Fuzzy Sets: Intellectual Dark Web, New Atheism, Logical Positivism and Behaviourism

In this blog-post I will be discussing the Intellectual Dark Web and trying to understand what its distinctive features are supposed to be. To help understand what the features of the group are I will discuss it in relation to three other groups. This first group I will compare it to will be New Atheism in particular as it is represented by the famous Four Horsemen of Atheism. I will then compare it to two major research programmes in the last Century the Vienna Circle and Behaviourism. The purpose of these comparisons will be to evaluate the degree to which the Intellectual dark web compares with these groups in the clarity of its purposes and what they aim to achieve.
Before proceeding to the comparison I need to make a couple of brief caveats. Firstly, to forestall an obvious complaint, I am in no way comparing the intellectual importance of these respective groups. I hope it should be obvious that I am in not arguing that people like Joe Rogan, and Jordan Peterson belong in the same intellectual universe as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolph Carnap or B.F. Skinner. I feel embarrassed even having to make this point; but I will do so to avoid confusion.
Another complaint could be that I am not comparing like with like. The Vienna Circle and the Logical Positivism it developed was an actual research programme, and the same is obviously true of Behaviourism. But the Four Horsemen of Atheism and the new atheism they were leaders of wasn’t a scientific research programme. Rather it was better to think of them as a political movement interested in treating questions about religion and God by the standard methods of science. I think that this is a legitimate criticism. However it doesn’t really affect anything I am arguing here as I am just trying to clarify what type of group the Intellectual Dark Web is, and how it compares with other intellectual groups. I am not offering any criticisms of the Intellectual Dark Web for not being a scientific research programme.
The Four Horsemen of Atheism
Intellectual life, like all areas of life, is pervaded with territorial allegiances. Thinkers form groups which they use to separate themselves from those whom they think of as holding a different ethos about life. In the act of naming a group the members of the group become associated with the name and sometimes people have difficulties disambiguating members of the group. Ten years ago four academics met up to discuss and critique religion from a scientific and philosophical point of view. The four thinkers were Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins; all were already famous atheists and known as members of so called new atheism (which was considered more aggressive than traditional atheism). Prior to meeting in Hitchens’ apartment to discuss the question of religion all four of them had authored a book criticising religion and belief in God. Sam Harris published his ‘End of Faith’ in 2004, Dawkins published his ‘The God Delusion’ in 2006, Dennett published ‘Breaking the spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena’ in 2006, and Hitchens published his ‘God is not Great in 2007. All four books were massive successes, and prior to writing the books they were already famous for their atheism. So in 2007 when they met up to discuss religion and God and released the discussion to the general public there was huge interest. They became known as the four horsemen of atheism and set off millions of internet debates.
What was interesting about these debates was that in some circles ‘The Four Horsemen’ were treated as though they were identical people who agreed on every topic. The four horsemen were all sceptics about religion and its effects on society and were all atheists; however they obviously didn’t agree on everything. Harris and Dennett disagreed on the nature of consciousness, and on freewill. Dennett and Dawkins disagreed about the use of the term ‘Design’ in evolutionary explanation. Dawkins politics was slightly more leftwing than Hitchens etc. Yet even when these differences were pointed out some people couldn’t separate out the members of it group. It was like as if the existence of a label for the four thinkers worked against some people’s capacity to distinguish between the members of the group. Nonetheless the label was helpful to the members of the group. It was a nice marketing tool, and it helped to entice guys who liked Hitchens’ writing to read the other four horsemen and vice-versa.
The Intellectual Dark Web
Flash-forward twelve years and one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism, Sam Harris appears in a photo shoot for a group called the Intellectual Dark Web. A New York Times Article is written by Bari Weiss on the Intellectual Dark Web , complete with the shadowy photos illustrating the leaders of this new movement. They are described as brave renegades fighting against the shadowy forces of political correctness. The article is an instant marketing success and the internet explodes with argument after argument.
The IDW is a much larger group of thinkers than the Four Horsemen. Bari Weiss listed members of it as including Sam Harris, Brett Weinstein, Eric Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Christina Hoff Summers, Ben Shapiro amongst many others. What makes someone a member of the IDW? Barri Weiss offers the following vague unhelpful definition:
“Most simply, it is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now. Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels.”
She notes that these iconoclastic thinkers are committed to disagreeing strongly with each other while also remaining civil when engaging in this discourse. A couple of lines down, without a hint of irony she gleefully notes that Jordan Peterson responded to an article by Pankaj Mishra which criticized Peterson, by calling Mishra a sanctimonious prick who Peterson would like to slap. Bari Weiss who claimed that to be a member of the IDW is to remain civil while having intellectual disputes; didn’t seem to spot any difficulty in the aggressive uncivil behaviour of one of the leaders of the IDW when someone criticises him.
This is one of the problems with the IDW, it extension is extremely vague. If the being civil to ones critics was a key defining property of its members than Peterson wouldn’t be included in the group. If being banned from your institute because of political correctness was a key criterion for being a member then Sam Harris couldn’t be a member. And the attempt to individuate them as iconoclastic thinkers who are having discussions on podcasts and on twitter etc is equally hopeless. Philosopher Robert Wright has appeared on Sam Harris’s podcast to discuss Buddhism, Harris has appeared on the Very Bad Wizard podcast and vice-versa, and of course Wright has appeared on the Very Bad Wizard podcast and one of the Very Bad Wizard’s (Tamler Sommers), has appeared on Wright’s podcast. Similarly, people like Russell Brand have had Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris on their podcast, Brand has appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast to discuss politics, religion etc. So do the Very Bad Wizards, Russell Brand, or Robert Right belong in the IDW? If not why not? They are an iconoclastic bunch of thinkers who are having an ongoing online discussion, they are committed to civil discussion with each other (I haven’t heard any of them threaten to punch a critic in the face yet). Admittedly they haven’t faced trouble in a University over their political views, then again neither has Harris and he is a member of the IDW.
When people interview members of the IDW they typically emphasise that they all hold different views on a variety of different topics and so, for example, Harris shouldn’t be held responsible for the views of Jordan Peterson. This is similar to the way it would have been a mistake to assume that all of the members of The Four Horsemen held the same views on consciousness. However, there is one clear difference with the four horsemen they claimed to be in agreement on their atheism and on the fact that atheists should be more critical towards religion than had typically been the case. So there were certain key features that the members of the group all shared in common and this was clearly delineated. With the IDW this is not the case. There seem to be no core beliefs that hold them together in a set that exclude people who are not members e.g. Massimo Pigliucci, Robert Wright etc. It is hard to view the IDW as anything other than a marketing plan of a group of friends to promote each-others work.
Even the members of the IDW don’t seem to agree on the significance of the group or what it stands for. In pod-cast Sam Harris portrayed the whole thing as a bit of a joke that isn’t meant to be taken that seriously. Eric Weinstein, on the other-hand, argued that he came up with the name IDW in a deliberate manner to implicitly force the mainstream media (who according to Weinstein have some problem with them), to inadvertently promote the group. It is as difficult to know whether Harris’s account of the IDW or Weinstein’s is meant to be the authoritative, as it is to know what the criterion for membership of the IDW is meant to be. At the moment the so called IDW seems to be little more than a marketing plan to bring attention to a group of podcasts.
The Vienna Circle and Logical Positivism
Of course, just because something has an inauspicious beginning doesn’t mean that it isn’t capable of being developed further once a bit more thought is put into the project. One of the more famous groups in the history of philosophy is the Vienna Circle, they are now remembered as logical positivists, but they began as a discussion group between a few PhD students interested in science, mathematics, logic and philosophy. The group eventually became known because of their joint manifesto on the nature of the movement, and popular books designed to spread it, but in the beginning they were a group held together by shared interests not by an official doctrine.
The unofficial head the group was Moritz Schlick who was trained as a physicist but was working as a professional philosopher. Schlick was known as “Einstein’s Pet Philosopher”, and wrote a book outlining the philosophical implications of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But he soon came under the sway of another great man: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus became a kind of bible for the group. His use of Frege and Russell’s logic to draw limits to what could sensibly be said about reality was exactly what the logical positivists were looking for in their battle against metaphysics. Wittgenstein seemed to have provided a clear criterion that could be used draw a line to demonstrate when claims that had been made were not empirical but were metaphysical nonsense.
However despite his work being central importance to the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein wasn’t exactly a member. The group did manage to get him to attend some of the meetings, but he didn’t attend regularly and he didn’t approve of the views of many members of the group. Furthermore despite his work being of central importance to the group, there was not universal agreement on how his work was to be interpreted. Some members of the group such as Otto Neurath sneered at the reverence that Wittgenstein was held in by Schlick and Waisman; and argued that Wittgenstein was treated like the leader of a religious cult instead of as a fellow logician. Others such as Carnap was impressed with Wittgenstein’s work; but didn’t agree with all of it. One of the difficulties with Wittgenstein’s work was that it purported to divide statements into three subcategories: empirical propositions, logical and mathematical propositions (construed as tautologies), and metaphysical sentences (nonsensical sentences). The difficulty was that the propositions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus were not in any obvious sense either tautologies or empirical propositions. They seemed on the face of it to be metaphysical claims which on Wittgenstein’s theory were nonsensical so the entire book could be construed as building up its arguments using nonsensical claims.
The important point to note is that the logical positivists didn’t all agree on how to deal with this problem. Despite being members of a single group they didn’t all agree on either the importance of Wittgenstein’s work, nor on how to deal with difficulties interpreting his Tractatus. And this wasn’t the only point of dispute within the group. There was an intractable debate on the status of protocall sentences that virtually none of the members of the circle could agree on. Nonetheless despite holding many disagreements there were core principles that held the group together. They were all empiricists, promoting a science based world view and who thought that the new logic was the best way of systematizing our best scientific theory of the world.
So the Logical Positivists, like the Four Horsemen, disagreed on many subjects but they were held together by a core set of beliefs on certain topics, in this way they differed from the IDW which doesn’t seem to be held together by any core beliefs that separates them from people who were not members of the IDW. However as we saw above when the Logical Positivists began meeting first they were just some like minded friends interested in a science based world view. It was only later that they developed an explicit manifesto about what the group represented. Likewise the IDW as far as I can see at the moment is nothing but a collection of friends who are promoting each-others work. But it is possible that like the Vienna Circle the IDW could eventually develop a set of core principles that they stand for. It is just that as things stand there seems to be no core principles they stand for that can be used to differentiate them from anyone else.
The Behaviourists
Of course even having a manifesto doesn’t guarantee unity on core topics. J B Watson’s ‘Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It’, could be viewed as the document that launched behavioural psychology . It has been a hundred years since Watson wrote his famous text and to this day a lot of scientists still identify as behaviourists. However, it would be a difficult task to extrapolate precisely what it is that makes one a behaviourist other than an emphasis on behaviour and scepticism about introspection as a tool.
Watson and Skinner are probably the two most famous behaviourists, they disagreed on many things. Watson was a stimulus response theorist, while Skinner used the three term contingency to explicate behaviour. Watson argued that we couldn’t study private events scientifically, while Skinner argued that private events are a form of behaviour that can be studied in the same way as any other behaviour. However, even amongst the neo-behaviourists who tried to move beyond Watson’s behaviourism there wasn’t a homogenous set of beliefs held by all of them. Thus Edward C Tolman believed that it was acceptable for a behaviourist to use inferred constructs, and cognitive concepts, Clark L Hull argued that behaviourists could use inferred constructs but not cognitive concepts, while Skinner argued against inferred constructs, and cognitive concepts (‘Logical Positivism and Behaviourism’ p. 305). While Hull argued that behaviourism should be a deductive science, Skinner and Clark argued that it should be an inductive science (ibid p. 305).
Tollman considered himself a behaviourist and is considered a behaviourist to this day, however given that he allowed cognitive constructs and inferred entities it is difficult to see why his views should be considered any different than those of a contemporary cognitive scientist. Behaviourism started as a reaction against the introspective tradition in psychology and most cognitive scientists would agree that introspection is a bad tool to rely on in science. With some behaviourists such as Tolman it is hard to find a line that distinguishes them from non-behaviourists; whereas with others such as Skinner the line is a bit clearer.
Behaviourism like both logical positivism and the four horsemen of atheism was largely defined by what they were against; Introspective Methods in psychology, Metaphysics and a belief in God. In the hundred or so years since Behaviourism was first proposed as a method, it has branched off in many different directions; methodological behaviourism, radical behaviourism, applied behavioural analysis, relational frame theory etc. Some behavioural theories can be clearly distinguished from other branches of psychology such as cognitive science, while it more difficult to distinguish some kinds of behaviourism from cognitive science.
It is clear though what it was the behaviourists were reacting against and that the movement developed in concrete ways and was successful in dealing with most of the problems that it set itself. This distinguishes it from the IDW, it is unclear who they are opposing, what makes them different than people who aren’t members of the group, and what would constitute the group being successful.
In our comparison of the IDW with other groups we have noted that unlike all of the other groups there appears to be no clear criterion as to what makes someone a member of the group. This isn’t a devastating indictment of the group, as it is possible that overtime they will develop a coherent ethos. Nonetheless as things stand the IDW is a group of individuals that seems to be grouped together on the basis of mutual marketing and nothing else.



Russell: Negation and Innate perceptual Judgements

In Russell’s ‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ he discussed how we apply propositions involving ‘negation’ and the relation of these propositions to experience. Russell’s primary concern was how experience could show that a proposition is false. He noted that while negative propositions seem to have an immediate relation to experience they in fact involve not immediate experience; but perceptual judgements. Thus suppose we are told that the fridge contains cheese and butter. When we look in the fridge we immediately see the cheese, however when we look in the fridge we also discover that there is no butter. Russell thinks that discovering that cheese is in the fridge and discovering that butter is not in the fridge are not of the same logical type.
When we look in the fridge we do not see the absence of butter, rather we see a series of products. We then judge that these products are not butter, and as they are only products in the fridge, we judge that there is not butter in the fridge. Russell also notes that to make a negative judgement involves linguistic capacities. If a non-linguistic creature peered into the larder and just looked at what was there and made arbitrary judgements about what was not there; the creature could make an infinite amount of judgements as to what was not in the larder. There are a potential infinite amount of objects that are not in the larder at any given moment. He argues that when one involves linguistic communication this potentially infinite amount of negative judgements gets paired down. Thus, if someone will says ‘there is butter and cheese in the fridge’, this will make it more likely that the other person will make the judgement that there is ‘no butter in the fridge’ when they do the relevant search.
Russell’s discussion of negative propositions is admirably done in relation to concrete examples. He asks us to consider a very simple negation: ‘This is not white’. We are to imagine that we said the above statement in response to a judgement about laundry (An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth p. 77). So we have in our minds eye the proposition ‘this is white’ but your direct experience elicits the proposition ‘this is grey’. The question is how do we go from the proposition in our minds eye, the proposition elicited by our direct experience to the negative judgement ‘this is not white’?
Russell offers two possible ways to arrive at the negative proposition:
(1) You know the general proposition ‘what is grey is not white’, and from this together with ‘this is grey’ you derive the proposition ‘this is not white’.
(2) You confront the word ‘white’ with what you see and perceive an incompatibility. (ibid p. 77)
Russell notes that from the point of view of pure logic (1) or (2) must be the correct answer. As from you cannot logically derive conclusions that are negations from premises which don’t contain negations (ibid p. 77) So if we are to have negative propositions they need to either be basic propositions, either pure negations as in (2) or derived from implications of the ‘form p and not q’ as in (1). Logic allows no other possibility.

