Skinner’s Utopia

(This was originally two chained footnotes I had to remove from my book to meet the word limit, the thesis with the notes in context, is found here.)

Skinner presented his utopian vision in his novel Walden Two (1948) and the philosophical statement (or ‘post-scientific’ justification) of his programme in Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), hereafter BFD.  When Skinner used the term “Beyond” he was giving it the Nietzschean sense, these were relics of a Christian way of looking at the world and not a scientific way of looking at the world.  Noah Harari has recently made a very similar comment when he says that (in my paraphrase), “most [Western] cultures are predicated on some conception of “rights” but if you cut open a human you do not find these things called “rights”; these, like God, are nice stories or are a comfort to us but have no reality”.  For both Skinner and Harari, these concepts get in the way of “proper scientific planning” of society.  An informative article in the Time archive for Sep. 20, 1971, ‘Skinner’s Utopia’, is a well-condensed precis of his thought and the application of it written just after BFD.  In a sense, we could characterize his career as a philosophical sandwich with science in the middle, with the purpose of the science to provide justification for the philosophy and its associated political programme with which he wanted to make a better world.

It is peculiar that many who champion science seek evidence for their own preconceptions, that is their worldview, rather than “following the evidence where it leads”, particularly when there is a political application of their work which we will explore in detail in the final section of the thesis.  This was an explicit personal admission by Skinner, he was greatly frustrated when objects of investigation did not ‘behave as they should.’  That is, he already had a theory that he knew was correct and he remained utterly unwavering in his commitment to it and his utopian vision and his commitment to the utopia never dimmed, as evidenced by his foreword to the 1976 edition of Walden Two.  However, wisdom comes with the passing years, and he softened up the presentation with an extensive introduction that imported many issues of concern to the liberal Left.  Thus, despite the most extreme views that totalitarians entertained as ideals, he managed to remain in good standing with the liberals.

I do not wish to appear unduly uncharitable towards Skinner here or to be constructing a strawman. I admire one who finished his final article on the very day he died with his last public address to a packed auditorium a mere 10 days before he died, many of his ideas have informed psychological practice positively (particularly with respect to the use of technology in teaching and the reform of crime and punishment) when compared to the abstract excesses of Freudian and Jungian thought.  There still exists a foundation that preserves his legacy which has an impressively academically certified board of directors.  My point is though that they have softened the Orwellian flavor of his programme found in BFD to merely, “the Foundation advances a more humane world by replacing coercive techniques with positive procedures”.  It is to the central arguments of BFD to which I have taken very strong exception as ‘disreputable’.

Further Reading

Skinner, B. (1976 (1971)). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Skinner, B. (2005 (1948)). Walden Two. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Time Archive. (1971, September 20). Skinner’s Utopia: Panacea, or Path. Time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.