What Happened to Behaviorism?

Sep 01 2010 Published by under Quotable

“Didn't Noam Chomsky's review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior devastate behavioristic analysis and show that it was bankrupt as pertains to language? I have read the debate a couple of times and, although interesting, it always seemed to me that the protagonists were arguing at cross purposes, from fundamentally different paradigms. Chomsky was and is a rationalist; he had no uses for experimental analyses or data of any sort that pertained to language, and even experimental psycholinguistics was and is of little interest to him. My guess is that Chomsky's review deserves to be credited as a minor cause of the cognitive revolution. To most psychologists, empiricists at heart, it was the great new experiments that researchers were conducting on cognitive topics that created the cognitive revolution and not Chomsky's review of Skinner's book (rather effectively refuted in a commentary by Kenneth MacCorquodale, by the way).”

Roddy Roediger in his APS essay What Happened to Behaviorism?

11 responses so far

  • Jason Kerwin says:

    I understand these are philosophical schools and the terms have specific technical meanings, but regardless the idea that "rationalists" are completely uninterested in empirics is somewhere between sad and ridiculous. Sadiculous?

    • Andrew says:

      I'd have to agree with that. Chomsky may not have been empirically minded, but not because he was a rationalist. He was a rationalist about language only because he believed in poverty of the stimulus, and thus didn't think language could emerge from learning (i.e the empiricist stance).

    • melodye says:

      I think post-Chomsky, the distinction between 'rationalism' and 'empiricism' in psychology is usually taken to mean something very specific (i.e., rationalism = nativism, empiricism = anything else). but i agree, it's not an ideal use of terms..

  • Simon Dymond says:

    For many, MacCorquodale's reply did indeed effectively refute many of Chomsky's criticisms. Skinner's analysis now underpins large scale language intervention programs for children with autism. It is also a exemplary conceptual (it has no data graphs in it) functional analysis of language, which is a refreshing alternative to structuralistic accounts.

    Also, it is noteworthy that Roediger concluded that behaviorism was alive and well, and that he acknowledged the strength of the basic and applied wings of behavior analysis. See http://tiny.cc/9wrss for a detailed account and http://tiny.cc/049y8 for a more cautionary account of the empirical impact of Skinner's analysis.

    • melodye says:

      I mean -- you're completely right, Simon. But I think Roddy was being overly optimistic when he concluded that behaviorism is "alive and well" in mainstream psychology. If you look at the most famous, and most cited theoretical works on language in the past several decades, none of them are behaviorist -- indeed, none of them even attempt to engage with learning theory (see e.g., Pinker, Jackendoff, Marcus, Carey, Markman, Bloom, etc). And many more recent connectionist and Bayesian accounts still treat anything to do with learning theory as "sub-symbolic" (--whatever that means).

      Ack! The links are broken for me =(

      • VMartin says:

        My latest post hasn't appeared - maybe I am not wellcome here. I will try as a comment under you.

        It is interesting how different linguists explain learning process - how Anton Marty in "Uber subjektlose Satze" from childish "Papa dort-en" could make his own conclusions and Pinker with his "go-ed" his own. On my layman opinion the first "neo-kantian" thinking is neverthenless much more interesting and far much more inspiring than English language centerd thinking of darwinist Pinker.

        Probably the linguistics after 2 WW might have slipped into logical-positivistic and neodarwinian tracks. Measuring of signals replaced deep ideas about "Innere sprache" or "Nebenvorstellungen" etc...?

  • VMartin says:

    If I understand it correctly "rationalist" in this context means some "a priori" knowledge of language.
    I am afraid that even Chomsky slipped down in post-war thinking, which is mainly logical-positivist. The great tradition of thinking about language from Humboldt to Anton Marty has been replaced by signal measuring in brain and darwinian quasi explanation of the process of verbal thinking. Unfortunatelly I don't know about somebody with deepest insight into the "inner sprache" and "neben-vorstellungen" invoked by grammar and structure of sentences. If anyone know somebody let me know.


  • shaker says:

    I have greatly enjoyed reading the following critique of Chomsky:


    And here is me the behaviorist 🙂


    > Chomsky didn’t think language could emerge from learning

    But language does emerge from learning. Take three Indian babies A, B, and C and let A grow up in rural Tennessee, B in rural China, and C in urban Sweden. A would end up as a speaker of English with a Southern accent, B as speaker of Chinese, and C as speaker of Swedish. The conditioning environment is not poor at all -- it is rich enough to establish the appropriate repertoires.

  • Avery Andrews says:

    Part of the answer is 'it changed'. Some evidence for this can be found in pp 83-88 of Slater (1985) "An Introduction to Ethology", which discusses the reconciliation between ethologists with rather naive views about innatism, and psychologists who were ignoring it entirely. I think I recall reading something similar in a paperback book called 'Ethology' in the early 1970s, but I can't find the book (and might have borrowed from a library). The point being that a reconciliation between ethology and behaviorism seems to have been perceived as involving changes (in both) by people who had nothing to do with Chomsky.

  • I believe Chomsky never understocked the behavioral paradigm correctly as I believe he never invested efforts in getting familiarized with it. you can read my critique of the same here http://the-mouse-trap.com/2006/09/22/chomsky-vs-skinner-a-role-for-behaviorist-ideas-in-language-acquisition/