Monthly Archives: January 2019

Quine Skinner: Behavioural Laws and Reductionism

“Yet, Skinner and Quine do not have only different aims. If one examines Quine’s views about causal explanation in psychology, their behaviouristic theories turn out to be in fact incompatible…Even if the physiological variables between stimulus and response were to be completely specified, Skinner maintains, the laws are to be found on a behavioural level; physiologists and neuroscientists can at best fill the temporal and spatial gap between a stimulus and a response. Quine, on the other hand, defends the opposite view. He believes that behaviour ultimately requires a physiological (or better, a neurological) explanation instead.” (Verhaegh ‘The Behaviourisms of Skinner and Quine’ pp.36-38)


In his ‘The Behaviourisms of Skinner and Quine’ Verhaegh argued that Skinner and Quine held diametrically opposed views on the relation of behaviour to neuroscience. On Verhaegh’s picture; Quine believed that a true explanation is at the neuroscientific level, while the behavioural explanation is just a shallow stop gap, whereas Skinner believed that there are behavioural laws independent of what we discover in neuroscience. There is a lot to recommend Verhaegh’s interpretation of the data. Skinner did sometimes argue that neuroscientific explanations can only serve to plug up some gaps in behavioural knowledge, but that the functional laws were the most important thing:

“The physiologist of the future will tell us all that can be known about what is happening inside the behaving organism. His account will be an important advance over a behavioural analysis, because the latter is necessarily “historical”-that is to say, it is confined to functional relations showing temporal gaps. Something is done today which affects the behaviour of an organism tomorrow. No matter how clearly that fact can be established, a step is missing, and we must wait for the physiologist to supply it. He will be able to show how an organism is changed when exposed to contingencies of reinforcement and why the changed organism then behaves in a different way, possibly at a much later date. What he discovers cannot invalidate the laws of a science of behaviour, but it will make the picture of human action more nearly complete.” (‘About Behaviourism’ p. 237)

The above quote from Skinner’s 1974 ‘About Behaviourism’ is an interesting perspective on Skinner’s take on the relation between neuroscience and behavioural science. Skinner is arguing future neuroscientists will make important advances over behavioural science. This indicates that for Skinner; behavioural science isn’t entirely autonomous, and that behaviourists can learn something from neuroscientific studies. Skinner is arguing that behavioural science, like the science of natural selection is necessarily historical. If you want to establish a behavioural law you will need to do experiments that are historical in nature. These experiments will typically involve studying the three term contingency (antecedent, behaviour, consequence), to pick out a behavioural law. But with a sufficiently advanced neuroscience we may be able to discover the chemical laws that underlie the causal regularities discovered by the behavioural scientist. These discoveries in neuroscience won’t refute the discovered behavioural regularities but they will be an advance on our overall picture of the behaviour of organisms.

However it is difficult to see how Skinner’s above approach is incompatible with Quine’s approach. Consider the following statement of Quine’s (which Verhaegh quotes):

“An explanation, not the deepest one, but of a shallower kind, is possible at the purest behavioural level. One can hope to find, and I think one does find, behavioural regularities.” (Quine 2008 pp. 69-81)

On the face of it Quine and Skinner seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet; we can discover behavioural laws; but ultimately we should be able to discover more fundamental neuroscientific laws.

The obvious rejoinder to this is that while the above quote may indicate that Quine and Skinner were in agreement on this topic, a closer look at Quine indicates that he held views which are much stronger than the above quote indicates, in numerous different places he argued that behaviour is not the explanation, but something that must be explained by more fundamental sources e.g. physiology (Quine 1998 p. 94).

However, even the above claim by Quine finds resonance in the writings of Skinner:

Eventually, we may assume, the facts and principles of psychology will be reducible not only to physiology but through biochemistry to physics and subatomic physics.” (Skinner: Cumulative Record p. 302)

It should be noted that Skinner wasn’t always consistent in his views on this topic. As we saw above Skinner sometimes argued that behavioural laws are independent of neural discoveries (though they may be enriched by them). But above he is arguing that behavioural laws can ultimately be reduced to neuroscientific laws. The same inconsistency seems to dog Quine’s explanations of behavioural regularities. In some places he is arguing that behavioural regularities exist, but in other places he seems to think that such regularities are unimportant other than as pointers as to what is going on in the brain. There is obviously no contradiction in believing that ‘regularities occur’ and also believing that ‘such regularities are unimportant’. But there is a tension in the two beliefs.

