Bridging Philosophy and Psychology Using the Example of Behaviourism and B.F. Skinner's 'Beyond Freedom and Dignity'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

24 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)


Table of Contents


1. Introduction

2. Behaviourism and the Work of B. F. Skinner
2.1 John B. Watson and Classical Behaviourism – Basic Ideas
2.2 B. F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning – his Work and Applied Fields
2.3 Misunderstandings and Skinner’s Image of Man –
a Philosophical Problem

3. The Empirical Origin
3.1 Behaviourism and Locke’s Epistemology
3.2 Behaviourism and Hume’s Association Theory

4. Beyond Freedom and Dignity – a Summary
4.1 Preface to this Summary
4.2 Chapter 1: A Technology of Behaviour
4.3 Chapter 2: Freedom
4.4 Chapters 3 to 8: Of Dignity, Punishment, Values, and Culture
4.5 Chapter 9: What is Man?

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

It seems impossible to give a precise definition of the term philosophy and the teachings that are connected with it. Generally, philosophers’ concerns are questions for the reason and the origin of all being. In a way, these questions unite all of today’s arts subjects. As an effect, though, the boundaries between arts often become blurred, all the more since e.g. psychology from the early ancient world until the 19th century has merely been regarded as a philosophical field. With the emancipation of psychology as a scientific discipline on its own, teachings were partly in opposition to the traditional way of thinking, if being based on empirical evidence rather than theoretical considerations. Thus, fundamentals of human psyche happen to become a somewhat delicate matter. With this paper I will touch philosophical and psychological problems using the example of B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, trying to show the relationship and the margins of both fields.

The author – Burrhus Frederick Skinner (1904-1990) – is regarded one of the most radical ‘scientists’ among all psychologists. Skinner counts for a distinguished representative of a psychological theory that strongly tries to separate psychological findings from anything experimentally unobservable – (American) behaviourism. Nevertheless, Skinner’s book Beyond Freedom and Dignity of 1971 largely leaves out any details of experimental analysis and therefore approaches the question of ‘What is man?’ in a rather philosophical manner. The book represents a philosophical view on man from a behaviouristic perspective, providing a technology of behaviour to solve the problems of mankind. An approach that seems absurd but that mirrors the distinguished image of man of one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. This particular view on man will be a basis for a first philosophical discussion.

In fact, psychological authors rarely refer to Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity because it does not directly relate to his psychological experiments. Thus, secondary literature concerning this particular book is rare. However, it will neither be necessary to go very much into detail of Skinner's studies, nor do I want to stick to the intense discussions concerning behaviourism among psychologists for too long. The discussion of basic ideas shall be sufficient. This paper principally serves to outline a psychologist’s attitude concerning the study of human behaviour in a philosophical context. That is, bridging philosophy and psychology using the example of behaviourism, moreover sketching the parallels between early empiricists and early behaviourists, providing a basic understanding for conceptual scientific ways of thinking. This will also contribute to offer an unadulterated understanding of Skinner’s views. In fact, some authors and editors concretely discuss a philosophy of psychology, among other subjects focussing very much on behaviourism. So do for example O’Donohue & Kitchener (1996), Thyer (1999), Todd & Morris (1995), and Botterill & Carruthers (1999). All of them in a wider sense examine the conceptual problems in theoretical psychology; I will not dare to do the same, but I will try to show that behaviourism is prone to be discussed philosophically.

The problem with this is that, on a first glimpse, behaviourism seemed to ideologically establish the separation between psychology and philosophy since the rise of behaviourism in the 1920s ‘professionalized’ psychology. On second view, it becomes more likely to find parallels and conceptual relationships. To show this, I will mainly refer to basic sources that provide general ideas of philosophy and psychology and of course to Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity itself. As can be drawn from common philosophical encyclopaedias (see for instance “Skinner”, Mittelstaß, 1995), this book finely serves to represent Skinner’s philosophical approaches as it deals with philosophical fundamentals such as freedom, dignity, and values. Summarizing the issues discussed in Skinner’s book, putting across basic concepts, and clarifying basic vocabulary of both fields will help to outline the relations between Skinner's psychology and the philosophy within Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Obviously, within the scope of this paper it will not be possible to analyse the whole book and explain every single aspect of Skinner’s view in detail. Though, this paper serves to put behaviourism and Skinner’s work in its true light.

