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Washington, D.C. October 3, 1971



Beyond Reality With B. F. Skinner

 By Carroll Quigley


A review of:
Beyond Freedom and Dignity. By B.F. Skinner.
Alfred A. Knopf. 225 pages $6.95


   Although John B. Watson’s “Behaviorism” was a best seller in 1925, I did not get to read it until 1926. I was not impressed favorably but regarded it as simplistic, naïve, dogmatic, confused, and ambiguous. Burrhus Frederic Skinner probably read Watson about the same time when he was a senior at Hamilton College, but he was captured by it. His latest book, “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” is an inferior version of Watson, despite the fact that he insists that it is the latest word in up-to-date psychology. A great deal has been learned about human psychology in the past 45 years, but not much of it has rubbed off on Skinner, who has spent much of that period successfully peddling a slightly inferior brand of Watsonian behaviorism.
   In this book Skinner repeats, with the boring monotony of an Asiatic fever-bird, the same range of assumptions and slogans for which he has been so richly rewarded since he took his Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Harvard 40 years ago. These assumptions were stated in his widely read “novel,” “Walden Two,” published in 1948, the year in which he became professor of psychology at Harvard. In that “novel” Skinner portrays himself, under the name “Professor Burris,” visiting a contemporary utopian commune operated by a certain T.E. Frazier, who is Skinner himself under a different name. Most of the novel consists of Skinner talking to Skinner under these two pseudonyms. The books ends, appropriately enough, when Burris decides to stay at the commune with Frazier.
   Much of Skinner’s writings are in this form in which he provides both sides of the discussion: He begins with a statement of what he intends to discuss, but never gets to do so, because, instead, he is immediately diverted into an attack on any version of psychology different from his own. These are presented in Skinner’s words and are refuted by dogmatic statements of his own assumptions which are presented as experimentally demonstrable facts. His attacks are directed at any version of psychology which attempts to deal with what goes on inside of a person, such as perception, thoughts, feelings, ideas, or conflicts. Since these are what most of us mean when we say “psychology,” Skinner’s version of this subject makes it possible for him to pose as a psychologist without ever concerning himself with the subject. If any reader is confused about how a man who never concerns himself with psychology can be regarded as an authority on the subject, the explanation is that most people simply assume that a professor of psychology at Harvard must be talking about psychology when he says he is and must know something about the subject. These mistaken assumptions result from the prevalent ignorance about the Alice-in-Wonderland world which has conquered most higher education and much intellectual life (including publishing) today.
   Skinner is concerned in his writings and teachings, not with human psychology, but with human behavior; this, he insists, is always a response to an external trigger to the environment which surrounds the person. Since he has no interest in what goes on inside the person, he ignores everything which intervenes between the trigger and the response, both of which are external to the person, and pours scorn on any belief that there is anything between these two. Any such belief he assumes to be concerned with fiction or myth and refers to it as “mentalism” or “autonomous man.” Equally mythical are associated ideas, such as “freedom” or dignity.”
   In his discussion of these “myths,” Skinner begins by saying that our lives and our society are in terrible shape. This, he insists, is because we know so little about human behavior. What we need is “a technology of behavior.” Although this is the title of the first chapter in this book, discussion of this panacea never gets beyond this admonition, and there is no further mention of the need or nature of this technology. Instead, in his usual fashion, Skinner reverts to pastime of knocking down all the strawmen of his own versions of the past efforts of psychology. We lack a technology of behavior, says Skinner, because we have not tried to make one but have, instead, wasted our time for 2,500 years trying to understand human psychology by introspection and by discussing the problem in terms of mind, perception, consciousness, feelings, purposes, human nature, causes, and such “unscientific” ideas.
   To Skinner none of these things exist, and we must discard them and ignore all internal and subjective processes. Instead, we should concern ourselves only with “objective” phenomena, especially with how to obtain “desirable” behavior by manipulation of the individual’s external experience, above all by limitation and deprivation of experience, to the point where a desirable response can be elicited by a specific external trigger. This process by which men will be reduced to robots responding to signals is called by Skinner “operant conditioning.” He would resent our calling this “brainwashing,” not only because the brain is one of the things which Skinner refuses to recognize, since it is internal and not part of behavior. Skinner does not tell us what he means by “desirable” behavior, but it is quite clear that he means submissive and unresisting response to the established triggers.
   According to Skinner, any way of dealing with human or social problems other than by operant conditioning is “pre-scientific,” while his way is “scientific,” and is, indeed, in advancing edge of scientific advance, a kind of wave of the future in human development and the only possible protection against approaching social disaster. Any criticism of Skinners ideas is dismissed by him with contempt as based on ignorance, old-fashioned, pre-scientific prejudices and must be consigned to the rubbish heap of discarded superstitions. This attitude is widespread among other contemporary charlatans peddling nostrums, like Robert Ardrey, Marshal McLuhan, and C. D. Darlington. The subsequent chapters of this volume also bear titles which have little relationship to their contents: chapters 2 to 6 are called “Freedom”; “Dignity”; “Punishment”; “Alternatives to Punishment,” and “Values.” It is clear that Skinner does not like the first three although there is no evidence that he understands the meaning of the first two and the last. In each case, unsupported dogmatic statements are made, the real issue is avoided almost totally, and the chapter consists very largely of examples of the things Skinner refuses to recognize, interspersed with numerous quotations from or references to famous writers (but almost never to psychologists). These are mostly irrelevant to the subject, but are included, it would seem, to impress us with Skinners erudition. Although the volume has neither index nor bibliography, it does have numerous notes, many to eight books by Skinner himself. The first such note, on page 1, is to C.D. Darlington’s “The Evolution of Man and Society,” but Skinner has not read the book and took the quotation from a review of it in Science for June 12, 1970. Darlington is about the last person Skinner should quote, for he is a believer in genetic determinism, while Skinner is an environmental determinist, who quotes Darlington on environmental damage, something which has quite different meaning to the two men. But perhaps they find kinship in their common belief that man is unfree in a deterministic condition.