There many behavioural laws that have been experimentally and observationally studied over the last few decades. An extinction burst is a clear behavioural regularity. Applied Behavioural Analysis is the most effective scientific treatment that currently exists for managing challenging behaviour. In a hospital setting, where some patients with severe learning difficulties exhibit dangerous challenging behaviour, such as, a child punching themselves repeatedly in the head; analysts must try to discover what reinforcements are maintaining such behaviours. To do this Skinner’s three term contingency is typically applied. The analyst will carefully record the instants before the behaviour occurred, the behaviour itself, and the consequences which immediately follow the behaviour. Through this process he can discover which procedures are reinforcing the behaviour.  By removing these reinforcers the analyst can extinguish the behaviour.

The process of functional extinction has been verified in many studies and across many species (‘Applied Behaviour Analysis’ p. 473). By removing the reinforcers controlling the behaviour, the analyst can make the behaviour extinct. However, prior to extinction there is an increase in the said behaviour occurring, and this is called an extinction burst (Lerman, Iwata and Wallace (1999), Goh and Iwata (1994). The occurrence of extinction bursts are well established in basic behavioural research.

When Quine says that there are behavioural regularities but that the fundamental regularities occur at the physiological level it is hard to parse what he means. In the case of extinction bursts we have clear regularities; understanding the physiology better would add to our knowledge of what is going on. But it is hard to see how the underlying physiology is any more real than the behavioural regularity which has been discovered, and which can be predicted and controlled using behavioural science. When we discover behavioural laws, as Quine admits that we do, then these laws are real patterns that have been discovered, we can learn more about the underlying causal sequences that make these patterns occur, but such real patterns are more than just pointers towards the underlying physiology they are law like facts in their own right.

Thus far we have seen that Quine and Skinner are both a bit inconsistent in their views on the relation of relation of behaviour to physiology. There is a side of Skinner, and of Quine, which comes close to endorsing a kind of crude reductionism; where the ultimate explanation is at the physiological level; with the eventual aim being to give our explanations in terms of basic physics. However, this preference for the underlying physiology as the real explanation is much more prominent in Quine’s philosophy than in Skinner’s. The general thrust of Skinner’s philosophy is that there are real behavioural laws and while neuroscientific data enrich our behavioural laws; they cannot supplant them.

Quine seems to acknowledge that we have behavioural laws but argues that these laws are just pointers we can use to get at the real data; the neuroscientific data. Quine’s position on this subject isn’t entirely inconsistent with Skinners. Both admit that behavioural laws exist, and both admit that the underlying physiology can enrich our behavioural laws. To the extent that they disagree it is on the status of the behavioural laws; Skinner takes the importance of these behavioural laws seriously, while Quine argues they are mere pointers to the real data; the underlying physiological facts.

Where Quine and Skinner’s views diverge it is pretty obvious that Skinner’s views on the nature of laws of behaviour are more accurate than Quine’s are. The laws of behaviour that are studied by behavioural scientists do much more than merely point towards underlying physiological states they are tools that are useful in the prediction and control of the behaviour of both human and non-human animals.  The success of disciplines such as Applied Behavioural Analysis are clear evidence that Quine’s dismissal of behavioural laws as mere pointers towards underlying physiology is very wrong headed.

Aside from Behavioural Analysts using and discovering behavioural laws; behavioural laws have proven to be useful tools for neuroscientists to use. In the years since Quine and Skinner were writing, conditioning has become a vital tool which neuroscientists use to understand the circuitry of the brain. Classical conditioning has proven more useful than operant conditioning in these experiments:

And work by my laboratory and the laboratories of colleagues using Pavlovian fear conditioning was very successful in achieving, in a few short years, what instrumental avoidance conditioning had failed to do- identification of the brain areas and connections between them that constituted what came to be known as the brain’s fear system.” (Le Doux: Anxiety p. 31)

While classical conditioning has proven a useful tool for neuroscientists to use when trying to understand how the brain works, these studies have also revealed some useful information about the neuroscientific basis of types of classical conditioning. In his lab, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has done some ground breaking work on the neuroscience of fear and has used classical conditioning as a tool. His research not only helps us understand fear but also helps us understand the circuitry of fear conditioning:

