Tuesday, 6 March 2012
Skinner on literature
B F Skinner the behavioural psychologist, gained a BA in English literature and spent a year at his parents' home attempting to become a writer of fiction before moving into psychology. He always placed a high value on literature, sometimes seeming to believe that great writers have more to tell us about human behaviour than great scientists. For example, this quote from his book Verbal Behavior.
Human behavior is an extremely difficult subject matter. The methods of science have come to be applied to it very late in the history of science, and the account is far from complete. But it is a field in which literature is most competent, secure and effective.
A Dostoyevsky, a Jane Austen, a Stendhal, a Melville, a Tolstoy, a Proust, or a Joyce seem to show a grasp of human behavior which is beyond the methods of science. Insofar as literature simply describes human behavior in narrative form, it cannot be said to show understanding at all; but the writer often seems to "say something" about human behavior, to interpret and analyze it. A person is not only described as taking part in various episodes, he is "characterized".This is a significant expression, for it suggests where metaphor, as a pre-scientific vocabulary, finds its place.