01  02  03  04  05  

06  07  08  09  10  

Chomsky on Skinner

There is another difference between Chomsky and the Bloomfieldians who preceded him that ultimately proves to be of monumental importance: Bloomfield's model was based on behaviorism and its associated learning theory. Chomsky's rejection, political and intellectual, of such a notion became clear, and public, in the course of his "savage and exhilarating review" of B. F. Skinner's 1957 book Verbal Behavior (Goreing 15). This review appeared in 1959 in the journal Language, and it received a considerable amount of attention. The thirty-year-old Chomsky was taking on an established and well-entrenched figure, and, in so doing, was putting into question an entire school of psychological enquiry.

B.F. Skinner: Biographical sketch

Skinner's work had been presented to specialists in the field ten years earlier in the context of the William James Lectures, and when Chomsky first arrived at Harvard in 1951 his ideas were in vogue. Six years later, the entire behaviorist program had gained significant currency at Harvard (where Skinner taught) and far beyond: Skinner had become the leading proponent of behaviorism by the early 1950s. He believed that human behavior, especially verbal behavior, can be explained and controlled by the same external processes (reinforcement, for example) as those employed to predict and control the behavior of animals.

This, in Chomsky's view, denies a fundamental characteristic of human behavior, creativity, which allows even very young children to comprehend a great variety of utterances when hearing them for the very first time. Furthermore, Chomsky felt that the application to language processes of behaviorist-psychology terminology, such as "stimulus," "response," "habit," "conditioning," and "reinforcement," was so ambiguous and empirically vapid that it could be made to cover anything. What, for example, does paraphrasing "X wants Y" with "X is reinforced by Y" suggest? In Chomsky's view, "reinforced" can imply such a wide variety of responses that it is meaningless; the notion of reinforcement does not clarify or objectify descriptions of liking, wishing, wanting. John Lyons writes: "In the absence of any overt `response,' the behaviorist takes refuge in an unobserved and unobservable `disposition to respond'; and having accounted, in principle, for the association of words (as `responses') with objects (as `stimuli') and for the learning of a limited set of sentences in the same way, he either says nothing at all about the formation of new sentences or at this point appeals to some undefined notion of `analogy'" (84 -- 85). In short, the examination of external conditions to explain verbal behavior "is simply dogma, with no scientific basis." Raphael Salkie summarizes Chomsky's viewpoint well:

If we want to account for the fact that the language of English speakers has certain regularities in it, we must look at the external environment and at the internal structure of English speakers -- that is, their knowledge of the language. If we want to look at how English speakers acquire knowledge of their language, we need to take into account their innate knowledge, genetically determined changes, and changes due to their experience. Insisting at the outset that one of these factors cannot be relevant is simply dogmatism, and has no place in science. (87)
The point of Chomsky's critique of Skinner was not, as many believed, to attack behaviorism, because this would import to the project a credibility that Chomsky denies. He writes: "It wasn't Skinner's crazy variety of behaviorism that interested me particularly, but the way it was being used in Quinean empiricism and `naturalization of philosophy,' a gross error in my opinion. That was important, Skinner was not. The latter was bound to collapse shortly under the weight of repeated failures"(31 Mar. 1995).

MacCorquodale citation in JEAB

Kenneth MacCorquodale published a counterattack called "On Chomsky's Review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior" in a 1970 issue of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. He fails, however, to address the issues raised by Chomsky relating to language and verbal behavior: "The hypothesis of Verbal Behavior is simply that the facts of verbal behavior are in the domain of the facts from which the system has been constructed. Skinner's stratagem is to find plausible referents in the speech episode for the laws and terms in his explanatory system: stimulus, response, reinforcement, and motivation. The relevance of these laws and their component variables for the verbal events is hypothesized only; it is not dogmatically claimed" (185). Chomsky himself replied in the journal Cognition that "MacCorquodale assumes that I was attempting to disprove Skinner's theses, and he points out that I present no data to disprove them. But my point, rather, was to demonstrate that when Skinner's assertions are taken literally, they are wrong on the face of it . . . or else quite vacuous" ("Psychology" 11).

go to top
bottommapnext page