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.


Sam Vega said...

This is both surprising and heart-warming. I would have thought that the old buzzard would have had little time for art, and at best would have attempted a clumsy reductionist attempt to construe literary action in terms of stimulus and response. This has lifted my spirits a bit!

Anonymous said...

Surprisingly sensitive. Perhaps when one comes to a subject with few pre-exisiting ideas and no need to fall-in with the received conventions then the mind can come to grips with the subject 'in the round'.

To quote Lichtenbeg - 'A good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on'.

James Higham said...

You do persist with Skinner, even though he's been fisked considerably.

A K Haart said...

SV - Skinner even wrote a kind of novel (Walden 2), but it's more of a utopian setting for his ideas than an original work of fiction.

Roger - Skinner comes across to me as a much more sympathetic character than he is usually given credit for.

JH - Skinner just said what be believed to be true and many attacked him for it because it is certainly uncomfortable stuff.

In the end though neuroscience will probably confirm much of Skinner's work. It's happening already and interest in his ideas is growing, albeit slowly.