A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior | Noam Chomsky

| sexta-feira, 23 de outubro de 2009
A great many linguists and philosophers
concerned with languager 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,

A great many linguists and philosophers
concerned with languager 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
[Verbal Behavior (New York: AppletonCentury-
Crofts, 1957)-Ed.] 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
From Language 35, no. 1 (1959): 26-58. Reprinted
by permission of the Linguistic Society of
America and the author. Sections 5-10 have been
omitted (the notes are therefore not numbered
addressed is that of giving a "functional
analysis" of verbal behavior. By functional
analysis, Skinner means ickrrtifi~atlOn
bf the van abIes thci£controi this' behavior
a~(tspecificati6n of how they interact· to
determiJ:!e' a partiCi.iIarv~rb~response.
Furthermore, the controlling variablesa~e
to be described completely in terms of
such notions as stimulus, reinforcement,
deprivation, which have been given a reasonably
clear meaning in animal expeiimentation.
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 sur-'
prisingly free of species restrictions. Recent
work has shown that the methods
can be extended to human behavior without
serious modification (3).1
It is important, to see clearly just what
it is inSkinner's program and claims that
makes them appear so bold and remark4.
A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior 49
able. It is ·not primarily the ~act 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 e~pect that prediction
of the behavior of a complex organism
(or machine) would require, in
addition to infonnation 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 detennined 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 duration 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 tenns 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 reseilrch
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
con~isting of present stimulation and
the history of reinforcement {in particular,
. the frequency, arrangeII).ent, 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, furthennore,
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 tenns alone omit
trom consideration factors of fundamental
importance that are, no doubt, amenable
to scientific study, although their specific
50 Noam Chomsky
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
6f 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 hisbasic 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. Section 2 of
this review describes the experimental
context with respect to which these concepts
are originally defined. Sections 3
and 4 deal with the basic concepts-stimulus,
response, and reinforcement-Sections
6 to 10 with the new descriptive machinery
developed specifically for the description
of verbal behavior. In Section 5
we consider the status of the fundamental
claim, drawn.from the laboratory, whi~h
serves as the basis for the analogic guesses
about human behavior that have been
proposed by many psychologists. Th~ final
section (Section 11) will consider some
ways in which further linguistic work may
play a part in clarifying some of these
Although this book makes no direct
reference to experimental work, it can be
understood only in terms of the general
framework that Skinner has d~veloped
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 pre-conditioning 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.2 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
4. A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior 51
contemporary behaviorists, Skinner considers
money, approval, and the like to be
secondary reinforcers which have become
reinforcing because of their association
with food, etc.3 Secondary reinforcers 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
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 eventt()'which tn-e- organism
is 'capable of reactingis'to be called a stimulus
on a given occasion, 'oronly"one'''to
wJ1ich the organism in -,-fact' reacts;' an:~t
correspondingly~- we·musf-dedde"whe.th,er.
any part of behavior is to be called a,response,
or o'rlly 'one~o,~n~~t~.c;l,.With,~ti,Il1~
uli in lawfuLways. Questions of t}:lis sort
pose something of' a dilemma for the
experimental psychologist. If he accepts
the broad definitions, characterizing any
physical event impinging on the organism
as a stimulus and any part of the organism's
behavior as a response, he must conelude
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 (orthat 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, barpressing
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 tec:;hnical 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. 5
Consider first Skinner's use of the notions
stimulus and response. In Behavior
52 Noam Chomsky
of Organisms (9) he commits himself to
the narrow definitions for these terms. A
part of the environment a~d a part of behavior
are called stimulus (eliciting, dis-
. criminated, 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.6
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 und~r
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 (lID), 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
Junctional 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 behavior1
is quite false.
Other examples of stimulus control
merely add to the general mystification.
Thus, a proper noun is held to be a response
"under the control of a specific
person or thing" (as controlling stimulus,
113). I have often used the words Eisenhower
and Moscow, which I"presume are
proper nouns if anything is, but have
never been stimulated by the corresponding
objects. How can this fact be made
compatible with this definition? Suppose
that I use the name of a friend who is not
present. Is this an instance9f a proper
noun under the control of the friend as
stimulus? Elsewhere it is asserted that a
stimulus controls a response in the sense
that presence of. the stimulus increases the
probability of the response. But it is obviously
untrue that the probability that a
speaker will produce a full name is increased
when its bearer faces the speaker.
