About the Author:
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor of linguistics at MIT and the author of numerous books
About the Author
Noam Chomsky is the Institute Professor and a professor of linguistics, emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A world-renowned linguist and political activist, he is the author of numerous books, including On Language: Chomsky’s Classic Works Language and Responsibility and Reflections on Language; Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel; American Power and the New Mandarins; For Reasons of State; Problems of Knowledge and Freedom; Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship; Towards a New Cold War: U.S. Foreign Policy from Vietnam to Reagan; The Essential Chomsky, edited by Anthony Arnove; and On Anarchism, and a co-author (with Ira Katznelson, R.C. Lewontin, David Montgomery, Laura Nader, Richard Ohmann, Ray Siever, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Howard Zinn) of The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years and (with Michel Foucault) of The Chomsky-Foucault Debate, all published by The New Press. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Anthony Arnove is the editor of Iraq Under Siege and co-editor, with Howard Zinn, of Voices of a People’s History of the United States. His writing has appeared in the Financial Times, The Nation, Mother Jones, Monthly Review, Le Nouvel Observateur, Z Magazine, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior
Verbal Behavior. By B. F. Skinner. (The Century Psychology Series.) Pp. viii, 478. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1957.
1. A great many linguists and philosophers concerned with language have expressed the hope that their studies might ultimately be embedded in a framework provided by behaviorist psychology, and that refractory areas of investigation, particularly those in which meaning is involved, will in this way be opened up to fruitful exploration. Since this volume is the first large-scale attempt to incorporate the major aspects of linguistic behavior within a behaviorist framework, it merits and will undoubtedly receive careful attention. Skinner is noted for his contributions to the study of animal behavior. The book under review is the product of study of linguistic behavior extending over more than twenty years. Earlier versions of it have been fairly widely circulated, and there are quite a few references in the psychological literature to its major ideas.
The problem to which this book is addressed is that of giving a "functional analysis" of verbal behavior. By functional analysis, Skinner means identification of the variables that control this behavior and specification of how they interact to determine a particular verbal response. Furthermore, the controlling variables are to be described completely in terms of such notions as stimulus, reinforcement, deprivation, which have been given a reasonably clearmeaning in animal experimentation. In other words, the goal of the book is to provide a way to predict and control verbal behavior by observing and manipulating the physical environment of the speaker.
Skinner feels that recent advances in the laboratory study of animal behavior permit us to approach this problem with a certain optimism, since "the basic processes and relations which give verbal behavior its special characteristics are now fairly well understood ... the results [of this experimental work] have been surprisingly free of species restrictions. Recent work has shown that the methods can be extended to human behavior without serious modification" (3).
It is important to see clearly just what it is in Skinner's program and claims that makes them appear so bold and remarkable. It is not primarily the fact that he has set functional analysis as his problem, or that he limits himself to study of "observables," i.e., input-output relations. What is so surprising is the particular limitations he has imposed on the way in which the observables of behavior are to be studied, and, above all, the particularly simple nature of the "function" which, he claims, describes the causation of behavior. One would naturally expect that prediction of the behavior of a complex organism (or machine) would require, in addition to information about external stimulation, knowledge of the internal structure of the organism, the ways in which it processes input information and organizes its own behavior. These characteristics of the organism are in general a complicated product of inborn structure, the genetically determined course of maturation, and past experience. Insofar as independent neurophysiological evidence is not available, it is obvious that inferences concerning the structure of the organism are based on observation of behavior and outside events. Nevertheless, one's estimate of the relative importance of external factors and internal structure in the determination of behavior will have an important effect on the direction of research on linguistic (or any other) behavior, and on the kinds of analogies from animal behavior studies that will be considered relevant or suggestive.
Putting it differently, anyone who sets himself the problem of analyzing the causation of behavior will (in the absence of independent neurophysiological evidence) concern himself with the only data available, namely the record of inputs to the organism and the organism's present response, and will try to describe the function specifying the response in terms of the history of inputs. This is nothing more than the definition of his problem. There are no possible grounds for argument here, if one accepts the problem as legitimate, though Skinner has often advanced and defended this definition of a problem as if it were a thesis which other investigators reject. The differences that arise between those who affirm and those who deny the importance of the specific "contribution of the organism" to learning and performance concern the particular character and complexity of this function, and the kinds of observations and research necessary for arriving at a precise specification of it. If the contribution of the organism is complex, the only hope of predicting behavior even in a gross way will be through a very indirect program of research that begins by studying the detailed character of the behavior itself and the particular capacities of the organism involved.
Skinner's thesis is that external factors consisting of present stimulation and the history of reinforcement (in particular the frequency, arrangement, and withholding of reinforcing stimuli) are of overwhelming importance, and that the general principles revealed in laboratory studies of these phenomena provide the basis for understanding the complexities of verbal behavior. He confidently and repeatedly voices his claim to have demonstrated that the contribution of the speaker is quite trivial and elementary, and that precise prediction of verbal behavior involves only specification of the few external factors that he has isolated experimentally with lower organisms.