The Case of Incompatible Colours
“…Two different colours cannot coexist at the same place in one visual field. Position in the visual field is absolute, and may be defined by relation to the centre of the field by means of two angular coordinates which we may call ⱷ, ⱸ. I am saying that we know the following proposition: ‘at a given time and in a given visual field, if the colour A is at the place ⱷ, ⱸ, no other colour B is at this place’. More simply: ‘this is red’ and ‘this is blue are incompatible.” (ibid p.78)
Russell argues that the above generalisation is one that we intuitively know to be true but how we know it to be true is difficult to ascertain. According to Russell it isn’t a logical truth as Red and Blue are not logically incompatible, nor does it appear to be a truth which is derived from experience.
Russell notes that there are many other sensible qualities which we immediately recognise to be incompatible, he gives a variety of different examples such as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’ etc (ibid p. 78).The important point about the preceding examples is that they are not examples of logical incompatibility. He argues that if we take these incompatibilities as basic propositions, they must be grounded on the basic general proposition (which is a more abstract version of (1) above):
(3) “For all possible values of x, ꬿx implies not ꬸx. Here ‘ꬿx’ may be ‘x is blue’, and “ꬸx’ may be ‘x is red’.” (ibid p. 78)
Russell argues that with the help of the general proposition above we can infer from seeing that ‘x is red’ that ‘x is not blue’. The important point to note here is that the inference ‘x is not blue’ is derived from a non-empirical proposition (3) above. Russell is not very happy with the above conjecture as to how we arrive at our negative proposition ‘x is not blue’. However he is not very clear on why he is unhappy with his conjecture he merely vaguely claims that the conjecture is not very plausible or satisfying. He then moves on to a different attempt to solve the problem which he also finds unsatisfactory. However before delving into his second attempt to solve the problem of negation I will critically evaluate Russell’s first attempt to solve the problem of negation.
Russell, Evolution and Innate apparatus
Russell found his above explanation implausible. One of the reasons for this was that he preferred to justify his speculations on empiricist grounds and was reticent to use rationalist explanations. Rationalist explanations were generally held in pretty low esteem at the time Russell was writing. There were a number of reasons that rationalism was not looked upon unfavourably at the time. Rationalists such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz were at the forefront of the scientific revolution. However their rationalist explanations of the success of science came under severe pressure through arguments of the empiricist philosophers who contended that empiricist explications of the sciences explained its success better. One difficulty that empiricists had with rationalist explanations was that it was utterly mysterious how we derived our capacity of so called ‘a priori’ knowledge. Prior to the scientific revolution and the birth of rationalist tradition; philosophers such as Plato and Saint Augustine argued that humans had innate knowledge in areas such as morality, mathematics etc. However they had no convincing explanation of this a priori knowledge. Plato argued that we had innate ideas acquired in a prior life that we could remember by contemplation of the forms, while Saint Augustine claimed we arrive at this universal knowledge through a revelation from god. None of the rationalists had a more compelling explanation of how we acquire non empirical knowledge of things like mathematical truth; for example, Descartes had to bring God into the picture as a guarantor of the validity of our logical and mathematical truths.
Philosophers in Russell’s time were impressed by the empiricist criticism of rationalist epistemology; however, they weren’t convinced that the great empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) had a compelling account of mathematical knowledge etc. In ‘Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ Russell wasn’t interested giving an explanation of how we acquired our mathematical knowledge. Rather he was trying to demonstrate how we derive our knowledge claims from basic perceptual beliefs. In his introduction to ‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ Russell noted:
“I shall, throughout this book, try to avoid the consideration of logical and mathematical knowledge, which does not raise the problems which I wish to discuss. My main problem, throughout, will be the relation of basic propositions to experiences, i.e., of the propositions that come first in the epistemological order to the occurrences which, in some sense, are our grounds for these propositions.” (ibid p. 16)
He was interested in analysing our language, and discovering how we go from simple object languages which pick out perceptual features of our environment, to a secondary language which included logical constants, true and false, and so on up the hierarchy of languages. But as we saw above when moving from the object language to the meta language Russell immediately ran into difficulties as to how we could do this based entirely on perceptual experiences. He was forced to admit the unempirical basic proposition which is necessary to form negative judgements from experiences:
(3)“For all possible values of x, ꬿx implies not ꬸx. Here ‘ꬿx’ may be ‘x is blue’, and “ꬸx’ may be ‘x is red’.” (ibid p. 78)
Russell was uncomfortable with appealing to an unempirical basic proposition but didn’t have any other compelling way to explain our knowledge in this domain. As we saw above though appeals to non-empirical knowledge had a chequered history in philosophy. An atheist philosopher like Russell, who had strong empiricist leanings, would have been extremely uncomfortable with the explanations of non-empirical knowledge that philosophers such as Plato, Augustine and Descartes provided. While Russell was prepared to countenance unempirical knowledge, he was extremely uncomfortable with doing so and only did so if he had no other choice.
An avenue available to Russell to explain non-empirical knowledge was the theory of evolution. Yet Russell, unlike later philosophers, such as Chomsky and Quine never made much use of this avenue. When Russell was considering how a human could derive negation from experience he didn’t sufficiently appreciate how important negation or proto-negation would be to living creatures in the wild.
Russell gave the example of a person looking in the fridge and forming the judgement that ‘there is no butter in the fridge’. He then tried to analyse how the person would be capable of forming the judgement and considered a variety of different difficulties with his explanations. But better question with more immediate consequences would be how could a mouse form the proposition ‘there is no cat in this field’?
If we consider the question about a mouse forming a negative proposition from an evolutionary perspective; things look much different. Russell noted that we cannot form a negative proposition purely from the fact that something is not present in the field. There are an infinite amount of possible entities that are not present in the field. So the mouse going into the field would have to make an infinite amount of judgements about what is not present in the field. Of course from an evolutionary perspective such a situation would not occur. A mouse isn’t just some blank slate who forms its judgements entirely based on empirical observation. A mouse will have particular concerns and interests that will limit the type of hypotheses it makes. A creature that couldn’t make snap judgements as to whether there were no predators in the field before entering it to eat would be culled by natural selection in no time. Animals pausing to consider the infinite possibilities of counterfactual entities before acting wouldn’t last long enough to pass on their genes in the time constrained environment that natural selection acts on.
A logician like Russell didn’t consider the time and energy constraints on a living creature trying to survive in its environment. Natural Selection builds cheap fast brains that do the minimum; i.e. try to survive long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation. Such a creature will not will not consider logical possibilities; rather they will be concerned with salient information, the salience being primarily what will get me food for energy, what will help me find a mate, and what danger may be nearby.
With this fact in mind, Russell’s question about the perceptual basis of forming negation takes on a different hue. The non-linguistic creature will have expectations of what there is in the world it is exploring and a quick glance will tell the creature that some things that it expects to be there are in fact not there. From here is a short step for the creature to form the judgement ‘there is no cat in the field’. So from an evolutionary perspective there is little reason to follow Russell in arguing that forming perceptual judgements of negation must involve linguistic capacities.
Likewise, there is little reason to follow Russell in worrying about the fact that he has to use non empirical axioms to show how we derive negative propositions. From an evolutionary point of view we would expect any creature to come to the learning situation choc o bloc with innate apparatus.
An obvious objection to my above discussion is that it relies on the unargued assumption that non-linguistic creatures use propositional attitudes when thinking. However, my argument isn’t actually reliant on this assumption. I am arguing that IF non linguistic creatures think using propositional attitudes, natural selection will have build constraints in to the possibilities the creatures will entertain when judging what is or is not in the environment, and these innate constraints will make it much easier to form negative judgements.
Russell’s Second Way of Forming Negation
We saw above that Russell had little reason to be so wary about appealing to unempirical knowledge once we adopt an evolutionary perspective. Russell offered another way we a creature could acquire negation. This way involved comparing a word such as ‘white’ and judging whether the environment contained this entity. Russell seemed to view this explanation as in competition with his first explanation in terms of non-empirical grasping of incompatibility. However, there is no reason to view these explanations as in competition they could both play a role in people acquiring the use of negation.
On difficulty with Russell’s discussion of our use of word’s was that he didn’t really appreciate the role of reinforcement shaping how language is used. To this end I think that using Skinner’s work on Verbal Behaviour would help push Russell’s explication in the right direction.
In his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ Skinner discussed the type of perceptual experiences which would work to elicit the response ‘Not Red’. While Russell was concerned with the fact that we seem to be able to form non-empirical judgements about our perceptual field:
“I am saying that we know the following proposition: ‘at a given time and in a given visual field, if the colour A is at the place ⱷ, ⱸ, no other colour B is at this place’. More simply: ‘this is red’ and ‘this is blue are incompatible.” ( An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth p.78)
Skinner was more concerned with the environmental and social contingencies which would shape our response ‘Not Red’:
“The stimuli which continue to strengthen Red and which therefore continue to produce the qualified Not Red are only those situations which are similar to red. Blue will not only not evoke Red, it will not evoke Not red. A strong reddish-orange, may however, do so. Additional verbal stimulation- for example, the echoic prompt red- may, of course evoke the response Not red in the presence of a blue object” ( B.F. Skinner ‘Verbal Behaviour p. 324)
When Skinner is discussing negation he does so in relation to what he calls a qualifying autoclitic. He defines a qualifying autoclitic as “a function that qualifies the tact in such a way that the intensity or direction of the listener’s behaviour is modified” (ibid p. 322). In this respect Skinner asks us to consider the qualifying autoclitic of ‘No’. ‘No’ can be used to qualify any tact. The tact ‘rain’, which is under the control of a particular environmental event, could theoretically be metaphorically extended to include such things as a water sprinkler and metonymically extended to a dark grey sky. If the verbal community that a speaker is a member of doesn’t reinforce such metaphorical and metonymical extensions, or even punishes it, this type of Verbal Behaviour will decrease in use.
Skinner notes that ‘no’ is used a lot of times as a mand to change behaviour. Thus if a child is playing with something dangerous the parent will say ‘no’. In this instance ‘no’ functions as a mand to change ones behaviour; to stop doing what one is doing. This use of ‘no’ as a mand also occurs with verbal behaviour. Thus if a child pronounces a word wrong or uses it in the wrong circumstances the parent will say ‘no’ and may follow the ‘no’ with an explanation of what is wrong with the behaviour. So a child growing up will pretty quickly come to understand that ‘no’ is a mand to stop or change what you are doing.
When a person is using a tact such as ‘Red’, it is possible to modify the tact by using the qualifying autoclitic ‘no’. A person who has grasped the use of no as a mand to modify behaviour could of course apply it to his own verbal behaviour. He could apply it to any statement about our perceptual experiences and modify the intensity or direction of the statement. Thus when the person sees a dog he could use the tact ‘cat’ and qualify it by saying ‘no-cat’, meaning that the tact that ‘there is a cat present’ is false. However Skinner argues that a person will only qualify a tact with a ‘no’ in certain circumstances. As we saw above he gives us the example of something red; he notes that ‘red’ is unlikely to evoke either ‘blue’ or ‘not-blue’. The rationale for this is that we wouldn’t use a qualifying negation for no reason. Something reddish may act as a stimulus for us saying ‘not-red’ as it is close enough in hue to red to be confused with it so we could use a qualifying tact to ‘not-red’ upon being presented with a redish orange object. If a person were to say ‘not-blue’ in the presence of a red object it may be in response to a query from a person who doesn’t know the colour of the object and wrongly guesses that it is blue . The important point to note is that Skinner is using both context and intersubjective communication as a key to understanding how the qualifying autoclitic ‘no’ is typically used.
Skinner’s emphasis on intersubjective communication and social reinforcement is important as a way of supplementing Russell’s account. A person may eventually learn to use the word ‘white’ and check if there are any objects in the environment matching it but and therefore derive the negative judgement ‘not white’ but this process will be reliant on two more fundamental processes. (1) Our innate biologically given expectations of what is salient in our environment (2) Shaping by our sociolinguistic group in how to appropriately use the word ‘no’.

Bertrand Russell and B.F. Skinner on Meaning.

Bertrand Russell played a formative role in the development of B.F. Skinner as an intellectual. Skinner noted in his autobiography ‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist’, that it was Russell writings on behaviourism that led to Skinner becoming a behaviourist. Skinner though, despite his admiration for Russell, disagreed with him on a variety of different topics. A key area of disagreement between Skinner and Russell was on the use of the notion of ‘meaning’. In his ‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ Russell introduced meaning as an explanatory explanation in verbal behaviour:
“Just as jumping is one class of bodily movements, and walking another, so the uttered word ‘dog’ is a third class of bodily movements…Words, spoken, heard, or written, differ from other classes of bodily movements, noises, or shapes, by having meaning”
(An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth pp. 22-23)
Skinner argued that Russell’s appeal to meanings in his explanation was superfluous:
“Our subject matter is verbal behaviour, and we must accept this in the crude form in which it is observed. In studying speech, we have to account for a series of complex muscular activities which produce noises. In studying writing or gesturing, we deal with other sorts of muscular responses. It has long been recognized that this is the stuff of which languages are made, but the acknowledgement has usually been qualified in such a way as to destroy the main point…Bertrand Russell asserts that “just as jumping is one class of movement…so the word ‘dog’ is [another] class,” but he adds that words differ from other classes of bodily movements because they have “meaning.” Here something has been added to an objective description.” (‘Verbal Behaviour” p. 13)
Skinner’s point is wildly at odds with our everyday phenomenology. It seems to be just obvious that our words have meaning. To say that a word like ‘dog’ means something; doesn’t seem to be adding anything to the objective description. If a person says ‘dog’ and means by that what everyone else would describe as a cat we would say that the person did not understand the meaning of the term ‘dog’. So Skinner’s views are very counterintuitive from a commonsense perspective, and Russell’s views are much more congenial from the intuitive perspective. Obviously though scientific debates are not decided by commonsense, if they were we could rule out discoveries in relativity theory and quantum mechanics by fiat.

