- Capitalism and Alternatives -

Skinner and Chomsky

Posted by: Hank on February 08, 19100 at 12:22:19:

Name: Hank
Marital Status: Often
Children: Various
Turn-offs: Cucumbers, Mind games
Turn-ons: Long walks on the beach, honesty
Favorite quote: "I gave at the orifice"

Re: Some Skinner and Chomsky, for your Perusal or Refusal.

Dear Debating Room,

I can understand why some people on this board would take pot-shots at Noam Chomsky. He is both anti-Bolshevik (anti-Leninist) and anti-Behaviorist (anti-Skinnerian). This letter will deal with the latter, and thus will serve as a brief discussion of Chomskyan linguistics as opposed to Chomsky's politics. At the end, I hope to show how Chomskyan linguistics are related to his anarchist perspectives.

(For the sake of brevity, I'll be forced to generalize somewhat, and, except in egregious cases I ask for the readers' patience in this regard. And please remember, I'm talking about Behaviorism as it applies to FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION and SUBSEQUENT KNOWLEDGE OF A LANGUAGE which may or may not have any relevance outside the world of scientific inquiry.)

Chomskyan linguistics began as a direct repudiation of Skinner's 1957 work "Verbal Behavior," in which Skinner said that learning a language is the result of antecedent events. Thus, in keeping with the "stimulus/response" model, Skinner constructed a model of language acquisition which held that language is determined by stimuli, subsequent response and then reinforcing stimuli. So, the object "milk" acts as a stimulus for the child to utter "milk" and so the parent responds with "very good!" and gives the milk to the child. And so it goes with language acquisition: children make sounds, some of which get reinforced and some don't. Those that get reinforced turn into words, and these words, strung together, make sentences.

Chomsky's "demolition" of Skinner's "Verbal Behavior" appeared two years later in the journal "Language." In it, Chomsky introduced the key notion of CREATIVE USE OF LANGUAGE, that is, people are always producing and recognizing sentences they have never heard before. Since this is the case, how can it be that they are acting under control of stimuli? Chomsky says, for example, that one need not experience the situation to take appropriate action if someone says "The volcano is erupting" or "There's a maniac in the next room."

Furthermore, said Chomsky, terms such as "stimulus" and "response" are, in spite of their scientific veneer, ultimately vague and circular. To use Chomsky's example, if a person is looking at a painting she might say "Dutch" or "Clashes with the wallpaper. Hey, I thought you liked abstract art" or a host of other things. The only way we know that the speaker was impressed by the "Dutchness" of the painting is because the speaker's response to it was "Dutch." So, the Behaviorist Model INFERS the stimulus FROM the response instead of having the stimulus PREDICT the response.

Chomsky continued with a point which animated all his work in linguistics: "It is simply not true that children can learn language only through 'meticulous care' (Skinner) on the part of adults who shape their verbal repertoire through careful reinforcement." That is, children aren't "taught" to acquire language, rather there is something ALREADY IN THEM--genetically encoded (!)--which their environment only serves to ACTIVATE. The Behaviorist Model--even when extended to "associative nets" and the like--can ultimately only produce a system of havits, and can no way account for the fact that all humans are capable of producing and understanding novel sentences.

Chomsky calls this the Language Acquisition Device, but we should be careful not to let the machinery metaphor take us too far, for he claimed that his "Chomskyan Revolution" in linguistics shouldn'be considered a revolution at all, but a return to the Rationalist approach of the early Englightenment Period (Cartesian) which held that the Mind cannot be reduced to mechanistic principles. And knowledge of a language is to the Mind what the cirulatory system is to the body; a separate entity but one that runs throughout.

Here's the exciting, anti-behavioralist part: This language acquisition device with which all humans are born is intricately structured. That is, it follows rules; there are certain constraints which NO HUMAN LANGUAGE can do . . .EVER!

That means that all human languages--though widely different on the surface--conform to bound system of Universal Grammar, and describing this Universal Grammar (UG) is the Chomskyan program.

The easiest example of UG is question formation. Take the English declarative sentence:

1a) This is Joe's car.

When forming a question, we get

1b) Is this Joe's car?

Which is an inversion of the "is" and "this", but in NO HUMAN LANGUAGE are questions formed by simple inversion of declarative elements.

So never would there be

*1c) Car Joe's is this?

Even though this is a fairly simple operation. And the anti-behavioralist point is NOBODY HAS TO TEACH US THIS. IT IS AS PART OF OUR GENETIC ENDOWMENT AS HAVING A NOSE AND HANDS INSTEAD OF A BEAK AND WINGS.

For comparison, we can use other languages. Thus, if we want to escape the Western World (and its subject-verb syntax) we can go to Japan. In Japanese we get a declarative:

2a) Kore wa Joe no kuruma desu.

(This ,(topic marker "wa") Joe (possessive marker "no") (verb "is")

becoming the question

2b) Kore wa Joe no kuruma desu ka?

(--"ka" indicating interrogative)


*2c) Desu kuruma no Joe wa kore?

But simple inversion would seem to be a simple operation, so why doesn't any human language do it? BECAUSE WE CAN'T! Our minds are not structured to do this.

So, what interests Chomsky is how, without any instruction, every speaker knows that they can't form questions in this fashion. Chomsky:

"One possibility is that someone taught us, that we tried to say it and we were told it was not a sentence. Of course, that's nonsense. No one ever told us such things, and in fact nobody ever makes the error so nobody could have been told. Or you could say that you simply did not hear it, but that doesn't help because you have never heard about many other sentences that are good, and you know they are right . . .the principles that are involved are SIMPLY ROOTED IN THE NATURE OF THE ORGANISM" (emphasis is mine--this is from "Language and the Human Mind", Language and POlitics, page 258)

Students of both Chomsky's linguistics and his politics know that he insists on keeping the two seperate. One is scientific inquiry and the other is the issue of human liberation. Sometimes Chomsky will posit an instinct for freedom which exists as just as genetically endowed as the Language Acquisition Device, but this is not a feature of his science.

Generally, doesn't deal with politics in scientific, natural terms, but the notion of an instinct for freedom does run throughout his anti-Leninist anarchism (a term Chomsky has never used). His political work is a careful delineation of capitalist crimes, specifically those of the U.S. government. The animating principle--as shown by the title of his 1992 book, is that the U.S. deters democracy for its corporate interests.

Chomsky has been criticized for not offering any constructive solutions to the problem of capitalism. That is, he has not offered any idea as to the contours of a post-capitalist society. To this he would plead guilty. and he would caution against anyone who looks to leaders. Chomsky is steadfastly anti-authoritarian. Leaders come along not because they want to lead, but because they just happen to be there. "What happens is that the people get organized and toss up a leader."

In my opinion, Chomsky paints Leninism with strokes too broad. He could be doing that for a variety of reasons, I don't know. The one point I wanted to make in this post, however, is that his rejection of Skinner is, at its root, a SCIENTIFIC DEBATE as to HOW TO CONDUCT LINGUISTIC INQUIRY, and ONLY LATER does it take on political dimensions.

For now, this is enough. The direction in which I proceed will depend on the reactions I get to this post, curious, supportive or spiteful.


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