Furthermore, how can one's own name be
a proper noun in this sense? A multitude
of similar questions arise immediately. It
appears that the word control here is
merely a misleading paraphrase for the
traditional denote or refer. The assertion
(115) that so far as the speaker is concerned,
the relation of reference is "simply
the probability that the speaker will emit
4. A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior 53
a response of a given form in the presence
of a stimulus having specified properties"
is surely incorrect if we take the words
presence, stimulus, and probability in
their literal sense. That they are not intended
to be taken literally is indicated by
many examples, as when a response is
said to be "controlled" by a situation or
state of affairs as "stimulus." Thus, the
expression a needle in a haystack "may be
controlled as a unit by a particular type of
situation" (116); the words in a single part
of speech, e.g., all adjectives, are under
the control of-a single set of subtle properties
of stimuli (121); "the sentence The
boy runs a store is under the control of an
extremely complex stimulus situation"
(335); "He is not at al1 well may functi~n
as a standard response under the control
of a state of affairs which might also control
He is ailing" (325); when an envoy
observes events in a foreign country and
reports upon his return, his report is under
"remote stimulus control" (416); the
statement This is war may be a response
to a "confusing international situation"
(441); the suffix -ed is controlled by that
"subtle property of stimuli which we
speak of as action-in-the-past" (121) just
as the -s in The boy runs is under the control
of such specific features of the situation
as its "currency" (332). No characterization
of the notion stimulus control
that is remotely related to the bar-pressing
experiment (or that preserves the faintest
objectivity) can be made to cover a set of
examples like these, in which, for example,
the controlling stimulus need not even
impinge on the responding organism.
Consider now Skinner's use of the
notion response. The problem of identifying
units in verbal behavior has of course
been a primary concern of linguists, and it
seems very likely that experimental psychologists
should be able to provide muchneeded
assistance in clearing up the many
remaining difficulties in systematic identification.
Skinner recognizes (20) the fundamental
character of the problem of
identification ofa unit of verbal behavior,
but is satisfied with an answer so vague
and subjective that it does not really contribute
to its solution. The unit of verbal
behavior-the verbal operant-is defined
as a class of responses of identifiable form
functionally related to one or more controlling
variables. No method is suggested
for determining in -a pa-rtleula"i--instance--what
are the controlling -variables, how"
many-such-~~its-have- occurred, or whe~etheir
b()~ndari~s -are in the total response. _
Nori's any-afi:e~Lin~d_~ tospecify how
much,;r whir-kind of ,similarity 'info~in_
or control is requi~ed for two physical
events to be considered instances of the
saine_ ()Q~!~Dt.---I~-~hort:-;~- ~;~~~~~- -~~'e
suggested for the most elementary questions
that must be asked of anyone proposing
a method for description of behavior.
Skinner is content with what he calls
an extrapolation of the concept of operant
developed in the laboratory to the verbal
field. In the typical Skinnerian experiment,
the problem of identifying the unit
of behavior is not too crucial. It is defined,
by fiat, as a recorded peck or bar-press,
and systematic variations in the rate of
this operant and its resistance to extinction
are studied as a function of deprivation
and scheduling of reinforcement (pellets).
The operant is thus defined with
respect to a particular experimental procedure.
This is perfectly reasonable and
has led to many interesting results. It is,
however, completely meaningless to
speak of extrapolating this concept of
operant to ordinary verbal behavior.
Such "extrapolation" leaves us with no
way of justifying one or another decision
about the units in the "verbal repertoire."
Skinner specifies "response strength"
as the basic datum, the basic dependent
variable in his functional analysis. In
the bar-pressing experiment, response
strength is defined in terms of rate of
emission during extinction. -Skinner has
argued8 that this is "the only datum that
varies significantly and in the expected
54 Noam Chomsky
direction under conditions which are relevant
to the 'learning process.' 1/ In the
book under review, response strength is
defined as "probability of emission" (22).
This definition provides a comforting impression
of objectivity, which, however,
is quickly dispelled when we look into the
matter more closely. The term probability
has some rather obscure meaning for
Skinner in this book.9 We are told, on the
one hand, that II our evidence for. the contribution
of each variable [to response
strength] is based on observation of frequencies
alone~' (28). At the same time, it
appears that frequency is a very misleading
measure of strength, since, for example,
the frequency of a response may be
"primarily attributable to the frequency
of occurrence of controlling variables"
(27). It is not clear how the frequency of a
response can be attributable to anything
BUT the frequency of occurrence of its controlling
variables if we accept Skinner's
view that the behavior. occurring in a
given situation is "fully determined" by
the relevant controlling variables (175,
228). Furthermore, although the evidence
for the contribution of each variable to
response strength is based on observation
of frequencies alone, it turns out that "we
base the notion of strength upon several
kinds of evidence" (22), in particular (22-
28): emission of the response (particularly
in unusual circumstances), energy level
(stress), pitch level, speed and delay of
emission, size of letters etc. in writing,
immediate repetition, and-a final factor,
relevant but misleading-over-all frequency.
. Of course, Skinner recognizes that
these measures do not co-vary, because
(among other reasons) pitch, stress, quantity,
and reduplication may have internal
linguistic functions.1o However, he does
not hold these conflicts to be very important,
since the proposed factors indicative
of strength are "fully understood by everyone"
in the culture (27). For example, "if
we are shown a prized work of art and exclaim
Beautiful!, the speed and energy of
the response will not be lost on the owner."
It does not appear totally obvious
that in this c~se the way to impress the
owner is to shriek Beautiful in a loud,
high-pitched voice, repeatedly, and with
no delay (high response strength). It may
be equally effective to look at the picture
silently (long delay) and then to murmur
Beautiful in a soft, low-pitched voice (by
definition, very low response strength).