Russell on Meaning:
Russell’s views on the nature of meaning and propositions changed throughout his career. I will not here track Russell’s various changes of minds on the topic over the course of his entire intellectual development. Rather, I will be concerned with Russell’s take on meaning in his IMT, and how this relates to Skinner’s position in his ‘Verbal Behaviour’.
Russell’s theory is highly dependent on his postulation of the existence of propositions. For Russell a proposition is something that can be said in any language. He gives the example of the sentence ‘Socrates is Mortal’ and ‘Socrate est mortel’; these are sentences spoken is different languages which express the same proposition. Russell defines a proposition as “all the sentences which have the same meaning as some given sentence” (IMT p. 10). Given that his definition of proposition relied on undefined terms such as ‘meaning’ and ‘sentence’, Russell tried to offer definitions of them. He defined sentences as either a single word or a combination of words put together by syntactic rules.
Russell explicated ‘meaning’ in terms of natural language. He broke languages down into languages on different logical hierarchies; his reasoning for doing this was to avoid the semantic paradoxes. The most basic form of a language is what Russell calls the object language. Russell describes the object language as follows:
“We can now partially define the primary language or object-language as a language consisting wholly of ‘object-words’, where ‘object-words’ are defined, logically, as words having meaning in isolation, and psychologically, as words which have been learnt without its being necessary to have previously learnt any other words” (IMT p. 62)
The object language excludes the concepts of ‘true’ and ‘false’ as these terms when applied to the nth language belong to the nth+1 language (ibid p. 60). The object language also excludes the logical connectives ‘or’ ‘and’ ‘negation’ etc, as these words have no meanings in isolation and must be applied to words of our object language which are created prior to the secondary language.
Russell’s picture of the child learning his first words in the object language involves the child learning to associate certain sounds with objects in the environment. And understanding certain sounds in the environment used in the absence of those objects, which typically result in the absent object appearing. The child then learns to mouth the sounds in the presence of the object, and then to mouth the sound in the absence of the object, in order to get the object brought to him (IMT p. 63). Russell’s description of the child mouthing his first words is very similar to Skinner’s explications interms of Tacts and Mands .
When Russell discussed object words he said that the child learns the meaning of an object word by hearing it said frequently in the presence of the object. Russell claimed that this process can be accounted for as a form of association. The child learns to associate the sound with the object and the object with the sound. This is similar to Skinner’s discussion of Tacts, except Skinner doesn’t rely on a process of association; rather Skinner works with a system of differential reinforcement which is used to increase the probability that the child will say the word in the presence of the object.
Russell’s account of meaning is that the meaning of the object word is the object it is associated with. Eventually the child will be able to understand the object that the word means even in the absence of the object. The sense that Russell uses meaning in this account isn’t on the face of it particularly esoteric. The meaning of the word ‘Mama’ is the object typically associated with the sound.
On this Russelian picture we don’t just learn the meaning of proper nouns by direct association; we also learn the meaning of general nouns, of verbs, and of prepositions, as a result of direct conditioning to objects in the world. (‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ p. 69). Russell though doesn’t offer any help as to how people abstract out verbs, prepositions and nouns through direct association with objects in the world. Russell just asserts that these different functional features of language are learned through direct conditioning and distinguishes them from elements of the meta-language (truth and false predicates, logical particles), that are not part of the object language.
Skinner criticisms of Russell on Meaning:
As we saw above Russell’s theory of meaning for the object language is relatively straight forward and minimalist; Russell doesn’t postulate explanatory fictions willy-nilly. Yet despite this fact Skinner is critical of Russell for unwarrantedly going beyond the empirical facts when describing linguistic behaviour.
Skinner argued that Russell’s account of meaning relied on the notion of a proposition and that Russell hadn’t properly defined what a proposition is. As we saw above Russell described a proposition as something that could be said in any language. To this Skinner replied that this supposed explanation doesn’t tell us what a proposition is; or what it is made of (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 8). This criticism of Skinner’s is open to the objection that when a scientist proposes a theoretical entity to explain otherwise inexplicable behaviour, the onus isn’t on the scientist at the outset to settle the ontological status of the theoretical construct. Biology would be in a terrible state today if when the gene was first postulated it was rejected out of hand because we didn’t have a precise characterisation of its physical structure. In the case of the gene; we had a theoretical entity to explain otherwise inexplicable facts of heredity, and we later developed an accurate model which filled about the actual details about the physical structure of the gene. By parity of reasoning if Skinner believed that postulating genes as an explanatory explanation prior to characterising its precise physical nature was ok, then there is little reason to hold proponents of propositions to a higher standard than we held proponents of genes.
Skinner though could cast a serious doubt on the above analogy by arguing that propositions, unlike genes, do not explain otherwise inexplicable facts? One area where propositions were used was as an explanatory tool to explain different languages of the world being able to say the same thing. Skinner though rejected the claim that propositions were a necessary tool to explain the various different languages of the world:
“The audience variable is important in interpreting the traditional notion of “proposition.” If we define a proposition as “something which may be said in any language,” then instead of trying to identify the “something,” we may ask why there are different languages. The answer is that different contingencies of reinforcement involving single state of affairs are maintained by different verbal communities. A proposition is not “free to be expressed in any one of many forms,” for the form is to be determined by other variables, among them the audience. If there were only one standard and consistent verbal community, a proposition could be, though perhaps not happily, identified with “the response which expresses it.” When there are many different communities and as many different audiences, the “something” common to all of the resulting alternative “expressions” cannot be identified with a verbal form. The only common factor is among the controlling variables…there is no true synonymy in the sense of choice of different forms. When all the features of the thing described have been taken into account and when the audience has been specified, the form of response is determined.” (‘Verbal Behaviour’ pp. 174-175)
Skinner’s argument above is that the proposition isn’t a necessary theoretical postulate. We can explain the different languages in the world not by appeal to them all sharing the same internal propositional structure. Rather we can explain the different languages of the world in terms of different types of audience control.
Obviously in the sixty years since Skinner wrote ‘Verbal Behaviour’ there has been a lot of experimental data gathered on the degree to which the audience controls the form of language (e.g. Brown and Hanlon 1970, Choinard and Clark 2002, Ochs and Schieffelin 1986, etc). Furthermore there have been models developed that accept that the linguistic environment plays a big role in the structure of language, but also argues that this role is constrained by genetic instructions on the form language must take (Chomsky 1981). Models such as Chomsky 1981, don’t postulate the existence of propositions in the sense that Russell uses the term , but nor do they place almost total control of the structure of language to the linguistic audience a la Skinner. It is not the purpose of the present piece to evaluate how Skinner and Russell’s views stand up vis-a-vis contemporary linguistic science. My primary point is simply that Skinner offered an alternative conception of language that suggested that propositions weren’t a necessary postulate in explaining our linguistic behaviour. To this degree, Skinner conception showed that Russell’s adoption of propositions as explanatory tools, wasn’t dictated by necessity, but instead only seemed necessary because the alternative of different audiences controlling different linguistic shapes wasn’t even considered.
Russell further argued that a proposition was all the sentences that have the same meaning as some given sentence. Skinner correctly noted that this explanation was vacuous because we still entirely lacked an explication of what the supposed meaning of said “given sentence” was (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 8). Skinner noted that instead of relying on the undefined and poorly understood notion of ‘meaning’ to explain the proposition we could instead drop the unnecessary posit of a proposition and focus on the external contingencies which shaped linguistic behaviour. It was in this sense that Skinner believed that Russell was going beyond the facts when he tried relied on notions such as ‘meaning’.
A clear objection to the above argument of Skinner’s is that he hasn’t shown that the notion of ‘meaning’ isn’t necessary to explain linguistic behaviour, rather he has just shown that ‘meaning’ isn’t sufficient to justify the postulation of ‘propositions’. When discussing Russell’s conception of the object language above we noted that his explication of meaning was fairly prosaic and one that most people uncontaminated by philosophy would accept as obviously correct.
For Russell the meaning of a word in the object language was simply derived from the pairing of the sound with a corresponding object or event in the mind independent world. The child would eventually learn to remember that the sound typically signified the said object by remembering which object is typically associated with the sound.
Skinner though had serious difficulties with Russell’s crude referential explication of meaning. Skinner notes that when we move from simple cases like simple proper nouns, referential semantics begins to seem much less plausible. Skinner cites a series of words such as ‘atom’, ‘gene’, ‘minus one’, ‘the spirit of the times’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘although’ and ‘ouch’ which resist any simple attempt of definition interms referential semantics (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 8). Russell though wouldn’t be overly worried by Skinner’s examples. In his IMT Russell wasn’t arguing that ALL our words were derived from association with mind independent objects. Rather, Russell was arguing that some of our words were learned by association with objects in the world, and the rest of our concepts were built up in terms of various different ways of combining these sensory words into more complex meanings. Russell considered his IMT a way of using the insights of philosophers like Hume and Berkeley’s insights with into perception, with the logical analysis preferred by the logical positivists. So given Russell’s aim in IMT it is no surprise that his account of meanings bears a strong similarity to Hume’s account of simple and complex ideas.
Russell’s account of how we combine our basic object words to produce more complex ones is extremely vague. He speaks of us leaning new words based on dictionary definitions; but notes that we understand these definitions interms of words we have already learned through association with objects in the world. This is a battle that is still raging today; even contemporary psychologists such as Susan Carey who argues that we learn our new concepts by combining our primitive concepts through analogy hasn’t come even close to filling in the details. So Russell can be forgiven for being a bit vague on the details when he wrote IMT eighty years ago.
Even if Skinner accepted Russell’s vague account of how we learn complex meanings, he still had difficulties with Russell’s account of how we learn object words. Skinner noted that when we used words like ‘Cat’ it was unclear whether the word was referring to one particular cat, or the set of all cats etc (Verbal Behaviour p. 8). This objection though would have raised little difficulties for Russell:
“Thus, by the usual pleasure pain mechanism which is employed in training performing animals, children learn, in time, to utter noises appropriate to objects that are sensibly present…a child learning the object-language applies Mill’s Cannons of Induction, and gradually corrects his mistakes. If he knows a dog called ‘Caesar’, he may think this word applies to all dogs. On the other hand, if he knows a dog who he calls ‘dog’, he may not apply this word to any other dog. Fortunately many occurrences fit into natural kinds; in the lives of most children, anything that looks like a cat is a cat, and anything that looks like one’s mother is one’s mother. But for this piece of luck learning to speak would be very difficult.” (‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’ pp. 66-72)
The first part of Russell’s account of using nouns like ‘dog’, ‘cat’, ‘mama’, etc is somewhat congenial with Skinner’s account. When Russell talks about the pleasure pain mechanism that is used in training performing animals, he is talking about the method of classical conditioning used by Pavlov and Watson in their labs. Despite the difference between classical conditioning and Skinner’s operant conditioning , it is obvious that operant conditioning would have been useful tool that fit perfectly with Russell’s account of how we learn the object language. So to an extent Skinner and Russell would have agreed that reinforcement for mouthed verbal behaviour would have played a role in helping the speaking subject understand words in the object language. Operant conditioning would help explain whether words such as ‘Dog’ were meant to refer to a particular type of animal; as opposed to being a name of a particular dog, as a result of the contingencies of reinforcement the child encountered in her environment.
But Russell’s second move to argue that the child generalizes sounds like ‘Dog’ to the whole species because of a propensity of the world to fit into natural kinds wouldn’t have been as congenial to Skinner. In ‘Verbal Behaviour’ in his chapter on Tacts Skinner discussed our process called generic extension. A clear example of generic extension would be a person using the word ‘chair’ to denote a new entity. Whether this new use gets accepted by the reinforcing community will be decided based on practical considerations such as, can we do the same things with it we can typically do with a chair? Skinner notes that if we want to discuss the “essence” of the word chair our best practice would be to look at the contingencies of reinforcement within the community (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 91). So control of the extension of the term ‘chair’ will be a social community issue. People will still be reinforced for using the term ‘chair’ in response to certain kinds of objects but the reinforcement and hence survival of how the term is going to be used is ultimately controlled by the socio-linguistic community. Skinner’s pragmatic approach focuses on sociolinguistic reinforcement to explain that words, so called essence, are not necessarily the result of correspondence with set patterns in the environment.
An obvious criticism of my explication of Skinner’s take is that it involved a bit of shuffling of the deck. Russell was speaking about words that pick out natural kinds in the environment such as ‘Cat’, or ‘Dog’ whereas I am speaking about an artefact such a ‘Chair’. However, I don’t think that this distinction makes much of a difference in this case. The standard usage of ‘fish’ picks out many different things, depending on the usage of the particular linguistic community. To a lot of people a Whale is a fish, and people will be reinforced for speaking this way. However in the biological community speaking of a Whale as a fish may elicit either negative reinforcement or punishment. So even when it comes to words about living creatures our usage in general will be controlled primarily by socio-linguistic reinforcement and the shared world we live in.
I am not here arguing that there is no fact of the matter on whether a Whale is a Fish. When one is making truth claims about the world; certain categorisations would be disastrous and hence they are not used by scientists. Given the pragmatic success of science people typically accept the scientific definition of terms, though they may not pay much heed to such definitions in their daily life. However to discuss this topic in detail I will need to delve into Russell and Skinner’s respective views on the pragmatic theory of truth. That topic though will have to be postponed until after my next blog-post where I compare Skinner and Russell’s respective take on how children acquire logical behaviour and how the developing child applies this behaviour to the object language.

Peterson, Harris, and The Spectre of Postmodernism.