Careful study of this book (and of the research on which it draws) reveals, however, that these astonishing claims are far from justified. It indicates, furthermore, that the insights that have been achieved in the laboratories of the reinforcement theorist, though quite genuine, can be applied to complex human behavior only in the most gross and superficial way, and that speculative attempts to discuss linguistic behavior in these terms alone omit from consideration factors of fundamental importance that are, no doubt, amenable to scientific study, although their specific character cannot at present be precisely formulated. Since Skinner's work is the most extensive attempt to accommodate human behavior involving higher mental faculties within a strict behaviorist schema of the type that has attracted many linguists and philosophers, as well as psychologists, a detailed documentation is of independent interest. The magnitude of the failure of this attempt to account for verbal behavior serves as a kind of measure of the importance of the factors omitted from consideration, and an indication of how little is really known about this remarkably complex phenomenon.
The force of Skinner's argument lies in the enormous wealth and range of examples for which he proposes a functional analysis. The only way to evaluate the success of his program and the correctness of his basic assumptions about verbal behavior is to review these examples in detail and to determine the precise character of the concepts in terms of which the functional analysis is presented. §2 of this review describes the experimental context with respect to which these concepts are originally defined, §§3–4 deal with the basic concepts "stimulus," "response," and "reinforcement," §§6–10 with the new descriptive machinery developed specifically for the description of verbal behavior. In §5 we consider the status of the fundamental claim, drawn from the laboratory, which serves as the basis for the analogic guesses about human behavior that have been proposed by many psychologists. The final section (§11) will consider some ways in which further linguistic work may play a part in clarifying some of these problems.
2. Although this book makes no direct reference to experimental work, it can be understood only in terms of the general framework that Skinner has developed for the description of behavior. Skinner divides the responses of the animal into two main categories. Respondents are purely reflex responses elicited by particular stimuli. Operants are emitted responses, for which no obvious stimulus can be discovered. Skinner has been concerned primarily with operant behavior. The experimental arrangement that he introduced consists basically of a box with a bar attached to one wall in such a way that when the bar is pressed, a food pellet is dropped into a tray (and the bar press is recorded). A rat placed in the box will soon press the bar, releasing a pellet into the tray. This state of affairs, resulting from the bar press, increases the strength of the bar pressing operant. The food pellet is called a reinforcer; the event, a reinforcing event. The strength of an operant is defined by Skinner in terms of the rate of response during extinction (i.e., after the last reinforcement and before return to the preconditioning rate).
Suppose that release of the pellet is conditional on the flashing of a light. Then the rat will come to press the bar only when the light flashes. This is called stimulus discrimination. The response is called a discriminated operant and the light is called the occasion for its emission; this is to be distinguished from elicitation of a response by a stimulus in the case of the respondent. Suppose that the apparatus is so arranged that bar-pressing of only a certain character (e.g., duration) will release the pellet. The rat will then come to press the bar in the required way. This process is called response differentiation. By successive slight changes in the conditions under which the response will be reinforced it is possible to shape the response of a rat or a pigeon in very surprising ways in a very short time, so that rather complex behavior can be produced by a process of successive approximation.
A stimulus can become reinforcing by repeated association with an already reinforcing stimulus. Such a stimulus is called a secondary reinforcer. Like many contemporary behaviorists, Skinner considers money, approval, and the like to be secondary reinforcers which have become reinforcing because of their association with food etc. Secondary reinforces can be generalized by associating them with a variety of different primary reinforcers.
Another variable that can affect the rate of the bar-pressing operant is drive, which Skinner defines operationally in terms of hours of deprivation. His major scientific book, Behavior of organisms, is a study of the effects of food-deprivation and conditioning on the strength of the bar-pressing response of healthy mature rats. Probably Skinner's most original contribution to animal behavior studies has been his investigation of the effects of intermittent reinforcement, arranged in various different ways, presented in Behavior of organisms and extended (with pecking of pigeons as the operant under investigation) in the recent Schedules of Reinforcement by Ferster and Skinner (1957). It is apparently these studies that Skinner has in mind when he refers to the recent advances in the study of animal behavior.
