No Black Scorpion is falling on this table: A brief look at Skinner on Metaphor

In this blog-post I will briefly discuss Skinner’s take on metaphor. At the end of his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ Skinner discussed an incident that led him to writing the book. While having dinner with philosopher Alfred North Whitehead a discussion of behaviourism ensued. Skinner’s role in this discussion was to defend and explicate behavioural psychology. Near the end of the discussion Whitehead conceded that behavioural psychology was a useful approach to understanding human behaviour. Nonetheless Whitehead argued that one area where he didn’t think behaviourism would be successful is in explaining verbal behaviour. Whitehead gave Skinner a challenge he asked Skinner to explain Whitehead saying ‘No black scorpion is falling on this table’. The next day Skinner started working on ‘Verbal Behaviour’ a project which took him twenty years.

Skinner obviously knew that giving a scientific answer as to why Whitehead spoke the sentence he did was out of the question. Whitehead spoke during a conversation and not in an experimentally controlled environment. So while Skinner could try to offer an educated guess as to why Whitehead spoke that particular sentence, such an explanation would fall far short of a scientific explanation. Skinner noted that this is analogous to the way a physicist could offer some kind of explanation of a temperature dropping in the room on the night Skinner and Whitehead spoke but that such an explanation would be conjectural. No one would argue that that physics stands or falls based on being able to accurately account for every contingent event in our daily experience and similar considerations should apply to behaviourism. Behaviourists when working in a lab can set up controlled environments to help with prediction and control; but behaviour outside of the lab is more difficult to predict and control. Hence Skinner didn’t devote much time to trying to answer Whiteheads challenge to account for him saying ‘No black scorpion is falling on the table’.

Skinner did very briefly try to answer Whitehead’s challenge at the end of the book. While Skinner admits that we will probably never know precisely what environmental contingencies led to Whitehead mouthing the particular sentence; he nevertheless gave a rough reply to Whitehead. It is worth looking at Skinner’s reply to as it is a nice illustration of Skinner’s views on metaphors.

Skinner noted that Whitehead obviously spoke the particular sentence that he did as a way of providing a counter example to behaviourism; the sentence was spoken because it wasn’t obvious that it was controlled by environmental contingencies. However, if Whitehead wanted to use a sentence that wasn’t controlled by particular environmental contingencies then he could have chosen any from a potential infinity of sentences. There seems to be no rhyme or reason why Whitehead said ‘scorpion’ rather than ‘dinosaur’ or ‘wheelbarrow’ or any other type of word.

Skinner tries to understand Whitehead saying what he said by relying on a deterministic assumption. He assumes that whether we can discover what precisely caused the behaviour it is safe to say that there is some cause. Now obviously this assumption is question begging when one is arguing with a person who doesn’t accept determinism. For the sake of argument we will grant Skinner his un- argued assumption of determinism. But this only gives the vaguest of explanations. We can assume that there was some cause of Whitehead’s verbal behaviour but such an assumption doesn’t give us the conclusion that an explanation of the sentence must be a behaviourist explanation. Freud, who Skinner mentioned in this context, was a determinist, but there is no reason to think that he would have accepted a radical behaviourist account of why Whitehead said what he did. So I would argue that even if we give Skinner his un-argued assumption of determinism we still are a long way from demonstrating that a radical behaviourist explanation of Whitehead’s sentence is the correct one.

With his deterministic assumption in place, Skinner goes on to offer a further conjecture as to why Whitehead said what he did. Skinner notes that the inexorable march of science has struck many blows for man’s image of his place in the universe. Copernicus showed that the earth is not the centre of the universe, Darwin showed that that humans are not above the animals but are rather a part of the animal kingdom, Freud showed that our ego isn’t the sole agent of our actions, while Skinner showed that our behaviours which we previously thought we could attribute to free choice, were actually determined by environmental contingencies. Whether Skinner and Freud belong on a list with Darwin and Copernicus is open to debate. But at the time Skinner was talking to Whitehead I think it would have been a fair assessment of how people viewed psychoanalysis and behavioural science. They did seem to be challenging folk theories about how the mind worked and eroding cherished moral concepts which centred on a belief in freewill. So I think that it is not implausible that Whitehead may at some level have viewed behaviourism as a threat to cherished philosophical beliefs.