Jordan Peterson is a cultural phenomenon. His views reach much larger audience than your typical academic. There are various different theories as to reasons for his popularity; some more plausible than others. I suggest that one reason that he is so popular is that his writing has a practical quality which is very different from the typical abstract way of writing that is the norm in academic spheres. Peterson is a clinical psychologist, who uses his experiences with his patients and his experiences with his own family and friends to give his theorising a practical feel. Peterson writes with real emotion and discusses real world problems in a practical manner that people can understand and relate to.
Another reason he is popular has to do with the image he projects of himself as a tough-minded man of action. His bio at the end of his new book ‘12 Rules for Living’ presents a compelling image:
“Jordan B Peterson, raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta, has flown a hammerhead roll in a carbon fiber stunt plane, piloted a mahogany racing sail boat around Alcatraz Island, explored an Arizona Meteorite crater with a group of astronauts, and built a Kwagu’l ceremonial bighouse on the upper floor of this Toronto home after being invited into and named by that Canadian First Nation. He’s been a dishwasher, a gas jockey, bartender, short-order cook, beekeeper, oil derrick bit re-tipper, plywood mill labourer and railway line worker. He has taught mythology to Lawyers, doctors and business people…” (‘12 rules for Life bio’ page)
The message is clear, Peterson is no nerd, no academic lightweight afraid of his own shadow, on the contrary, Peterson is a man of the people. In his introduction to ‘12 Rules for Life’, Peterson’s friend the neuroscientist Norman Doidge presents a picture of Peterson as a hard man in cowboy boots, a kind of academic Clint Eastwood. When Peterson argues against PC rules he is portrayed as a grizzled tough guy who takes no messing from weak lefty academics. He is like a latter day Mcgarnicle who is tired of being held back by his pen pushing Captain: https://youtu.be/5RJei9xpRrI .
Peterson is adored for standing up to silly academics like the postmodernists who deny obvious facts about reality. Yet despite this public persona, Peterson holds views on the nature of truth that aren’t that dissimilar to the views of the postmodernists he criticises.
Part 1: Peterson and Postmodernism:
One of Peterson’s main fears, which he speaks about again and again, is the fear of what he calls Cultural Marxism. In his book ‘12 Rules For Life’ Peterson discusses Marxism and its consequences. Peterson notes the incredible popularity that Marxist ideas held for intellectuals in the early twentieth century. However, he argued that as people began to understand the incredible suffering that was being caused around the world in Marxist countries, they began to have doubts about the underlying philosophy. Peterson claimed that the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The Gulag Archipelago, destroyed any credibility of Marxism. Solzhenitsyn’s book, supposedly conclusively showed that the horrors of Marxism were not an idiosyncratic result of particular implementations of Marxism, but were systemic to the entire philosophy (‘12 Rules for Living’ p. 308). Given what Peterson believed was the total destruction of Marxism, not all public intellectuals wanted to directly associate with it. Therefore some intellectuals felt that it was necessary to transform Marxism into a different form while maintaining its spirit. Peterson charges Derrida with being a Marxist who simply substituted the idea of power for the idea of money. This approach led to postmodernist academics looking for power-relations in all areas and thinking it was their job to unmask these implicit relations. Thus such thinkers began to see things like scientific facts as playing a role in maintaining power of certain groups, even notions such as logic were viewed as a structure used to dominate. Peterson didn’t argue that power relations weren’t a factor in our scientific theorising, he just argued that it played smaller role than some postmodernists believed it did.
These postmodernist views when carried to their logical extension seem to lead us to a situation where we cannot evaluate any claim whatsoever as our entire logical and epistemological techniques are claimed to have been invalidated by postmodern analysis. Peterson thinks that adopting this approach, will lead to a disaster, where any claim is as good as any other, and hence we are vulnerable to power mongers who will use this nihilistic vacuum to seize power.
Part 2: Peterson on Truth:
I won’t here evaluate the validity of Peterson’s analysis of Marxism and postmodernism as I don’t know enough about Marxist history and its relation to postmodernism to have a strong opinion. What I will discuss is a criticism of postmodernism that Peterson makes in his 12 rules for living and relate it to his discussion of truth he had with Sam Harris last year. Peterson made the following point about postmodernists:
“The insane and incomprehensible postmodern insistence that all gender differences are socially constructed…The fact that such statements lead immediately to internal inconsistencies within this ideology is never addressed. Gender is constructed, but an individual is unarguably considered a man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice versa). The fact that both of these cannot be logically true, is just ignored (or rationalized away with another appalling post modern claim: that logic itself-along with the techniques of science-is merely part of the oppressive patriarchal system).” ( ‘12 Rules For Living’ p. 315)
The actual example that Peterson gives isn’t important. Rather what is important is that he argues that (1) Postmodernism leads to inconsistent positions. And Postmodernists typically ignore this inconsistency. (2) To the extent that Postmodernists try and resolve these difficulties they resort to the desperate dodge of claiming logic is just a tool in an oppressive patriarchal system.
The issue of whether Peterson has postmodernists correctly or not is a complex one that we can ignore here. Peterson presents no textual evidence to demonstrate which postmodernists hold this inconsistent view, nor does he discuss postmodernist takes logic in any detail. The important point is that Peterson charges postmodernists with espousing absurd and inconsistent views, and trying to hold onto them by bending logic to support their views on the nature of sex and power.
In his discussion with Sam Harris on the nature of truth last year https://youtu.be/1gdpyzwOOYY Peterson argued for an idiosyncratic view on truth that on the face of it is similar to the postmodernist views on truth that he is so critical of.
In his discussion with Harris, Peterson argued that there is a fundamental contradiction between the Darwinian World View and the Newtonian World View. The Darwinian sense of truth is that we are creatures created by the contingent processes of natural selection who can construct theories that help us cope with the flux of reality. On this Darwinian conception our best theories are the ones that lead to our survival. If a theory leads to the destruction of all life then it is by definition untrue. Peterson notes: “Truth is that which serves life” (57 minutes of Harris/Peterson discussion). The Newtonian conception of truth is that there are ultimate truths about the mind independent world that are true whether they lead to our survival or not.
On the Darwinian Picture we have no guarantee that we know the truth. Our theories may have passed the test of keeping us alive so far. But this fact may not continue. Our theories could result in us dying tomorrow and hence on Peterson’s world view our theories would have to be turned out to be simply false (because not they didn’t lead to survival). Peterson links this view with the pragmatist theory of truth (he mentions Dewey and James).
Peterson casually mentions that he is operating with the conception that science is a tool that is useful for certain purposes rather that something that describes reality either correctly or incorrectly. He doesn’t really cash-out this Wittgensteinan point in any detail. But his primary claim seems to be that science is a tool that is useful for various purposes and that if these tool leads to the destruction of all life then the tool has not been pragmatically efficient and hence we can say the scientific theory is false. This is a crude equating of truth with use; useful theories being theories that stop all life from dying. It is worth noting that American Pragmatists such as James, Peirce had a much more multilayered view of useful tools and didn’t rely on such crude pictures where useful theories are judged primarily on whether they lead to death or not. So Peterson’s placing himself in the pragmatist tradition is dubious.
Harris responds to Peterson’s expounding of Darwinian Truth by making the following point:
“It is undeniable that there were facts before there were any creatures to understand the nature of those facts…physical reality has a character whether or not there are apes around to talk about it”. (Harris/Peterson discussion 51 mins)
Peterson responds to the above claim using what he calls the Is it True Enough Objection:
“In order to establish an objective fact we have to parameterize the search, we have to narrow the search; we have to exclude many many things. And I think sometimes when we do that we end up generating a truth, and I would say that it is a pragmatic truth, that works within the confines of the parameters that have established around the experiment, but then when launched up off into the broader world; much of which was excluded from the theorising, the results can be catastrophic. I would say that that is a kin to the problem of there is operationalizaton where you reduce the phenomena to something that you can discover and discuss scientifically and then there is generalization back onto the real world. And one of the things that you see happen very frequently is that the operationalization succeeds but the generalization fails miserably.” (Harris/Peterson debate 52.30 mins)
This reply of Peterson involves distinguishing between micro-claims which are facts within a system and macro-claims which are the truth of the overall system. Peterson thinks that there are facts, and that we can say are facts at the micro-level, but that future science may show that these facts are not true as our theory of the world evolves.
Most of the discussion that follows from this is Harris giving a series of micro-examples and saying that it would be absurd to argue that these micro truths would turn out to be false if they led to the death of all life. Peterson typically replied to these criticisms by holding strong on his definition of truth as what life serves. Harris gives various micro examples and Peterson replies to them as follows:
“Within the context of that micro example, truth is not malleable by situation…ok I buy that. But the problem is that that micro example isn’t separate in the actual world, from the macro examples, which would be let’s call it the scientific method as such. And there may be local applications of the scientific method where the local facts generated are sufficiently context independent so you can’t make any contextual claims. But I could say well it turned out in a thousand years that that empirical game was fatal, so the micro facts in that game were false you just couldn’t see it at the time”. (Harris/Peterson debate 1.06).
The debate between Harris and Peterson doesn’t reach a resolution. Harris keeps putting forth micro examples and Peterson keeps arguing that they don’t prove what Harris thinks they do. One of the micro examples was particularly instructive and touches on some of the issues Peterson discussed in relation to postmodernism.
Harris makes the following point:
“It seems to me that I can make statements about reality which neither of us can know to be true, we just don’t have the tools where not going to take the time to do it. But we know there is a fact of the matter whether or not we can get the data in hand. So I could say for instance you have an even number of hairs on your body. I don’t know that that’s true but I know that I have a 50% chance of being right about that. And this is not a non-binary possibility, this is a binary one (assuming you have hair on your body)…now what do you think about that?”(Harris/Peterson debate 1 02)
Peterson makes his standard claim about it being a micro example that only works because it is divorced from the rest of our theory of the world and both theorists went around in their typical circle. I think though that if we switch the example a bit it will raise a problem for Peterson. Suppose we ask Peterson about whether he thinks the following proposition is true (1) Either Peterson has an even number of hairs or an odd number of hairs on his body but not both. I assume that Peterson would reply that he accepts the truth of (A) at the micro level, but it isn’t necessarily true at the macro level. This would seem to be the answer that his theory of truth dictates. So the above example involves use a law of logic; the law of non-contradiction to make a claim about Peterson’s body. Peterson accepts the law of non-contradiction as something that can tell us truths about the world at the micro-level. However, if the law of non-contradiction when generalized wiped out all life, then retrospectively the law of non-contradiction wouldn’t have been a good guide to judging whether the hairs on Peterson’s body were even or odd.
It should be obvious that Peterson’s above answer is perilously close to the one gave by the postmodernists. Recall above that Peterson criticised the Postmodernist for seeming to accept inconsistent truths ( (1) Sex is entirely socially constructed (2) People are to be automatically to be believed if they say they were born into the wrong biological body). Unlike the postmodernist Peterson doesn’t accept an inconsistent belief. However like the postmodernist Peterson is prepared to disavow a truth of logic if it leads to all life being destroyed. In a similar sense the postmodernist is prepared to bend the rules of logic if he believes that they are tools of power which lead to oppression. So despite being outraged with the Postmodernist for modifying logical truths within their system, it would appear that Peterson is doing the same when he admits that basic logical laws will have to be modified if they lead to disastrous consequences for life.
A possible defence of Peterson is that his system doesn’t accept contradictions within his micro-system, and only admits the bare possibility that the law of contradiction may need to be revised at the limit. This is different than the cavalier manner in which postmodernists accept contradictions into their system of the world. I think that this defence of Peterson is on point. A good way of bringing out this point is to use what Quine called ‘The Maxim of Minimum Mutilation’. If we have a theory of the world that makes various wrong predictions about the world we don’t automatically have to rescind the entire theory. We can modify the theory by changing certain sentences within the theory that implied the false predictions. When deciding which sentences to rescind we should pick the ones at the periphery of the theory which will do the least damage to the overall theory and save us from our making our false predictions. In this vein we would rescind logical and mathematical theories last as they infiltrate our total web of beliefs the most and changing these laws would reverberate throughout our entire theory. However in some circumstances we may have no choice but to modify some logical laws. In his Two Dogmas of Empiricism Quine noted that some scientists even considered revising the law of excluded middle as a way simplifying calculations in Quantum Physics (Two Dogmas of Empiricism p. 42) . In this sense with a bit of work one could build up Peterson’s picture into a type of Quinean Naturalism.


Part 3: Peterson, Morality and Survival:
The above picture is somewhat congenial with the overall conception that Peterson has sketched; where even basic facts can be revised based on pragmatic considerations such as simplicity, predictive utility etc. However Peterson would differ from the Quinean Picture in one key sense. Peterson thinks that moral facts are a key criterion in deciding whether an overall theory is correct or not. Peterson argues that: “It was necessary for our attitude towards science to be nested in something else, which was a higher moral conception” (Harris/Peterson debate 58mins).
Peterson’s claim that scientific truths must be nested within moral truths is barely intelligible from my own naturalistic perspective. Peterson would again justify his claim by pointing out that our moral attitudes will have consequences for our behaviour when doing science that could lead to our undoing. So based on Peterson’s definition of truth as; “what serves life”, one cannot divorce truth from our moral attitude. So given his strange definition of truth, Peterson is right on his own terms. However, I think the empirical data suggests that Peterson may be incorrect on the pragmatic utility of adopting ancient moral systems to help us cope with the flux of reality.
When discussing morality and scientific endeavours Peterson adopts an apocalyptic tone:
“That’s partly why the scientific endeavour as it’s demolished the traditional underpinnings of our moral systems, has produced an emergent nihilism and hopelessness among people that makes them more susceptible to ideological possession. I think it’s a fundamental problem. I do think that that the highest truths are moral truths, I am thinking of that from a Darwinian Perspective.” (Harris/Peterson debate 1Hr)
In the above quote Peterson notes that our scientific endeavour when divorced from a moral perspective has lead us to a nihilistic state where our most basic values were torn down. Without our basic values we were susceptible to ideological possession that resulted in the horrors of Marxism, and the Horrors of the Nazis. Peterson never places any numbers on his argument. Do the deaths and suffering caused by Marx and Nazi’s make the world a more violent and dangerous place than in the past?
One could argue that Peterson is being naive in arguing that we are more susceptible to ideological possession in the post Darwinian world. Pre-Darwin we were after all susceptible to ideological possession in the form of various different religious systems which were used as reasons for countless wars.
However, Peterson doesn’t think of our Judeo-Christian tradition an ideological possession, rather Peterson thinks these ancient stories are archetypes which are universal amongst humans and reveal deep truths that we ignore at our peril. When discussing atheism Peterson’s views that true moral systems are derived from the Judeo-Christian faith are apparent:
“You might object, “But I’m an atheist.” No, you’re not (and if you want to understand this, you could read Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to take his atheism with true seriousness, commits what he as rationalized as a benevolent murder, and pays the price). You’re simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs-those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudes and surface level knowledge. You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are simply too complex to understand yourself” (Peterson ‘12 Rules for Life’ p. 103)
“Even when the modern atheists opposed to Christianity belittle fundamentalists for insisting, for example, that the creation account in Genesis is objectively true, they are using their sense of truth, highly developed over the centuries of Christian culture, to engage in such argumentation” (ibid p. 189)

Claims such as these have very little credibility from an historical point of view. Peterson is entirely ignoring people such as Plato, Aristotle, Euclid etc and is pretending that our entire moral culture was built on the back of Christian dogma. At the very least one would think that Peterson would discuss the use made of Plato by St. Augustine, or the use made of Aristotle by St. Aquinas. Christian culture didn’t arise in a cultural vacuum. The central tenants of Christian Moral systems were modified by millennia of rational thought. Peterson doesn’t really engage with this rational process at all. He seems content to argue that these moral values were simply universal archetypes that we ignore at our peril.
One point worth noting is that in his ’12 Rules’ Peterson cites approvingly Pinker’s book ‘The Better Angel’s of our Nature’. But Peterson doesn’t note a serious difference between his views and Pinker’s. Pinker citing long term statistical data argues that since the enlightenment things have on average been getting progressively better; less violence, people living longer etc. Yet Peterson claims, without providing evidence, that we have entered an age of nihilism as a result of our increasing secularisation. Pinker’s data presents the complete opposite picture. Given the fact that Peterson’s entire argument on truth relies on pragmatic utility and moral ideals at the very least he needs to deal with this data and present an argument as to why it doesn’t hold up. It would seem that based on Peterson’s strange definition of truth as “That which serves life”, our secular Enlightenment moral systems, are more likely to lead us to the truth than Christian dogmas will.

