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
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
(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
, p. 291).
I was foundering in a stormy sea and perilously close to drowning, but help was on the way. The
[a magazine he
had long read] published some articles by Bertrand Russell which led me to his book
, published in 1927,
in which he devoted a good deal of time to John B. Watson’s behaviorism and its epistemological implications (ibid.,
Soon he was reading Watson and Jacques Loeb and critiqueing a book by Berman,
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