“One of the targets suggested by the tracing studies was the amygdala. When we lesioned this area, or disconnected it from the auditory system, the fear conditioned responses were eliminated. Within the amygdala, we also found an area that receives auditory CS input (the lateral amygdala, LA) and connects with an area (the central amygdala, CeA) that sends outputs to downstream targets that separately control freezing and blood pressure conditioned responses. Further, we were able to locate cells in the LA input region that received both the auditory CS and the shock US. This was an especially important discovery because the integration of the CS and the US at the cellular level was thought to be required for fear conditioning to occur. After the circuit and cellular changes involved in the process was identified, we turned to the molecular mechanisms in the LA that underlie the learning and expression of conditioned fear, many of which were the same as those discovered by Kandel and others invertebrates.” ( Le Doux: ‘Anxious’ p. 30)

Research like this is important because it provided experimental evidence of the underlying circuitry involved in fear conditioning. This is only a small piece of the puzzle; classical conditioning is a much more general process than the conditioning that occurs in fear conditioning. There is more research needed into how general the neural processes are which underlie classical conditioning in general. But research is proceeding at break neck speed and we can only hope that these general problems will eventually be solved:

“Numerous studies by my laboratory and others have confirmed that when the CS is paired with an aversive US, LA neurons do respond more strongly to the CS. Further, we and others have identified many molecules that contribute to the induction of these changes during learning and the stabilization of these changes in the storage of memory. Once the associative memory has been formed, the CS can, on its own, strongly activate LA neurons.” (ibid p. 95)

Why Classical Conditioning is more useful than Operant Conditioning is not entirely clear. In general classical conditioning is a type of learning that is useful in helping an animal passively learn from environmental experiences, and operant conditioning is more suitable for an animal to learn as it actively moves about its environment. The different functions of classical conditioning and operant conditioning may explain their relative uses for neuroscientists. A passive form of learning would obviously be more useful to in studies involving neuroscientific instruments.

                                     The Evolution of Conditioning

When discussing the work of the Le Doux lab he made a distinction between Classical and Operant conditioning in terms of their utility for neuroscientific research. This distinction is well established in the literature; since about Skinner’s time. But there is some evidence that while Operant and Classical Conditioning are not identical they may both rely on the same underlying neural architecture. In their recent paper; ‘Classical and Operant Conditioning: Evolutionary Distinct Strategies’ Bronfmann et all argue that classical conditioning and operant conditioning are different facets of the same underlying associative learning system (Bronfmann et al. p. 34). They suggest three criteria to use to help discover whether operant and classical conditioning are separate capacities or if they rely on the same underlying architecture; (1) Functional Distinctiveness, which can be inferred by double dissociations, (2) Taxonomic distinctiveness: members of one animal taxa will have one system (CC), while members of another animal taxa will have another system (OC), (3) Adaptive evolutionary distinctiveness:  distinct forms of learning should have distinct evolutionary rationales (ibid p.35)

In answer to their first question they note that there has been some experimental research indicating dissociation where through brain damage a creature can learn through operant conditioning and not classical conditioning (Brembs et al 2008, Lorenzetti 2006, Ostland, et al 2007). However they note that there are only a few experiments indicating this dissociation is possible and that these studies haven’t been replicated. So before drawing any large scale conclusions more research is needed. On question two they claim that there no evidence of any animal who possesses one type of conditioning but not the other. Again research is in its infancy and more research is recommended. On the third question they argue that given that OC and CC are paradigm domain general learning processes it is unlikely that theorists will be able to construct a plausible evolutionary rationale of them being selected for in different way.

On the whole then a theorist who wanted to argue for two distinctive processes underlying OC and CC could appeal to the few experiments indicating that dissociation of the  OT and CC is possible. But overall there would be very little evidence to support their views on the topic. So Bronfmann et al argue that despite the consensus in behavioural science there is little evidence to suggest that we should adopt an absolute distinction between classical and operant conditioning.

