The Chomskyan Style

Chomsky’s review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior

There are two quotes about Chomsky the scientist that I think best describe him. First is by a person whom I normally wouldn’t quote, Daniel Dennett. Dennett says about Chomsky: “Not many scientists are great scientists, and not many great scientists get to found a whole new field, but there are a few. Charles Darwin is one; Noam Chomsky is yet another”.

However, it is the second quote that I like more; probably because it reflects the feeling that I have always got myself. In an article (Chomsky and his Critics), discussing books in which Chomsky interacts with his critics among philosophers, Ian Hacking says, “It is like watching the grandmaster play, blindfolded, thirty-six simultaneous chess matches against the local worthies. He almost always wins.”

Indeed, Chomsky often reminds me of the great 18th century Urdu poet, Mir Taqi Mir. When I first read Mir, I got the feeling that Mir basically had it all covered, and he commanded all that he surveyed. Mir was famous for attacking his contemporaries if he felt they were indulging in meaningless rhyming and immature, mushy lovey poetry. I often picture him sitting magisterially in the center, with all the other poets surrounding him, and Mir literally throwing his couplets in the manner of bombs at them. Boom, boom, boom! And they had better be prepared for the onslaught!

Here, I am also reminded of what Hemingway said about Tolstoy: “I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgeneve. Then I trained hard and beat Mr. de Maupassant. I have fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had the edge in the last one. But nobody is going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better”! I admire Hemingway but I think he was right: Tolstoy would have annihilated him much like Muhammad Ali destroyed Sonny Liston 🙂

Chomsky’s demolition of the behaviorist program is well known and often talked about. It shaped an entire chain of disciplines. But there is a nice history to that. The so-called cognitive revolution had started earlier, before Chomsky’s famous review. Herbert Simon says cognitive science started in 1956, the year in which a series of landmark papers by Chomsky, Simon, Newell, Miller, Bruner et al, were published. In particular, Simon recalls the special day when “one of the initial professional papers on transformational linguistics (by the 27 years old Chomsky) and one of the initial professional papers on information-processing psychology (by Simon and Newell) were presented, the one after the other, at a meeting at MIT in September 1956.”

But the going wasn’t so smooth and the story not so simple. Old-style linguists were either hostile or indifferent to Chomsky’s work. Behaviorism, which treated the mind as a blank slate that could be readily molded by the environment, was still the dominant paradigm. In 1957, Chomsky’s landmark work Syntactic Structures was published not in the US but in The Hague, the Netherlands, and initially the book was not even reviewed by anyone in the field! The psychologist George Miller (himself an integral member of the group of ‘cognitive revolutionaries’), who knew both Chomsky and Herbert Simon closely, has this to say about that era: “Those of us who wanted to be scientific psychologists couldn’t really oppose behaviorism. You just wouldn’t get a job”!

So it is in light of these facts that I feel the importance of Chomsky’s devastating review of B.F Skinner’s “Verbal behavior” in 1959 cannot be overemphasized
(even though Chomsky himself doesn’t give it too much importance). And this is where, I feel, Chomsky’s Mir-like “I have got it covered, bring it on!” attitude shines through. I guess Chomsky must have felt that it was time to tackle the challenge head-on.

Before getting into Chomsky’s famous attack, some clarification of terms for those interested. The ‘blank slate’ model of the mind basically treats the human mind, as the name suggests, like a blank piece of paper, on which the external environment makes its marks, and thus molds and shapes it accordingly. In essence, the behaviorist program used this model of the human mind to understand human behavior. In order to understand behavior, one simply has to limit oneself to stimuli (the external environment) and the response (of the mind, as a result of the stimuli). Other concepts such as reinforcement (reward and punishment), conditioning, habit, etc, are also a part of this framework. A point to be noted is that under this framework, the response of the mind (since it’s a blank slate) has minimal contribution from the mind’s structure and maximal contribution from the outside environment and consequent reinforcement.

However, with the so-called cognitive revolution, influenced by the works of Chomsky (and the afore-mentioned people), a new model of the human mind emerged. The human mind came to be regarded as a rich information processing system, which had its own internal structure that allowed it to process external information and make use of it according to it’s own internal rules. It was no longer considered to be a blank-sheet, which external factors could mold in anyway they wanted. To put it dramatically, there exists such a thing as human nature. I hope at this point  my Marxist readers, and others who are suspicious of the concept of a human nature, are not getting angry. Honestly, this does not imply that the son of a thief shall turn out to be a thief or that there is no freewill or that all human beings are selfish (or altruistic for that matter). Relax :-). What it simply means is that our mind and our nature place limitations on what we can and cannot do as organic beings in this world. It shouldn’t be taken to mean that every action that we undertake is determined, and that no change is possible. Making the leap from the premise that there is such a thing as human nature, to the conclusion that this means that everything is determined so nothing can be changed, is not only unwarranted but also wrong, in my view.

And now we come to the review, the big showdown as it were. Chomsky was 30 years old at the time while Skinner was the ‘well-entrenched’ figure. Immediately, people felt that Chomsky was not really attacking Skinner but actually the entire behaviorist program.  In Verbal Behavior, Skinner states that language can be explained in terms of stimuli-response sequences. In his review, in arguing against Skinner’s position, Chomsky brings into question the validity of the terms ‘stimuli’, ‘response’, ‘reinforcement’ as defined by the behaviorists, and declares the terms to be vacuous, as defined in their framework. Chomsky notes that, “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. 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” 🙂

Chomsky observes that Skinner could argue that each of these responses is in the control of some other stimulus property of the physical object. But in doing so, we end up with the word ‘stimulus’ having lost all objectivity: “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, 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…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.

As for reinforcement, Skinner believes that “just as the musician plays or composes what he is reinforced by hearing, or as the artist paints what reinforces him visually, so the speaker engaged in verbal fantasy says what he is reinforced by hearing or writes what he is reinforced by reading”.

Chomsky notes that such use of the term ‘reinforcement’ makes it totally meaningless objectively. As he goes on to argue, “The phrase X is reinforced by Y (stimulus, state of affairs, event, etc.) is being used as a cover term for X wants Y, X likes Y, X wishes that Y were the case, etc. Invoking the term reinforcement has no explanatory force, and any idea that this paraphrase introduces any new clarity or objectivity into the description of wishing, liking, etc., is a serious delusion.” The review is full of many, more intricate, examples that I won’t repeat here.

Chomsky also makes a novel point—which as Bryan Magee rightly notes, is “very obvious once it’s pointed out, but Chomsky was the one to point it out”—which is that children are not taught to learn a language. As Chomsky says, “It is simply not true that children can learn language only through ‘meticulous care’ on the part of adults who shape their verbal repertoire through careful differential reinforcement.” Thus, they must already possess a rich complex innate structure for acquiring a language.

To conclude, Chomsky’s review, perhaps more than any other work in modern times, led to a new model of the human mind, in which the mind is not a blank slate but rather a computational system that can represent and process information from the external environment in various complex ways!


  1. I remember Chomsky, Miller and Bruner in a commemorative seminar at Harvard, reminiscing about those times. Wonderful!

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