It is not unfair, I believe, to conclude
from Skinner's discussion of response
strength, the basic datum in functional
analysis, that his extrapolation of the notion
of probability can best be interpreted
as, in effect, nothing more than a decision
to use the word probability, with its favorable
connotations of objectivity, as a
cover term to paraphrase such low-status
words as interest, intention, belief, ~nd
the like. This interpretation is fully justified
by the way in which Skinner uses the
terms probability and strength. To cite
just one example, Skinner defines the process
of confirming an assertion in science
as one of "generating additional variables
to increase its probability" (425), and
more generally, its strength (425-29). If
we take this suggestion quite literally, the
degree of confirmation of a scientific assertion
can be measured as a simple function
of the loudness, pitch, and frequency
with which it is proclaimed, and a geheral
procedure for increasing its degree of confirmation
would be, for instance, to train
machine guns on large crowds of people
who have been instructed to shout it. A
better indication of what Skinner probably
has in mind here is given by his description
of how the theory of evolution,
as an example, is confirmed. This "single
set of verbal responses . . . is made more
plausible~is strengthened-by several
types of construction based upon verbal
responses in geology, paleontology, genetics,
and so on" (427). We are no do·ubt
to interpret the terms strength and probability
in this context as paraphrases of
4.A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior ss
more familiar locutions such as "justified
belief" or "warranted assert ability ," or
something of the sort. Similar latitude of
interpretation is presumably expected
when we read that "frequency of effective
action accounts in tum for what we may
call the listener's 'belief' " (88) or that "our
belief in what someone tells us is similarly
a function of, or identical with, our tendency
to act upon the verbal stimuli which
he provides" (160).11
I think it is evident, then, that Skinner's
use of the terms stimulus, control,
response, and strength justify the general
conclusion stated in the last paragraph of
Section 2. The way in which these terms
are brought to bear on the actual data indicates
that we must interpret them as
mere paraphrases for the popular vocabulary
commonly used to describe behavior
and as having no particular connection
with the homonymous expressions used in
the description of laboratory experiments.
Naturally, this terminological revision
adds no objectivity to the familiar mentalistic
mode of description.
The other fundamental notion borrowed
from the description of bar-pressing
experiments is reinforcement. It raises
problems which are "similar, and even
more serious. In Behavior of Organisms,
"the operation of reinforcement is defined
as the presentation of a certain kind of
stimulus in a temporal relation with either
a stimulus or response. A reinforcing
stimulus is defined as such by its power to
produce the resulting change [in strength].
There is no circularity about this: some
stimuli are found to produce the change,
others not, and they are classified as reinforcing
and nonreinforcing accordingly"
(62). This is a perfectly appropriate definition12
for the study of schedules of reinforcement.
It is perfectly useless, however,
in the discussion of real-life behavior, unless
we can somehow characterize the
stimuli which are reinforcing (and the situations
and conditions under which they
are reinforcing). Consider first of all the
status of the basic principle that Skinner
calls the "law of conditioning" (law of effeet).
It reads: "if the occurrence of an
operant is followed by presence of a reinforcing
stimulus, the strength is increased"
(Behavior of Organisms, 21). As reinforcement
was defined, this law becomes
a tautology.13 For Skinner, learning is just
change in response strength.14 Although
the statement that presence of reinforcement
is a sufficient condition for learning
and maintenance of behavior is vacuous,
the claim that it is a necessary condition
may have some content, depending on
how the class of reinforcers (and appropriate
situations) is characterized. Skinner
does make it very clear that in his view
reinforcement is a necessary condition for
language learning and for the continued
availability of linguistic responses in the
adultY However, the looseness of the
term reinforcement as Skinner uses it in
the book under review makes it entirely
pointless to inquire into the truth or falsity
of this claim. Examining the instances of
what Skinner calls reinforcement, we find
that not even the requirement that a reinforcer
be an identifiable stimulus is taken
seriously. In fact, the term is used in such
a way that the assertion that reinforcement
is necessary for learning and continued
availability of behavior is likewise
To show this, we consider some examples
of reinforcement. First of all, we
find a heavy appeal to automatic selfreinforcement.
Thus, "a man talks to himself
. . . because of the reinforcement he
receives" (163); "the child is reinforced
automatically when he duplicates the
sounds of airplanes, streetcars .. . " (164);
"the young child alone in the nursery may
automatically reinforce his own exploratory
verbal behavior when he produces
sounds which he has heard in the speech
of others" (58); "the speaker who is also
an accomplished listener 'knows when he
56 Noam Chomsky
has correctly echoed a response' and is reinforced
thereby" (68); thinking is "behaving
which automatically affects the behaver
and is reinforcing because it does so"
(438; cutting one's finger should thus be
reinforcing, and an example of thinking);
"the verbal fantasy, whether overt or covert,
is automatically reinforcing to the
speaker as listener. 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" (439); similarly,
care in problem solving, and rationalization,
. are automatically self-reinforcing
(442-43). We can also reinforce someone
by emitting verbal behavior as such (since
this rules out a class of aversive stimulations,
167), by not emitting verbal behavior
. (keeping silent and paying attention,
199), or by acting appropriately on some
future occasion (152: "the strength of [the
speaker's1 behavior is determined mainly
by the behavior which the listener will exhibit
with respect to a given state of affairs";
this Skinner considers the general
case of "communication" or "letting the
listener know"). In most such' cases, of
course, the speaker is not present at the
time when the reinforcement takes place,
as when "the artist ... is reinforced by the
effects his works have upon ... others"
(224), or when the writer is reinforced by
the fact that his "verbal behavior may
reach over centuries' or to thousands of
listeners or readers at the same time. The
writer may not be reinforced often or immediately,
but his net reinforcement may
be great" (206; this accounts for the great
"strength" of his behavior). An individual
may also find it reinforcing to injure
someone by criticism or by bringing bad
news, or to publish an experimental result
which upsets the theory of a rival (154), to
describe circumstances which would be
reinforcing if they were to occur (165), to
avoid repetition (222), to "hear" his own
name though in fact it was not mentioned
or to hear nonexistent words in his child's
babbling (259), to clarify or otherwise intensify
the effect of a stimulus which
serves an important discriminative function
(416), and so on.