With new evidence chipping away at the neuroscientific nature of conditioning, with cross comparative and experimental data being use to discover if classical conditioning and operant conditioning use similar underlying neural circuitry, and even some data on the evolution of conditioning we are learning much more about conditioning than either Quine or Skinner knew. And so far everything we have learned seems to support the less reductive position than the one Quine proposed. We are learning more and more about conditioning and its neural basis; but this hasn’t come close to reducing the behavioural regularities to mere pointers to underlying states. Rather despite what we have learned behavioural analysts are today are still using behavioural laws (some of which were discovered by Skinner), to shape the behaviour of human and non human animals. There is no reason at present to follow Quine in treating behavioural laws as some kind of shallow explanation.

The sense of fundamental Quine typically appeals to is one that relies on a strong sense of physicalism:

“Nothing happens in the world, not a flutter of an eylid, not the flicker of a thought, without some redistribution of micro-physical states. (Quine ‘Goodman’s Ways of World Making’ p. 98)

Quine’s above statement that all forms of behaviour depend on some kind of underlying microphysical process is relatively uncontroversial. It is hard to imagine a behavioural scientist who would object to the claim that any behavioural laws discovered will have an explanation in terms of underlying physical processes. Likewise, it is hard to imagine an evolutionary scientist who would deny that all examples of natural selection have underlying physical causes. But it obviously doesn’t follow that because a process is causally dependent on underlying physical states that the process is shallow piece of information that will ultimately be explained away.

There are real patterns that exist in the world that will be missed out on if we try to understand something at the wrong level of abstraction. If we stick to just understanding a portion of the world in terms of subatomic particles and forces acting on them then our explanation will be incomplete; such an explanation will be entirely blind to things like sexual selection. The fact that sticking entirely too fundamental physics will blind one real patterns at the evolutionary level obviously doesn’t mean that physics is irrelevant to evolutionary theory.

Physics can provide constraints to what type of creatures can be built by natural selection; see for example work on scaling laws and invariants in animal locomotion Bejan and Marden (2006), and Trevisian et al. (2006) on the physics of bird songs. Now suppose one adopts the Quinean approach to evolutionary explanations of the origins of life, and argues that explanations interms of natural selection are shallow, the real explanation is at the level of basic physics or chemistry. As we saw above if we adopted this approach in its reductionistic sense we would be ignoring real patterns in the world and explaining away patently real phenomena. A less radical approach would be to accept that physics can constrain, and inform explanations in evolutionary science but not supplant.

When it comes to behavioural science and biology things are similar. The degree to which Quine and Skinner disagree on the status behavioural laws and their relation to neuroscience; isn’t always clear. But it is clear that any radical reductionism that tries to reduce behavioural laws to mere pointers to underlying neural states is untenable.

The Logic of Misogyny and the Burning of Bridget Cleary

                                       Part 1: The Logic of Misogyny

In her recent book ‘The Logic of Misogyny’ Kate Manne has explored the concept of misogyny. Manne noted that a lot of attempts to understand misogyny rely on hypothesis of the psychological attitudes men hold towards women. Manne’s analysis of the concept is different. She notes that a sexist person will hold certain attitudes and beliefs about women; but the same isn’t true of misogyny.  A sexist will believe things such as; women are less intelligent in general than men; women aren’t competent to do the same work as men etc. A misogynist doesn’t have to hold particular beliefs about women’s competencies or role in a society. In order to count as a misogynist a man merely has to behave in a way that involves policing woman’s behaviours; of punishing them when they fail to act according to dominant patriarchal standards etc.

Manne conceptualises misogyny as follows:

Rather than conceptualising misogyny from the point of view of the accused, at least implicitly, we might move to think of it instead from the point of view of its targets or victims. In other words, when it comes to misogyny, we can focus on the hostility women face in navigating the social world, rather than the hostility men (in the first instance) may or may not feel in their encounters with certain women- as a matter of deep psychological explanation, or indeed whatsoever.” (Kate Manne ‘The Logic of Misogyny’ p. 59)

In the above quote Kate Manne’s use of the term “target” is ambiguous.  When you say that one person makes another person a target of violence this typically implies some kind of intentionality. Does a dog target a rat when it attacks it? In a sense it does target the rat to some degree. But does the dog conceptualise the rat and act on these conceptualisations? This is unclear; see Brandom (1995), Davidson (1990), versus Fodor (1975) for debates on this issue. But nobody would argue that a hurricane targets the island it lands on. The hurricane’s behaviour isn’t intentional behaviour so the hurricane cannot be said to target an Island it hits. When Manne speaks of ‘targets’ of misogyny, she notes that we shouldn’t focus on the psychological states of the agents who ‘target’ women. Conceptually this seems confused. If psychological states are barred then how can we distinguish between a hurricane ‘targeting’, versus a dog targeting, versus a human targeting? It would seem that by focusing on the logic of the situation Manne is ignoring very real distinctions. Her sidestepping psychological explanations seems to imply a simply behaviouristic explication; x occurs and it has consequences for y; but her use of the word ‘target’ seems to slip in intentionality and moral judgement.