The notions "stimulus," "response," "reinforcement" are relatively well defined with respect to the bar-pressing experiments and others similarly restricted. Before we can extend them to real-life behavior, however, certain difficulties must be faced. We must decide, first of all, whether any physical event to which the organism is capable of reacting is to be called a stimulus on a given occasion, or only one to which the organism in fact reacts; and correspondingly, we must decide whether any part of behavior is to be called a response, or only one connected with stimuli in lawful ways. Questions of this sort pose something of a dilemma for the experimental psychologist. If he accepts the broad definitions, characterising any physical event impinging on the organism as a stimulus and any part of the organism's behavior as a response, he must conclude that behavior has not been demonstrated to be lawful. In the present state of our knowledge, we must attribute an overwhelming influence on actual behavior to ill-defined factors of attention, set, volition, and caprice. If we accept the narrower definitions, then behavior is lawful by definition (if it consists of responses); but this fact is of limited significance, since most of what the animal does will simply not be considered behavior. Hence the psychologist either must admit that behavior is not lawful (or that he cannot at present show that it is — not at all a damaging admission for a developing science), or must restrict his attention to those highly limited areas in which it is lawful (e.g., with adequate controls, bar-pressing in rats; lawfulness of the observed behavior provides, for Skinner, an implicit definition of a good experiment).
Skinner does not consistently adopt either course. He utilizes the experimental results as evidence for the scientific character of his system of behavior, and analogic guesses (formulated in terms of a metaphoric extension of the technical vocabulary of the laboratory) as evidence for its scope. This 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. To substantiate this evaluation, a critical account of his 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.
3. Consider first Skinner's use of the notions "stimulus" and "response." In Behavior of organisms (9) he commits himself to the narrow definitions for these terms. A part of the environment and a part of behavior are called stimulus (eliciting, discriminated, or reinforcing) and response, respectively, only if they are lawfully related; that is, if the "dynamic laws" relating them show smooth and reproducible curves. Evidently stimuli and responses, so defined, have not been shown to figure very widely in ordinary human behavior. We can, in the face of presently available evidence, continue to maintain the lawfulness of the relation between stimulus and response only by depriving them of their objective character. A typical example of "stimulus control" for Skinner would be the response to a piece of music with the utterance Mozart or to a painting with the response Dutch. These responses are asserted to be "under the control of extremely subtle properties" of the physical object or event (108). Suppose instead of saying Dutch we had said Clashes with the wallpaper, I thought you liked abstract work, Never saw it before, Tilted, Hanging too low, Beautiful, Hideous, Remember our camping trip last summer?, or whatever else might come into our minds when looking at a picture (in Skinnerian translation, whatever other responses exist in sufficient strength). Skinner could only say that each of these responses is under the control of some other stimulus property of the physical object. If we look at a red chair and say red, the response is under the control of the stimulus "redness," if we say chair, it is under the control of the collection of properties (for Skinner, the object) "chairness" (110), and similarly for any other response. This device is as simple as it is empty. Since properties are free for the asking (we have as many of them as we have nonsynonymous descriptive expressions in our language, whatever this means exactly), we can account for a wide class of responses in terms of Skinnerian functional analysis by identifying the "controlling stimuli." But the word "stimulus" has lost all objectivity in this usage. Stimuli are no longer part of the outside physical world; they are driven back into the organism. We identify the stimulus when we hear the response. It is clear from such examples, which abound, that the talk of "stimulus control" simply disguises a complete retreat to mentalistic psychology. We cannot predict verbal behavior in terms of the stimuli in the speaker's environment, since we do not know what the current stimuli are until he responds. Furthermore, since we cannot control the property of a physical object to which an individual will respond, except in highly artificial cases, Skinner's claim that his system, as opposed to the traditional one, permits the practical control of verbal behavior is quite false.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Essential Chomsky"
Copyright © 2008 Anthony Arnove.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
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Table of Contents
1. A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior,
2. Preface to Aspects of the Theory of Syntax,
3. Methodological Preliminaries,
4. The Responsibility of Intellectuals,
5. On Resistance,
6. Language and Freedom,
7. Notes on Anarchism,
8. The Rule of Force in International Affairs,
9. Watergate: A Skeptical View,
10. The Remaking of History,
11. Foreign Policy and the Intelligentsia,
12. The United States and East Timor,
13. The Origins of the "Special Relationship",
14. Planning for Global Hegemony,
15. The View Beyond: Prospects for the Study of Mind,
16. Containing the Enemy,
17. Introduction to The Minimalist Program,
18. New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind,
19. Intentional Ignorance and Its Uses,
20. A World Without War,
21. Reflections on 9-11,
22. Language and the Brain,
23. United States — Israel — Palestine,
24. Imperial Grand Strategy,
25. Afterword to Failed States,
Select Bibliography of Works by Noam Chomsky,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
arnove, in a commitment to editing chomsky in chronological order, put the pole vault as the first hurdle in a high-hurdles event. the bf skinner critique, easily the linguistic specialist's interest is least interesting to the general reader. a few of the linguistic articles can hold the general interest. the other handful are best viewed from the back row in a debate hall. chomsky speaks for me when he examines the US foreign policy since wwii as an imperialistic exercise in spreading our influence over the "Grand Area". of particular interest was his revelations of US support for indonesia in its subjugation of East Timor. he opens the timeline, sharing the media's lack of interest, if not disdain for the newsworthiness and outright terror indonesia practiced in the name of stability. the selected articles cover in order all our troop deployments since the korean conflict, in particular how we involved ourselves in vietnam. chomsky has traced the role of insurgency from that war of choice, and our adaption of "counter-insurgency" tactics in every theatre since. he doesn't overlook the carribean, either. an interesting take-away for this reader, in light of all the dont-trust-your-government movements of the moment, chomsky gives reason for the right and left to dialogue on why and how we got in these predicaments. he identifies the uncritical assent the right and the left give to our imperialst policy, either directly or inadvertently. the book covers over 50 years of chomsky's work, from the early '50s through 2006. i skipped the closing chapter, the afterward to his "Failed States", as i have that book sitting on the shelf and look forward to reading it. in full-disclosure mode, i read this as a book-club selection; as an alumni of chomsky's closest academic affiliation. i don't recommend this for the general-purpose club or audience, unless for example, you are willing to be open to the idea of anarchy, and not feel compelled to paint black and white lines everywhere.
