Leaving the Cave: Evolutionary Naturalism in Social-Scientific Thought

By Pat Duffy Hutcheon | Go to book overview

Twenty-Three
The Radical Behaviourism of B.F. Skinner

I shall be telling them with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-- Robert Frost,
"The Road Not Taken"

L ike Darwin and Einstein, B.F. Skinner plummeted into his chosen field from the outside. Studying literature as an undergraduate, while practising music and art and writing poetry, might seem an unlikely preparation for a future founder of a science of behaviour. But it so happened that Burrhus Frederic Skinner, after a year of failing to produce good fiction, came to a realization all-too-seldom acknowledged by young writers. He simply did not know enough about the universals of the human condition to capture them for posterity in poetry and prose. So -- armed with the guilelessness and vibrant ego typical of the rural American youth of his generation -- he set out to resolve his dilemma. He turned to psychology, expecting to discover there the mother-lode of reliable knowledge about why and how humans behave as they do. What he found, instead, was a confused and naked emperor, at war with himself. Undaunted, Skinner promptly determined to devote his life to constructing, if not a complete wardrobe for the overblown emperor, at least a solid platform on which the fledgling social sciences could begin to stand.


Setting out on the road less travelled

For a methodology Skinner went back to the dictums of Francis Bacon on the nature of the scientific enterprise, and to Bertrand Russell on the joint demands of logic and intellectual integrity. With no apparent plan to do so, he

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