So is Manne guilty of a contradiction in her explication of misogyny? I don’t think so. Manne seems to be gesturing towards what Dennett calls ‘competence without comprehension’. Dennett explicates competence without comprehension in terms of free floating rationales. A free floating rationale is pretty much a paradigm of Manne’s ‘Logic of Misogyny’. A Cuckoo egg is placed in a nest of another bird. When the Cuckoo is hatched it typically systematically pushes the eggs of the bird whose nest they have landed in out of the nest. It is clear that the Cuckoo doesn’t represent rival eggs in the nest as rivals to be destroyed. The Cuckoo is born with competence to destroy rivals without having comprehension as to why he behaves as he does.

On Manne’s conception of the ‘Logic of Misogyny’ it is similar to the Cukoo’s behaviour. But it is not identical. Manne obviously isn’t saying that misogynists are identical to Cuckoo’s or stotting Deer. On Manne’s picture some Misogynists may represent their misogynist views and consciously act on them. Some Misogynists may be partly conscious of their views but they may be acting on unconscious frustrations (a deep routed psychological contempt for women). But while it is difficult to disambiguate whether behaviour is intentionally planned, an unconscious strategy, or an innate programme created by natural selection; we can abstract from these messy details if we focus on the structural situation and who it benefits.

The ‘who benefits’ approach; has yielded an incredible amount of results for Ethno-Scientists. Ethnologists aren’t always concerned with philosophical distinctions. When they study ethnology they are often ambiguous as to whether they are speaking of conscious non-verbal thought, unconscious computations, or free floating rationales. Nonetheless, ethnologists still manage to study the behaviour of non-human animals and discover who benefits.

Though Manne doesn’t use this logic she also seems to be discussing the issue of who benefits. And in the issue of who benefits; she correctly notes that the beneficiaries are typically white western heterosexual men. Those who deny the validity of Manne’s understanding of misogyny must accept that she is using  similar logic that ethnoscientists use. If they want to attack Manne’s approach they need to extend their critique to the study of all animal behaviour.

The Burning of Bridget Cleary

With these preliminaries aside it I think it is worth thinking through a particular case that exhibits what Manne was worried about. The case I am talking about is a horrific murder that occurred in 1895 in Tipperary in Ireland. Bridget Cleary a twenty six year old woman was murdered by her husband. Her husband Michael Cleary was aided and abetted in the wife’s murder by his wife’s father and by neighbours and other family members of Bridget Cleary. The murder was horrific and made headlines around the world. Domestic violence was common in Ireland at the time Bridget Cleary was murdered and a husband murdering his wife while not an everyday disturbance; wasn’t entirely unheard of either. The reason the murder made worldwide headlines wasn’t because a husband murdering his wife was considered shocking; rather it was his reason for murdering her. Cleary murdered his wife because he believed she was a changeling who fairies had left in place of his wife. Furthermore, this belief which Cleary held wasn’t a lone delusion he held, the story of changelings being left in place of people was a folk myth in Ireland of the time.  Changelings were traditionally used in folk stories to explain strange behaviour of members of the family; neighbours, friends etc. Today we sometimes hear parents say that their child was developing normally and that when the child got a vaccine he developed autistic symptoms. In Ireland through-out the medieval period and up until the late 19th century, if a child appeared to suddenly change his behaviour there was no concept of autism, nor any mythology of vaccines causing autism, for people to fall back on. People though did have a system of folk beliefs to rely on which told of fairy abductions and people being replaced by changelings to explain the otherwise inexplicable behaviour of their children. Though the changeling myth was sometimes used in relation to children with various developmental disabilities, it could also be used to explain someone who had a stroke. Even today with modern science and some very effective therapies; family members of someone who has had a stroke have to face up to the person post-stroke being an entirely different person than pre-stroke. In medieval Ireland when people in general had such poor understanding of science, a concept such as a stroke would have been unknown to the peasant class. A woman could go to bed with her husband and wake up to find him unable to speak and move half his body. Again the notion of fairy abduction offered an explanation of a kind. The person who you woke up beside who could no longer talk and couldn’t move half his body was a changeling; the real husband was “away with the fairies”.

