Summary of A Review of BF Skinner’s Verbal Behavior by Noam Chomsky
In this blog post, we will discuss in detail the very controversial and popular A Review of BF Skinner’s Verbal Behavior by Noam Chomsky. In many ways, this review was a landmark development in linguistics. Let us understand how.
Who was Burrhus Frederic Skinner?
Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the profound supporters of the Behaviorist school of psychology. He proposed a model of Language Acquisition in his 1957 Book Verbal Behavior. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior presented a serious and bold attempt to stretch the ideas and principles of Behaviorism to Language acquisition, development and use.
A Review of BF Skinner’s Verbal Behavior by Noam Chomsky: Introduction
Two years after this, in 1959, American Linguist Noam Chomsky reviewed and critically analysed Skinner’s Verbal Behavior explanation of language development. He wrote that a complex cognitive system such as Language in higher organisms cannot be explained through Behaviorist principles as propounded by Skinner.
Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior was, in a way, a broader critique of the assumptions of Behaviorism, which were predominant during mid 20th century. He said, in the introductory lines, that he chose Skinner’s Verbal Behavior book because it was a thorough and detailed representation of what he wanted to debate upon. He challenged Skinner’s model on the basis of lack of support from empirical data and persuasive reasoning.
Chomsky believed that his review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior was “historical”, having deep roots in the Rationalist Psychology and Linguistics of the 17th- 18th century tradition. Chomsky’s review of Skinner in 1957 marked the mid 20th Century Paradigm Shift from Behaviorism to Cognitivism in Linguistics and psychology. It was, in blunt terms, assassination of the behaviorism and reviving of the mentalistic principles.
Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior book is quite lengthy and filled with lofty diction. Here’s a simple explanation that covers all main points, which will help the students of Linguistics get the essence of Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior book.
Chomsky’s Review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior Summary and Key Points:
We will now summarize the long review and list the key points in a very easy to understand manner. These key points are written in a sequential order of the original review for convenience.
Inadequateness of a “Functional Analysis” scheme to explain Higher Mental Faculties (Language)
In a review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, Chomsky said that prediction of verbal behavior of complex organisms such as humans cannot be done through a functional analysis schema. A schema which relies solely on certain external variables like stimulus, reinforcement, deprivation, etc.
He said that the problem with Skinner’s Functional Analysis is that he concerns himself with input-output data records (that too on lower organisms). Due to this, he misses out on the internal makeup of complex organisms, which is inborn, genetically controlled and highly complex.
Generalization of Laboratory Terminology to Real Life Human Behavior is a weak area in Skinner’s Work
Simple functions to describe behavior in well-defined and controlled conditions of the laboratory can’t be easily applied to complex processes like language. Skinner seems to have borrowed laboratory terms like stimulus, stimulus-control, response, probability, response-strength, etc. And then he carelessly extrapolated them to human behavior.
Absence of Linguistic Model in Skinner’s Book
Skinner utilizes results from experiments on behavior of lower organisms. He uses results for analogic guessing on higher organisms without any experimental evidence on linguistic behavior. Nowhere, in his book, there is any reference, whatsoever, of concrete experiments and results from linguistics, and yet the book claims to be all about verbal behavior.
Response is not dependent on Stimulus for we cannot identify a Stimulus until we know about the Response
In Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, the fundamental concept of “Stimulus-response” is vague as stimuli are no longer driver by outside world. We identify a stimulus when we hear the response. Also, we cannot control the properties of the physical objects to which a speaker will respond. Hence, we have no control over verbal response, contrary to what Skinner had claimed.
Besides, stimuli-responses with perfect, smooth and reproducible curves do not exist in real human behavior widely.
Reinforcement isn’t a single factor necessary for Acquisition of Language. Complex, Genetically controlled mechanisms (majorly unknown) are at work
In psychology, “reinforcement” is strengthening of a response with a stimulus as opposed to “punishment” that weakens it. Skinner’s claim that all verbal behavior is acquired and maintained in strength by reinforcement is not true as factors like causal observation, natural inquisitiveness, and strong tendency to imitate are also important.
Plus, there is a remarkable capacity in a child to generalize, hypothesize and process information, which might be largely innate, in a manner completely unknown to science.
Skinner’s system for description of Verbal Behavior is Arbitrary
Chomsky concludes that the system that Skinner develops scientifically with notions of verbal behavior is based on stimuli, response, reinforcement, etc. are vague. Hence, the system itself also becomes vague and arbitrary.
Verbal Operant in Skinner’s descriptive system offers no improvement over traditional formulations
Skinner identifies new verbal operant in the analysis of verbal behavior (like Mand, Tact, Echoic, Intraverbal and Autoclitic). When this is taken in literal sense, it does not cover any aspect of human verbal behavior. And if it is taken metaphorically, it offers no improvement over traditional formulations. These terms lose their objective meaning with such an extension and become vague.
Failure of Skinnerian Framework lies in the fact that it speculates about Causation of Verbal Behavior without understanding the specific character of this behavior
It is futile to speculate about the process of language acquisition without trying to understand what exactly is being acquired. Before going into integrative processes that control language acquisition, it is important to first characterize these problems. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior theory and system fail to identify language as a complex, higher-mental faculty, which cannot be explained by instinctual principles alone.
Language and its Grammar are extremely complex and have an Abstract Character
The remarkable capability to distinguish sentences form non-sentences and to detect ambiguities, besides constructing well-formed strings of words is present even in a 2-year old human child. This forces us to say that language and its grammar are highly complex systems. And understanding it is just not a matter of imitation and reinforcement as proposed by Skinner. The fact that a young child masters this system very rapidly and effortlessly is another very astonishing fact.
Present day studies are inadequate to decipher the major aspects of Verbal Behavior
Chomsky feels that the “data-handling” and “hypothesis-formulating” abilities, present even in a young child is of complex and unknown character, and that decoding this mystery is a big challenge. Study of language is still limited and insufficient to give us complete picture of verbal behavior.
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