Marx and Skinner

The behavioral psychologist, Jerome Ulman in his 1990 paper, "Toward a Synthesis of Marx and Skinner," Behavior and Social Issues, Spring/Summer, Vol. 1, Number 1, argues for a synthesis of B.F. Skinner's radical behaviorism and Marxism. In Ulman's view, the natural sciences of social change (scientific socialism) and of behavior change (behaviorology) should be seen as complementary. Furthermore, if they are brought together, then behaviorology can shed light on certain problems in Marxism and vice versa.

In building his argument, Ulman first gives a brief history of behaviorology. Psychologists from the 19th century on debated whether the proper subject matter of their science was behavioral events or mental events. Even among those psychologists who argued that behavior was the proper subject matter of psychology there was still ambiguities concerning what behavior was. The Russian reflexologists, like Pavlov and his disciples, studied responses but cast them in hypothetical neurophysiological terms. The father of American behaviorism, John B. Watson, maintained that a scientific psychology could only treat observable events as its subject matter. But he left open the question of the ontological status of events that were internal to the person. The radical behaviorism of B.F. Skinner proposed a new conception of behavior which treated as neither a property of the organism (as the Russian reflexologists had supposed) nor a product of the psyche as mentalistic psychologists had done but rather redefined behavior as the interactions of an organism with its environment. In this view behavior could be either public or private (thus resolving the problem of the ontological status of internal events, that Watson had left open). In Skinner's view the science of behavior was to be understood as a branch of natural science and it would use the same basic methods as the other natural sciences. It is in short, an experimental life science. It should be noted that over the decades, this science has gone under a number of different names. It was originally called behavioral psychology, later behavior analysis. Skinner liked to refer to the "experimental analysis of behavior, while in recent years the term, behaviorology has begun to come into favor. In recent years, many behaviorists have come to perceive a splitting off of behaviorology from psychology. In their view, psychology and behaviorology have become two, very distinct disciplines. One attributes behavior to a hypothetical agency within the organism, while the other attributes the causes of behavior to a history of organism-environment interactions. As Ulman sees it, ther has been a scientific revolution (in Kuhn's sense) within psychology in which the "normal" science of psychology has been confronted with problems that it is unable to handle. Psychology has proven unable to deal effectively with the analysis of behavioral phenomena, especially in complex settings. And it has failed to produce an effective technology for modifying behavior. Hence, the emergence of the science of behaviorology from psychology as the result of a major paradigm shift.

Traditional psychologies including psychoanalysis, humanistic psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuropsychology all share a common, Cartesian paradigm. They all treat behavior as indicators of hypothetical processes that are internal to the individual. Behaviorology, in contrast embraces a selectionist paradigm. The behavioral repertoires of the organism develop as a result of the selection of responses by contingencies of reinforcement. B.F. Skinner in a 1981 paper, "Selection by consequences" argued that selection by consequences provides a causal model for all of the life sciences, which is capable of integrating biology, behaviorology, and the materialistic study of society and culture. Through selection by consequences, biological processes have evolve, from which have evolved behavioral processes, from which have evolved human cultural processes. Ulman holds that the principle of selection by consequences constitutes a primary dialectical law of development.

Behaviorology is for Ulman, the science of behavior, while radical behaviorism is the philosophy of that science. Radical behaviorism posits a behavioral materialism which leaves no room for any sort of Cartesian dualism. Radical behaviorists also reject the methodological behaviorisms of John B. Watson and Clark Hull which restrict the notion of behavior to publicly observable events. Ulman goes on to argue that radical behaviorism is complementary to dialectical materialism. It can help Marxists to eliminate mentalistic idealism from their analyses without falling into the error of mechanistic materialism. Likewise, Ulman holds that radical behaviorists have much to gain from a study of Marxism and dialectical materialism.

Ulman notes as one important epistemological implication of radical behaviorism is that it provides a reinterpretation of those actions that we have traditionally labeled as purposive. Behaviorologists do not posit purposes or intentions as causes of behavior. Instead, they explain such behavior in terms of selection by consequences. Thus, just as Darwinism had eliminated teleology from biology with the principle of natural selection, so in behaviorology, selection by consequences eliminates teleology from behavioral science.