2. Behaviourism and the Work of B. F. Skinner

2.1 John B. Watson and Classical Behaviourism – Basic Ideas

Psychology is a field that deals with (human) behaviour and experience, its reasons and effects (see “Psychology”, Mittelstraß, 1995). In fact, intellectual reflections about mind and soul have a tradition that began with Aristotle’s De anima (engl. On the Soul) (see “Aristotle”, Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2000). Since that time, psyche has been regarded as a matter of philosophy and theology. Only in the 19th century, psychology emancipated itself as a discipline of its own, represented by two main currents: a school of scientific and mathematical approaches (e.g. Herbart, Fechner, Wundt), and a school of phenomenology (e.g. Brentano, Ebbinghaus, Jaspers). With the beginning of the 20th century, especially American psychologists vigorously demanded to take the scientific way. Strongly influenced by Russian physiologists and their experiments on basic neuronal functions and reflexes (Pawlow’s Dog[1]), John B. Watson was the first who pointed at the possibilities to describe a psychology that manages completely without dealing with concepts such as consciousness, soul, will, or fantasy. Against all subjectivist approaches and against any introspection, he favoured well-controlled experimental conditions. The observable behaviour of individuals should become the object of psychology; significant statistics should replace any metaphysics to emancipate a psychology ‘competitive’ to other sciences.

According to this basic idea, Watson developed a theory that describes human behaviour as a function of changing conditions by means of simple stimulus-response mechanisms. This is what became known as s timulus-response theory or today being referred to as c lassical behaviourism among psychologists and philosophers (see Lück, 2002; see also “Behaviourism in the social sciences”, Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2000). In this theory, even complex behaviour is seen as a reaction to certain stimuli and as a result of habits that were learned (or conditioned, according to Pawlow’s principle of c lassical conditioning) . Furthermore, Watson even felt that thought was explicable as sub-vocalisation and that even speech was simply another behaviour which might be the result of a learning process based on simple stimulus-response mechanisms only (see Watson, 1919). This position was an extreme one; it would have no place for mentalistic concepts like pleasure or distress in his explanations of behaviour at all.

Nonetheless, this approach led to an extraordinary expansion of research concerning animal and human learning. Until the 1950s, extensive data were collected while behaviourism became the leading psychological theory in America and in Europe as well. As a consequence, American psychologists such as Clark L. Hull and Burrhus F. Skinner expanded Watson’s theory.

2.2 B. F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning his Work

and Applied Fields

Whereas Hull had already introduced a theory that describes tendencies of behaviour as they are based on reinforcement by a sense of achievement (see Lück, 2002), B. F. Skinner with his studies concentrated once more on the relation between stimulus and response. According to Watson’s beliefs, he had the opinion that inner processes are not directly observable, although, the result of inner processes – the behaviour – is observable indeed and can be investigated by means of natural sciences. To Skinner, feelings, traits, or intentions are only “supposed mediated states of mind” (Skinner, 1971, p 15) that do not serve for any explanation of behaviour, since there are still many other conditions that are observable, such as antecedent circumstances and environmental conditions.

In the beginning, Skinner made well-controlled experiments with pigeons and chickens that had to perform learning tasks since behaviourists generally did not consider differences in learning processes between animals and humans on principle. Already from these early experiments, Skinner discovered that a certain model behaviour could be caused by repeatedly rewarding spontaneous behaviour that is close to the model or punishing behaviour that is unlike the model. This type of learning and the resulting behaviour based on reinforcement – positive or negative – is to differ from Watson’s classical approach. According to Skinner, it occurs without a clear recognisable stimulus, independent of a certain condition, only depending on its consequences. Skinner calls his concept o perant conditioning, claiming that this ‘new type of learning’ was not the result of stimulus-response learning. For him the basic relation in operant conditioning was between the operant response and the reinforcement (see Skinner, 1938).

