B. F. Skinner: Poet to Materialist

Zip Dobyns

In his first of three autobiographical books, Skinner quotes a newspaper item that he was born “in the morning.” Since we have been unable to obtain additional material, the chart being discussed is speculative. I do not have enough good dates of events to do a proper rectification, but have used what material was available in Skinner’s first book on his life. The chart fits his life, but that is no guarantee that it is accurate. Similar things may be said in many ways in astrology.

Skinner reports that his mother nearly died at his birth, but that he was fairly healthy though he cried a lot. Ceres, which I consider one of the keys to a mother, is in the 12th house opposite Pluto with the Moon in the 4th house, conjunct the IC and octile- trioctile the Ceres-Pluto opposition. The strong Pisces emphasis as well as Neptune opposite the Ascendant suggests a sensitive child who could resort easily to tears. A brother was born Nov. 6, l906 and died suddenly a week after Easter, l923. Mars in Aries in the 3rd house fits both a sibling as role model, often with sibling rivalry, but it is also a common placement for an only child in which case the “loner” feeling is the psychological correspondence.

Skinner’s mother was religious in the traditional, fundamentalist way. She was sexually frigid, according to Skinner, and he spent his early years scared of the devil and Hell. A common reaction to a negative religion of fear is to reject all religion and turn to atheistic materialism as a refuge. My ex-husband went the same route as Skinner for the same reason. We note that the Ceres in Sagittarius (and in the 12th house if the time is accurate) indicates the religious mother, as does the Venus in Pisces, ruler of the 4th house. Venus is octile Mars, a co-ruler of the Scorpio MC (key to father), suggesting the possible tension between the parents around the issue of sensuality.

There were also financial pressures in the family life from time to time, and the loaded 2nd house and earth sign rising fit the heavy early focus on security and sensuality. Skinner writes at length about his early obsession with sex, and his problems in finally attaining it from women. His early life revolved around poetry, music, and drama. After finishing college, he took a year to try to become a writer, but found he had nothing to say. It was only after that, after some months in Greenwich Village in New York and travel in Europe that he decided to go back to college and study psychology. He went to Harvard in the fall of l928, a move that proved the decisive turning point of his life.

The mixture of Pisces in the house of Taurus fits Skinner’s focus on artistic creativity and sensuality, with his Taurus Moon and Neptune on an angle adding their weight. The rising Uranus, conjunct the Ascendant from the 12th house, with factors in both Aquarius and in Aries, are further testimony to his originality. There is too much independence, both conscious (3rd house Aries) and unconscious (12th house Uranus) for him to stay a follower. Even the new asteroids (offered with only tentative associations) support his need to pioneer and to run his own show. Urania, which may be another version of Uranus, is exactly on the MC suggested for Skinner. This position could be another key to the early threat to his mother and to his father’s ambivalence about a steady job versus independent practice as a lawyer even though the financial rewards were highly uncertain. If the suggested time of birth is accurate, Skinner also has Psyche and Hidalgo rising in the first house in Capricorn, conjunct his East Point (the latter considered an auxiliary Ascendant—key to natural action). Psyche may relate to interest in exploring the mind, whether psychically or psychologically. Hidalgo seems somewhat like another Saturn but perhaps with Jupiter or Uranus overtones. That is, I am finding it strong in people who attain a leadership position where they run their own business or profession. Hidalgo conjunct Psyche in Capricorn strikes me as highly appropriate for a materialistic psychologist.

One additional support for this time of birth comes from the aspects of Jupiter, Neptune, and Saturn which form an octile, square, trioctile combination to each other that remained exact by secondary progressions for a large part of Skinner’s life. If the suggested time of birth is accurate, this conflict combination was tied in to the Ascendant, fitting Skinner’s early rejection of religion and lifetime battle to acknowledge no reality except material senses and physical forces. In view of the Pisces emphasis and the strong aspects to Neptune and Jupiter, not to mention Chiron conjunct Psyche, Hidalgo, East Point, it must have been a real battle. No wonder he had to make his system (Operant Conditioning) into a religious world-view; religious in the sense that it made statements about the nature of truth and reality which can never be proved in a laboratory but which require a leap of faith to accept them. Like many scientists, Skinner seems unaware that his premises are based on faith; that they are unprovable, like all statements dealing with absolutes. And he seems unaware that one can only define a “fact” by a set of premises or theories. He can only maintain his belief-system by ignoring a vast body of human experiences which we loosely call psychic or paranormal. The box in which his beliefs confine him is as small and as rigid as the famous box in which he reared one of his two daughters.

We can see the potential for his intense need to find a structured belief-system that would give him some measure of control over his world. It is ironic that he thought he could gain control over the world by giving up any belief in self-control. The rising Capricorn suggests either “The world has the power and I might as well give up to avoid failing or falling short,” or “My will is law and I will try to make the world be the way I think it ought to be.” Skinner’s philosophy is one way to combine the two. “I can’t control myself—the world has the power, but I can learn to control the world.” If Hidalgo is a bit like Saturn, that is a further statement of the same principle, and Saturn is just at the edge of the first and second houses, re-affirming the possibility of gaining control by controlling the material world. Yet he is a very bright man, as testified by the rising Uranus in Sagittarius, the Sun just at the cusp of the 3rd house, Aquarius, Gemini, etc. The 3rd house Mars can be the mind of the debater and the tongue like a sword. It is also close to the midpoint of Saturn and Pluto, supporting the use of the mind to gain power.

Additional clues to the area of beliefs and faith as a lesson area come from Mercury ruling the 9th house and conjunct the south node of the Moon, as well as the fact that the south node is in Pisces. The Sun in the last degree of Pisces also suggests a need to pay extra attention to the issue of faith in something higher than the material world. If that was his lesson, I’m afraid he has not made it. If this birth time is correct, Neptune progressed to oppose his Ascendant about four years ago, putting the issue of faith in new high focus. According to the newspapers, he is currently struggling with cancer of the salivary glands. I think that cancer is associated with holding in emotional frustrations and with a sense of hopelessness, that there is little to look forward to. Some years back, I read a newspaper interview in which the reporter had looked at all of the honors displayed on the walls of Skinner’s study, and had commented: “Dr. Skinner, you must be a very happy man.” Skinner had replied, “I’m not.” The older we grow, the greater our need for some kind of faith in a higher power that will take over after we have done the best we can. For Skinner, there is nothing higher than his own position as high priest of modern psychology. No wonder there is little to look forward to since he has gone as far as his brand of psychology can take him.

It is tragic when a chart shows so much psychic ability and need for faith in something higher and the life had been committed to a systematic denial of some of the deepest urges in the nature. I am reminded of the chart of Paul Kurtz, the philosopher who mounted the attack on astrology (and later on all religions). Send them light. They need it.

[Here is Skinner’s chart using data in the AstroDatabank long after the article was written.]

Copyright © 1981 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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