Behaviorology shares with Marxism a concern with not only understanding the causes of behavior but also with changing behavior. Here, Marxism and behaviorology differ chiefly in terms of the units of analysis. Behaviorology deals primarily with behavioral contingency relations, whereas Marxism concerns itself mainly social class relations.

Ulman goes on to note what he sees as the contributions that behaviorology can make to Marxist analysis. Marx, for instance often wrote about acquired needs. But behaviorology can explain how such needs are acquired. For the behaviorologist, acquired needs are conditioned reinforcers. Thus the so-called drive for money is simply a learned behavior acquired under particular cultural circumstances in which money becomes a conditioned reinforcer by virtue of being a medium for exchange for other commodities.

Ulman makes the case that there is a convergence between the behaviorological understanding of human personality and certain Marxist conceptions. He places special emphasis on Lucien Seve's _Man in Marxist Theory_ which he sees as presenting a conception of human personality close to that of behaviorology.

As Ulman sees it mentalism places the blame for personal problems inside people's heads rather than in their social environment. Likewise, trait theories and mental tests are little more than tools of ideological control in the service of the status quo. Such tools mystify social relations. The Skinnerian critique of mentalism can in Ulman's view have emancipatory potentialities. Ulman perceives a philosophical kinship between radical behaviorism and the viewpoint that underlies Marx's Theses on Feuerbach. Marx's assertion that "all mysteries which lead to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and the comprehension of practice" is close to the spirit of radical behaviorism.

Ulman returns to a discussion of Seve's theory of personality. For Seve, personality is not reducible to individuality. Instead, "it is a matter of constructing a science of biography which is homologous in depth to the science of history founded by Marx and Engels and which is its basis, biography being to personality what history is to society." Ulman contends that behaviorology is precisely the "science of biography" that Seve is searching for. The gap between behaviorology and the science of history (historical materialism) can be bridged through Skinner's conception of culture: "A culture may be defined as the contingencies of social reinforcement maintained by a group. As such it evolves in its own way, as new cultural practices, however, they arise, contribute to the survival of the group, and are perpetuated because they do so." Social relations in this view are to be undertood in terms of the contingencies maintained by a group. Marx's sixth thesis on Feuerbach which states that "the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of social relations . . ."is consistent with Skinner's conception of culture. By equating Marx's "ensemble of social relations" with Skinner's concept of culture, Ulman maintains that we may be able to integrate the materialistic view of the individual (behaviorology) with the materialistic view of history (historical materialism).

Jim Farmelant


Jerome Ulnar's paper, "Toward a Synthesis of Marx and Skinner," call for a synthesis of behaviorology and Marxism. Ulman's discussion focuses particularly on the philosophical kinship that he perceives between radical behaviorism and Marx's Theses on Feuerbach. Ulman's argument is IMO weakened because his discussion ignores the issue of Marxism's relations with pragmatism, and yet the credibility of Ulman's thesis would seem to hinge on the position one takes on the latter issue. (I neglected to state in my original post that Ulman's paper was originally delivered before a philosophy conference in Cuba in 1990. something that is perhaps crucial for understanding the way Ulman chose to develop his argument).

B.F. Skinner's own philosophical outlook changed as his thinking about behavior matured. Early in his career, Skinner was very much attracted to the doctrines of the Vienna Circle (logical positivism). Skinner was an early subscriber to many of their publications and he was even sometimes listed as an American affiliate. His attraction to logical positivism was not unique to himself. Many other behaviorists were likewise drawn towards logical positivism. This was because most behaviorists then held that a scientific psychology should restrict itself just to the study of publicly observable behaviors. The positivist doctrine of the principle of verification held that statements could be cognitively meaningful only if they were definable in terms of publicly observable events. This could be interpreted as implying that statements about private events were not only scientifically inadmissible but not even meaningful! Thus the verificationism of the positivists was taken as lending support to behaviorism.

