A Scent of Skinner at Harvard

As an undergraduate at Harvard in the period 1959 to 1963, I heard a good deal about BF Skinner. In my circle at least (math majors taking graduate courses, English majors interested in literary criticism, and various disaffected others), one mainly heard ridicule and derision, though I did know one ambitious Texan who saw great potential for mass marketing in Skinner's operant conditioning. Among the better known figures from this circle are the philosopher Saul Kripke and the techno-futurist George Gilder.

Skinner's lab was in the basement of "Mem Hall," then a large, aging Victorian structure (though now restored), having somewhat unpleasant associations for undergrads due to its frequent use as a site for final examinations in large courses. Skinner's lab was said to be full of hard working rats, pigeons, and grad students, and to be pervaded by a certain unmistakable odor. Though I never visited Skinner's lab, I did notice the odor, on a visit to a different lab in the basement of Mem Hall, the more recent, more modest lab of George Miller. Miller surprised me by giving a tour of his lab, and later arranging a summer job for me as a Research Assistant in mathematical psychology at Stanford, where I helped Bush, Luce and Galanter edit the Handbook of Mathematical Psychology. Miller was very charming, and clearly proud of some recent experiments intended to demonstrate the existence of mental states. He was also excited about his recent work with Noam Chomsky on (finite state mathematical) automata for recognizing whether "sentences" belong to a given "language" [2]. Although I was not then familiar with Chomsky's now famous, devastating 1959 review [1] of Skinner's Verbal Behavior [4], I do recall thinking with some satisfaction that the handwriting seemed on the wall for Skinner's brand of extreme reductionist behaviorism. In fact, this famous 1959 paper by Chomsky and Miller formalized the main argument of Chomsky's review, the necessity of internal states for parsing formal languages.

For me personally, this meeting with Miller marked the birth of (what later came to be called) cognitive science. However, I was not sure then, and I am even less sure now, that Chomsky's disembodied anti-social theory of language is much better than Skinner's behaviorism, even though Chomsky's theory was quite solid mathematically, and has important applications to computer languages. (Of course, Chomsky has since moved through a long sequence of other theories of language, but they all have a similar formalist character.)

If I were to draw a moral, it would be much like Bernie Baar's: In an era of huge advances in the physical sciences and mathematics, there was great pressure on the "human sciences" to be just as rigorous and profound, and this had then, and continues to have now, a pernicious, distorting influence; even then, we called this phenomenon "physics envy," an ironic echo of Freud's infamous concept. I think it fair to include not only Skinner's positivist behaviorism and Chomsky's "Cartesian" Platonism, but also the logical reductionist "Artificial Intelligence" being developed by John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky down Mass Ave at MIT, as well as the "New Criticism" of then Harvard English Professor Reuben Brower, which excited and enraged humanities scholars of the time with its "scientific" approach to textual analysis.

Among many more recent developments of a similar kind, I would include much of contemporary neuroscience, the more extreme versions of which I have elsewhere called "neuro reductionism" [3], and Edward Wilson's "consilience," which attempts to reduce the humanities to evolutionary socio-biology. As Baars says, more than a hundred years have been lost by discrediting and then ignoring the rich legacy of William James. It seems to me that much the same can be said for some other great figures also associated with Cambridge, including George Santayana, Warren McCulloch, Norbert Wiener, and Charles Sanders Peirce. Moreover, there are many more contemporary influences to which we might well pay more attention, such as actor-network theory, activity theory, ethnomethodology, and cognitive linguistics. The dangers of sacrificing our humanity to the gods of science have not diminished, though today the organs of molecular biology and computational evolution may seem larger than those of physics.


  1. Noam Chomsky, A Review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior, Language 35, no. 1, pages 26-58, 1959.
  2. Noam Chomsky and George Miller, Finite State Languages, Information and Control 1, pages 91-112, 1959.
  3. Joseph A. Goguen, Consciousness Studies, to appear in Encyclopaedia of Science and Religion, J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen, editor, McMillan Reference USA, 2003.
  4. Burhus F. Skinner, Verbal Behavior, Prentice-Hall, 1957.

Joseph Goguen, November 2002.
In Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, no. 1, 2003, pp 46-48, a special issue devoted to B.F. Skinner.