The History of Psychology: Fundamental Questions

By Margaret P. Munger | Go to book overview
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32
NOAM CHOMSKY

Avram Noam Chomsky (1928-) was first exposed to linguistics by his father, a scholar who
examined the historical linguistics of Hebrew. Chomsky received his B.A. (1949), M.A.
(1951), and Ph.D. (1955) from the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked with Zel-
lig S. Harris. He accepted a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955, be-
coming a full professor in 1961 and the Ferrari P. Ward professor of foreign languages and
linguistics in 1966. In addition to his numerous books and articles on linguistics, Chomsky
writes books critical of American foreign policy and mass media, including Necessary Illu-
sions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (1989) and A New Generation Draws the
Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West (2001).


REVIEW OF VERBAL BEHAVIOR BY B. F. SKINNER

1. A great many linguists and philosophers concerned with language have expressed the hope that their studies might ultimately be embedded in a framework provided by behaviorist psychology, and that refractory areas of investigation, particularly those in which meaning is involved, will in this way be opened up to fruitful exploration. Since this volume is the first large-scale attempt to incorporate the major aspects of linguistic behavior within a behaviorist framework, it merits and will undoubtedly receive careful attention. Skinner is noted for his contributions to the study of animal behavior. The book under review is the product of study of linguistic behavior extending over more than twenty years. Earlier versions of it have been fairly widely circulated, and there are quite a few references in the psychological literature to its major ideas.

The problem to which this book is addressed is that of giving a “functional analysis” of verbal behavior. By functional analysis, Skinner means identification of the variables that control this behavior and specification of how they interact to determine a particular verbal response. Furthermore, the controlling variables are to be described completely in terms of such notions as stimulus, reinforcement, deprivation, which have been given a reasonably clear meaning in animal experimentation. In other words, the goal of the book is to provide a way to predict and control verbal behavior by observing and manipulating the physical environment of the speaker.

Skinner feels that recent advances in the laboratory study of animal behavior permit us to approach this problem with a certain optimism, since “the basic processes and relations which give verbal behavior its special characteristics are now fairly well understood the results [of this experimental work] have been surprisingly free of species restrictions. Recent work has shown that the methods can be extended to human behavior without serious modification” (3).1

It is important to see clearly just what it is in Skinner's program and claims that makes them appear so bold and remarkable. It is not primarily the fact that he has set functional analysis as his problem, or that he limits himself to study of “observables,” i.e. inputoutput relations. What is so surprising is the particular limitations he has imposed on the way in which the observables of behavior are to be studied, and, above all, the particularly simple nature of the “function” which, he claims, describes the causation of behavior. One would naturally expect that prediction of the behavior of a complex organism (or machine) would require, in addition to information about external stimulation, knowledge of the internal structure of the organism, the ways in which it processes input information and organizes its

From Noam Chomsky, “Verbal Behavior, Review.” Language 35 (1959):26–58.

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