Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


This thesis is a case study in the history and philosophy of science concerned with the emergence of Skinner's theory of operant behavior. During his graduate work in experimental psychology at Harvard University during 1928-31 Skinner became committed to the reflex tradition by way of an analogical extension of the experimental problem/solutions of Sherrington and Pavlov, in the sense of Kuhn's original concept of the exemplar. The reflex tradition however, is not the monotheoretic entity Kuhn makes the paradigm out to be, but is rather a global theory in the sense of Laudan's research tradition, understood as a succession of individual theories, that along with certain commitments, ontological and methodological, constrain the possible theoretical framework of the committed scientist. Kuhn's and Laudan's models of scientific problems are examined by a thorough examination of Skinner's experimental work from 1932-38, and though Kuhn's three types of problems, that I call the extender, the predictor, and the articulator, are seen to be of explanatory value, there are also discernible problems of a non-empirical kind, in the sense of Laudan's internal and external conceptual problems. Finally, it is argued through an examination of Skinner's debate with Konorski and Miller, that operant theory did not emerge as an answer to a state of growing crisis in the field, but that the converse is true. I argue that Skinner's experimental work is best understood as the continual attempt to solve the definition problem of the elicitation assumption and the measurement problem of one-trial conditioning. By 1936 Skinner has solved both of these problems and once he extends that solution to verbal behavior, I argue that we have operant theory in embryo. As this happened before the debate with Konorski and Miller, the inevitable conclusion is that the emergence of a novel theory within normal science preceded the crisis in the field, caused the crisis and turned normal science revolutionary.



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