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Skinner, B. F. (1904–1990)


The name of B. F. (Burrhus Frederic) Skinner has become virtually synonymous with behaviorism. By introducing the concept of "operant conditioning" (in the late 1930s), Skinner fundamentally transformed behaviorist approaches to experimental psychology. Operant conditioning is based on the fact that the behavior of organisms (including people) typically has environmental consequences and is explained in important part by reference to them. Its fundamental principle is that the probability of occurrence of a specified kind of behavior is a function of the environmental consequences of previous occurrences of behavior of the same type, most notably, that the probability increases if the previous occurrences have been followed by "reinforcement." Skinner, surpassing older behaviorist "stimulus-response" approaches, inaugurated an experimental research program aiming to discover the laws of operant conditioning and, thus, generalizations concerning the three-term relation: discriminative stimulus-behavior-reinforcement.

The earliest laws of operant conditioning include generalizations about the relationship of the probability of a behavior's occurrence to its "schedule of reinforcement"for example, to the conditions (discriminative stimulus) of its occurrence, the temporal duration between behavior and reinforcement, the proportion of behaviors that are followed by reinforcement, and whether these durations and proportions are fixed or variable. Later developments include generalizations about behavior that occurs under multiple schedules of reinforcement. The research program of operant conditioning constitutes Skinner's definitive and most lasting contribution. It also informs an applied program (of "behavioral technology"), based on the notion that behavior can be controlled by appropriate arrangement of the contingencies of reinforcement. The journals, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (1958) and Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (1968) are principally devoted, respectively, to publishing results of these and related programs.

Skinner considered his research program to underlie "radical behaviorism," a viewpoint that is distinct from the better-known (among philosophers) "logical behaviorism" and "methodological behaviorism." Unlike logical behaviorism, radical behaviorism does not hold that "mentalistic" termsterms that may be taken to designate mental states or events (e.g., sensations, thoughts, memories, beliefs)can be analyzed in terms of relations between behavior and the environment, or as referring to dispositions to behave in certain ways under specified environmental conditions. Unlike methodological behaviorism, it does not hold that any knowledge we may have about mental states and events is gained by means of inference (e.g., hypothetico-deductive) from knowledge of observed behavior, or that mental phenomena may be investigated by way of the behavioral phenomena causally linked with them. Radical behaviorism is not a philosophical thesis about meaning or about the epistemological primacy of behavior. It is a program aiming to "interpret" voluntary behavior (intentional action) in the light of the principle (in the most general terms) that voluntary behavior is under the control of environmental variables and the history of their relations with a person's behavior; or (more specifically) that it is explicable in terms of the history of contingencies of reinforcement to which a person has been exposed and the general laws (identified in the experimental program) of operant conditioning governing these contingencies. The philosophical journal Behaviorism (19721989) provided a forum for extensive discussion of radical behaviorism.

For Skinner, the philosophical impact of the program of radical behaviorism becomes apparent in the light of two proposals: (a) that adopting the program has the backing of scientific authority, and (b) that it is from sciencerather than, say, from deploying ordinary intentional idiomthat we gain the best understanding of human phenomena. Regarding (a), he wrote a series of methodological articles (reprinted in Skinner 1969, 1972) arguing that the methodological and theoretical resources of the experimental program of operant (combined with respondent) conditioning at least match, and usually surpass, those of programs guided by methodological behaviorism. Thus, he concluded that theories that deploy mentalistic terms are unnecessary, and that a more complete account of behavior can be obtained within the framework of radical behaviorism. Regarding (b), in order to deal with the fact that language is integral to human behavior and that, in ordinary speech and communication acts, mentalistic terms are indispensable, he offered in Verbal Behavior (1957) a series of "interpretations" (speculative hypotheses) attempting to make it plausible that utterances containing these terms may be treated simply as instances of "verbal behavior," whose occurrences and other causal roles, can be explained (predicted and controlled) in terms of the principles of operant conditioning.

