Speech of W. V. O. Quine on B.F. Skinner's Retirement Party (1974)

1974. W. V. Quine's Remarks at B. F. Skinner's Harvard University Retirement Party, October 17, 1974.

A wonderful description of parallels between Skinner and Quine's lives with connection to Alice in Wonderland. In January 2001, I was asked for a transcript of W. V. Quine's comments upon the retirement of B. F. Skinner at Harvard University. In July 2003, I found the eleven original note cards which are transcribed (abbreviations expanded into full words as spoken) below. The numbers in () indicate the start of each new card. Alessio Bazzanella - a philosophy graduate student in Italy told me about the audio version which is referenced above.

-- Douglas B. Quine, PhD

W. V. Quine transcript from Skinner Retirement Party

Copyright (c) 1974 by W. V. Quine


[Metal Notecard (3" x 5") Left Drawer (# 28)]

(1) Fred and I are the Edgar Pierce twins, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. He is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology and I am the Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy. I have it on Lewis Carroll's authority that Tweedledee was the logician. I quote: "Contrariwise", continued Tweedledee, "if it was so it might be, and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic."

That makes Fred Tweedledum. However, the comparison holds only up to a point. We (2) never agreed to have a battle. Contrariwise.

As a matter of fact, this Edgar Pierce two-seater of ours is only a late connection. Our joint incumbency of it dates back less than 20 years. In our youth we were paired under other auspices: the Harvard Society of Fellows. The Society began operations 41 years ago, in 1933. Fred and I were there, as original junior fellows. The Harvard Gazette came out last week with a contrary story, but we must not believe (3) everything we read in the papers.

That joint incumbency of 1933 was less exclusive than our Edgar Pierce sofa. We original junior fellows were not 2, but 6. There were Fred and I and there was Garrett Birkhoff to name the 3 who are now professors at Harvard. But even in that class of 6 Fred and I were a very special subclass of 2: we were the only ones who already had Ph.D.'s. The Society of Fellows was founded partly in order to counteract an over-emphasis (4) of the Ph.D.; so Fred and I were living testimonials to the forebearance [sic] of the founding fathers.

It was then and there that Fred and I met, but we had already been preconditioned to see eye to eye on most of what mattered. Back in the 20's I had imbibed behaviorism at Oberlin from Raymond Stetson, who had wisely required us to study John B. Watson's Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist. In Czechoslovakia (5) a few years later I had been confirmed in my behaviorism by Rudolf Carnap's physicalism, his Psychlogic in physikalischer Sprache. So Fred and I met on common ground in our scorn of mental entities Mind shmind; on that proposition we were agreed. The things of the mind were strictly for the birds. To say nothing of freedom and dignity.

By coincidence we had also another substantial preconditioning in common; a (6) predilection for language. I was already an etymology buff of some years' standing, but it was Fred who brought me abreast of the enlightened new linguistics; Otto Jespersen and Leonard Bloomfield. It seems to me that we were sitting on a grassy upper slope of Belmont Hill, which in those days was rural New England, and Fred told me about Jespersen's new scientific approach to English grammar.

Fred was keen on linguistics old and (7) new, for it was in those days also that he put me on to John Horne Tooke. He gave me the earliest American edition of Epea Pteroenta or the Diversions of Purley, a 2-vol. essay in philosophical grammar dating from 1775.

So you see that Fred's book on verbal behavior was no latter-day afterthought by way of applying behavioral psychology. It was brewing in the early days. In fact, language and literature came first; for I (8) seem to have known that Fred was an English major at Hamilton College. And I think of 2 minor publications of his, back in the salad days of the Society of Fellows, in which he applied his behavioral psychology not just to verbal behavior in the raw but to belles lettres themselves. One of these was a behavioral analysis of some sonnets of Shakspere [sic], and the other was an aetiology of the verbal misbehavior of Gertrude Stein. (9) All in all he was not one to make short shrift of his finer sensibilities. He even got himself a clavichord.

But already in those days Fred was a scientist at heart. He was already building ingenious individual automat cafeterias for his albino rats. I remember the delight he took in a gadgety new overcoat that had all sorts of unexpected new tabs and pockets and reversibilia insuspecta. He was not only a scientist, he was an engineer (10)

They were good years, 1933-6, when the Society of Fellows was new and the world was young. In 1934 Harry Levin moved in to brighten the Society further, and Benedict Einarson, and Geo. Homans. Eve Blue came too, embellishing the scene; Soon she was Eve Skinner. And then in 1936 Fred and Eve fared forth again from our midst, to wander 11 years in the wilderness. By 1947 they were back; Fred was William James Lecturer, and Verbal Behavior was verbally in hand. The happy ending was at hand, and we (11) have all lived happily ever after.

Let us drink to many more years of the same.


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Language: English
Tags: #bfskinner #behavior #behaviorism #behaviorology


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