1969). However, this characterization fails to recognize Skinner's behaviorism as an attempt to "know what we come to know" (Baum, 1994; Lana, 1991, 1995). Far from being a copy theorist, Skinner argued that all thinking is dynamic: even the experimenter's thinking is shaped by organism/environment interaction (Skinner, 1956). In postmodernist terms, Skinner was studying the building of Moscovici's (1987) virtual worlds. Brinker and Jaynes (1988) point out this precisely differentiates Skinnerian behaviorism from other behavioral theories.

Few would disagree that B.F. Skinner has contributed much to psychological thinking of the 20th century. Historical recognition of Skinner's work is assured (Lana, 1991) with divergent fields such as anthropology (Glenn, 1988) and behavioral biology (Robinson & Woodward, 1989) readily discuss his writings. However, whether or not Skinner's ideas are fossils (Sutherland, 1990, cf. Richelle, 1995), as some have contended, will be left to history to judge.

Our analysis of Skinner's work occurs because currently, the field of psychology must place its work within contemporary views of science, developing a greater contextual awareness of its historical roots (Richelle, 1995). …

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