The events leading up to Bridget’s murder began innocuously enough, while out on a delivery Bridget  was caught in the rain and developed symptoms that which her doctor later diagnosed as mild bronchitis. When Bridget was having trouble recovering from her illness, her husband Michael contacted a doctor to see her, and a priest to see her, as well as a local fairy doctor[1] Jack Dunne. The doctor didn’t seem to be overly worried that Bridget’s illness was very serious and he prescribed some medicine for her. The priest bizarrely, gave Bridget last rights (a Catholic ceremony reserved for terminally ill patients), despite the doctors good prognosis. However, it was the fairy doctor who set the tragic turn of events in place. Upon seeing Bridget in her sick bed he pointed and said “that is not Bridgie Boland[2], before turning and leaving the house. This behaviour from a fairy doctor was taken as evidence by Michael Cleary that the person in his bed was no longer his wife but was a changeling left by the fairies.

Bridget’s mild case of bronchitis was treatable with the medicine of the time. But a variety of different events conspired to make things spiral out of control. Despite multiple attempts to get the doctor to see Bridget it was days till the doctor arrived. The priest giving last rights implied that she was dying and in Ireland of the time a priest’s word would have been as trusted as highly as a doctor. This state of affairs would have led to Michael Cleary panicking and possibly resulted in his susceptibility to believing Jack Dunne’s story of the fairy abduction and replacement with a changeling. The doctor didn’t seem overly interested in Bridget Cleary and didn’t turn up for days and when he did he smelled of Alcohol, and the priest seemed to have given her up as dead. Michael Cleary’s disorganised mind may have believed that Jack Dunne’s fairy story was the best explanation and way of saving her. On the day that he murdered his wife Cleary’s father died and this didn’t help Cleary’s mental state.

Before continuing I should note that the above paragraph could be construed as a paradigm case of what Kate Manne calls himpathy “the flow of sympathy away from the female victims toward their male victimizers” (ibid p. 23). When discussing himpathy Manne notes that it involves:

“In the case of male dominance, we sympathize with him first, effectively making him into the victim of his own crimes” ( ibid p. 201)

It could be argued that by noting the role the doctor, the priest, and the witch doctor played in Bridget’s murder, and the death of Michael Cleary’s father I am trying to elicit sympathy for him; portraying poor Michael Cleary as a confused victim of his own crime while ignoring the real victim Bridget Cleary. This is not my intention I am merely setting up the circumstances under which the brutal crime was committed; before detailing the actual crime; I will later discuss what this crime reveals about the logic of misogyny.

With dwindling faith in medical science Michael Cleary followed Jack Dunne’s advice and obtained a fairy remedy which was supposed to be a cure for his wife’s ailment. The remedy was a collection of herbs that he boiled in milk; he then tried to force his wife to drink the remedy. Because of the horrendous taste of the drink Bridget refused to drink it. In response to this Michael threatened to burn her with a hot poker if she didn’t drink the remedy immediately. Michael then (with the help of visiting neighbours) pinned Bridget to the bed and her arms were held and the drink was forced down her throat. While she was being threatened and forced to drink the potion, urine was thrown on her intermittently, as part of a ritual to remove the supposed changeling. She was asked continually “are you the daughter of Patrick Boland?”, while they tried to force the potion down her throat. They eventually dragged her down to the fire and threatened to throw her in it if she didn’t answer their questions correctly and drink the potion. Near the end of the night with Bridget exhausted, tired and terrified, they seemed to temporally accept that she wasn’t a changeling and Bridget was allowed sleep.