From this sample, it can be seen that
the notion of reinforcement has totally
lost whatever objective meaning it may
ever have had. Running through these examples,
we see that a person can be reinforced
though he emits no response at all,
and that the reinforcing stimulus need not
impinge on the reinforced person or need
not even exist (it is sufficient that it be
imagined or hoped for). When we read
that a person plays what music he likes
(165), says what he likes (165), thinks
what he likes (438-39), reads what books
he likes (163), etc., BECAUSE he finds it reinforcing
to do so, or that we write books
or inform others of facts BECAUSE we are
reinforced by what we hope will be the
ultimate behavior of reader or listener, we
can only conclude that the term reinforcement
has a purely ritual function. The
phrase "X is reinforced by Y (stimulus,
state of affairs, event, etc.)" is being used
as a cover term for "X wants Y," /IX 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 only
effect is to obscure the important differences
among the notions being paraphrased.
Once we recognize the latitude
with which the term reinforcement is being
used, many rather startling comments
lose their initial effect-for instance, that
the behavior of the creative artist is "controlled
entirely by the contingencies of reinforcement"
(150). What has been hoped
for from the psychologist is some indication
how the casual and informal description
of everyday behavior in the popular
vocabulary can be explained or clarified
in terms of the notions developed in care-
4. A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior 57
ful experiment and observation, or perhaps
replaced in terms of a better scheme.
A mere terminological revision, in which
a term borrowed from the laboratory is
used with the full vagueness of the ordinary
vocabulary, is of no conceivable interest.
It seems that Skinner's claim that all
verbal behavior is acquired and maintained
in "strength" through reinforcement
is quite empty, because his notion of
reinforcement has no clear content, functioning
only as a cover term for any tactor,
detectable or not, related to acquisition
or maintenance of verbal behavior.16
Skinner's use of the term conditioning
suffers from a similar difficulty. Pavlovian
and operant conditioning are processes
about which psychologists have
developed real understanding. Instruction
of human beings is not. The claim that
instruction and imparting of information
are simply matters of conditioning (357-
66) is pointless. The claim· is true, if we
extend the term conditioning to cover
these processes, but we know no more
about them after having revised this term
in such a way as to deprive it of its relatively
clear and objective character. It is,
as far as we know, quite false, if we use
conditiqrzing in its literal sense. Similarly,
when we say that "it is the function of .
predication to facilitate the transfer of response
from one term to another or from
one object to another" (361), we have said
nothing of any significance. In what sense
is this true of the predication Whales are
mammals? Or, to take Skinner's example,
what point is there in saying that the effect
of The telephone is out of order on the
listener is to bring behavior formerly controlled
by the stimulus out of order under
control of the stimulus telephone (or the
telephone itself) by a process of simple
conditioning (362)? What laws of conditioning
hold in this case? Furthermore,
what behavior is controlled by the stimulus
out of order, in the abstract? Depending
on the object of which this is predicated,
the present state of motivation of the
listener, etc., the behavior may vary from
rage to pleasure, from fixing the object to
throwing it out, from simply not using it
to trying to use it in the normal way (e.g.,
to see if it is really out of order), and so
on. To speak of "conditioning" or "bringing
previously available behavior under
control of a new stimulus" in such a case
is just a kind of play-acting at science (d.
also 43n).
* * *
The preceding discussion covers all
the major notions that Skinner introduces
in his descriptive system. My purpose in
discussing the concepts one by one was to
show that in each case, if we take his
terms in their literal meaning, the description
covers almost no aspect of verbal
behavior, and if we take them metaphorically,
the description offers no improvement
over various traditional formulations.
The terms borrowed from experimental
psychology simply lose their
objective meaning with this extension,
and take over the full vagueness of ordinary
language. Since Skinner limits himself
to such a small set of terms for paraphrase,
many important distinctions are
obscured. I think that this analysis supports
the view expressed in "Section I, that
elimination of the independent contribution
of the speaker and learner (a result
which Skinner considers of great importance,
d. 311-12) can be achieved only at
the cost of eliminating all significance
from the descriptive system, which then
operates at a level so gross and crude that
no answers are suggested to the most elementary
questions.46 The questions to
which Skinner has addressed his speculations
are hopelessly premature. It is futile
to inquire into the causation of verbal behavior
until much more is known about
the specific character of this behavior;
and there is little point in speculating
about the process of acquisition without
58 Noam Chomsky
much better understanding of what is acquired.
