Verbal Behavior  

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Verbal Behavior is a 1957 book by psychologist B. F. Skinner, in which he analyzes human behavior, encompassing what is traditionally called language, linguistics, or speech.

Chomsky's review

In 1959, Noam Chomsky published an influential critique of Verbal Behavior. Chomsky pointed out that children acquire their first language without being explicitly or overtly "taught" in a way that would be consistent with behaviorist theory (see Language acquisition and Poverty of the stimulus), and that Skinner's theories of "operants" and behavioral reinforcements are not able to account for the fact that people can speak and understand sentences that they have never heard before.

According to Frederick J. Newmeyer:

Chomsky's review has come to be regarded as one of the foundational documents of the discipline of cognitive psychology, and even after the passage of twenty-five years it is considered the most important refutation of behaviorism. Of all his writings, it was the Skinner review which contributed most to spreading his reputation beyond the small circle of professional linguists.

Chomsky's 1959 review, amongst his other work of the period, is generally thought to have been influential in the decline of behaviorism's influence within linguistics, philosophy and cognitive science. However, it has drawn fire from a number of critics, the most famous criticism being that of Kenneth MacCorquodale's 1970 paper On Chomsky's Review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior. MacCorquodale argued that Chomsky did not possess an adequate understanding of either behavioral psychology in general, or the differences between Skinner's behaviorism and other varieties. As a consequence, he argued, Chomsky made several serious errors of logic. On account of these problems, MacCorquodale maintains that the review failed to demonstrate what it has often been cited as doing, implying that those most influenced by Chomsky's paper probably already substantially agreed with him. Chomsky's review has been further argued to misrepresent the work of Skinner and others, including by taking quotes out of context. Chomsky has maintained that the review was directed at the way Skinner's variant of behavioral psychology "was being used in Quinean empiricism and naturalization of philosophy".

Chomsky's influence was a point that Skinner himself conceded. Sam Leigland suggests that interest in Skinner's work is growing with the next focus on a variety of complex verbal phenomena.

See also

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