Over time, though Skinner came to the conclusion that this position was wrong. One reason for such a conclusion is that while this position seemed supportive of behaviorism, it could be also interpreted as allowing for the re-entrance of mentalism through the back door. While ruling private events as inadmissible in a scientific psychology, it still retained the distinction between private and public events as a fundamental ontological principle. In other words while the methodological behaviorisms of John B. Watson or Clark Hull, were supposed to anti-Cartesian, they in fact reasserted the basis for Cartesian dualism and thus kept open the possibility of a mentalist psychology. Indeed, as the work of Edward Tolman demonstrated in the 1930s, it was not such a big leap from the behaviorism of a Watson or a Hull to what Tolman called "cognitive behaviorism" which in effect was a revival of mentalism on a new basis. Skinner in contrast came to believe that if a science of behavior was to be established on a firmly anti-Cartesian foundation then the private/public distinction had to be eliminated as a fundamental ontological distinction. Skinner proposed that private events could be reconceptualized as covert responses and stimuli which follow the same laws of behavior as overt (publicly observable) responses and stimuli. In Skinner's proposal this distinction would reduce to one of distinguishing behaviors that occur "inside one's skin" and those that are observable by outside observers. Since the same laws of behavior would apply to both, the distinction would become simply an empirical one rather than one that was fundamentally ontological.

In taking such a position, Skinner was already making a major break with orthodox logical positivism. His break with positivism intensified as the explanatory paradigms of his psychology changed over time. Originally, Skinner was a strict S-R psychologist, in the manner of Watson, and as such his behaviorism was mechanistic. However, as Skinner developed his operant psychology, he began running into the limitations of the S-R paradigm and of the mechanistic behaviorism associated with it. He replaced the old S-R paradigm with a selectionist paradigm. Just as Darwin was able to explain the evolution of biological organisms through the principle of natural selection so Skinner was able to explain the development of a repertoire of behavior within an individual organism through the selection of operant responses by the contingencies of reinforcement that exist within that organism's environment. Skinner in fact later argued that we could speak of a general principle of "selection by consequences" through which we could integrate evolutionary biology, the science of behavior, and the materialist study of socio-cultural evolution. By moving towards a selectionist paradigm, Skinner can be seen as shifting away from his earlier mechanistic behaviorism (when he was most strongly influenced by Bertrand Russell, Jacques Loeb, and John B. Watson) to a selectionist behaviorism (under the influence of such thinkers as Ernst Mach, C.S. Peirce, and John Dewey). Skinner in his mature thought came to think of his radical behaviorism as bearing a close kinship with American pragmatism.

But it is this kinship with pragmatism that makes all the difference IMO in assessing the soundness of Ulman's contention that Marxism can be synthesized with behaviorology. Ulman focuses in his discussion on Marx's Theses on Feuerbach, precisely the one writing by Marx, that has been cited by commentators from Marx Eastman and Sidney Hook, down to contemporary writers like Cornel West and Justin Schwartz as supporting a pragmatist interpretation of Marxism. Since the pragmatist nature of this document is so evident, it is perhaps not too surprising that such a staunch foe of the pragmatist interpretation of Marxism, Sebastiano Timpanaro, in his 'On Materialism' goes to great pains to downgrade the importance of that document in the corpus of writings left behind by Marx and Engels. In any case it would seem evident that if one was going to argue for the fundamental compatibility between Marxism and behaviorology, one cannot ignore the issue of Marxism's relations with pragmatism. And given radical behaviorism's affinities with pragmatism, it would seem to follow that if one is going to argue for the compatibility between Marxism and behaviorology, then one's argument will be immeasurably strengthened by asserting the pragmatist interpretation of Marxism. This raises the issue of why Ulman did not raise these issues in his paper. Barry Stoller (from whom I obtained my copy of Ulman's paper) suggests that the reason may have because the paper was originally delivered at a philosophy conference in Cuba. Stoller suggests that Ulman may have chosen to ignore this issue since he was making enough of a stretch by talking about Skinner. To have spoken about Marxism and pragmatism might have raised hornet's nest of issues that would have distracted his audience from the thesis that he was defending.

Jim Farmelant