Noam Chomsky is considered one of our top ¿intellectual¿ writers. This book represents some of the most important writing he has done. All I can say is that, if this is the essential, then I¿m glad I skipped the rest of it.Maybe it is just too intellectual for me, maybe I just didn¿t spend the time trying to discern what was being said, but when a collection of ¿essential¿ writing starts with three essays discussing what language is, then there is an ensuing uphill battle for my attention that this book did not win. There is obviously great depth and knowledge to Chomsky¿s writing. And there were occasional instances where I stood up and took notice, e.g. some of his writing on Vietnam, his descriptions of the US¿s role in East Timor (didn¿t even know it existed, did you?). But the obvious agendas in much of the political writing, and the preponderance of referrals to other writings (it feels as if three-quarters to seven-eighths of each essay is the quoting of other sources) left my mind wondering in topics that had nothing to do with what it was reading. (And, never think we get respite from the discussion of language ¿ they crop up again and again.)For those who love the style, then I¿m sure this is a book for you. For those of use who do not, it will not convince us differently.
I agree with applemcg: starting with Skinner was too much of an introduction to a great mind. It's not as difficult as Buckminster Fuller's writing, where a sentence comprises a paragraph and contains so many modifying clauses, you nearly need to diagram it to be able to extract its meaning. Chomsky really uses language well, delivering thoughts quite directly, and understandably. But Skinner's topic gives today's casual reader more esoteric info than most are willing to wade through - unless that's their field.A shorter, more easily manageable and digestible example would allow most readers to come up to speed without having to exercise the discipline to persevere through it. Everyone needs to educate himself these days, and I think that a little help in the arrangement of pieces by the editor to "get our feet wet" would be appreciated by nearly everyone.The purpose of referring to previously written works does a *casual* reader no favors, but then, why read what a mind such as Chomsky's has provided us? True facts can never reference their sources enough; for any student wanting to learn more, or perhaps recall a title long forgotten, the references are a labored gift for which I'm grateful, and will be vital to posterity. This is not Fox News.I have always been interested in languages, and their paths through time. I learned English grammar in the 6th grade so well, I was able to correct high school teachers and college professors - simply because I had an affinity to syntax rules, and a memory for exceptions, and they didn't. As a computer programmer for over 40 years, I've had little difficulty learning computer languages - except in cases in which a single language inexplicably shifted the syntax prevailing in 95% of that language. The same for asinine computer interfaces created by someone who has so little regard for his fellow man that he devises new rules that reflect nothing that has gone before, simply because he can. An example of this kind of self-centered abuse is Microsoft's Office 2007 interface. Certainly it helps those who have never used it before by hiding commands unlikely to be used. But for the millions who have been accustomed to being productive in these programs for 10-20 years, they're slammed back to square one, and thoroughly frustrated by lost capabilities. Human-machine interfaces are the most important aspects of any automation. Chomsky's insights into the standards and conventions of languages and their syntaxes can be applied in this endeavor, further flattening the world, and enabling our poorer brothers and sisters around the planet.
The first book by Noam Chomsky that I own. It's a collection of excerpts and articles of Chomsky's writings from all different aspects of his linguistic and political thought. In the first part, it's mainly Chomsky's revolutionary linguistic writings, only real nerds would be interested in. :) The majority of the book is about Chomsky's political thought, but remember that this book was printed in 2008, so much of Chomsky's recent critiques are not published in this book. Much of his critiques deal with US Imperialism in Vietnam, Latin America, East Timor, and in Palestine. Despite it being a lot of small excerpts, it sure adds up to a lot of pages. I haven't had time to read it in full since I bought it, since I always have 70 library books lying around.
what else can you say. My husband wanted a Chomsky book for Christmas, so I went with this one. He liked it very much.