The next morning at 7am Michael contacted the local priest and got him to say mass for Bridget. Later that evening Michael started forcing her to drink holy water. She was offered a cup of tea, and he made her partake in a ritual where she had to eat a slice of bread and answer “Are you Michael Cleary’s husband?”, this was supposed to be done three times; she did it twice but refused on the third time. Cleary flung her to the floor and began forcing the food into her; he continued with the assault, ripping her clothes off. He lit her clothes on fire and emptied the paraffin oil all over her. Bridget lay there burning to death.

                 Part 3: Understanding the Murder

Bridget’s ordeal was so horrifying that it is hard to even understand it today. Seemingly as a result of her husband’s strange folk beliefs in fairies Bridget was force fed, threatened, abused, and eventually burned to death. What could explain such a horrific murder? It is tempting to seek an answer in terms of the internal thought processes of Michael Cleary; however, there is little reason to think that at this remove we can extrapolate what Michael’s exact thought process was when he committed the murder[3]. However we can understand the murder in terms of cultural systems and who they benefit

Strangulation and Force Feeding

“But Bridget Cleary was the one who ended up dead. She had accumulated power, both economic and sexual, it seems, far in excess of what was due to a woman of her age and class, and when the balance tipped, all anger flowed towards her.” ( ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary’. p. 136)

In the introduction to her ‘The Logic of Misogyny’, Kate Manne discussed the case of strangulation. She noted that strangulation is typically called choking, but that this terminology is incorrect. Choking involves an internally obstructed airway, where the airway is obstructed by an external object, where as strangulation is caused by external pressure exerted on the throat or the neck (Manne: ‘Logic of Misogyny’ p.1). Such strangulation is a common form of domestic violence which can sometimes lead to death. Strangulation is predominantly a male type of violence that occurs in all known cultures and socio-economic groups (ibid p. 2).

Manne makes the following point about strangulation:

Strangulation is torture. Researchers draw a comparison between strangulation and waterboarding, both in how it feels-painful, terrifying-and its subsequent social meaning. It is characterizes as a demonstration of authority and domination.[4]” (ibid p. 3)

Because of the gendered nature of strangulation and the fact that it is a type of torture used to implement a type of social control it is a paradigm case of misogyny for Manne. As we saw above Manne understanding of misogyny is non-psychological. Whatever the reasons the man may give to justify his use of strangulation, from the point of view of behaviour it is a form of torture that serves to control the victim and punish her for violating some implicit patriarchal laws.

There are aspects of Bridget Cleary’s murder that fit Manne’s discussion of the logic of misogyny. As we saw above Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband with the help of her father and neighbours because they thought she was a changeling who was left by the fairies in replacement of the real Bridget. In 1895 in rural Ireland belief in fairies still persisted though the belief was becoming less and less prevalent.

When Michael Cleary murdered his wife Bridget Cleary he didn’t strangle her; instead he brutally assaulted her and then burned her to death. Prior to murdering his wife; Cleary and his accomplices, engaged in force feeding her a herb/milk remedy, holy water and bread. Bridget Cleary’s husband was forcing her to swallow food against her will, the subjective terror of choking on food forced into ones throat would be similar to the horror of being strangled or being water boarded. Furthermore, whatever her husband’s motives; by forcing her to eat something against her will he was establishing dominance and the ritual had social significance; Bridget’s body wasn’t her own it was owned by her husband. Bridget had to answer in a particular way, eat what she was given on threat of violence. Independent of any motives we can impute to Michael Cleary his behaviour was the behaviour of a man controlling body of another human being against their will.

In her seminal book on Bridget Cleary’s murder Angela Bourke noted that the act of holding down Bridget down and forcing food down her throat, was a signal to Bridget and whoever else was watching that Michael Cleary was in charge of Bridget Cleary (‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary’ p. 106). Bridget was described by those who knew her as an attractive, and self confident young  woman.  Unlike the vast majority of women in Ireland at that time Bridget was self sufficient, she had a job as a sewist which earned well and she also earned money from the eggs of the chickens she owned. Michael was living in Bridget’s town near her relatives. After eight years of marriage Bridget and Michael had no children. While not having children would have seemed unusual at the time; a lack of children would have given Bridget more freedom than other women of that era. There were rumours that that both of the Cleary’s were engaged in extra marital affairs.