Anyone who seriously approaches
the study of linguistic behavior, whether
linguist, psychologist, or philosopher,
must quickly become aware of the enormous
difficulty of stating a problem which
will define the area of his investigations,
and which will not be either completely
trivial or hopelessly beyond the range of
present-:-day understanding and technique.
In selecting functional analysis as his
problem, Skinner has set himself a task of
the latter type. In an extremely interesting
and insightful paper,47 K. S. Lashley has
implicitly delimited a class of problems
which can be approached in a fruitful way
by the linguist and psychologist, and
which are clearly preliminary to those
with which Skinner is concerned. Lashley
recognizes, as anyone must who seriously
considers the data, that the composition
and production of an utterance is not simply
a matter of stringing together a sequence
of responses under the control of
outside stimulation and intraverbal association,
and that the syntactic organization
of an utterance is not something directly
represented in any simple way in
the physical structure of the utterance itself.
A variety of observations lead him to
conclude that syntactic structure is "a generalized
pattern imposed on the specific
acts as they occur" (512), and that "a consideration
of the structure of the sentence
and other motor sequences will show. . .
that there are, behind the overtly expressed
sequences, a multiplicity of integrative
processes which can only be inferred from
the final results of their activity" (509). He
also comments on the great difficulty of
determining the "selective mechanisms"
used in the actual construction of a particular
utterance (522).
Although present-day linguistics cannot
provide a precise account of these
integrative processes, imposed patterns,
and selective mechanisms, it can at least
set itself the problem of characterizing
these completely. It is reasonable to regard
the grammar of a language L ideally
as a mechanism that provides an enumeration
of th~ sentences of L in something
like the way in which a deductive theory
gives an enumeration of a set of theorems.
(Grammar, in this sense of the word, includes
phonology.) Furthermore, the theory
of language can be regarded as a study
of the formal properties of such grammars,
and, with a precise enough formulation,
this general theory can provide a
uniform method for determining, from
the process of generation of a given sentence,
a structural description which can
give a good deal of insight into how this
sentence is used and understood. In short,
it should be possible to derive from a
properly formulated grammar a statement
of the integrative processes and generalized
patterns imposed on the specific acts
that constitute an utterance. The rules of a
grammar of the appropriate form can be
subdivided into the two types, optional
and obligatory; only the latter must be
applied in generating an utterance. The
optional rules of the grammar can be
viewed, then, as the selective mechanisms
involved in the production of a particular
utterance. The problem of specifying these
integrative processes and selective mechanisms
is nontrivial and not beyond the
range of possible investigation. The results
of such a study might, as Lashley
suggests, be of independent interest for
psychology and neurology (and conversely).
Although such a study, even if successful,
would by no means answer the
major problems involved in the investigation
of meaning and the causation of behavior,
it surely will not be unrelated to
these. It is at least possible, furthermore,
that such a notion as semantic generalization,
to which such heavy appeal is made
in all approaches to language in use, conceals
complexities and specific structure of
inference not far different from those that
can be studied and exhibited in the case of
syntax, and that consequently the general
4. A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior 59
character of the results of syntactic investigations
may be a corrective to oversimplified
approaches to the theory of meaning.
The behavior of the speaker, listener,
and learner of language constitutes, of
course, the actual data for any study of
language. The construction of a grammar
which enumerates sentences in such a way
that a meaningful structural description
can be detennined for each sentence does
not in itself provide an account of this actual
behavior. It merely characterizes abstractly
the ability of one who has mastered
the language to distinguish sentences
from nonsentences, to understand new
sentences (in part), to note certain ambiguities,
etc. These are very remarkable
abilities. We constantly read and hear
new sequences of words, recognize them
as sentences, and understand them. It is
easy to show that the new events that we
accept and understand as sentences are
not related to those with which we are familiar
by any simple notion of fonnal (or
semantic or statistical) similarity or identity
of grammatical frame. Talk of generalization
in this case is entirely pointless
and empty. It appears that we recognize a
new item as a sentence not because it
matches some familiar item in any simple
way, but because it is generated by the
grammar that each individual has somehow
and in some form internalized. And
we understand a new sentence, in part,
because we are somehow capable of determining
the process by which this sentence
is derived in this grammar.
Suppose that we manage to construct
grammars having the properties outlined
above. We can then attempt to describe
and study the achievement of the speaker,
listener, and learner. The speaker and the
listener, we must assume, have already
acquired the capacities characterized abstractly
by the grammar. The speaker's
task is to select a particular compatible set
of optional rules. If we know, from grammatical
study, what choices are available
to him and what conditions of compatibility
the choices must meet, we can proceed
meaningfully to investigate the factors
that lead h!m to make one or another
choice. The listener (or reader) must determine,
from an exhibited utterance,
what optional rules were chosen in the
construction of the utterance. It must be
admitted that the ability of a human being
to do this far surpasses our present understanding.
The child who learns a language
has in some sense constructed the grammar
for himself on the basis of his observation
of sentences and nonsentences
(i.e., corrections by the verbal community).
