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Forgotten Things

Posted by: Hank on February 09, 19100 at 13:02:49:

In Reply to: You forgot something... posted by Barry Stoller on February 09, 19100 at 11:01:35:

: You neglected to mention the most salient aspect of the Chomsky-Skinner debate: Chomsky's slanderous hatchet-job on Beyond Freedom and Dignity published in the New York Review of Books in early 1972. This 'review' of Skinner's book represents yellow journalism at its most perniciously biased. That Chomsky chose to reprint it in his collection of essays, The Chomsky Reader years later only testifies to Chomsky's rabid zeal to misrepresent Skinner.

I didn't forget about it; I omitted it deliberately, and made clear my reasons why. The dispute that Chomsky has with Behaviorism began as a scientific dispute concerning how to investigate the problem of first language acquisition. Since then, the notion of an innate, species specific Language Acquisition Device has become common knowledge. How it is STRUCTURED and precisely what that MEANS is still a wide-open question, and probably not of very much importance in this forum. I mean, would it be appropriate here to discuss the physiology of a secretary's hand? What if it is the hand of a secretary who has that metacarpal dysfunction from overwork at the keyboard? (What's the name of that anyway?) Maybe it would be appropriate here, maybe not.

Still, since the initial debate of 43 years ago, Chomsky's position has been proved correct: The stimulus/response/reinforcement model cannot answer for first language acquisition. That does NOT mean that Behaviorism is useless, even in other fields of linguistics such as second language acquisition. In fact, when it comes to "real-life" applications as they stand now, Chomskyan linguistics will get the ax before Behaviorism.

Stoller: Let us recall in passing that Skinner was an ardent proponent of positive reinforcement, the concept that behavior can---and should---be strengthened (made more likely to occur) by presenting, on various schedules, contrived reinforcements that, simply put, bring pleasure to whom it is presented. Skinner's repudiation of negative reinforcement (i.e. positive reinforcers that are taken away) was made clear when he criticized the bourgeois wage system:


: Wages serve... simply to create a standard economic condition which may be withdrawn aversively.(1)

: Skinner's repudiation of aversive control (presentation of punitive stimuli) was also clearly stated:


: [P]unishment does not actually eliminate behavior from a repertoire, and its temporary achievement is obtained at tremendous cost in reducing the overall efficiency and happiness of the group.(2)

: Skinner's recommendation for the best setting for the application of positive reinforcement? Intentional communities, designed to be small, where 'face-to-face control' (social cues) is the sole power (see 'The Design of Experimental Communities,'Cumulative Record third edition, Appleton-Century-Crofts 1972, pp. 58-65; 'Human Behavior and Democracy,' Reflections on Behaviorism and Society, Prentice-Hall 178, pp. 3-15; and 'Walden Two Revisited,' ibid., pp. 56-66).

: That said, it would be a GROSS MISREPRESENTATION to say this about Skinner and behaviorism:


: In fact, there is nothing in Skinner's approach that is incompatible with a police state in which rigid laws are enforced by people who are themselves subject to them and the threat of dire punishment hangs over all... Extending these thoughts, consider a well-run concentration camp with inmates spying on one another and the gas oven smoking in the distance and perhaps an occasional verbal hint as a reminder of the meaning of this reinforcer.(3)

: What blatant bullshit!

Easy there, "Mad Dog"!

(Hey, Barry-- ;-) )

Did Chomsky say "Skinner advocates . . .gas ovens . . .blah, blah, blah"? No, he didn't. He said "there's nothing in Skinner's approach that's incompatible with a police state . . ." What Chomsky is talking about here is taking (as many American academics do) Behaviorism/Skinnerism as an EPISTEMOLOGICAL TOTALITY. Chomsky is using the shocking images of a police state and gas ovens to discredit the notion that Behaviorism is the ONLY POSSIBLE EXPLANATION for human knowledge.

I don't recall Skinner ever saying it was, but that doesn't change the fact that American academia, well into the 1980's did embrace Behaviorism in this manner, and THAT is what Chomsky was railing against.

Let's repeat the "blatant bullshit" line: "There's nothing in Skinner's approach that is incompatible with . . ."

Do you think that Skinner would necessarily disagree with that? I don't. As you mentioned in a recent post to Piper, Skinner was (like many of us) interested in doing research that would be a liberating or at least some kind of "progressive" force for humanity. Skinner wanted to increase the sum of human knowledge so as to better the human condition, right?

But, if you take a hard-line "tabula rasa" approach to examining the human psyche ("tabula rasa" being, at one time an anti-clerical term, itself a term of liberation, right?), then we can see Chomsky's point: A total Behaviorist approach could, very easily, be co-opted by forces which seek to keep humanity enslaved (capitalists, or for shock value, Nazis. this was pre-Godwin's law I guess.).

Chomsky's point is that without first viewing the Human Mind as having some "instinct for freedom" (his words)--if you view it as a "blank slate" which is a product of its environment--then there is indeed nothing "in the approach that is incompatible" with repression. And this is true NO MATTER WHAT the intentions of those who pioneered the approach may have been.

For his part, Chomsky does not completely discount Behaviorism or Structuralism or any studies of particular languages. (i.e., He has no problem with people going to live among the Ainu and seeing how they form modal questions.) But he does object to the notion that the only focus of linguistic inquiry should be creating taxonomies of world languages, and for this we have Chomsky to thank for bringing linguistics into the realm of psychology.

Stoller: Now, I have heard that Chomsky wrote about Lenin, but I confess I didn't read it. Considering the egregious slander Chomsky wrote about Skinner, I wouldn't waste my time. Chomsky is little more than a well-paid literary character assassin. If he's the best the left can do, god help us all...

Wow! Gosh, Barry, I, uh, disagree.

But I see your point, sort of. You wouldn't like what he says about Lenin--but to be fair he doesn't write about Lenin hardly at all. Mostly it's in the many, many interviews Chomsky does. As I said before, in my opinion, Chomsky paints Lenin with too broad a brush and could be doing it for a variety of reasons. Perhaps I'll explore this issue with you at some other time.

: _______________
: Notes:

: 1. Skinner, Science and Human Behavior, Macmillan 1953, p. 388.

: 2. Ibid., p. 190.

: 3. Chomsky, The Chomsky Reader, Pantheon Books 1987, pp. 177-8.

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