Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

An Orderly Arrangement of Well-Known Facts: Retrospective Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior1

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

An Orderly Arrangement of Well-Known Facts: Retrospective Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior1

Article excerpt

During the Spring semester of 1957, I and a half dozen or so other Columbia College undergraduates met weekly for a seminar jointly conducted by three faculty members: Ralph F. Hefferline, Fred S. Keller, and W. N. Schoenfeld. During the first several weeks, we spent our time on a mimeographed version of B. F. Skinner's William James lectures, which he had delivered at Harvard University in 1947. Each class began with a thorough summary of the current material by one of the faculty members. Typically they all wore green visors, which kept us from knowing whether any of them might be dozing as one or another occasionally slumped down with his head bowed. We finished with the lectures somewhere midway through the course, when the book based on the lectures finally became available. The book, of course, was Verbal Behavior, which had by then been awaited for roughly a decade. As we progressed through the published book we had the advantage of having read the earlier version, with which we compared it.


I went on to the Harvard Department of Psychology as a graduate student in the Fall of 1959, but the book played a small part, if any, in my formal course work there. Skinner's main interests had moved in other directions. We heard something about language from an MIT linguist named Noam Chomsky, who gave a colloquium at some point during that academic year. The colloquium was not about his review of Verbal Behavior (Chomsky, 1959), which appeared at about the same time and overshadowed other more favorable reviews (Knapp, 1992). I spent most of my effort in those days on basic behavior processes and didn't come back to Skinner's book until some years after, once I had established my own laboratory and done some teaching (though I did devote some time to Chomsky: e.g., Catania, 1972).

Since then I've used Skinner's book in courses of my own perhaps a dozen times. Along the way came MacCorquodale's (1970) belated reply to Chomsky, which argued that the book that Chomsky had reviewed wasn't really Skinner's (the reply had been rejected by Language, the journal that had published Chomsky's review); one part of MacCorquodale's case was that Chomsky's criticisms were relevant to the learning theories of Clark L. Hull rather than to Skinner's. Also came the comparison of Skinner's work with Wittgenstein's treatment of language games by Day (1969), its extension to poetry by Smith (1968), some passing comments on Chomsky by Skinner (1972), the occasional reassessment of Skinner's book and Chomsky's review (e.g., Andresen, 1990), a renewed interest in the role of learning in the acquisition of language by children (e.g., Bates & Elman, 1996; Hart & Risley, 1995; Home & Lowe, 1996; Moerk, 1992), and a growing body of experimental work on verbal behavior (especially in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and a relatively new journal, Analysis of Verbal Behavior).

Most recently, at the start of the Spring semester of 1997 and forty years almost to the day since I had attended the first meeting of the seminar that introduced me to Verbal Behavior, I walked into an undergraduate class with a copy of the reprinted edition and began talking about it. I knew that it would be less accessible to these students than a more contemporary text, and also that I could hardly manage with thirty-odd of them what three faculty members had accomplished with half a dozen or so. Furthermore, when I took my course we'd all had Keller's introductory course and had read Keller and Schoenfeld's (1950) book; most if not all of us had also read Skinner's (1938) Behavior of Organisms. Not so for my students: Some were psychology majors with a background of several courses and even one or two of mine, but others had taken only introductory psychology. But I went ahead anyway. In the evaluations that my students submitted anonymously near the end of the course, most said that their textbook (and the course) was hard, but most also said that they valued what they'd learned


I learned from the course too. …

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