Study of the actual observed ability
of a speaker to distinguish sentences from
nonsentences, detect ambiguities, etc.,
apparently forces us to the conclusion that
this grammar is of an extremely complex
and abstract character, and that the young
child has succeeded in carrying out what
from the formal point of view, at least,
seems to be a remarkable type of theory
construction. Furthennore, this task is
accomplished in an astonishingly short
time, to a large extent independently of
intelligence, and in a comparable way by
all children. Any theory of learning must
cope with these facts.
It is not easy to accept the view that a
child is capable of constructing an extremely
complex mechanism for generating
a set of sentences, some of which he
has heard, or that an adult can instantaneously
detennine whether' (and if so,
how) a particular item is generated by this
mechanism, which has many of the properties
of an abstract deductive theory. Yet
this appears to be a fair description of the
perfonnance of the speaker, listener, and
learner. If this is correct, we can predict
that a direct attempt to account for the
actual behavior of speaker, listener, and
learner, not based on a prior understanding
of the structure of grammars, will
achieve very limited success. The grammar
must be regarded as a component in
the behavior of the speaker and listener
60 Noam Chomsky
which can only be inferred, as Lashley has
put it, from the resulting physical acts.
The fact that all nonnal children acquire
essentially comparable grammars of great
complexity with remarkable rapidity suggests
that human beings are somehow
specially designed to do this, with datahandling
or "hypothesis-fonnulating"
ability of unknown character and complexity.
48 The study of linguistic structure
may ultimately lead to some significant
insights into this matter. At the moment
the question cannot be seriously posed,
but in principle it may be possible to study
the problem of detennining what the builtin
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. At any rate, just as the attempt
to eliminate the contribution of the
speaker leads to a "mentalistic" descriptive
system that succeeds only in blurring
important traditional distinctions, a refusal
to study the contribution of the child
to language learning permits only a superficial
account of language acquisition,
with a vast and unanalyzed contribution
attributed to a step called generalization
which in fact includes just about everything
of interest in this process. If the
study of language is limited in these ways,
it seems inevitable that major aspects of
verbal behavior will remain a mystery.
1. Skinner's confidence in recent achievements
in the study of animal behavior and
their applicability to complex human behavior
does not appear to be widely shared. In many
recent publications of confirmed behaviorists
there is a prevailing note of skepticism with
regard to the scope of these achievements. For
representative comments, see the contributions
to Modern Learning Theory (by W. K. Estes
et al.; New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts,
Inc., 1954); B. R. Bugelski, Psychology of
Learning (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston,
Inc., 1956); S. Koch, in Nebraska Symposium
on Motivation, 58 (Lincoln, 1956);
W. S. Verplanck, "Learned and Innate Behav- .
ior," Psych. Rev., 52 (1955), 139. Perhaps the
strongest view is that of H. Harlow, who has
asserted ("Mice, Monkeys, Men, and Motives,"
Psych. Rev., 60 [1953], 23-32) that "a
strong case can be made for the proposition
that the importance of the psychological problems
studied during the last 15 years has decreased
as a negatively accelerated function
approaching an asymptote of complete indifference."
N. Tinbergen, a leading representative
of a different approach to animal-behavior
studies (comparative ethology), concludes a
discussion of functional analysis with the comment
that "we may now draw the conclusion
that the causation of behavior is immensely
more complex than was assumed in the generalizations
of the past. A number of internal
and external factors act upon complex central
nervous structures. Second, it will be obvious
that the facts at our disposal are very fragmentary
indeed" - The Study of Instinct (Toronto:
Oxford Univ. Press, 1951), p. 74.
2. In Behavior of Organisms (New York:
Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1938), Skinner
remarks that "although a conditioned operant
is the result of the correlation of the response
with a particular reinforcement, a relation between
it and a discriminative stimulus acting
prior to the response is the almost universal
rule" (178-79). Even emitted behavior is held
to be produced by some sort of "originating
-force" (51) which, in the case of operant behavior,
is not under experimental control. The
distinction between eliciting stimuli, discriminated
stimuli, and "originating forces" has
never been adequately clarified and becomes
even more confusing when private internal
events are considered to be discriminated stimuli
(see below).
3. In a famous experiment, chimpanzees
were taught to perform complex tasks to receive
tokens which had become secondary reinforcers
because of association with food.
The idea that money, approval, prestige, etc.
actually acquire their motivating effects on
human behavior according to this paradigm is
unproved, and not particularly plausible.
Many psychologists within the behaviorist
movement are quite skeptical about this (d.
23n). As in the case of most aspects of human
behavior, the evidence about secondary reinforcement
is so fragmentary, conflicting, and
4. A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior 61
complex that almost any view can find some
4. Skinner's remark quoted above about.
the generality of his basic results must be understood
in the light of the experimental limitations
he has imposed. If it were true in any
deep sense that the basic processes in language
are well understood and free of species restriction,
it would be extremely odd that language
is limited to man. With the exception of a few
scattered observations (d. his article, "A Case
History in Scientific Method," The American
Psychologist, 11 [1956], 221-33), Skinner is apparently
basing this claim on the fact that
qualitatively similar results are obtained with
bar pressing of rats and pecking of pigeons
under special conditions of deprivation and
various schedules of reinforcement. One immediately
questions how much can be based
on these facts, which are in part at least an artifact
traceable to experimental design and the
definition of stimuluS and response in terms of
smooth dynamic curoes (see below). The dangers
inherent in any attempt to extrapolate to
complex behavior from the study of such simple
responses as bar pressing should be obvious
and have often been commented on (d.,
e.g., Harlow, op. cit.). The generality of even
the simplest results is open to seriou~ question.