Skinner claimed that Whitehead implicitly viewing behaviourism as a threat may have affected his choice of words:

“I suggest, then, that black scorpion was a metaphorical response to the topic under discussion. The black scorpion was behaviourism.” (Verbal Behaviour p. 458)

It is somewhat plausible that Whitehead viewed behaviourism as a threat but it is a stretch to go from him holding this view implicitly and it determining him to pick a particular metaphor. To try to throw some bones on this suggestion it helps to think through how Skinner conceived of the nature of metaphor. Skinner analysed metaphors and categorised them as a type of tact, and distinguished metaphors from other linguistic devices such as generalised tacts, abstractions etc.

When discussing metaphors Skinner argued that certain type of extension takes place because of the control exercised by properties of the stimulus which, though present at reinforcement, do not enter into the contingency respected by the verbal community. This is what is traditionally called metaphor. Past theorists have argued that metaphor is made possible by a special faculty of analogical reasoning. But Skinner doesn’t think that we need to posit a faculty of analogical reasoning. He argues that his three term contingency (Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence) is sufficient to account for our ability to engage in metaphorical extension.

He discusses various different examples of metaphors one of which involves a child tasting soda and saying that it tasted like my foot was asleep. Skinner’s analysis is that “My foots asleep” has been conditioned under circumstances that involve two conspicuous stimulus conditions (1) The Partial immobility of the foot, (2) A certain pin point stimulation. The property which the community reinforces is the immobility. But the private pin point stimulation is also important for the child. The similarity between the pin point stimulation and the stimulation evoked by drinking the soda is what caused the child to say “it tastes like my foot is asleep”. He claims that a metaphorical tact in which both properties are public may be analysed in a similar way.

Skinner’s view that a metaphor is sometimes controlled by two types of stimuli, (1) publically observable facts that will be reinforced by the community and (2) private idiosyncratic experiences,  means that he thinks that unusual metaphors may offer insights as to an author’s unique experiences. Thus when speaking of the metaphorical expressions of writers Skinner argues as follows:

“The metaphorical expressions of a given speaker or writer reflect the kinds of stimuli which most often control his behaviour. This fact is commonly used in inferring conditions about the life of a writer either when such facts are not otherwise known or in order to establish authorship.”(ibid p. 95)


Skinner goes on to argue that metaphors are typically employed in literature while in science the extended tact is typically employed. While Skinner doesn’t deny that scientists use metaphor he thinks that the practical nature of science aims at eventually removing metaphors. Our ordinary language when we talk with each other is shot through with metaphors in this sense it is closer to literature than it is to science.

In the case of Whitehead the conjecture is that ‘Black Scorpion’ was reinforced when used in particular circumstances and in relation to other words. It is possible that when Whitehead learned the word; he learned it as a tact, where the use of the word ‘black scorpion’ was reinforced when said in the presence of a picture of a black scorpion. It is also possible that the word ‘black scorpion’ was reinforced when it was associated in relation to other words and hence it was an Intraverbal. Thus a child who categorised black scorpions as dangerous things would have been reinforced.

So if we make the guess that Whitehead like most other people would have been reinforced for thinking of a black scorpion as a dangerous thing, then this points us towards a reason why black scorpions came to his mind. Skinner speculates as follows:

“It is possible, then, that as I described my position-doubtless in the most shocking terms I could command-he was telling himself that that the part which he had played in encouraging me as a young scholar was not entirely misguided, that I was probably not typical of all young men in psychology and the social sciences, that there must be a brighter side-in other words, that on this pleasant and stimulating table no black scorpion had fallen.” (ibid p.459)

Skinner then views Whitehead as respecting Skinner but being shocked by what he viewed as a dangerous doctrine. Thinking of the dangerous doctrine brought to mind another dangerous thing; a black scorpion. But since Whitehead couldn’t bring himself to think of Skinner as a defender of such a dangerous doctrine he negated the proposition that ‘A black scorpion was falling on the table’; to ‘no black scorpion is falling on the table’. Whiteheads sentence then according to Skinner was an expression of sensing danger in Skinner’s behaviourism but not being able to square this danger with Skinner the man.

There is no way to say for certain whether Skinner’s account of why Whitehead chose the particular sentence that he did was correct. But Skinner never intended to prove that his speculative story was correct. Rather Skinner just wanted a proof of concept. He was trying to show in a speculative manner a possible way of explaining Whitehead’s behaviour. On Skinner’s conception of science we could only study actual linguistic usage in a scientific manner by doing tightly controlled lab experiments and his Verbal Behaviour was a call to action as a way for future behavioural scientists to study language.

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