The William James Lectures: Bertrand Russell and B.F. Skinner

In 1940 Bertrand Russell gave the William James Lectures which became his book ‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth,’ in 1947 B.F. Skinner gave the William James Lectures which eventually became book ‘Verbal Behaviour’. In 1940 Russell worked with a quasi behaviourist conception of meaning to the extent that he argued that meaning could be partly cashed out interms of association and conditioned reflexes. Russell’s behaviourism was influenced by thinkers such as Watson and Pavlov and was quite different from the selectionist behaviourism that Skinner would later develop. Furthermore, while Russell was respectful of behaviourism, and he used some aspects of behaviourism, he was never a fully fledged behaviourist. Russell, for example, strongly disagreed with J. B. Watson’s views on consciousness, and always argued trenchantly against Watson’s take on mental images. Skinner was introduced into his behaviourism through a reading of Russell’s introduction to Ogden’s ‘The Meaning of Meaning’ . Furthermore Skinner considered his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ a reply to Skinner’s ‘Inquiry into Meaning and Truth . In this blog-post I will discuss some areas of agreement and disagreement between Russell and Skinner on behavioural science.
In his IMT Russell discussed behavioural science in relation to the theory of knowledge. Russell argued that there are two different types of theory of knowledge:
(1) Roughly for Russell, the first type of epistemology was similar to what Quine (1969) would later dub Naturalized Epistemology. This type of epistemology involves us accepting our scientific theory of the world as the best one we have at present. Our scientific picture tells us that a phenomena called ‘knowing’ exists and it is the naturalized epistemologists job to try and discover the nature of this ‘knowing’. A good way to study this type of ‘knowing’ is through behavioural tests. Russell notes that in this type of theory of knowledge: “both knowledge and error, at this stage, are observable relations between the organism and the facts of the environment” ( An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth p. 12)
(2) Cartesian Epistemology : This type of epistemology notes that naturalized epistemology assumes the truth of naive realism when trying to understand the nature of knowing naturalistically. However, basic physics undermines naive realism and hence undermines the understanding of knowing based on behavioural science. Cartesian Epistemology aims to understand knowing at this deeper level and to disentangle its nature so it doesn’t end up undermining itself like naturalized epistemology does.

This discussion of the two different kinds of theory of knowledge led Russell to argue that there was a major weakness in behaviourism when used as a theory of knowledge:
“When the behaviourist observes the doings of animals, and decides whether these show knowledge or error, he is not thinking of himself as an animal, but as an at least hypothetically inerrant recorder of what actually happens. He ‘knows’ that animals are deceived by mirrors, and believes himself to ‘know’ that he is not being similarly deceived. By omitting the fact that he- an organism like any other- is observing, he gives a false air of objectivity to the results of his observation. As soon as we remember the possible fallibility of the observer, we have introduced the serpent into the behaviourist’s paradise. The serpent whispers doubts, and has no difficulty quoting scientific scripture for the purpose.” (Russell ‘An Inquiry Concerning Meaning and Truth’ p. 13)
Russell goes on to develop his point further by discussing the physiology of perception. The standard story told by science is that when we perceive an object we do not directly perceive the object but rather light reflects off the objects and our retina’s are triggered by this light which transmitted through neurons to the occipital lobe which somehow creates a mental image of the object. Russell notes that our most basic sensory experiences are according to physics not actually direct experiences but mental constructions built by the brain. He goes on to note that our basic physics undermines our naive realism about our experiences. In the above quote Russell is arguing that, the behaviourist when observing the rats they are studying are treating their own perceptions from the point of view of naive realism, and they assume that their own perceptions are generally reliable. On the other hand the behaviourist treats the rats he is studying as fallible creatures capable of being deceived by mirrors etc. For Russell, the behaviourist is guilty of a serious inconsistency in the way he treats the animals he is studying and the human animal that is doing the scientific study.
In his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ Skinner tried to answer Russell’s epistemological criticism of behavioural science. Skinner began by noting a serious difficulty with his own behaviourist approach. From the mechanistic deterministic point of view that Skinner accepted, the scientist’s behaviour is as determined as the other people and animals he studies. Skinner then noted that given that the scientist’s behaviour is determined by antecedent causes we must draw the conclusion that his explication of verbal behaviour cannot be ‘true’ or ‘certain’. Skinner puts the point as follows:
“In many ways, then, this seems to me to be a better way of talking about Verbal Behaviour, and that is why I have tried to get the reader to talk in this way too. But have I told him the truth? Who can say? A science of verbal behaviour probably makes no provision for truth or certainty (though we cannot even be certain of the truth of that).” (Verbal Behaviour p. 456)
However, Skinner doesn’t explicate precisely why he thinks that behaviour being determined means that the behaviour cannot be ‘certain’ or ‘true’ in the above passage.
It is worth briefly explicating why action being determined would have such dramatic epistemological consequences. If our behaviour is determined by causes stretching back to the big bang, most of which we are unaware of, then any reasons we give for believing x or y will themselves be determined. Therefore these reasons may be entirely unjustified, but we are just causally determined to hold them. For this reason Skinner surely has a point that a belief in determined action undermines a belief in objective truth. Of course, it is worth noting that in order to believe that determinism is “true”, in this instance we seem to need to hold a sense of truth which supports our belief in determinism. This fact seems to undermine Skinner’s claim that determinism shows that truth is undermined by determinism. Because if determinism did in fact undermine belief in objective truth then a determinist would seem to have no reason to believe that determinism is in fact a true position. So it would seem at face value that determinism, as Skinner conceives it, is self undermining.
However, Skinner would circumvent this criticism by noting that he doesn’t argue that he has a scientific proof that determinism is true. Rather he argues that the assumption that determinism is true is the best way to make sense of the success of behavioural science. So, in this sense, Skinner’s argument for determinism is an inference to the best explanation argument. Skinner doesn’t need to inconsistently assert (1) That determinism is true, and (2) That determinism undermines belief in the concept of truth. Rather, Skinner can just show that behaviourism has led to pragmatic success and that a belief in determinism is an important tool in making sense of this pragmatic success. In his ‘Walden Two’ Skinner put the point as follows:
“I deny that freedom exists at all. I must deny it- or my program would be absurd. You can’t have a science about a subject matter which hops capriciously about. Perhaps we can never prove that man isn’t free; it’s an assumption. But the increasing success of a science of behaviour makes it more and more plausible.” (Walden Two p. 257)
Skinner’s argument against ‘certainty’ again relies on his pragmatically justified assumption of determinism . Humans, including scientists, are animals who are born with certain genetic constraints which we have no control over, as we grow in the environment which we happened to be born into, our behaviour is shaped by the social and material environment we grow in (subject to genetic constraints on how our behaviour can be shaped). As contingent fallible animals operating in a world like we do, Skinner’s point is that certainty is an inappropriate way of treating our beliefs. A more appropriate way of conceiving things would be by judging the probability that a certain form of behaviour is likely to succeed at a certain kind of action.
In the case of ‘certainty’, like in the case of ‘truth’, Skinner’s argument relies on the assumption of determinism. Obviously since Skinner isn’t arguing that our behaviour being determined is a certainty there can be no argument that his belief that ‘certainty’ is undermined by determinism is self refuting.
A critic could argue that this discussion of the relation between behavioural science and determinism is beside the point. Russell’s primary argument was that physics undermined belief in naive realism and that this fact cast doubt on the objectivity of behavioural science. This issue doesn’t seem to be intrinsically connected to the issue of determinism and its relation to truth and certainty. However, the reason that Skinner argued in the manner in which he did was that he disagreed with Russell’s original formulation of the problem. And Skinner was attempting to construct what he believed was the spirit of Russell’s argument without relying on terms which the behaviourist rejected such as the ‘idea’. Skinner made the point as follows:
“Russell pictures the behaviourist deciding whether the doings of animals show knowledge or error instead of, as is more likely, measuring predispositions to act with respect to a given set of circumstances, and he describes the behaviourist as “reporting his observations about the outer world, although observation is suspiciously like “idea,” or at least “image,” and would probably avoided in favour of an expression like “reaction to the outer world.”But the crux of the problem survives in translation. The present study offers a case in point. If what I have said is reasonably correct, considering the present state of knowledge in the science of human behaviour, what interpretation is to be placed on my behaviour in writing this book? I have been behaving verbally, and unless my analysis is deficient at some point, my behaviour must have followed the processes already set forth and no others.” (‘Verbal Behaviour’ pp. 453-454)
Obviously, Russell would require more than a side stepping of his position and translating it into behavioural terms; he would justly require that Skinner present evidence that the way Russell framed the issue was wrong.
The idea that Russell was presenting about the relation of the mind to the world is still the standard view that most contemporary scientists hold (let’s call it the representational theory of mind). The view is that the world we see is an imperfect representation of the objective world we are trying to understand.
Skinner’s difficulty with this representational picture wasn’t because of its reliance on private events, he cheerfully admitted that private events occurred, and he used them in his theorising (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 439, ‘Science and Human Behaviour p. 282). On Skinner’s conception “private events” were not co-extensive with “ideas” “minds” etc.
Skinner argued that we respond to our bodies with three nervous systems. Two of the nervous systems are concerned with internal features of our bodies (1) The Interoceptive system is concerned with the internal economy of the organism, and involve the respiratory, digestive and circulatory systems. (2) The Proprioceptive System which sends information from muscles, tendons and other organs involved in maintaining balance, posture, and movement. On Skinner’s picture we use the word ‘feel’ to describe contact with these two internal systems (‘About Behaviourism’ p. 25). The third aspect of the nervous system concerned with the external environment are the sensory organs, eyes, ears, nose, sense of touch etc. Skinner notes that the third aspect of our nervous system is also concerned with our understanding of our body (and the world beyond our body).
While the three nervous systems obviously ensure the survival of the organism they become powerful sources for inner awareness when the community trains him to use language to describe the various states of his body. Once organisms can engage in this type of self-description others can use it to predict their behaviour. Furthermore on Skinner’s picture the verbal community can help the organism to become self conscious:
“A person becomes conscious in a different sense when a verbal community arranges contingencies under which he not only sees an object but sees that he is seeing it. In this special sense, consciousness or awareness is a social project” (‘About Behaviourism’ p. 242)
Skinner argues that we don’t engage with reality via representations rather we directly experience it. On this picture we are embodied agents who are in constant interaction with our environment as we move about the world. Our sensory organs; eyes, ears, etc. put us in touch with our lived experience but they don’t represent that experience. However it is pretty clear that Skinner’s direct realist picture of conscious awareness offers no real account of how we as embodied agents become conscious of our environment.
While Skinner’s direct realism is a reasonable (if incomplete) way of avoiding explaining consciousness in terms of internal representations there are some difficulties with Skinner’s understanding of private events. Things like Dreams, Mental Images, and Hallucinations cannot be as easily explained away as something we directly experience in our environment as by their very nature they are not properties of the external world. So Mental Images etc. are a real problem for Skinner. Skinner deals with the problem in the following manner:
“After hearing a piece of music several times, a person may hear it when it is not being played, though probably not as richly or as clearly. So far as we know, he is simply doing in the absence of the music some of the things he did in its presence. Similarly when he sees a person or place in his imagination, he may simply be doing what he does in the presence of the person or place. Both “reminiscing” and “remembering” once meant “being mindful of again” or “bringing again to mind” – in other words, seeing again as one once saw. Explicit techniques of “calling to mind” are techniques of strengthening perceptual behaviour” (‘About Behaviourism p. 91)
Skinner’s way of dealing with the problem of consciousness is twofold. Firstly he denies that we create a conscious representation of reality in the brain and therefore avoids having to explain how the brain creates this representation. But his position is left with a problem as to how we directly experience reality in the way we do. Secondly, he explains away things like mental imagery as behaviour that is similar to the behaviour we make when perceiving an object in the external world. However Skinner’s description of us hearing music in our minds as behaving in a similar manner to the way we would behave when hearing music in the external world is not much of an explanation. If I form a mental image of a ‘Red Cat’, or imagine a song like ‘Fairy Tale of New York’ my experiences have a particular content. Skinner by explaining the experience interms of behaviour is ignoring a key datum; the actual content of the experience. In effect Skinner is denying that mental imagery existed.
Skinner’s attempts to do away with representational explanations of our experiences are at best incomplete. He has no explanation of how we directly experience reality. Furthermore he doesn’t have a credible explanation of things like mental imagery or dreams. Things aren’t much better with Russell’s position, in the eighty years since he wrote his IMT no progress has been made on how the occipital lobe creates a conscious representation of reality . Without complete explanation of how we consciously experience the world in the offing at the moment I think it is best to continue with Skinner’s translation of the problem and discuss whether the behavioural scientist is guilty of inconsistency in the way he treats the animal they are studying and the way they treat themselves.
Skinner’s reply to (his translation of) Russell relied on an appeal to the pragmatic justification of behavioural science and its success in action. As we saw above; when quoting Russell’s criticism of behaviourism Skinner claimed that:
“In one sense, this is a fair shot. The hardiest determinist will recognise a tendency to believe that what he is saying is, for the moment at least, reserved from the field of determined action.” (Verbal Behaviour p. 453)
Yet thirty years later when Skinner wrote his ‘About Behaviourism’ he changed views. Skinner quoted the same passage from Russell but he no longer believed that Russell had a point:
“He was speaking of an early version of behaviourism, and even so he was not right. It would be absurd for the behaviourist to contend that he is in anyway exempt from his analysis. He cannot step out of the causal stream and observe behaviour from some special point of vantage, “perched on the epicycle of Mercury.” (Skinner: ‘About Behaviourism’ p. 258)
What brought about this change of mind in how Skinner interpreted Russell? One possible suggestion is a psychological speculation that Skinner was no longer favourably disposed towards Russell. In the second of his three part Auto-Biography Skinner noted that he had sent Russell a copy of his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ and that Russell didn’t even send an acknowledgement card. It is possible that Skinner was simply less disposed to read Russell in a charitable light after this slight.
However, I think there is a simpler explanation for Skinner’s reply. In the years since he gave his William James lectures Skinner’s views made a more practical turn. Skinner’s invention of teaching machines, baby cribs etc were practical attempts to modify and control human behaviour, more and more Skinner began to realise how his behavioural science could be applied to humans as well as animals. So Skinner’s views began to change. He always viewed humans as subject to contingencies of reinforcement but the more he worked on the topic the less he felt impressed by Russell’s claim that the behaviourist left himself out of the account.
In this blog-post we have seen that Skinner’s reply to Russell relied heavily on a pragmatist conception of truth. The reader will of course have been put in mind of Russell’s claim that pragmatism had “all the benefits of theft over honest toil”. In my next blog-post I will consider Russell and Skinner’s different ways of understanding the nature of truth.

The Quine/Skinner discussion.

