Essential Viewing for Fans of Verbal Behavior: The Catania-Chomsky Interview

In my last post I mentioned that a review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior by linguist Noam Chomsky landed dramatically in 1959. It triggered two seismic shifts. First, cognitive scientists have described Chomsky’s take-down of Skinner’s self-described most important work as the death knell of behaviorism, the proclamation that revealed to them that the Skinnerian Emperor had no clothes. After Chomsky, Skinner’s influence waned. Mainstream experimental and theoretical Psychology shed pretty much all allegiance to behavioristic values and ran headlong into the “cognitive revolution.” Clinical Psychology and many other enterprises would not be too far behind. Second, Chomksy’s review cast a prodigious shadow over linguistic studies. Chomsky held that language is too complex and too “creative” to be strictly learned. Its acquisition must, he concluded, be driven by an innate cognitive module (the “Language Acquisition Device”) that comes pre-equipped to understand grammar and syntax. Because of this emphasis, for a long time language learning processes received limited attention in mainstream linguistic studies.

If you’re a behavior analyst who embraces a behavioral perspective on verbal behavior (whether as researcher, theorist, or practitioner), then you can’t fully appreciate how your efforts fit into the contemporary zeitgeist without understanding Chomsky’s stance and the influence it exerted. I do recommend reading Chomsky’s review, and behavioral responses to it (e.g, see here and here), but if you really want to understand Chomsky, and thus his influence, why not get his story right from the horse’s mouth?

Fortunately you can do just that due to a series of remarkable videos (produced by enGrama) in which Charlie Catania interviews Chomsky. There are four installments, and the first three are available on YouTube (according to Charlie, the release date for Part 4 is TBD):

There’s also a preliminary segment with Catania discussing verbal behavior issues generally. Each installment lasts about an hour, and English speakers note: The main content is in English but you may encounter a brief Spanish lead-in.

Here’s how enGrama describes the series:

These are discussions of various topics relevant to the relation between behavior analysis and linguistics. They cover not only classic issues such as Skinner versus Chomsky on verbal behavior and on freedom, but also issues of mutual concern and even compatibility in the evolved positions of these fields.

Folks, this is an AMAZING series. To start with, it’s amazing that Charlie got Chomsky to participate. To many people, the guy’s a rock star, in the realms of both linguistics and political science, so I mightn’t have expected him to donate time to a discussion that I’m sure he imagined ended in 1959, with his review of VB being the final say. It’s also amazing to hear Chomsky expound, on the fly, about a wide variety of topics. Charlie is a skilled interviewer, and he gives Chomsky space to think aloud. You can therefore get inside Chomsky’s head a bit, and although you might not agree with him, you certainly can see how he arrived at some of his stances. By the way, although Charlie’s not combative, he does pose hard questions, so this is a high level discussion.

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Chomsky and Catania (screen grab from Part 1).

It’s said that one should keep friends close and enemies closer. In the battle of ideas, there’s a tendency to simply reject competitors as misguided or misinformed. Unfortunately, it’s not really part of the vibe of contemporary behavior analysis to seek out respectful conversations with people who disagree with us. Too bad, because those conversations force us to be clearer about what we believe, to understand what controls competing viewpoints, and to be open to the possibility of being persuaded to change our views when necessary. If you want a model for how to have the needed conversations, the Catania/Chomsky interview is a gold-standard example.

Honestly, make the time to take it in. You’ll be a better behavior analyst for having done so.