On that theoretical basis Skinner published several writings, as follows:

The Behaviour of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis (1938), the novel Walden Two (1948),

Science and Human Behaviour (1953),

Verbal Behaviour (1957),

Schedules of Reinforcement (1957) with Charles B. Ferster,

Cumulative Record (1961),

The Analysis of Behaviour (1961) with James G. Holland,

The Technology of Teaching (1968), and

Contingencies of Reinforcement: A Theoretical Analysis (1969).

With his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) Skinner transfers his psychological findings to a technology of behaviour which I will explain in the 4th paragraph. Skinner’s later books are:

Particulars of my Life (1976) and

Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behaviour (1978).

Skinner always tried to explicitly apply his concepts to larger entities, such as society or everyday life. For critics this was unreasonable, claiming that animal behaviour observed under experimental conditions could never represent complex natural human behaviour. Although, Skinner’s reasons to do so are evident and straightforward indeed: “When we have observed behavioural processes under controlled conditions, we can more easily spot them in the world at large. We can identify significant features of behaviour and of the environment and are therefore able to neglect insignificant ones, no matter how fascinating they may be.” (Skinner, 1971, p 23) In fact, this view was very successful; at least Skinner was far and widely discussed. His socio-critical novel Walden Two (written in 1948), for instance, sold millions of copies in the USA, being an early and comprehensible summary of Skinner's research about the possibilities of human coexistence. Referring to social utopias such as Plato’s Politea or More’s Utopia, Skinner describes a community of about 1000 people who live their lives after the findings of modern psychology. Besides that, he worked on the basis of his reinforcement theory in applied fields of psychology, trying to predict and control human behaviour. He became well known for his attempts to create a linear teaching method for pupils. Small units of knowledge that build upon another shall be presented to the pupils to increase their learning efficiency (see Skinner, 1968).

2.3 Misunderstandings and Skinner’s Image of Man –

a Philosophical Problem

Yet, as already mentioned, Skinner and behaviourists in general always had to face harshest criticism. Behaviourism’s reputation among psychologists ‘suffers’ from an insufficiency to explain all aspects of human behaviour completely[2] ; serious limits to the range of behaviours are being attributed to any behaviouristic approach, as they seem to only leave simplified automata in the place of complex psychological processes (see “Skinner, Burrhus Frederick”, Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2000; see also Botterill & Carruthers, 1999). Besides that, especially Skinner has often been labelled ‘radical’ behaviourist, with a rather negative connotation. Indeed, Skinner’s view is ‘radical’, for instance, because it demands to first consider everything experimentally observable “before we turn to something miraculous and true explanation stops” (Skinner 1971, p 14). Moreover, his approach is often directly referred to Watson’s classical behaviourism, although it embodies a true supplement to the stimulus-response model. Still, when dealing with Skinner and his behaviourism, this is the biggest misunderstanding and therefore demands a closer look at what he really says. During my literature research for this paper I came across an article by Theodor Ickler named Skinner und “Skinner” – Ein Theorien-Vergleich, published 1994 in the psychological journal “Sprache und Kognition”. Ickler cynically points at the differences concerning “Skinner’s” theory (in inverted commas) as it appears in secondary literature and Skinner’s theory (without inverted commas) from authentic texts. Regarding this problem, he writes about two different personal characters: “Die Theorien der beiden Forscher sind nämlich so verschieden wie nur möglich, ja, man kann sagen, daß Skinner und “Skinner” in allen wichtigen Punkten genau entgegengesetzte Ansichten vertreten haben.” (Ickler, 1994) Ickler lists several misleading interpretations of Skinner’s psychology using the example of authors discussing aspects of language acquisition. In opposition to them, he quotes a greta number of passages from authentic texts that prove those critics wrong, for instance: “No reputable student of animal behavior has ever taken the position 'that the animal comes to the laboratory as a virtual tabula rasa, that species differences are insignificant, and that all responses are about equally conditionable to all stimuli'.” (Skinner, 1978 in: Ickler, 1994) Skinner for his part indeed refuses the idea that any organism is born as a tabula rasa – an image that seems to stick to behaviourism. According to Ickler’s explanations, many mentalistic opponents to Skinner vigorously fought against his supposed mechanistic image of man, disregarding that Skinner’s views are very differentiated, as can be drawn from authentic texts.