In 1981 B.F. Skinner held a series of small seminars with his colleagues to discuss a variety of different philosophical and scientific topics. In one of the seminars behaviourist philosopher Willard Quine was a guest. Other members of the discussion that day were the linguist Pere Julia, as well as another unidentified male guest (perhaps Gerald Zuriff who attended most of these discussions), Margret Vaughan and Will Vaughan were present as was the Swedish linguist and poet Lars Gutafson.
The discussion begins with an analysis of motivation, reasons and causes. One of the central themes is Skinner’s distinction between rule-governed behaviour and contingency shaped behaviour. Skinner first made this distinction in his 1967 book ‘Contingencies of Reinforcement’:
“Society codifies its ethical, religious, and legal practices so that by following a code the individual may emit behaviour appropriate to social contingencies without having been directly exposed to them. Scientific laws play a similar role in guiding the life of scientists…Discriminative stimuli which improve the efficiency of behaviour under given contingencies of reinforcement are important, but they must not be confused with the contingencies themselves, nor with the effects of those contingencies…The behaviour of one who speaks correctly by applying the rules of grammar merely resembles the one who speaks correctly from long experience in his verbal community.” ( Contingencies of Reinforcement. p. 125)
Skinner discussed the matter further in his (1974) ‘About Behaviourism’:
“To say that “The child who learns a language has in some sense constructed a grammar for himself” is as misleading as to say that a dog which has learned to catch a ball has in some sense constructed the relevant part of the science of mechanics. Rules can be abstracted from the reinforcing contingencies in both cases, and once in existence may be used as guides. The direct effect of the contingencies is of a different nature…There are then two extremes: (1) Behaviour shaped only by the contingencies of reinforcement, in which case we respond “unconsciously”, and (2) rule governed behaviour in which the contingencies from which these rules are derived may not have affected us directly. Between these extremes lie a wide range of degrees of “awareness”. (ibid pp 126-128)
We can see from above the importance Skinner made of the distinction of behaviour governed by explicit rules codified in language and behaviour caused by the contingencies of reinforcement. From at least 1967 Skinner was making a clear distinction between a person’s behaviour fitting rules, and people’s behaviour being guided by rules. Quine made a similar distinction explicit 5 years later in his paper ‘Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory ’:
“My distinction between fitting and guiding is, you see, the obvious and flat-footed one. Fitting is a matter of true description; guiding is a matter of cause and effect. Behaviour fits a rule whenever it conforms to it; whenever the rule truly describes the behaviour. But the behaviour is not guided by the rule unless the behaver knows the rule and can state it. This behaver observes the rule” (Quine: Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory’ p. 386).
So at the time of the discussion both Skinner and Quine both were very concerned with accounting for the distinction between rule-governed behaviour and behaviour that was entirely causal. Below is the audio recording of the discussion

Below is a transcript from the first 15 minutes of the conversation ( which should be read while listening to the audio recording) where they discuss reasons, causation and motivation. The rest of the conversation hasn’t been archived I will archive it at some later stage and post it here.

Pere Julia discussion group:
First section: An analysis of Reasons, Causes and Motivation:
Quine: That’s what I meant by reference to drive. There will still be something in the way of motivation…maybe that’s true of all caused behaviour.
Julia: You did it. And you may verbalise the wrong reasons. I did it for such and such a reason but as the Freudian would say you did it for very different reasons.
Skinner: That was Freud’s little …he would indicate different reasons for doing something than the reasons you gave. But the reasons he would have given…If they are unconscious reasons, then they must be what I have been calling causes and not reasons because they are not verbal.
Julia: So you have causes on the one hand which would be a list of the variables that lead to the behaviour. Now you might describe these causes and then you would be giving reasons for having done it. But these reasons may not be the real causes. So we would have an intersection of two sets but they are not necessarily the same set.
Skinner: When you were young you were reinforced in many ways in the presence of your mothers face. Then you grow up and you fall in love with a woman who looks like your mother looked at that time. That’s all a matter of cause in the sense that it’s just a behavioural process. But you give reasons why you find her beautiful. Then Freud turns up and says aha you overlooked the fact that she looked like your mother when you were a child. So that the contingencies, the unanalysed, un-rationalized contingencies, were simply the fact that that person is attracted to her and that is where motivation comes in, whether the mother was feeding you caressing you and so on, and you go for that kind of person, and you go for this woman. But then you give a lot of other reasons, she is very intellectual, you enjoy talking to her, and so on. You give all sorts of reasons, which as Freud would point out are not the real reason you married her. You married for unconscious reasons, and the fact that it is unconscious means that you haven’t talked about it, and couldn’t talk about it, without converting it into reason governed behaviour. The real reason you married her was because she looked like your mother and as soon as you say that it is now a description of the contingencies.
Quine: Is this only difference? Would you say that reasons are causes verbalised by the subject himself? And when we say causes we mean real causes, and these aren’t kidding himself.
Skinner: These are behavioural processes unwinding, that is what we mean by cause.
Quine: So reasons would be separated, the way that the notion of cause separates reasons from false rationalisations. False rationalisations and reasons have in common that they are verbalised, but reasons are distinguished from the false rationalisations in that they really causes as well…so all reasons are causes.
Skinner: It’s very important that you don’t get people to do anything by giving a reason. That doesn’t have what you would call a motivation. That is why you advise someone in therapy. Let’s say he is a pathological gambler you can say “you should give up gambling and that is a good reason. If you give up gambling you won’t lose money”. But that doesn’t mean that he is going to take that knowledge and act on it and stop.
Quine: That’s saying that they are verbalised by the subject, not the advisor but by the subject himself.
Skinner: Well the reasons could be imparted. When you tell some one, when you give someone reasons to do things. You are hoping to change the behaviour by giving the reason. But unless there is some reason to follow the reason, unless there is a cause there, that would be “you do this or else” it could be that kind of cause. You describe the behaviour, if you can threaten a person will do it, if you can say and they have news for you, that would be a way of getting them to do it because in the past when people have said things you tend to do things and so on. But a mere statements of contingencies may not be enough.
Quine: Well now try this one. A reason is a verbalised cause (the verbalisation may be through someone else) such that the subject accepts the verbalisation and is aware that it is the cause. Of course the trouble here is that awareness comes in.
Skinner: Then knows what will happen if. But that does not mean that there is any disposition to do it. That is where the motivational side is missing.
Julia: I think that Professor Quine said the key phrase before and that is when subject is speaking about himself and is not kidding himself reasons and causes would appear to be the same thing even if he is listing and describing the causes whereby he is doing something. And if he is indeed not kidding himself then the two things would be the same. Then we have to talk about the case of somebody falling in love with someone who resembles his mother. He may not be aware of it, then the causes would be a broader set of things than the reasons he gives he would give for his having falling in love with; they may not coincide. So the question is whether he is kidding himself or not, whether he knows himself or not. On the one hand so far as the speaker is speaking about himself, and when we knew some of the ultimate, we can give good reasons, we can describe the contingencies he is following but that doesn’t mean we will be effective.
Quine: If they are effective then there reasons again.
Person B: Ordinarily when a person gives a reason there is a step missing to get from that reason to what we consider to be the cause, you still have take what the person says and do some kind of translation or something to get to the independent variables. Rarely when a person is giving reasons would he state what a scientist would accept as independent variables.
Julia: Well paraphrasing it into technical language.
Person B: Is that always possible?
Julia: If he is not kidding himself, he has given the reason, so long as it satisfies our translation.
Person B: Ok. Now do valid reasons when you are not kidding yourself always translate into a scientific analysis.
Julia: Do you have an example?
Person B: Well when people give purposes when people explain why they do it because of wants, desires, plans, thought and so on. We don’t know that all that can be translated, first of all because we don’t have a complete science, and secondly because nobody has done this.
Julia: Well you would have to review case by case. Maybe we would run into examples which would defy translation.
Person B: It would be odd if people just intuitively know what is going to turn out to be the scientific explanation for why they behave as they do.
Julia: No but very often people do describe the reasons why they do things simply because in the past they have been trained to observe their own behaviour in relation to causes and why did you do it, to whom did you speak. That is where self descriptive repertoire come in.
Person B: Are we saying that contingency shaped behaviour where no rules are involved. Now that behaviour can also have reasons.
Skinner: You can extract them from the contingencies.
Person B: And the person in fact himself after having done the behaviour can give a reason even though the behaviour may have been contingency shaped.
Skinner: Yes and he may continue to use a statement about the contingencies in order to keep himself going.
Person B: Then it becomes rule governed.
Skinner: I use an old example of a medieval blacksmith who discovers how to use the bellows. The bellows are near the fire and he himself discovers just by the contingencies that you may as well go up quickly as there is no air coming out as you are doing that and you don’t down to too fast in order to get a steady flow of air. Then he makes a little poem “Up high down low, up quick and down slow that’s the way to blow”. But then he tells the apprentice the poem. The apprentice is only following the rules; he is doing what he was told to do. The blacksmith is doing it first of all because the fire blows well when he does it this way, then he describes his own behaviour, and that is useful to him.
Quine: In fact this example brings out another complication in this concept. Namely, the apprentice has his reason for working the bellows in the ways that he does it. But it isn’t because he wants to steady the flame, it is because he is following the blacksmiths rule.
Skinner: No exactly. See now the rule has taken over entirely. The blacksmith does it both ways, he gives himself additional assurances. The redundant cause is to do it the right way and he may find himself getting careless and doing it the wrong way. But the apprentice’s behaviour is entirely governed by the description of the contingencies; the description of behaviour and the consequences. But the blacksmith, I suppose many blacksmiths before there was verbal behaviour, was doing something like that only because of the physical contingencies.
Quine: Now what would we say was the apprentices reason?
Skinner: I wouldn’t want to use reason. I would simply say that a certain kind of behaviour was reinforced by a steady fire.
Quine: I was speaking of the apprentice.
Skinner: Oh the apprentice. You have to give him a reason. The point is you can tell him that he now knows how to blow. But it isn’t going to do him any good. Knowing how is not enough you have got to give him a reason. You signed a contract in the old days and if you didn’t do it you got a beating.
Julia: I guess that’s Quine is getting at, why should he be doing it?
Quine: And that beating may never have been verbalised.
Skinner: That’s true. I don’t mean to say that there was anything that was not reinforced.
Quine: What I am worried about now is that here we have something that we would like to call a reason, namely the apprentice blows the bellows the way he does so he won’t be punished and that’s his reason. But that never did get into words. So verbalisation is not a necessary condition of something being a reason.
Skinner: No but what he is doing is; doing as directed with words, imitation would have been enough. With imitation you wouldn’t need words to demonstrate. But if you are writing it and you can’t demonstrate you have got to use words and then were getting into words. But you always have to take imitation as a special case where you induce someone to behave for your reasons, not for his, until his reasons take over. I am using ‘reasons’ wrong again there…this is very confusing…
Person B: There is another aspect to this every time he does it wrong you could whip him. So that again wouldn’t respond to the fire he would respond to the whip.
Skinner: Well you could of course do this by shaping up his behaviour. He is hungry and you have bits of food, he wonders around and when he puts his hand on the bellows you give him bits of food. And then you do it again… you could eventually shape this up, you could do this in a monkey for example without words at all. And that would be now just getting someone doing what you wanted him to do without resorting of the contingencies; fire, bellows etc.
Second Section the practical consequences of understanding motivation and reasons:
This section is a discussion of the consequences of Skinner and Quine’s take on rule-following and motivation to practical problems in environmentalism, ethics, etc.
Third Section a discussion of forms of philosophical discourse: the dialogue, the essay etc.
In this section they discuss philosophy, poetry, and the effect of form on philosophical reasoning.

Skinner: Autoclitics and expository description

Some philosophical influences on Skinner’s analysis autoclitics in ‘Verbal Behaviour’: Carnap ‘The Logical Syntax of Language’, Russell ‘Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’, Tarski ‘The Concept of Truth in Formalized Languages’, Quine ‘Elementary Logic’, Mathematical Logic’, John Horne Tooke ‘The Diversions of Purley’.
Some critics of Skinners analysis of autoclitics in ‘Verbal Behaviour’: Chomsky ‘Review of Verbal Behaviour’, Steven Hayes ‘Advances in Relational Frame Theory’.
“Such “propositional attitudes” as assertion, negation and quantification, the design achieved through reviewing and rejecting or emitting responses, the generation of quantities of verbal behaviour merely as such, and the highly complex manipulations of verbal thinking can all, as we can see, be analysed interms of behaviour which is evoked by or acts upon other behaviour of the speaker” (Skinner ‘Verbal Behaviour’ p.313)

(1) Descriptive Autoclitics:
“The speaker may acquire verbal behaviour descriptive of his own behaviour. Although the community can establish such a repertoire only by basing its reinforcing contingencies on observable behaviour, the speaker eventually exhibits it under the control of private events…We shall refer to such responses, when associated with other verbal behaviour effective upon the same listener at the same time, as “descriptive Autoclitics” The term autoclitic is intended to suggest a behaviour which is based upon or depends upon other verbal behaviour.” (ibid p. 313-315)

