HE WAS A HARVARD Junior Prize fellow with a Ph.D. in psychology, and his dining companions were I.A. Richards, Alfred North Whitehead, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. Still he burned an "N" into his arm after Nedda julted him. Later she duped him into paying for her abortion.
Boston newspapers, Catholic at heart, reported the faith, even in sports stories with headlines like "IMMACULATE CONCEPTION TROUNCES SAINT MARY," which "startled" him. "I hated it all and could not have said why." When he passed a church he "speculated on how it could be converted into a behavioral laboratory."
At the University of Minnesota the faculty dining club didn't serve liquor. "Perhaps that is why I found it hard to break into established friendships." He contented himself with writing a book called The Behavior of Organisms (it sold 80 copies in four years) and playing his clavichord. He also "psychoanalyzed" D. H. Lawrence. He moved his pipe tobacco farther and farther away to break his smoking habit.
When he devised his controversial but convenient "baby-tender" for his second daughter in 1943, the press discovered him, and the invention made him famous. An entrepreneur from Cleveland promised it might also make him rich. So he invested $500 of his own money in the deal. The man from Cleveland disappeared.
Such drollery punctuates B. F. Skinner's second volume of autobiography as his career moves from graduate student at Harvard (it's 1928 and he's 24) 'to his first teaching job at Minnesota, chairman of the psychology department at Indiana (Dr. Kinsey "never smile, let alone laughed, when discussing sex, and I could never decide whether he was humorless or simply making sure that no one could suspect him of ribaldry"), and then back to Harvard in 1947 to deliver the William James lectures and become a full professor there.
Skinner had succeeded professionally. If he was still borrowing money and getting some from home, if he was any enemy of "mentalism" and anathema to many literary intellectuals, he possessed an international reputation as a behavioral psychologist. He had taught squirrels and rats to do semihuman tasks. He had buzzed the World War II military with a scheme to instruct pigeons in guiding missiles and bombs. (Europeans, it later turned out, were using dogs to destroy tankd.) He had published a dazzling utopian novel, @Walden II, suggesting the possibility of a behaviorally modified society.(Its conversations came from such luminaries as Robert Penn Warren and Joseph Warren Beach.) He was happily married to a wife who decided in her forties she wanted to be called "Eve" and not "Yvonne." He was generally at peace with his life, although still working on his 30-year plan to fulfill his extraordinary career ambitions, reorganize and discipline psychology, and, maybe, change the world.
The Shaping of a Behaviorist is a super-cool book. Fred Skinner is a paleface, not a redskinn. He is an operationalist, not an analyst. He makes no claims for himself. He lets others do it in letters (mostly from his pal and colleague Fred Keller), and with reviews of his books and papers, awards, memberships, promotions.
You would never guess, a Skinner painstakingly reports the exhaustive process of leading his rats to press levers or handle balls, that all these years he is stirring up big trouble over how we see and talk about what we do. Skinner has influenced everything from crib toys for babies to inventory management systems in industry. He worked with very small ideas and expanded them into very big ones.
Skinner states clearly in The Shaping of a Behaviorist what he has been up to these past decades. If you want to know what operant conditioning is, there's no better place to look. The Shaping of a Behaviorist, however, does get dull, partly because Skinner writes "behaviorally" rather than inferentially, even though he was making a bomb with tools John Watson and other earlier behaviorists had handed him. Skinner was laying out his fundamental argument: psychology hasn't been a science; psychology pretends to know what it can never know; we can change behavior by creating environments of pleasure and pain.
It may come as a surprise to learn how much of Skinner has been devoted to aesthetics and linguistics, although it shouldn't, since he abandoned literature because he couldn't think of anything worth saying. He has experimented with grammars of science and the spistemology of vocabularies. He has tried to predict alliterative tendencies in Shakespeare and Swinburne. He had decoded Gertrude Stein and studied the Phi phenomenon (the way things move when you stare at them) in Daumier and Picasso. He experimented with telepathy and debunked mind readers and magicians, usually as a hobby when he wasn't painting playing music, or inventing musical toilets to train his children.
The Shaping of a Behaviorist tells us that B. F. Skinner has been working at what scientists everywhere work at: meaning. Except he has devoted his life to the refinement of what precedes meaning - observation and description.
This second volume in what appears to be a three-volume autobiography is richer, more amusing and provocative than its predecessor, Particulars of My Life (1976). it seems to me a model of what autobiography ought to be. If you read this book and meet B. F. Skinner, you will know him - quiet, a tinkerer, a liberal and lover of the arts, as confident as he is curious, with a superb memory and good eye for everything, including women. A sweet, tough man. CAPTION: Picture, B. F. Skinner by Christopher S. Johnson