By the standards of the time Bridget Cleary was an exceptionally confident and free woman. Independent of the motivations underlying Michaels attack on Bridget it illustrated one key point. Michael was in control of Bridget; he was in control of what she ate, how she answered questions, and ultimately he had control over whether she lived or died. Michael’s behaviour was a concrete and horrific instance of the logic of misogyny. Bridget had more freedom than her peers and Michael’s behaviour was a way of policing her behaviour and putting her in her place. When she didn’t accept that place the result was her death. As Angela Bourke noted:

“Her refusal to eat what he gave her had sinister implications for the body politic within which they lived. It was not so very different in its significance from the force-feeding of suffragists and other prisoners by state authorities in later years”. (ibid p. 107)

Against this background we can see that independent of Michael’s actual views his behaviour was operating as a form of misogynist policing force punishing Bridget for not conforming to societal standards.

Even the use of the Fairy and Changeling myth in relation to Bridget may not have been entirely coincidental. The Fairy myth was used in a variety of different circumstances. It was used to label those who were viewed at the time, as less than human; those we would today label autistic or with a psychiatric disorder, a neurological disorder, learning disability etc. But it was also used to stigmatise women who were considered too assertive, angry or clever (ibid p. 177). Angela Bourke put the point succinctly:

 “The Fairy-belief tradition which is pejoratively called superstition might more positively, if less felicitously, be labelled a vernacular stigma theory. It is precisely a way of labelling people as not quite human, and serves to rationalize the ambivalence or hostility felt towards those who are different.” (ibid p. 207)

It is no wonder then that the fairy myth played a big role in the torture of Bridget Cleary. As a woman who was assertive, and self-sufficient she was a perfect exemplar of what the unconscious misogynistic police would consider a paradigm example of a woman who was away with the Fairies.

Free Floating Rationales

In our above discussion analysed the logic of Michael Cleary’s murder of Bridget. We noted, following Manne, that this logic could be understood independent of his idiosyncratic beliefs. We did this by considering Bridget in relation to her society, what ends Michael’s behaviour achieved as opposed to how he thought about these ends, and we also briefly examined the role that Fairy tales played in facilitating this behaviour. These Fairy Tales are better off thought of meme structures; or free floating rationales which were selected in their particular environment for a variety of reasons. But these reasons need not have been represented by the agents who were moved by these memes.

Looking at some memes we can discern certain uses they had in shaping behaviour:

“Fairy-Legends carry disciplinary messages for women as well as for children, warning them about behaviour considered by a patriarchal society to be unacceptable. Undoubtedly, too, some of them have been used as euphemisms for domestic violence. Roddy Doyle’s novel ‘The Woman Who Walked into Doors’ takes its title from such a euphemism in modern life. A woman in nineteenth-century rural Ireland who had obviously been beaten might explain the marks of violence as having been inflicted by fairy abductors, while a violent husband might account for his actions as loss of patience with a fairy interloper.” ( Angela Bourke: ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary’ p. 37)

Patricia Lysaght in her ‘The Banshee: The Irish Death Messanger’, noted a similar pattern in ‘The Banshee’ myth where the mythology was used to influence human behaviour:

“Many of the variants stress that the encounter with the being and the improper actions towards her are the result of a dissipated life- being out late at night carousing and card-playing or the like…the legend also teaches the value of good behaviour in stressing that those who are violent, discourteous towards women or given to drunkenness and late hours may run great risks. The Lesson not to pick up combs and such-like objects accidentally found is also spelled out, especially to children…” (Lysaght ‘The Banshee’ pp. 179-181)


Many of these idiosyncratic myths and fairy stories were simply adopted because their hosts found them catchy. But a lot of them were shaped because those in their environment found them useful for shaping behaviour. In a patriarchal society a lot of this behaviour would have been shaped to serve those in power e.g. men. It is for this reason that we need to carefully study our current mythologies and see how they are structured and most importantly who they benefit?

[1] A fairy doctor was an Irish equivalent of a witch doctor.

[2] Boland was Bridget’s maiden name prior to marring Michael Collins.

[3] There is little reason to think there is a fact of the matter about what Michael Cleary was thinking when he committed the murder; see Quine ‘Word and Object’ 1960 and Rosenberg ‘How History Gets Things Wrong’ 2018.

[4]  Manne cites the work of Sorenson et al (2014) “A Systematic Review of the Epidemiology of NonFatal Strangulation, a Human Rights and Health Concern” as evidence that strangulation is a form of torture.