Of old men, things that pass

Not from economics, but worth telling:

In the late 1970s and early 1980s B.F. Skinner was not yet very old. Born in 1904 the famous behaviorist was still busy working and teaching at Harvard Univeristy. But he must have felt old. His sternly defended and once highly influential behaviorism had gradually been discarded for a psychology that, horros of horrors, tried to open up the mind’s black box. In addition, a mathematical approach to psychology that dwarfed all behaviorism’s strict and formal claims to scientificity had strongly gained in prominence. But Skinner could not let go and sent letter after letter to his colleague Duncan Luce, by this time an equally famous cognitive and mathematical psychologist. Skinner tried to persuade Luce of the merits of behaviorism and the demerits of modelling the mind’s interior. Luce thanked him for sharing his ideas with him. Skinner sent Luce his latest book, and asked whether they could meet some time next week to discuss cognitive psychology. Pick a day and time of your convenience. One week later Luce responded politely that no unfortunately he was too busy. Lunch then? Skinner tried. But again Luce declined. A few more difficult back-and-forth polite invitations followed over the course of a few years.

Based on Luce -Skinner correspondance in archives of Harvard University


One thought on “Of old men, things that pass

  1. That’s tough…

    Behaviorism was a big target in the 70s… sorry to always come back to sociobiology, but it reminds me of Wilson saying that to him, sociobiology was before all a weapon against behaviorism (hence his surprise, still according to him, when attacks against sociobiology came from completely elsewhere – the left).

    There is also another interesting twist to the story: opponents to sociobiology tried to recruit Noam Chomsky against Wilson’ sociobiology. A radical anti-sociobiology group invited Chomsky in a caucus, expecting him to deliver a blasting critic of Wilson. In fact, Chomsky approved of Wilson’s scientific project. According to Ullica Segerstrale who tells the story, Chomsky’s speech left an awkward silence in the room. Given the heat of the debates, I can imagine!!

    Why didn’t Chomsky attack sociobiology? Chomsky and Wilson had socialized in the Society of Fellows of Harvard, as Junior Fellows, and Chomsky just like Wilson had developed an anti-behaviorist agenda. To Chomsky just like Wilson, investigating the biological roots of social behavior was a good alternative to Skinner’s view of behavior.

    I find it highly interesting, all the more than this is an on-going story: Chomsky is now reluctant to side with neuroscientists and their evolutionary account of cognitive capabilities… finding one’s place on a moving intellectual map is difficult.

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