Cf. in this connection M. E. Bitterman, J. Wodinsky,
and D. K. Candland, "Some Comparative
Psychology," Am. Jour. of Psych., 71
(1958),94-110, where it is shown that there are
important qualitative differences in solution of
comparable elementary problems by rats and
5. An analogous argument, in connection
with a different aspect of Skinner's thinking,
is given by M. Scriven in "A Study of
Radical Behaviorism," Univ. of Minn. Studies
in Philosophy of Science, 1. Cf. Verplanck's
contribution to Modern Learning Theory, op.
cit. pp. 283-88, for more general discussion of
the difficulties in formulating an adequate definition
of stimulus and response. He concludes,
quite correctly, that in Skinner's sense of the
word, stimuli are not objectively identifiable
independently of the result~ng behavior, nor
are they manipulable. Verplanck presents a
clear discussion of many other aspects of Skinner's
system, commenting on the untestability
of many of the so-called "laws of behavior"
and the limited scope of many of the others,
a.nd the arbitrary and obscure character of
Skinner's notion of lawful relation; and, at the
same time, noting the importance of the experimental
data that Skinner has accumulated.
6. In Behavior of Organisms, Skinner
apparently was Willing to accept this consequence.
He insists (41-42) that the terms of
casual description in the popular vocabulary
are not validly descriptive until the defining
properties of stimulus and response are specified,
the correlation is demonstrated experimentally,
and the dynamic changes in it are
shown to be lawful. Thus, in describing a child
as hiding from a dog, "it will not be enough to
dignify the popular vocabulary by appealing
to essential properties of dogness or hidingness
and to suppose them intuitively known." But
this is exactly what Skinner does in the book
under review, as we will see directly ..
7. 253f. and elsewhere, repeatedly. As
an example of how well we can control behavior
using the notions developed in this book,
Skinner shows here how he would go about
evoking the response pencil. The most effective
way, he suggests, is to say to the subject,
"Please say pencil" (our chances would, presumably,
be even further improved by use of
"aversive stimulation," e.g., holding a gun to
his head). We can also "make sure that no
pencil or writing instrument is available, then
hand our subject a pad of paper appropriate to
pencil sketching, and offer him a handsome
reward for a recognizable picture of a caL" It
would also be useful to have voices saying
pencil or pen and . .. in the background; signs
reading pencil or pen and, .. ; or to place a
"large and unusual pencil in an unusual place
clearly in sight." "Under such circumstances, it
is highly probable that our subject will say
pencil. ""The available techniques are all illustrated
in this sample." These contributions of
behavior theory to the practical control of human
behavior are amply illustrated elsewhere
in the book, as when Skinner shows (113-14)
how we can evoke the response red (the device
suggested is to hold a red object before the
subject and say, 'Tell me what color this is").
In fairness, it must be mentioned that
there are certain nontrivial applications of
operant conditioning to the control of human
behavior. A wide variety of experiments have
shown that the number of plural nouns (for
example) produced by a subject will increase if
the experimenter says "right" or "good" when
one is produced (similarly, positive attitudes
.. 62 Noam Chomsky
on a certain issue, stories with particular content,
etc.; cf. L. Krasner, "Studies of the Conditioning
of Verbal Behavior," Psych. Bull., 55
[1958], for a survey of several dozen experiments
of this kind, mostly with positive results).
It is of some interest that the subject is
usually unaware of the process. Just what insight
this gives into normal verbal behavior is
not obvious. Nevertheless, it is an example of
positive and not totally expected results using
the Skinnerian paradigm.
8. "Are Theories of Learning Necessary?",
Psych. Rev., 57 (1950), 193-216.
9. And elsewhere. In his paper "Are'
Theories of Learning Necessary?" Skinner considers
the problem how to extend his analysis
of behavior to experimental situations in
which it is impossible to observe frequencies,
rate of response being the only valid datum.
His answer is that "the notion of probability is
usually extrapolated to cases in which a frequency
analysis cannot be carried out. In the
field of behavior we arrange a situation in
which frequencies are available as data, but we
use the notion of probability in analyzing or
formulating instances of even types of behavior
which are not susceptible to this analysis"
(199). There are, of course, conceptions of
probability not based directly on frequency,
but I do not see how any of these apply to the
cases that Skinner has in mind. I see no way of
interpreting the quoted passage other than as
signifying an intention to use the word probability
in describing behavior quite independently
of whether the notion of probability is
at all relevant.
