11 July 2006

Chomsky, Noam. "Review of Verbal Behavior,(1957) B.F. Skinner. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. Language. #35 (1) 1959 Linguistic Society of America. 26-58.

In his review, Chomsky sets out to demonstrate Skinner's explanation of language acquisition as absurd. Doing this will eliminate the most visible, and respected, behaviorist view, leaving Chomsky's own view with fewer viable critics and thus bringing it that much closet to acceptance.

Skinner, in his book, attempts 'to provide a way to predict and control verbal behavior by observing and manipulating the physical environment of the speaker"(26). As a proponent of behaviorism, the idea that all behavioral responses are conditioned and so any behavioral responses can be conditioned, Skinner made great advances in the laboratory. In Verbal Behavior, he tries to extrapolate from the laboratory, to human behavior. his argument is diagrammed below.

Chomsky makes short work of Skinner, who's slipshod scholarship makes refutation appear easy. Chomsky seems more familiar with Skinner's work than Skinner himself, and uses this knowledge to point out the many inconsistencies in term usage, as well as the absurd results that follow from these inconsistencies.

While admitting that reinforcement is an important factor in language acquisition, Chomsky denies that it must be the only factor--and presents the thought that a child's "remarkable capacity. . . to generalize, hypothesize, and process information. . . may be largely innate"(43). What is needed, he claims, is research, not theory dogmatically extracted from abstract experimental agendas.

Upon this framework, however, Skinner proceeds to build a system to describe verbal behavior; behavior reinforced through the medium of other persons, as Skinner defines it. Chomsky points out that this definition would include a rat, pressing the bar in a Skinner-box and being reinforced when given a food pellet. This sets the tone for Chomsky's discussion of the terms "mand," "tact," and "autoclites," Skinner's three components of verbal response. Each of these extremely complex notions, it seems, actually carries less descriptive value than the words it replaces, and no provides insight into the way language is used, constructed, or understood.

Since Skinner does nothing of real value, Chomsky chides him about the purpose of science, then suggests a research program which can be carried out, and would provide information we do not currently have about innate language capacities.


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