intellectual vanities… about close to everything

Burrhus Frederic Skinner – Walden Two

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I always have admired B. F. Skinner’s daring experiments, rooting in a line of research dating back to Hull and Pawlow. And I always thought that he was unduely bashed for alegedly transposing the “Sinner Trap” into contexts of human behavior or social structures. Until I came to read Walden Two, written in 1945 and Walden Two Revisited, from 1976. walden-two.jpg

Referring to the Thoreauvian Walden, its outline makes use of a narrative structure known since Plato and much in use until the eighteenth century – the didactic dialogue between master and pupil. Like in Cosí fan tutte, there is a “philosopher” added for the fun of it, who doubts everything, and who – thank God – in the end is not converted. There are a few more pale figures, but as B. F. Skinner is as bad as a fictional author, as he is as an author of social utopies, they hardly gain any contour at all. For a pity, he turns out to be not much of a philosopher either, whence the philosopher in his novel is neither entertaining nor convincing. But more to this later.

This influential book created quite a stir when it was first published in 1948, so much so, that many people actually started forming intentional, egalitarian communes and existing ones embraced many of the ideas of social structure presented in “Walden Two”. Further, Aldus Huxley, author of “Brave New World”, was so impressed with the ideas presented in “Walden Two”, that he incorporated and expanded on them in his last novel, “Island” (which I certainly prefer for its literary quality and its philosophical dimension).

Skinner’s basic premise here is, that with behavioral modifications using positive re-enforcement and academics, coupled with leveling the social playing field with no class structure our hyper-competitive, private enterprise, we could then concentrate all of our energies on education and entertainment, thereby removing most all of the ills and stress that conventional society suffers from – sounds enticing but a bit fascistoid too. I am really glad, nobody did try this for real on a social scale.

His very clinical approach to human behavioral studies was often criticized. Some claim he is abandoning free will, some thank him for having discovered that they have one, abandoning God after having read him. He himself was always quick to point out that he had no interest in debate on his methods. So what is this all about? Psychological understandings of the ultimates in human nature are characterized by the fact that rather than making appeal to traditional theological understandings, the psychoanalytic, psychological, and psychiatric endeavors fit themselves as best they can within the scientific framework that has slowly emerged in the West over the six or seven centuries since the beginning of scientific reasoning in the Middle Ages. This marked a revolutionary change in discourses, as M. Foucoult put it. Discourses govern existing groups of statements and regulate the generation and distribution of new statements. In circular fashion, a statement is defined as meaningful if it is statable within a discourse. The rules of discursive formation do not mandate specific truth-values for specific statements, but open up a delimited space in which some statements can be meaningfully expressed and understood. Foucault also at this point introduced his concept of the episteme, defined as the set of internal relations that unite the discursive practices that give rise to the sciences. The episteme is not a method or form of knowledge or type of rationality, but simply the totality of relations, e.g. the relations of similarity, analogy, and difference, that give rise to discursive regularities and thus give unity to a discursive formation. This includes the way in which the reasonable has been demarcated from the unreasonable, the true from the false, and the intelligible from the unintelligible.

Like the structuralists Foucault sees discourses as generative and not simply organizational. A fully articulated belief emerges from the prescriptions of a discourse which provides both resources and limitations for the possibilities of cognition. But this account is not necessarily inconsistent with realism: discourses do not determine the truth-value that any given belief has but whether it can have a truth-value. Discourses govern the generation of statements whereas epistemes, at a more distant position, govern the ways in which objects can be constructed and justificatory procedures can be imagined.

The development of scientific knowledge is always guided by a “body of anonymous, historical rules, always determined in the time and space that have defined a given period, and for a given social, economic, geographical, or linguistic area…”(Foucault 1972). As such the Renaissance marked the beginning of a great dying off of a particular cultural discourse about man’s ultimate nature at the same time.

Among the set of epistemes that emerged from the Renaissance transformation of discourse, science – and the technology that derives from it- are certainly one of the most powerful to which we are heir. In keeping with the Renaissance spirit, a primary goal of any modern, scientific psychology has been to understand human subjectivity and behavior – including those areas that touch on morals, meaning, purpose, and value, and therefore on human motivation and choice – not in terms of ultimate purpose but in terms of prior causes.

In the domain of psychology or psychoanalysis proper, this search for causes inevitably means the reduction of what appears to be a freely acting or choosing agent-man to prior, more elementary influences: complexes, structures of the psyche, family influences, earlier experiences, archetypes. In the complementary domain of biological psychiatry, this same reduction is to the organic substrates of these functional subsystems at ever finer levels of detail. (It was one inspired chairman who opened an international congress of neurosciences with the remark, that if our brain was simple enough, that we could understand it, we could not understand it anymore…)

From within this truly analytic framework – analysis consisting of the lysis or breaking down of a whole into constituent parts – all areas of seeming autonomy within human experience are illusory, the residue, as it were, of our ignorance of the true causes that lie “beneath” our experience and cause it, and which only for the time being remain obscured.

If one leaves principles of General Semantics aside, the scientific study of man thus seems to aim ultimately at his abolition as man – as free agent of his own will in moral terms – and his reconstruction as mechanism.

