The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language
Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science
Acts of Meaning
As a rule, a book review in an obscure journal by an unknown scholar rarely attracts attention. Noam Chomsky’s lengthy review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, published in the journal Language in 1959, is a striking exception. At the time Skinner was the most respected experimental psychologist in the world and the leader of the influential behaviorist movement. His comprehensive study of speech and language had been widely anticipated and was receiving respectful attention. In his book, Skinner attempted to demonstrate that the principles of learning which had emerged in decades of work with pigeons and rats could account fully for the oral and written statements produced by human beings.
Chomsky, who had just turned thirty and was already teaching linguistics at MIT, was not impressed. In thirty tightly reasoned and scathing pages, he subjected nearly every facet of Skinner’s book to criticism and much of it to ridicule. While acknowledging the value of some of the findings that had emerged from animal studies, Chomsky argued that they simply did not apply to language. Unaware of the intricate structure of language, Skinner had simply transferred “laws of learning” that governed the behavior of rats running mazes or pigeons pecking at disks to language in ways that did not apply or that revealed nothing. As Chomsky dismissively wrote, a “critical account” of Skinner’s book
must show that with a literal reading (where the terms of the descriptive system have something like the technical meanings given in Skinner’s definitions) the book covers almost no aspect of linguistic behavior, and that with a metaphoric reading, it is no more scientific than the traditional approaches to this subject matter, and rarely as clear and careful.
Skinner, Chomsky concluded, was “play-acting at science.”1
In the final pages of his review, Chomsky hinted at the kind of study he found more promising. He spoke favorably of Karl Lashley, a widely respected behaviorist who had come to appreciate the limits of that explanatory system. Lashley had recently pointed out that utterances cannot be thought of, as Skinner thought of them, simply as words strung together in response to external stimuli; analysis of language had to take into account syntax, abstract underlying general patterns from which particular utterances were generated. Drawing on this insight, and his own work in his 1957 book, Syntactic Structures, Chomsky concluded that
in principle it may be possible to study the problem of determining what the built-in structure of an information-processing (hypothesis-forming) system must be to enable it to arrive at the grammar of a language from the available data in the available time.
By “the available data” he meant the experience of hearing other people speak that a child acquiring a language would have. This succinct formulation suggested the direction of the Chomskian research program of the following decades, a program that continues today.
During the first half of the century, Skinner and other behaviorists had put forward views that became widely accepted throughout the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.