   The quality of Skinners thought may be seen in the opening words of his chapter on “Freedom,” “Almost all living things act to free themselves from harmful contacts. A kind of freedom is achieved by the relatively simple forms of behavior called reflexes. A person sneezes his respiratory passages.” To most of us sneezing would be an example of freedom if only we had some control over it and some choice as to whether we sneeze or not. The quotation is a good example of Skinnerian thought for three reasons: First, because it refers to an involuntary unfree action as an example of “a kind of freedom”; second, because he makes this error partly because of his bias for reflex actions and from his constant tendency to use words in incorrect meanings; and third, because the opening sentence is obviously untrue, but Skinners experience and frame of reference is so remote from the real world that he is unaware of its falseness. It may be true of amoebas or rats that they avoid harmful contacts, but it is obvious to anyone who comes out of the laboratory to look at the actual world that men would no avoid, but, on the contrary, seek out, “harmful contacts” like drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, speed, violence, over-powered cars, and all kind of disturbances, and existents. In fact, the central problem of psychology today is why men seek these things. The obvious answer is that they are frustrated and bored, but Skinner’s assumptions have no place for these ideas (being internal they are “unscientific”), so he has to deny they even occur.
   Untruthful, dogmatic statements of this kind are all through Skinners work. In support of his assumptions about the effectiveness of conditioning, he says, “A parent nags a child until the child performs a task; performing the task the child escapes nagging.” I wonder where Skinner has been for the last 20 years, in a permissive society, where children who feel ignored by their parents refuse to perform tasks because their desire to attract the parent’s attention is more powerful than there desire escape nagging or even punishment. Here again Skinner assumptions do not admit the possibility of a child’s inner psychology having the autonomy to make such a choice, so his own perception fails to notice a condition which is blatant. And, of course, Skinner is quite unable to notice his own failure of perception, because to him perception is a purely mechanical thing, without any active role. That is why this “scientist” fails to see masochistic and self destructive behavior, or disobedient children, in a world which is full of them. The reason is that Skinner is not a scientist at all, but a conditioned professor who has discovered that he gets rewards for doing things, including writing and speaking nonsense, and continues to do them.
   Skinner’s ideas are not new as he insists, but very old. His theory that men seek pleasant experiences and avoid unpleasant ones is explicit in Jeremy Bentham (died 1883) and has been discarded from the toolbox psychology for a century. It is still used by Skinner as his basic tool because he has no concern with psychology but only with the behavior. Innovation Skinner has made with this tool is that he has rejected the use of punishment in conditioning and would rely only on rewards. But this fails because his rewards are to weak, and he ignored the fact that people can get surfeit with materialist rewards, especially weak ones. In the laboratory, a rat which is kept hungry may continue indefinitely to do what Skinner wants for return for an inadequate food pellet after each success, but a human being can become surfeit with any reward or success and can leave the laboratory, the game, or the world. Throughout history, from ancient Sparta to recent Nazi Germany and contemporary Russia, efforts to create a society based on operant conditioning have shown the impossibility of preventing men from adopting the kind of behavior which Skinner ignores, such as opting out, walking away, or self-destruction; the very things which are sweeping over our society and are doing so just because our society is already moving in those dehumanized, materialistic, technology, and impersonal directions which Skinner advocates as a cure for these conditions.
   Some measure of his misconception of the nature of man and of our present crisis is to be seen in his suggestion that a solution to our problems could be found by replacing inter-personal relations with relationships with things (pages 89-90). He says, “A world in which all behavior is dependent on things is an attractive prospect.” At a time when the world is being swept by a growing hatred of artifacts, with irrational vandalism of things increasing everywhere, while people desperately try to replace their relations with unresponsive things by almost any kind of relationships with nature and persons, it is difficult to believe that any responsible person could advocate replacing inter-personal relationships by more “dependence” on things, but there it is.
   This profound lack of contact with reality is evident in almost all Skinner’s speeches and writings. It is most obvious in his use of words in way almost directly opposed to their usual meanings. We have seen that his “psychology” has almost no psychology in it. He used the words “scientific” and “unscientific” (or “pre-scientific”) in ways distinctively his own: what he does is “scientific”; what he refuses to recognize is “unscientific.’ The present book has nothing to do with either freedom or dignity except to indicate, rather indirectly, that Skinner has no use for either of them. The word “beyond” in the title does not refer to the future or to any development of men toward any higher degree of manliness, but of his desire to return man to some past condition in which men will be deprived of their human dignity by reducing them to the status of trained animals. When Skinner speaks of “education,” he means training, especially memory training. When he talks of men, he is constantly thinking of laboratory animals. Thus if Skinner announced a lecture on “recent discoveries in human education,” he would talk about “traditional knowledge of animal training,” although, as likely as not, neither he nor his audience would recognize the fact. The best commentary on Skinner’s use of words is in the analysis of “doublethink” and “Newspeak” in George Orwell’s novel “1984.


Carroll Quigley


Scan of original review

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