Skinner notes, sensibly enough, that the contingencies necessary for self-descriptive behaviour are arranged by the social community. The community asks us a variety of different questions “Did you say that?”, “Why did you say that?” etc. Because getting us to answer such questions are useful in many ways in understanding and predicting behaviour. As a result of being implicitly trained by the community to answer these questions, we eventually begin to ask such questions about our own Verbal Behaviour. Autoclitic behaviour is behaviour that is based on or depends on other verbal behaviour. While descriptive autoclitics inform us of the type of verbal behaviour we are omitting (whether Mands, Tacts, etc). There are many different types of autoclitics. (A) A descriptive autoclitic that informs the listener of the type of verbal operant that it accompanies. Some examples: A reader is reading a news paper and says I see it is going to rain, the I see informs the listener that it is going to rain is omitted as a textual response (ibid p. 315). Skinner notes that behaviour that is acquired as textual or echoic behaviour but emitted as Intraverbal behaviour is often prefaced by ‘I see’, ‘I recall’, ‘I am reminded’, ‘I hear’. He notes other examples of descriptive autoclitics such as ‘I demand’, ‘I ask you’ which when prefacing mand make it more effective. He gives examples such as ‘I tell you’, ‘I observe’ which when they preface tacts make them more effective. In these examples the autoclitics which preface the tacts, mands are not necessary but they do make the verbal behaviour more effective. (B) This type of descriptive autoclitic describes the strength of a response. Examples include ‘I guess’, ‘I estimate’, ‘I believe’, ‘I think’, ‘I hesitate to say’ etc. The preceding descriptive autoclitics indicate that what follows is based on insufficient information. Skinner calls the preceding examples autoclitics of weakness. Examples of autoclitics of strength include ‘I insist’, ‘I swear’, ‘I promise’ etc. (C) This type of descriptive autoclitic describes the relation between a response and other verbal behaviour of the speaker or listener, or other circumstances where behaviour is emitted (ibid p. 316). Some key examples are ‘I agree’, ‘I confess’, ‘I infer’, ‘I predict’ ‘I dare say’ ‘I wish’, etc. These responses are helpful for the listener. They help the listener to situate the response which follows to other aspects of the current situation. (D) Another type of descriptive autoclictic indicates the emotional state of the speaker, these type of autoclitics indicate the personal relation between the speaker and the listener. Examples are ‘I regret to inform you’, ‘I hate to say’, ‘I must tell you’ etc. (E) Negative autoclitics qualify or cancel the response which they accompany. Some examples are ‘I don’t think that he has gone’ ‘I would not go as far as to say’ ‘I doubt’ ‘I deny’ etc. (F) Another autoclitic indicates that what is to follow stands in a subordinate position. Examples include ‘for example’, ‘for instance’ etc.
(2) Qualifying Autoclitics:
An important class of responses serve the autoclitic function of qualifying the tact in such a way that the intensity of direction of the listener’s behaviour is modified. There are two main types of qualifying autoclitics. (A) Negation: As Skinner notes philosophers have long tried to analyse the notion of ‘negation’, (this practice goes back at least as far as Parmenides). One of the difficulties is in trying to understand what sentences which include ‘not’, ‘no’ etc refer to. Skinner discussed the sentence ‘It is not raining’. A difficulty occurs when we try to pick out what the sentence is referring to. A possible solution is that the sentence is evoked by a lack of rain in the environment. However this leads to the obvious difficulty of explaining how the infinite amount of things we don’t encounter in our environment don’t likewise compel us to mouth ‘It is not xing’, ‘there is no x’ etc. Skinner, following Russell (whom he cites) notes that an obvious solution to this problem is to argue that sentences like ‘It is not raining’ are evoked by not by environmental conditions but by other verbal behaviour such as ‘Is it raining today?.’ While Skinner thinks that this solution is to some degree correct he also notes that some non verbal stimulus can evoke the response ‘no’. A clear instance of this would be ‘no’ used as a mand to stop a person from engaging in some kind of non-verbal behaviour. This response is also extended to verbal responses such as when a child says ‘2 + 2= 5’. On the response ‘no’ Skinner notes:
“The response is acquired from the reinforcing practices of the verbal community. The child first hears ‘no!’ as the occasion upon which some current activity must be stopped if positive reinforcement is to be received or aversive stimulation avoided” (ibid p. 223)
The child may find himself doing something that typically elicits a ‘no’ from others, the child says ‘no’ himself and this results in him not engaging it the behaviour. This activity will result in the child receiving less punishment and will therefore be reinforcing. Skinner speculates that this practice of saying ‘No’ will eventually be used along with other verbal behaviour such as saying things like ‘Red’ etc. This will lead to the child saying ‘Not Red’ in appropriate circumstances, because of the standardisation in linguistic practices, and punishment and negative reinforcement for those who don’t follow such practices. (B) Assertion: The assertive autoclitic enjoins the listener to accept a given state of affairs (ibid p. 327). Skinner argues that since the assertive autoclitic enjoins someone to do something then it must be considered a special kind of mand. However he qualifies this by noting:
“An autoclictic will sharpen the effect by indicating some of the source of strength, as well as the degree of strength. The assertive autoclitic has the specific function of indicating that the response is emitted as a tact or, under certain circumstances, as in Intraverbal. Other verbal operants are characteristically not asserted. The mand does not need to be, because of the reinforcing contingencies which are responsible for it, and in echoic and textual behaviour the important conditions for the listener are those which prevailed when the echoic or textual stimulus was produced by someone else.” (ibid p. 327)
(3) Quantifying Autoclitics:
Skinner gives as examples of Quantifying autoclitics ‘All’, ‘Some’, ‘A’, ‘The’ etc. In the case of ‘All’ he considers the example ‘All Swans are White’. He notes that when doing logic we would be justified in arguing that ‘All’ modifies ‘Swans’, however things are different when we are concerned with Verbal Behaviour. His reason for arguing thusly is that because in a scientific account of verbal behaviour we cannot assume that a person ever responds to ‘ALL’ Swans. It is more reasonable to say that a man responds to all of the swans in his own personal history. Skinner argues that in this case we are better off interpreting the ‘All’ as always it is possible to say. Thus the ‘All’ will modify the whole sentence ‘Swans are White’ not just the ‘Swan’. Likewise you can translate ‘Some’ as ‘sometimes it is possible to say’. Again the ‘Some’ modifies the whole sentence not just the ‘Swan’. And ‘No’ can be translated as ‘it is never possible to say’, where the ‘No’ modifies the whole sentence not the ‘Swan’ part. The other common quantifying autoclitics are ‘The’ or ‘a’ which serve to narrow the reaction of the listener by indicating a response and the controlling stimulus (ibid p. 329). Quantifying autoclitics typically serve the purpose of modifying the reaction of the listener to the responses they follow.
(4) Relational Autoclitics:
Skinner argues that the “agreement” in number, gender and case between the noun and adjective a language like Latin is a paradigm of a relational autoclitic (ibid p.333) (A) Predication: Skinner notes that a predication occurs when a relational autoclitic is added to an autoclitic of assertion (ibid p. 334) Thus, for example, he notes that the statement ‘The chocolate is good’ shows a relational autocliitic of grouping and ordering and it also contains an autoclitic of assertion. He argues that when you take these together you get a predication (ibid p. 335). (B) Relational Autoclitic Behaviour: This leads Skinner to ask an important question. What are the processes that lead to the emission of a relational autoclitic behaviour?
“Something less than full-fledged relational autoclitic behaviour is involved when partially conditioned autoclitic “frames” combine with responses appropriate to a specific situation. Having responded to many pairs of objects with behaviour such as ‘the hat and the shoe’ and ‘the gun and the hat’ the speaker may make the response ‘the boy and the bicycle’ on a novel occasion. If he has acquired a series of responses such as ‘the boys gun’, ‘the boy’s shoe’, and ‘the boy’s hat’, we may suppose that the partial frame ‘the boy’s_’ is available for recombination with other responses. The first time the boy acquires a bicycle, the speaker can compose a new unit ‘the boy’s bicycle’. This is not simply the emission of two responses separately acquired. The process resembles the multiple causation of Chapter 9. The relational aspects of the situation strengthen a frame, and specific features of the situation strengthen the responses fitted into it.” (Verbal Behaviour p. 336)
(5) Manipulative Autoclitics:
“It is only upon genuinely novel occasions that the listener is specifically manded to modify his behaviour. But these occasions do occur, and the explicit autoclitic activity of the speaker in manipulating his behaviour must be taken into account as an important verbal function” (ibid p. 343)

Some examples are ‘for’, ‘but’, ‘if-then’, etc. Quine deals with these examples early in his ‘Elementary Logic’.

Quine and Skinner: A Philosophical Friendship

In this blog-post I will discuss the intertwined lives of Skinner and Quine. The primary purpose of the blog-post is to evaluate the degree to which they influenced each other’s philosophies. It is well known that Quine and Skinner were friends who held similar views on the nature of mind and language. However, it is important to keep in mind the very different way both theorists worked when speculating on any mutual influence that existed between them.

From the point of view of daily practice, Skinner and Quine were very different theorists. When they first met in 1933 Quine was primarily a logician working on the foundations of mathematics, at this period of his career Skinner was busy experimenting on rat’s behaviour and their physiological correlates. It is true that both theorists were interested in language, mind and naturalised epistemology but one shouldn’t let these shared interests obscure the fact that they worked in very different ways. Quine, like Skinner, was a naturalist who argued that epistemology could be naturalised. However, as a philosopher, Quine was attacking these issues from an abstract point of view, analysing traditional philosophical problems and showing that they could be handled in a naturalistic manner. Skinner was also interested in these theoretical issues but his primary mode of work was experimental. Aside from his experimental work with rats and pigeons Skinner was also an inventor and used his work in a variety of different practical settings. During World War 2 Skinner worked on a top secret project called ‘Project Pigeon’ where he used operant conditioning to train Pigeon’s to guide missiles. In the mid nineteen forties Skinner invented and air conditioned crib for children. While from the mid nineteen fifties onwards Skinner was engaged in inventing teaching machines. Furthermore Skinner’s experimental work involved him inventing machines which were useful for studying the behaviour of organisms. Obviously the character of Quine’s work was very different while he made use of experimental research he didn’t do any experiments. His work on logic and ontology was of a very different character to Skinner’s experimental work and practical inventions.  Nonetheless given the similarities between Skinner and Quine on language and mind it is important to try and evaluate how they may have influenced each other’s work.

Quine and Skinner were famously friends who admired each-others work. Furthermore, they worked on similar topics; both were concerned with giving a naturalistic and behaviouristic account of mind and language. Both theorists were very sceptical of the use of notions like ‘meanings’, ‘ideas’ and ‘propositions’, as explanatory posits in explanations of linguistic communication. They were connected to each other for years; in the early thirties both of them were members of the Harvard Society of Fellows. While from the early 50’s to the mid 70’s Skinner was the Edger Pierce Professor of Psychology, while Quine was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy. Yet despite being friends and having so much in common, very little has been written about the friendship between the two men, nor about how they influenced each other.

In trying to understand how both theorists may have influenced the other there is limited data as neither theorist spoke about the influence they had on each other in any detail. In ‘Ontology Recapitulates Philology: Willard Quine, Pragmatism and Radical Behaviourism’ John C Malone broached the subject of Quine’s influence on Skinner by discussing the topic with people who knew them both. The results were mixed; Bill Verplank argued that Quine was very influential on Skinner, noting the following:

“I had half completed a post [email] on Van Quine’s death when others took note of it. The New York Times had a well-researched obit on this great logician/behaviorist which, however, lacked the emphasis of the profound influence that Skinner and Quine had on one another’s work. . .Through the years of my close relationships (administrative, social, and academic) with Fred Skinner (1946-1955), Quine was a relatively frequent topic of Fred’s conversation, more so during the Indiana years than later, when I did not see Fred almost daily. Both had been greatly affected by their years as Junior Fellows, when Whitehead was associated with this small group. Through Whitehead, Bertrand Russell also contributed to their intellectual development (“There is thinking, and ‘I’ is a pronoun.” Right?) During those years, Quine was there in the background, as attested (at one remove) by one of his students who took my course in Exptl. Psychology at Harvard. In this course, we did a good bit of shaping human behaviour. This activity was promptly recognized as meshed, closely related to, with what one student had been “doing” in philosophy; he was immediately at home. He went me one better, and did a bit of research of his own contrivance. His results were straightforward, and led to the fuller research
that produced my paper on The Control of the Content of Conversation: Reinforcements of Statements of Opinion.” ( Bill Verplanck on Quine and Skinner; taken from John Malone ‘Willard Quine, Pragmatism, and Radical Behaviourism’ p. 4)

On the other hand Paul Meehl argued that Skinner was not influenced by Quine at all. However neither Meehl nor Verplank’s opinions gave us much data to support their conjectures so we are left to interpret the limited comments made by Skinner and Quine to help us build up our picture of their relation. We do know that Meehl was to some degree incorrect about Quine’s influence on Skinner. One area where Quine influenced Skinner was on the analysis of what Skinner called autoclictics. In his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ Skinner praises Quine’s  work in ‘Elementary Logic’ on autoclictics (Skinner ‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 342). Furthermore, in a note in the mid-nineteen seventies when discussing Russell Skinner noted that Quine’s ‘Elementary Logic’ came the closest to giving a behavioural account of logical concepts (Skinner ‘A Matter of Consequences’ p. 395). So there is little doubt that Quine did influence Skinner to some extent.

A common assumption is that Skinner influenced Quine by pointing him towards behavioural science, and that Quine influenced Skinner by directing him towards the relevant philosophy.  There is some truth in this interpretation but it isn’t the whole story. Quine argued that his exposure to behaviourism came before he met Skinner. In his autobiography ‘The Time of My Life’ Quine noted:

“One of the Junior Fellows that first year was the psychologist B. F. Skinner… Fred and I were congenial, sharing an interest in language and a behaviouristic bias in psychology. It has been wrongly assumed that I imbibed my behaviourism from Fred; I lately learned from his autobiography that in fact my exposure to John B. Watson slightly antedated his. It was particularly in language theory, rather, that Fred opened doors for me. My linguistic interest had run to etymological detail; he put me onto Bloomfield and Jespersen and gave me an American first edition of John Horne Tooke.” (Quine: ‘The Time of My Life’ p. 110)

In his speech at Skinner’s retirement party Quine told a similar story. Both Skinner and Quine were budding behaviourists before they met each other. However Skinner did influence Quine’s views on the nature of language. In his ‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist’ Skinner recalled his introducing Quine to Tooke:

“Henderson urged me to look at John Horne Tooke’s ‘Diversions of Purley…The book was out of print but I advertised, and several booksellers sent me quotations. I brought two and gave one to Van Quine, inscribed Verbum Sat. (‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist’ p. 158)

So one needs to becareful in just assuming that Skinner led the way in Quine’s introduction to behavioural science; it was in language where Skinner influenced Quine. This can be seen in ‘Word and Object’ where Quine noted that his account of language was following Skinners.

Likewise when it comes to Quine’s influence on Skinner, we shouldn’t automatically assume that Quine was Skinner’s primary influence in philosophical reading. Skinner was sceptical of philosophy and admitted that he found it tough going convincing philosophers of his views:

“I had been able to talk profitably about Mind with Herbert Feigl, who had come from the Vienna Circle and whose first paper on probability and knowledge and probability, had appeared in the first number of Erkenntnis, to which I was a charter subscriber. Logical Positivism was not far from one kind of behaviourism, and Feigl liked my paper on private events. I could also talk with Willard Van Orman Quine, because as an undergraduate at Oberlin College, he had taken a course using Watson’s ‘Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviourist’ as a text.” (‘A Matter of Consequences’ p. 174)

However despite his scepticism Skinner engaged with philosophy throughout his life. He was influenced by the philosopher Bacon while still in High School. Furthermore it was by reading Bertrand Russell’s review of Ogden’s ‘The Meaning of Meaning’ that Skinner first heard of J.B. Watson. Skinner later credited Russell for turning him into a behaviourist. Skinner’s first paper on the reflex involved him reading and criticising Descartes work. Skinner also read Peirce before he ever met Quine, and he was familiar with the work of the early Wittgenstein. Furthermore Skinner knew Whitehead and was familiar with his philosophy of science. He also read the Pragmatist philosopher C.I. Lewis’s ‘Mind, Word and Order’ very closely. So on September the 25th 1933 when Skinner first met Quine; Skinner was far from philosophically ignorant. Furthermore it should be noted that even while Skinner and Quine were junior fellows together; Whitehead played as big a role in influencing Skinner as Quine did. It was while trying to convince Whitehead on the merits of behaviourism that Skinner was led towards writing ‘Verbal Behaviour’. In a discussion with Skinner Whitehead conceded that behaviourism was a good theory in most areas with the exception of in explaining Verbal Behaviour. Whitehead issued a challenge to Skinner to explain why he mouthed the sentence “No Black Scorpion has fallen on this Table”. Skinner set about writing ‘Verbal Behaviour’ the very next day. Given these facts one needs to be careful in assuming that Quine played a primary role in helping Skinner’s philosophical development.