Similar examples of misunderstanding can be found in common encyclopedias and dictionaries in which behaviourism is considerably reduced to unpopular statements, as for instance in the Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia: “Diese ausschließlich auf – meist an Tieren erforschte – Reiz/Reaktions-Schemata aufbauende psychologische Richtung lehnte jegliche über messbare Verhaltensmuster hinausgehenden Denkansätze kategorisch ab und leugnete das davon losgelöste Eigenleben einer „Seele“. (“Psychologie”, Microsoft® Encarta® 98 Encyclopedia). In contrast to that, within the same Encyclopaedia but under the keyword behaviourism, one can find a rather neutral description even concerning Watson’s views: “Watson bestritt das Vorhandensein inneren Erlebens nicht, beharrte aber darauf, dass dieses nicht untersucht werden könne, da es nicht beobachtbar sei.“ (“Behaviourism”, Microsoft® Encarta® 98 Encyclopaedia) As one can see, a behaviouristic view on man is by no means disrespectful concerning individual experience or the complexity of human behaviour. It has never been denied that there is ‘something going on inside’. Really, Skinner’s approach explicitly emphasizes the activity of the organism, being an ‘individual achiever’ (see Skinner, 1971, p 215) that acquires a repertoire of experiences. Indeed, Skinner himself always found Watson’s theory lacking, so in Beyond Freedom and Dignity: “The stimulus-response model was never very convincing, however, and it did not solve the basic problem, because something like an inner man had to be invented to convert a stimulus into a response.” (Skinner, 1971, p 18) Although denying such an ‘inner mediator’, Skinner’s solution to the problem is not contradictory to the behaviouristic approach. In fact, explanation is based upon his concept of contingencies of reinforcement, represented by the environment that affects the organism not only before but also after it responds. No matter what the organism’s response is, environmental and innate conditions so to speak ‘select’ an appropriate behaviour, comparable to the principle of natural selection (see “Skinner”, Mittelstaß, 1995). This way, genetic endowment and personal history gain extreme importance and replace the supposed mediating ‘inner man’. There is no talk of individuals being regarded as tabula rasa, empty, and – without an initial stimulus – irrelevant.


[1] A famous stimulus-response experiment by the Russian physiologist Pawlow who investigated the reflex of saliva secretion with a dog. He established the terms conditioning, stimulus, and response for the science of behaviour.

[2] e. g. creative behaviour

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Bridging Philosophy and Psychology Using the Example of Behaviourism and B.F. Skinner's 'Beyond Freedom and Dignity'
Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg  (Institute for Foreign Language Philology)
The Beautiful and the Sublime
1 (A)
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The paper is a philosophical discussion of the psychological school of Behaviourism, relating the philosophical ideas of B. F. Skinner to early English empisicists, John Locke and David Hume. Including facts towards Behaviourism and Empirism, also comprising a summary of B. F. Skinner's "Beyond Freedom and Dignity".
Bridging, Philosophy, Psychology, Using, Example, Behaviourism, Skinner, Beyond, Freedom, Dignity, Beautiful, Sublime
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Christian Kuhn (Author), 2004, Bridging Philosophy and Psychology Using the Example of Behaviourism and B.F. Skinner's 'Beyond Freedom and Dignity', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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