Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Chomsky Sends Skinner to the Showers

During my sophomore year at Johns Hopkins I took a course on psycholinguistics taught by James Deese. The course work consisted of writing weekly synopses of classic articles in psycholinguistics. One of those was a review of Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures. Another was Chomsky's 1959 review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior. Those two reviews rocked my world. I became a Chomskyian, at least for a few years. And then it wore thin and I jumped ship.

But that's another story.

During the 1950s B. F. Skinner was the leading light of behaviorist psychology, the reigning paradigm in academic psychology in American universities. Behaviorists believed that science was necessarily grounded in empirical observation. Since the mind could not be observed, psychological science could not talk about it. Behavior was observable, and so THAT's what psychology must study.

In Verbal Behavior Skinner set out to explain language in behaviorist terms. Chomsky demolished Skinner's theorizing by introducing arguments of a new type into psychology, arguments about computational complexity. Rather than attempting to summarize Chomsky's arguments here and now–it's 6:30 in the morning and I've not even finished my first cup of tea–I'll let you read them for yourself. The whole review is online along with a 1967 preface by Chomsky. Enjoy.


  1. No way! Deese was my dissertation advisor at U. of Virginia, which recruited him from Hopkins to chair the psych dept. He also brought in Mary Ainsworth from Hopkins, one of the founders of attachment theory. I just started reading your blog in the last few days, so the timing is perfect.

    1. Yep. I took her course in developmental psych and got turned onto Piaget. Then I did an independent study with her where I read the first volume of Bowlby's Attachment and Loss in typescript and got introduced to primate ethology.