One area where Quine did influence a young Skinner was in introducing him to the work of Rudolph Carnap.  In a letter to Carnap, Quine noted that he recommended Carnap’s ‘The Logical Syntax of language’ to Skinner:

Thus, for example my friend B.F. Skinner, who is interested in the relations between experimental psychology and logic, postponed a planned work in order to make it possible for him to read your forthcoming book right away.” (Quine letter to Carnap 1934)

We also know that Skinner did indeed read ‘The Logical Syntax of Language’ and made some brief criticisms of it (see Skinner ‘Verbal Behaviour p. 110, 319). In his ‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist’ Skinner mentioned that it was Quine who introduced him to Carnap:

“Your collateral interests…are practically identical with my own. The Meaning of Meaning is an old friend, and I have spent many pleasant hours with its co-author Richards talking about the problems it raises…It was something of a surprise to find that you also looked into Logical Positivism. My first acquaintance with it came through a friend of mine W. V. Quine, who studied with Carnap in Prague. Since then Carnap has come to this country and I saw something of him last summer with Quine [Carnap had given some lectures in the Harvard Department of Philosophy.] He is the only European I have ever met who grasps the significance of modern behaviouristic psychology and its implications for the problem of thought. I have little hope of reconciling logic with psychology, however, except by convincing the logician that most of his problems are essentially psychological-and that is not likely to be successful.” Skinner letter to J. R Kantor 1937 ( Skinner ‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist p. )

Skinner also recalled attending lectures given by Quine on Carnap:

“In December Van Quine gave three lectures on Carnap’s Logical Syntax, and after the last one, he David Prall and I discussed the need for an English Translation” (ibid p. 158)

So one area where Quine clearly influenced Skinner was in introducing him to Carnap.

However a critic could argue that Carnap’s work didn’t play a major role in Skinner’s views on language. But the evidence is that pre-1946 when he wrote ‘The Operational Analysis of Psychological Terms’, Skinner was largely a positivist in his views. In the mid thirties Skinner noted the following:

“As far as I was concerned, there were only minor differences between behaviourism, operationism, and logical positivism. My thesis had been on the operational analysis of the reflex (taking my cue from Bertrand Russell), and that the development let me perform similar analyses of basic psychological concepts in lieu of taking an oral examination had been perfectly serious. I had published an operational definition of drive, and in 1933 I had added details in a letter to Boring; it was a mistake to call hunger a feeling, as he and Walter Cannon at the Medical School were doing.” (‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist’ pp 161-162)

However, one shouldn’t assume that Carnap was Skinner’s primary influence when it came to logical positivism. Skinner mentioned discussing positivism with Feigl:

“I had some contact with Logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle. Through Van Quine I met Rudolph Carnap, whom I saw again when he was ill and staying with the Feigls in Minneapolis. With Feigl himself I discussed behaviourism and the logic of science at length.” (“A Matter of Consequences” p. 128)

But Carnap definitely had a major influence on Skinner. It is instructive that in ‘Verbal Behaviour’ when Skinner had moved into his more pragmatist phase Skinner was very critical of Carnap.

We know that Quine influenced Skinner by steering him towards Carnap and that by the mid Nineteen Forties both Quine and Skinner had moved away from positivism and towards a type of pragmatism. However it is unclear whether Skinner or Quine influenced the other in any serious sense when it came to the move away from Logical Positivism.

We do know that when Skinner started working on his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ he discussed it with Quine:

For a time the material seemed a too much for me (possibly Quine was right), but eventually bits began to fall into place. Van Quine offered support, and so did a student of Ivor Richards, Eric Trist, who was spending a year with Sapir in Yale (‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist p. 151)

This was in 1935 when Quine was moving away from Carnap’s philosophy of language but still was largely a disciple of Carnap. It is tantalising to speculate on whether they influenced each other on their move away from Positivism; however we don’t have enough data to decide the issue.

As I earlier noted Quine considered his philosophy of language largely consistent with Skinner’s ‘Verbal Behaviour’ and discussed it with Skinner while it was been written. Furthermore late in his career (1981) Skinner held a discussion group on the experimental analysis of Verbal Behaviour and Quine was invited along as a guest to discuss the topic:

“A Spanish linguist, Pere Julia, who had taken with Stanley Sapon at the University of Rochester, came to the department as a visiting scholar. He had written an excellent book ‘Explanatory Models in Linguistics: A Behavioural Perspective’, based upon my ‘Verbal Behaviour’, and then the production at the Princeton University Press. Gerald Zuriff, one of our former Ph.D.’s who was now a professor of psychology at Wheaton College, was another visiting scholar. Both Will and Maggie Vaughan were interested in many extensions of an experimental analysis of behaviour, and with these four people I began to meet once a week to discuss issues. We often invited another person to join us for the day- Willard Van Orman Quine, Murray Sidman, Dick Herrnstein, Lars Gustafson (a Sweedish linguist and poet, Richard Held, and Herbert Terrance, among others. We recorded our discussions.” (A Matter of Consequences p. 394)

As we discussed at the beginning of this blog-post Skinner and Quine were very different theorists one was primarily an experimentalist and the other a theoretical philosopher and logician. Nonetheless they did arrive at similar views on the nature of language and we know that from the mid-thirties both theorists discussed Skinner’s nascent ‘Verbal Behaviour’ project and continued to discuss it intermittently throughout their lives. So it is a reasonable assumption that they may have influenced each other’s philosophies. Though it is unclear the degree to which both theorists influenced each other. In my next blog-post I will discuss the relation between ‘Verbal Behaviour’ and ‘Word and Object’ and discuss the differences between both works.

Artisan Philosophy Dublin Ireland (and elsewhere)

Artisan Philosophy in Dublin, Ireland and elsewhere This little work, ‘Plato’s Seventh Letter and the Artisan Workbook Method in Philosophy’, presents a way of doing philosophy by means of workbooks.  The method is briefly described in the Introduction and is set out more fully in Part 2, which contains summaries of a number of workbooks which lend themselves to being used by the method.  Part 1 is an essay on Plato’s Seventh Letter [=7th], which aims to show the importance of the 7th but also the value of the workbook method. Published works tend to have too much armour, be too bullet-proof.  But surely the primary purpose of a written work should be to advance understanding and help the reader or student, not protect the writer or teacher.  And the writers of the workbooks, summarized in Part 2, believe they can stay closer to their own honest thinking, to what they are trying to say, not by satisfying the formal conditions of publication, which can be too concerned with linguistic or pedantic perfection in uniformity and footnotes, or with the aims of commercial publishers. A workbook, as understood here, is a text produced by a competent philosopher who loves philosophy and believes he knows something of value which he hasn’t been able to convey adequately in a text, despite his repeated efforts.  But he feels that his text can do some good, in its interim workbook form, if it, or parts of it, are made accessible to some readers. And most imporantly, unlike authors of published books, he does not leave his text helpless, but is available to make his meaning clearer to its readers, either in person or in emails. So while a workbook is less polished and finished than published works, it should be more alive and living for the writer and so more likely to be so for the reader as well. A copy of David Berman’s work on Artisan Philosophy can be obtained by writing to artisanphilosophy@gmail.com<mailto:artisanphilosophy@gmail.com> or dberman@tcd.ie

No Black Scorpion is falling on this table: A brief look at Skinner on Metaphor

In this blog-post I will briefly discuss Skinner’s take on metaphor. At the end of his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ Skinner discussed an incident that led him to writing the book. While having dinner with philosopher Alfred North Whitehead a discussion of behaviourism ensued. Skinner’s role in this discussion was to defend and explicate behavioural psychology. Near the end of the discussion Whitehead conceded that behavioural psychology was a useful approach to understanding human behaviour. Nonetheless Whitehead argued that one area where he didn’t think behaviourism would be successful is in explaining verbal behaviour. Whitehead gave Skinner a challenge he asked Skinner to explain Whitehead saying ‘No black scorpion is falling on this table’. The next day Skinner started working on ‘Verbal Behaviour’ a project which took him twenty years.

Skinner obviously knew that giving a scientific answer as to why Whitehead spoke the sentence he did was out of the question. Whitehead spoke during a conversation and not in an experimentally controlled environment. So while Skinner could try to offer an educated guess as to why Whitehead spoke that particular sentence, such an explanation would fall far short of a scientific explanation. Skinner noted that this is analogous to the way a physicist could offer some kind of explanation of a temperature dropping in the room on the night Skinner and Whitehead spoke but that such an explanation would be conjectural. No one would argue that that physics stands or falls based on being able to accurately account for every contingent event in our daily experience and similar considerations should apply to behaviourism. Behaviourists when working in a lab can set up controlled environments to help with prediction and control; but behaviour outside of the lab is more difficult to predict and control. Hence Skinner didn’t devote much time to trying to answer Whiteheads challenge to account for him saying ‘No black scorpion is falling on the table’.

Skinner did very briefly try to answer Whitehead’s challenge at the end of the book. While Skinner admits that we will probably never know precisely what environmental contingencies led to Whitehead mouthing the particular sentence; he nevertheless gave a rough reply to Whitehead. It is worth looking at Skinner’s reply to as it is a nice illustration of Skinner’s views on metaphors.

Skinner noted that Whitehead obviously spoke the particular sentence that he did as a way of providing a counter example to behaviourism; the sentence was spoken because it wasn’t obvious that it was controlled by environmental contingencies. However, if Whitehead wanted to use a sentence that wasn’t controlled by particular environmental contingencies then he could have chosen any from a potential infinity of sentences. There seems to be no rhyme or reason why Whitehead said ‘scorpion’ rather than ‘dinosaur’ or ‘wheelbarrow’ or any other type of word.

Skinner tries to understand Whitehead saying what he said by relying on a deterministic assumption. He assumes that whether we can discover what precisely caused the behaviour it is safe to say that there is some cause. Now obviously this assumption is question begging when one is arguing with a person who doesn’t accept determinism. For the sake of argument we will grant Skinner his un- argued assumption of determinism. But this only gives the vaguest of explanations. We can assume that there was some cause of Whitehead’s verbal behaviour but such an assumption doesn’t give us the conclusion that an explanation of the sentence must be a behaviourist explanation. Freud, who Skinner mentioned in this context, was a determinist, but there is no reason to think that he would have accepted a radical behaviourist account of why Whitehead said what he did. So I would argue that even if we give Skinner his un-argued assumption of determinism we still are a long way from demonstrating that a radical behaviourist explanation of Whitehead’s sentence is the correct one.

With his deterministic assumption in place, Skinner goes on to offer a further conjecture as to why Whitehead said what he did. Skinner notes that the inexorable march of science has struck many blows for man’s image of his place in the universe. Copernicus showed that the earth is not the centre of the universe, Darwin showed that that humans are not above the animals but are rather a part of the animal kingdom, Freud showed that our ego isn’t the sole agent of our actions, while Skinner showed that our behaviours which we previously thought we could attribute to free choice, were actually determined by environmental contingencies. Whether Skinner and Freud belong on a list with Darwin and Copernicus is open to debate. But at the time Skinner was talking to Whitehead I think it would have been a fair assessment of how people viewed psychoanalysis and behavioural science. They did seem to be challenging folk theories about how the mind worked and eroding cherished moral concepts which centred on a belief in freewill. So I think that it is not implausible that Whitehead may at some level have viewed behaviourism as a threat to cherished philosophical beliefs.

Skinner claimed that Whitehead implicitly viewing behaviourism as a threat may have affected his choice of words:

“I suggest, then, that black scorpion was a metaphorical response to the topic under discussion. The black scorpion was behaviourism.” (Verbal Behaviour p. 458)

It is somewhat plausible that Whitehead viewed behaviourism as a threat but it is a stretch to go from him holding this view implicitly and it determining him to pick a particular metaphor. To try to throw some bones on this suggestion it helps to think through how Skinner conceived of the nature of metaphor. Skinner analysed metaphors and categorised them as a type of tact, and distinguished metaphors from other linguistic devices such as generalised tacts, abstractions etc.

When discussing metaphors Skinner argued that certain type of extension takes place because of the control exercised by properties of the stimulus which, though present at reinforcement, do not enter into the contingency respected by the verbal community. This is what is traditionally called metaphor. Past theorists have argued that metaphor is made possible by a special faculty of analogical reasoning. But Skinner doesn’t think that we need to posit a faculty of analogical reasoning. He argues that his three term contingency (Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence) is sufficient to account for our ability to engage in metaphorical extension.

He discusses various different examples of metaphors one of which involves a child tasting soda and saying that it tasted like my foot was asleep. Skinner’s analysis is that “My foots asleep” has been conditioned under circumstances that involve two conspicuous stimulus conditions (1) The Partial immobility of the foot, (2) A certain pin point stimulation. The property which the community reinforces is the immobility. But the private pin point stimulation is also important for the child. The similarity between the pin point stimulation and the stimulation evoked by drinking the soda is what caused the child to say “it tastes like my foot is asleep”. He claims that a metaphorical tact in which both properties are public may be analysed in a similar way.

Skinner’s view that a metaphor is sometimes controlled by two types of stimuli, (1) publically observable facts that will be reinforced by the community and (2) private idiosyncratic experiences,  means that he thinks that unusual metaphors may offer insights as to an author’s unique experiences. Thus when speaking of the metaphorical expressions of writers Skinner argues as follows:

“The metaphorical expressions of a given speaker or writer reflect the kinds of stimuli which most often control his behaviour. This fact is commonly used in inferring conditions about the life of a writer either when such facts are not otherwise known or in order to establish authorship.”(ibid p. 95)


Skinner goes on to argue that metaphors are typically employed in literature while in science the extended tact is typically employed. While Skinner doesn’t deny that scientists use metaphor he thinks that the practical nature of science aims at eventually removing metaphors. Our ordinary language when we talk with each other is shot through with metaphors in this sense it is closer to literature than it is to science.

In the case of Whitehead the conjecture is that ‘Black Scorpion’ was reinforced when used in particular circumstances and in relation to other words. It is possible that when Whitehead learned the word; he learned it as a tact, where the use of the word ‘black scorpion’ was reinforced when said in the presence of a picture of a black scorpion. It is also possible that the word ‘black scorpion’ was reinforced when it was associated in relation to other words and hence it was an Intraverbal. Thus a child who categorised black scorpions as dangerous things would have been reinforced.

So if we make the guess that Whitehead like most other people would have been reinforced for thinking of a black scorpion as a dangerous thing, then this points us towards a reason why black scorpions came to his mind. Skinner speculates as follows:

“It is possible, then, that as I described my position-doubtless in the most shocking terms I could command-he was telling himself that that the part which he had played in encouraging me as a young scholar was not entirely misguided, that I was probably not typical of all young men in psychology and the social sciences, that there must be a brighter side-in other words, that on this pleasant and stimulating table no black scorpion had fallen.” (ibid p.459)

Skinner then views Whitehead as respecting Skinner but being shocked by what he viewed as a dangerous doctrine. Thinking of the dangerous doctrine brought to mind another dangerous thing; a black scorpion. But since Whitehead couldn’t bring himself to think of Skinner as a defender of such a dangerous doctrine he negated the proposition that ‘A black scorpion was falling on the table’; to ‘no black scorpion is falling on the table’. Whiteheads sentence then according to Skinner was an expression of sensing danger in Skinner’s behaviourism but not being able to square this danger with Skinner the man.

There is no way to say for certain whether Skinner’s account of why Whitehead chose the particular sentence that he did was correct. But Skinner never intended to prove that his speculative story was correct. Rather Skinner just wanted a proof of concept. He was trying to show in a speculative manner a possible way of explaining Whitehead’s behaviour. On Skinner’s conception of science we could only study actual linguistic usage in a scientific manner by doing tightly controlled lab experiments and his Verbal Behaviour was a call to action as a way for future behavioural scientists to study language.