Verbal Behavior Reconsidered: The Catania-Chomsky Interviews (Update)

This post was originally published on February 8, 2024.

The fourth and final installment of the interview series described in this post has just been released on youtube.

The series is essential viewing for anyone interested in verbal behavior and the place of behavior analysis in the broader scholarly community. You may not love everything Chomsky has to say. But everyone interested in spreading the gospel of behavior analysis needs to understand what others don’t get about the science of behavior — after all, we’re supposed to start with where the organism is, right? Chomsky is an important historical touchstone in this regard. Skinner said, in Verbal Behavior, that self-knowledge is socially taught. You might say, therefore, that you can’t fully grasp who we are as a discipline until you wrestle with others’ misperceptions about us.

When linguist Noam Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior landed dramatically in 1959, it triggered two seismic shifts. First, many cognitive scientists viewed Chomsky’s take-down of Skinner (and his self-described most important work) as the death knell of behaviorism. 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 dark 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:

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.