10. Fortunately, "In English this presents
no great difficulty" since, for example, "relative
pitch levels . . . are. not . . . important"
(25). No reference is made to the numerous
studies of the function of relative pitch levels
and other intonational features in English.
lL The vagueness ot the word tendency,
as opposed to frequency, saves the latter quotation
from the obvious incorrectness of the
former. Nevertheless, a good deal of stretching
is necessary. If tendency has anything like its
ordinary meaning, the remark is clearly false.
One may believe strongly the assertion that
Jupiter has four moons, that many of Sophocles'
plays have been irretrievably lost, that the
earth will burn to a crisp in ten million years,
and so on, without experiencing the slightest
tendency to act upon these verbal stimuli. We
may, of course, turn Skinner's assertion into a
very unilluminating truth by defining "tendency
to act" tp include tendencies to answer
questions in certain ways, under motivation to
say what one believes is true.
12. One should add, however, that it is in
general not the stimulus as such that is reinforcing,
but the stimulus in a particular situational
context. Depending on experimental
arrangement, a particular physical event or
object may be reinforcing, punishing, or unnoticed.
Because Skinner limits himself to a
particular, very simple experimental arrangement,
it is not necessary for him. to add this
qualification, which would not be at all easy to
formulate precisely. But it is of course necessary
if he expects to extend his descriptive system
to behavior in general.
13. This has been frequently noted.
14. See, for example, "Are Theories of
Learning Necessary?", op. cit., p. 199. Elsewhere,
he suggests that the term learning be
restricted to complex situations, but these are
not characterized.
15. "A child acquires verbal behavior
when relatively unpatterned vocalizations,
selectively reinforced, gradually assume forms
which produce appropriate consequences in a
given verbal community" (31). "Differential
reinforcement shapes up all verbal fo~s, and
when a prior stimulus enters into the contingency,
reinforcement is responsible for its resulting
control. ... The availability of behavior,
its probability or strength, depends on
whether reinforcements continue in effect and
according to what schedules" (203-4); elsewhere,
16. Talk of schedules of reinforcement
here is entirely pointless. How are we to decide,
for example, according to what schedules
covert reinforcement is arranged, as in thinking
or verbal fantasy, or what the scheduling is
of such factors as silence, speech, and appropriate
future reactions to communicated information?
46. E.g., what are in fact the actual units
of verbal behavior? Under what conditions
will a physical event capture the attention (be
a stimulus) or be a reinforcer? How do we decide
what stimuli are in "control" in a specific
case? When are stimuli "similar"? And so on.
(It is not interesting to be told, e.g., that we
4. A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior 63
say Stop to an automobile or billiard ball because
they are sufficiently similar to reinforcing
people [46].)
The use of unanalyzed notions like similar
and generalization is particularly disturbing,
since it indicates an apparent lack of interest in
every significant aspect of the learning or the
use of language in new situations. No one has
ever doubted that in some sense, language is
learned by generalization, or that novel utterances
and situations are in some way similar to
familiar ones. The only matter of serious interest
is the specific "similarity." Skinner has,
apparently, no interest in this. Keller and
Schoenfeld, op. cit., proceed to incorporate
these notions (which they identify) into their
Skinnerian "modern objective psychology" by
defining two stimuli to be similar when "we
make the same sort of response to them" (124;
but when are responses of the "same sort"?).
They do not seem to notice that this definition
converts their "principle of generalization"
(116), under any reasonable interpretation of
this, into a tautology. It is obvious that such a
definition will not be of much help in the study
of language learning or construction of new
responses in appropriate situations.
47. 'The Problem of Serial Order in Behavior,"
in L. A. Jeffress, ed., Hixon Symposium
on Cerebral Mechanisms in Behavior
(New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1951).
Reprinted in F. A. Beach, D. o. Hebb, C. T.
Morgan, H. W. Nissen, eds., The Neuropsychology
of Lashley (New York: McGraw-Hill
Book Company, 1960). Page references are to
the latter.
48. There is nothing essentially mysterious
about this. Complex innate behavior patterns
and innate "tendencies to learn in specific
ways" have been carefully studied in lower
organisms. Many psychologists have been inclined
to believe that such biological structure
will not have an important effeCt on acquisition
of complex behavior in higher organisms,
but I have not been able to find any serious
justification for this attitude. Some recent
studies have stressed the necessity for carefully
analyzing the strategies available to the organism,
regarded as a complex "informationprocessing
system" (d. J. S. Bruner, J. J. Goodnow,
and G. A. Austin, A Study of Thinking
[New York, 1956]; A. Newell, J. C. Shaw, and
H. A. Simon, "Elements of a Theory of Human
Problem Solving," Psych. Rev., 65
[1958], 151-66), if anything significant is to be
said about the character of human learning.
These may be largely innate, or developed by
early learning processes about which very little
is yet known. (But see Harlow, "The Formation
of Learning Sets," Psych. Rev., 56 (1949),
51-65, and many later papers, where striking
shifts in the character of learning are shown as
a result of early training; also D. o. Hebb,
Organization of Behavior, 109 ff.). They are
undoubtedly quite complex. Cf. Lenneberg,
op. cit., and R. B. Lees, review of N. Chomsky's
Syntactic Structures in Language, 33
(1957), 406f, for discussion of the topics mentioned
in this section.

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