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.


5 thoughts on “Quine and Skinner: A Philosophical Friendship

  1. Pingback: Verbal Behavior | Marmalade

  2. Rodrigo César

    I´m a brazillian psychologist who researches philosophy of psychology, specially Skinner´s philosophy of science, radical behaviorism. The Quine-Skinner philosophical friendship It´s one of the themes I want research to write my own paper, even though I know there is few documents of primary sources. I saw in your post a quote where Skinner claims to have recordings of a study group discussion on behavioral analysis. Did you have access to these recordings? I would love to know the content of them.

    Recently I saw another scholar researching the same theme: the mutual philosophical influence between Skinner and Quine. His name is Sander Verhaegh. https://www.nwo.nl/onderzoek-en-resultaten/onderzoeksprojecten/i/55/27255.html. Do you know his research?

    Congratulations, your blog is really interesting.

    1. surtymind Post author

      Good to hear from you Rodrigo,
      On the issue of Skinner’s discussions of Verbal Behaviour; I recently contacted Skinner’s Daughter about them. The recordings do exist. However a scholar at the B.F. Skinner wants to study them before they will be made available to listen to. They said they will let me know when they are available. I will let you know when the contact me and inform me that they are available.
      I have seen Sander Verhaegh research I have seen his web-site but haven’t seen any of his work on Skinner and Quine’s relationship. I have been unsuccessful in trying to contact him.
      Have you read this paper by Don Howard https://www3.nd.edu/~dhoward1/Reference%20from%20a%20Behaviorist%20Point%20of%20View–Manuscript.pdf In the paper Howard criticises Quine for adopting a superficial behaviourism and not paying enough heed to Skinner’s three term contingency. I don’t agree with everything in the paper but I would highly recommend it.
      This paper is worth a read as well http://www.behavior.org/resources/99.pdf Although the paper doesn’t really go into Skinner’s work in as much detail as I would like.


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