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Skinner, Burrhus Frederick

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Summary Article: B. F. SKINNER from Key Thinkers in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language

Skinner, B. F. (Burrhus Frederic) (b. 1904, d. 1990; American), professor, Harvard University (1948–90). Psychologist, who argued that verbal behaviour could be accounted for in terms of stimulus–response–reinforcement conditioning. (See also Chomsky, Noam; Hockett, Charles; Pike, Kenneth; Quine, W. V. O.)

The son of a lawyer, B. F. Skinner was born in the small town of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, in March 1904. Much of his boyhood was spent building various machines and devices, including a failed attempt to build a perpetual motion machine. However, upon leaving university his early career aspirations were literary, leading him to move to Greenwich Village in New York City in the late 1920s. He soon returned to education, studying psychology at Harvard University. He received a Masters degree in 1930 and a PhD in 1936.

Skinner’s central insight was that in shaping behaviour, what followed the behaviour (that is, the reinforcement) was central, as opposed to what preceded the behaviour, as had been claimed by Pavlov and Watson. Skinner referred to the shaping of behaviour through a ‘stimulus–response–reinforcement’ paradigm as ‘operant conditioning’. As an experimental psychologist, his boyhood interest in constructing devices returned to stand him in good stead. In a typical experiment, an animal would be placed into a box and would have to press a bar in order to receive food. Gradually, the conditions under which the animal received food would become more varied and complex, and some quite involved behaviour could eventually be elicited. Such devices eventually became known as ‘Skinner boxes’.

In his 1957 book Verbal Behavior, Skinner claimed that human language could be explained in terms of operant conditioning. Essentially, verbal behaviour consists of responses to objectively identifiable stimuli and these responses are the result of years of operant conditioning by other members of the speech community. Two years later a critical review by Chomsky dealt a severe blow to the behaviourist approach to language within mainstream linguistics. However, the general view did continue to find some support, most notably from Pike and Hockett, but also from philosophers such as Quine, and (perhaps) Wittgenstein. In his later years, Skinner continued to feel that behaviourism was popularly misunderstood, as perhaps evinced by the persistent myth that he raised his daughter in a ‘Skinner box’ and that she suffered severe psychological damage as a result. This led to his 1974 work About Behaviorism.

Although Skinner’s direct influence within mainstream linguistics was relatively short-lived, his work continues to be important in other areas. Interestingly, some of his students went on use the techniques he pioneered outside of academia, and became well known as trainers of dolphins and other animals. Skinner died of leukaemia in August 1990, and is buried in the Mount Auburn garden cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Primary works
  • (1957). Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • (1974). About Behaviorism. New York: Random House.
  • Further reading
  • Chomsky, Noam (1959). ‘Review of Skinner (1957)’. Language. Vol. 35: 26-58.
  • MacCorquodale, Kenneth (1970). ‘On Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior’. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. Vol. 13: 83-99.
  • Geoffrey Poole

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