06 December 2009

Chomsky versus Skinner

Let's return to the subject of language. Last week we discussed Skinner's view that "bread, please" is a paradigmatic instance of "verbal behavior," learned through behavior modification, in the same way that rats learn the route through the maze that will get them to the corn.

Chomsky's famous 1959 review of the book, Verbal Behavior, is sometimes credited with at least slowing the triumphal march of behavioralism through the social sciences. [By the way, is it "behaviorism" or "behavioralism"? So far as I know, the two labels are interchangeable.] Chomsky focused not on such phrases as "bread please" but upon proper sentences, and accordingly upon grammar. He contended that natural-language sentences have a "deep structure" due to the "internal structure of the organism," -- i.e. to neurology.

As to method, Chomsky objected that Skinner used the prestige of laboratory research for conclusions that go far beyond anything they warrant. He creates "the illusion of a rigorous scientific theory with a very broad scope, although in fact the terms used in the description of real-life and of laboratory behavior may be mere homonyms, with at most a vague similarity of meaning." The word "stimulus," is he says an example. In the case of an actual loaf of bread on the table, that bread might be the stimulus to which one refers in the use of the word "bread." But a lot of proper nouns refer to people the speaker has never met, places to which he has never been, etc. A lot of people who have never been to Moscow use the word "Moscow" in sentences all the time, and use it correctly. Why? On Chomsky's view, this can happen because they are hard wired for language. They have the nerve connections they need for it. On Skinner's view (as Chomsky understands it) the proper use of "Moscow" by someone who has never been there requires a stretching of the simplistic ideas of "stimulus," a stretching perhaps to the point where "stimulus" becomes a homonym of itself.

Skinner was personally unimpressed by this critique. He never answered it formally, and in an interview he gave for the Saturday Review of Books in 1972 he sought to explain why. He said he saw a pre-publication draft, only read the first half-dozen pages, and then decided Chomsky had missed his point. Then he commented somewhat whimsically on the field, and on the rise of Chomskyism. "Linguists have always managed to make their discoveries earthshaking. In one decade everything seems to hinge on semantics, one another decade on analysis of the phoneme. In the Sixties it was grammar and syntax, and Chomsky's review began to be widely cited and reprinted and became, in fact, much better known than my book."

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, other behaviorists have stepped forward to defend Verbal Behavior from Chomsky's attack. One of the best-known examples of this is Kenneth MacCorquodale, who wrote a review of the famous review for the JOURNAL OF THE EXPERIMENTAL ANALYSIS OF BEHAVIOR in 1970.

You can access that here: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1333660/?tool=pmcentrez

MacCorquodale quotes the "mere homonyms" passage, in particular, and expresses surprise at the implicit idea that "real-life" behavior could have different basic principles from laboratory behavior. In MacCorq's eyes, Skinner set out a hypothesis, and a research program, which of course is unproven because any research program deals of necessity with the as-yet unproven.

As to "Moscow," MacCorq tells us that the stimulus-response paradigm of behaviorism does not require that we stick to just one stimulus for every one response. Skinner's book itself "repeatedly and clearly insists that a verbal response may be controlled by different stimuli on different occasions." And one occasion for the response "Moscow" may well be the presence of the city of Moscow. What do the flight attendants say when your plane touches down there?

That is a point about scientific method, and about vocabulary. MacCorq for the most part leaves Chomsky's point about the grammar of the sentences of natural language untouched. Others of his school have addressed that, though, so we will have material for continuing this series.


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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.