Radical behaviorism, applied to linguistic phenomena, had some influence on philosophical developmentsfor example, on the form of behaviorism adopted in W. V. Quine's Word and Object (1960), and on Quine's endorsement of "naturalistic epistemology." For the most part, however, philosophers are aware of Verbal Behavior mainly by way of Noam Chomsky's (1959) scathing review. Chomsky's most important criticism was that radical behaviorist "interpretations" are unable to encompass a number of fundamental aspects of linguistic phenomena: (e.g., the "creative" use of language, the rapidity and ease of the acquisition of language by children, and certain specific features of grammar, such as embedding of clauses). Furthermore, the linguistic phenomena cited by Chomsky became focal points of rival programs of experimental and theoretical psychology (psycholinguistics, cognitive psychology), which were designed to possess the theoretical resources needed to encompass them and to bypass Skinner's methodological objections. Chomsky, thus, rejected claim (a), that Skinner's program has the backing of scientific authority. Not so well known are behaviorist responses to Chomsky's arguments and further elaborations (and modifications) of Skinner's program (in, e.g., Place 1981), so much so that many philosophers consider Chomsky's review to have sounded the death knell of behaviorism.

Other critics questioned claim (b), that it is from experimentally based science that we get the best understanding of human phenomena. Barry Schwartz and Hugh Lacey (1982, 1987) argued against Skinner: (1) that his methodological criticism of the use of mentalistic terms in psychological theories does not apply at all to the use of intentional idiom in ordinary language; (2) that in fact human action cannot be reduced to behavior that is explicable in terms of laws (behaviorist or otherwise); and (3) that, using arguments that are formulated irreducibly in intentional idiom, the limits of applicability of radical behaviorist principles can be identified (Schwartz and Lacey 1982; Lacey and Schwartz 1987). These limits are ignored in Verbal Behavior, and also in Skinner's most controversial book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). In the latter Skinner argued that fundamental notions of liberal democracy (freedom, dignity, autonomy) that are integral to standard defenses of civil rights are ill-founded and in conflict with the best scientifically grounded view of human nature. Such arguments suggested to his critics that the primary motivation for engaging in the program of radical behaviorism comes from commitment to the social value of the control of human behavior.

Although radical behaviorism ceased to have many high-profile adherents after the 1980s, and programs of cognitive psychology have become much more prominent than Skinner's experimental program in major universities, the residue of Skinner's contribution is deeply entrenched. The experimental program of operant conditioning continues at a high level of (increasingly mathematical) sophistication, exploring, for example, choices made under the influence of multiple contingencies of reinforcement in accord with the "matching law"; and Skinner's central theoretical term "reinforcement" has become a staple in practices that range from education to clinical psychology. In addition, newer behaviorist programs that are in continuity with Skinner's have emergedfor example, Howard Rachlin's (1994) "teleological behaviorism" and John Staddon's (1993) "theoretical behaviorism."

See also Behaviorism; Chomsky, Noam; Philosophy of Education, Epistemological Issues in; Psychology; Quine, Willard Van Orman.


Chomsky, Noam. "Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior." Language 35 (1959): 2658.

Lacey, Hugh, and Barry Schwartz. "The Explanatory Power of Radical Behaviorism." In B. F. Skinner: Consensus and Controversy, edited by S. Modgil and C. Modgil. New York: Falmer Press, 1987.

Place, U. T. "Skinner's Verbal Behavior." Behaviorism 9 (1981): 124, 131152.

Quine, W. V. Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960.

Rachlin, Howard. Behavior and Mind: The Roots of Modern Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Schwartz, Barry, and Hugh Lacey. Behaviorism, Science, and Human Nature. New York: Norton, 1982.

Staddon, J. E. R. Behaviorism: Mind, Mechanism and Society. London: Duckworth, 1993.

works by skinner

Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957.

Contingencies of Reinforcement: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf, 1971.

Cumulative Record: A Selection of Papers. 3rd. ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1972.

Hugh Lacey (2005)

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