skinnere - The following text was originally published in...

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1 The following text was originally published in PROSPECTS: quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIV, no. 3/4, 1994, p. 519-32. ©UNESCO:International Bureau of Education, 1999 This document may be reproduced free of charge as long as acknowledgement is made of the source. B. F. SKINNER (1904-1990) Louis M. Smith Skinner is the most important American psychologist of the twentieth century, and arguably the most important world psychologist since, or including, Freud. His first book, The behavior of organisms (1938), was a major tour de force and staked out a claim for a new wave of behaviourism. The next half-century saw his position developed, elaborated, criticized and further elaborated. No issue seemed too large or too small for his observant eye and his analytic insights. Becoming a psychologist If one were to follow Skinner’s own admonitions, a personal history analysis would be necessary to capture his ‘becoming a psychologist’. His decision to study psychology resulted from an unusual and idiosyncratic set of circumstances. Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born in the small town of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Hamilton College with a major in literature. He spent his immediate postgraduate year trying to become a writer. It was a time of frustration and failure; he found that he had nothing of significance to say. As he recounted in his autobiographical Particulars of my life : ‘I had apparently failed as a writer, but was it not possible that literature had failed me as a method?’ (Skinner, 1976 b , p. 291). I was foundering in a stormy sea and perilously close to drowning, but help was on the way. The Dial [a magazine he had long read] published some articles by Bertrand Russell which led me to his book Philosophy , published in 1927, in which he devoted a good deal of time to John B. Watson’s behaviorism and its epistemological implications (ibid., p. 298). Soon he was reading Watson and Jacques Loeb and critiqueing a book by Berman, The religion called behaviorism . The Saturday review of literature did not publish his book critique, ‘but in writing it I was more or less defining myself for the first time as a behaviorist’ (ibid., p. 299). After a series of conversations with faculty friends from Hamilton, he applied and was accepted as a Ph.D. student at Harvard University for the autumn of 1928. The dramatic move from literature to behavioural psychology without ever having taken a psychology course might be perceived as a conversion experience. One might argue that Skinner was operating on limited data for an intellectual move that was to last for the remainder of his life— over fifty years. Something about the Russell and Watson books hit a responsive chord in his late adolescent perspective. A world-view was in the making even before the substantive theory, the world of operants, respondents, reinforcers and discriminative stimuli were discovered or
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This note was uploaded on 01/16/2012 for the course BI 200 taught by Professor Potter during the Fall '11 term at Montgomery College.

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skinnere - The following text was originally published in...

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