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BURRHUS FREDERIC SKINNER
March 20, 1904–August 18, 1990
BY HOWARD RACHLIN
ALTHOUGH SKINNER saw himself and was seen by others as a psychological revolutionary—the type of behaviorism he founded is called radical behaviorism—he was also in a sense a conservative of American culture in American psychology. His rebellion was against the nineteenth-century German academic psychology brought to this country by Hugo Munsterberg and E. B. Titchner. Skinner's behaviorism represents a reaction from this basically romantic psychology with its focus on the “inner man,” possessing an inner theater where “the life of the mind” could be played out independent of life itself.
Skinner was a true descendant of the American pragmatism of William James, John Dewey, and C.S. Pierce; the fact that Skinner was a William James Lecturer at Harvard is thus satisfyingly appropriate. The core of American pragmatism predominant in Skinner's work is its brilliant clarity, its focus on “pragmatic questions,” and its avoidance of mysticism—represented in psychology by self-centered introspection.
Another strain of early American culture in Skinner's behaviorism is its emphasis on engineering above theoretical science, on building machines rather than building theo-