Upon closer examination, any analytical notion of free – indeed creatively free – choice remaining somewhere outside the scope of analytic reduction means just, that the process of analyzing motives at some point stops, and what remains we decide not to examine further. From a therapeutic perspective this makes sense: the surgeon cuts away the diseased tissue and allows the healthy tissue to remain, better functioning after the operation than before.

In its very essence the analytic, scientific method is reductive without limit. Applied to man, it is the universal solvent. The alchemists, who first conceived such a thing, of course never found the universal solvent, and were fortunate not to. For they never considered what would happen if ever they laid hands on it: nothing could contain it; it would eat its way through everything, devouring even its creators.

Skinner, in this perspective, presents himself as an exponent of modern determinism. Skinner believes that all human behavior is completely controlled by genetic and environmental factors. These factors do not rule out the fact that human beings make choices; however, they do rule out the possibility that human choices are free. For Skinner, all human choices are determined by antecedent physical causes. Hence, man is viewed as an instrumental cause of his behavior. He is like a knife in the hands of a butcher or a hammer in the grip of a carpenter; he does not originate action but is the instrument through which some other agent performs the action.

As a science, psychology thus inevitably tends toward an amoral view of man, in just the same way that it tends toward a view of him that has no place for free will and choice. Some psychologists have had the courage- if that is indeed what it is: foolhardiness might be a better term; intellectual consistency, at least-to claim that if the scientific view of man is both true and complete, and if this view leads inevitably to the abolition of “man” as embodied in such concepts as “freedom” and “goodness” (and consequent upon these, such concepts as “dignity” and “nobility of character”), why then, let us be truly abstemious and do away with them entirely, as has proposed B. F. Skinner.

But no more than Freud can Skinner pull himself up by his bootstraps to an Archimedean point of psychological leverage above his own dual being, instinctively selfish as anyone else, yet longing for something good beyond mere selfishness. For when asked, “Who shall lead us into this brave new world?” he chooses . . . himself, of course, and can find no better metaphor for this vaunted role than that of Jesus Christ the savior of mankind. Yet when asked to what end, he replies that it will make a better-not merely “an inevitable,” “a better”-world.

Understandably, it does not please many either, that his story characters had embraced such social quirks as seeing no benefit in saying “thank you” and many other social graces- this is probably Skinner’s personality coming through looking at social graces as a waste of time. Level-headed, nothing-to-hide, and non-competitive people supposedly don`t need that nonsense.

Did Skinner miss something in the demonstrated efficacy of social courtesy? No matter, he lets many of his characters have their conventional, “good” social habits- he has to, to show contrast.

The communal setting the book describes is egalitarian, fair and desires no material gain other than normal sustenance. Labor needs are divvied-up at the start of each day and earn the communards “work credits” to ensure that they work a minimal amount for their keep. Over-work is discouraged and considered counter-productive, education and entertainment are much more important and with a large labor pool, daily chores can be completed quickly.

New incoming members must agree to the communities social dictates: “The Walden Code” , a set of easy rules of conduct for harmony in the communal setting. Administrative members called “Planners” have a bit more leeway and can over-ride the rules when dealing with the outside world. All social positions are on a rotating basis including work, to facilitate an even distribution of duties so everyone can gain experience of the total spectrum of communal life.

What became of the communities that formed on Skinner’s ideas? Many of them are still going and the most renown one modeled completely around Walden Two, “Twin Oaks Community”, is still at it. Kathleen “Kat” Kinkade, one of the founding members, wrote a book about the “real” experimental commune, “A Walden Two Experiment”- Foreword by Skinner himself.

Skinner’s book itself however, is not a monument to fine novel writing and was not intended to be, yet it is fascinating and eye-opening as a fictional dissertation on utopian social structure.


Written by huehueteotl

October 6, 2007 at 12:15 am

3 Responses

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  1. 1)”positive re-enforcement(sic)”

    2)You fail to mention how Skinner’s argument that science has often offered us unflattering notions of ourselves – not as the creation of God, not in the middle of the universe, descended from Apes – are false. Yes, man “as man” is to be destroyed, but you do not convincingly argue that Skinner is wrong, merely that he does not flatter us. Science, unlike bullshit philosophy, is not in the flattery business.

    TE Frazier

    October 28, 2007 at 3:55 am

  2. I do not argue Skinner being false, because I do not believe he is, actually. I do not believe in his social utopia, certainly. Here science, being no flattery business indeed, becomes bullshit, transgressing the grounds of researched facts. There is a long way from behavioural psychology to social utopia. And Skinner proves to be a great scientist, but not really a great philosopher or writer, at least in my opinion.


    October 28, 2007 at 4:39 pm

  3. Frazier, you need to admit that utopian societies rest on there being Programmers. Who gets to decide the program? How do you avoid a Brave New World scenario?

    You can’t.

    The way we avoid a tyranny- guided by science or other inspiration- is by never creating the machinery to make it easy. Skinner was a misfit who wanted to make the whole world run according to his values. Human adults are capable of seeing right through attempts at conditioning with an agenda, if they are given just a tiny heads up. To do what Skinner really wants, you have to try to trick them, in essence.

    “Science”, has no business telling us who we are, or how life is to be lived. And your alleged “ability” to control behavior gives you no more right to exercise that power, that a eugenicist has to exercise his, no matter how much “science” offered up by either the behaviorist or the eugenicist.

    Check yourself, and stop worshipping science. It’s not a guide. Just a set of tools.


    February 17, 2008 at 12:21 pm

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