Contrasting Views of Human Behavior and Human Mind: An Epistemological Drama in Five Acts

Last month, I received an unexpected communication from Dr. Henry (Hank) Schlinger, a scholar whom I did not know. As he pointed out, this was a somewhat delayed communication, since it referred to an article of mine written quite some time ago. 

In his note to me, Dr. Schlinger argued that I had been mistaken in my assertion that his brand of psychology—called behaviorism—has been discredited and that another brand of psychology—called cognitive psychology—had taken its place. And he took issue with the way in which I had dramatized this process—I had dubbed the change “the cognitive revolution”—and personalized it, citing the work of linguist Noam Chomsky as being a principal factor in challenging the behaviorist account of “verbal behavior” put forth by B.F. Skinner, a well-known psychologist.

After some reflection, I decided both to respond to Dr. Schlinger and to share the correspondence with Noam Chomsky, whom I have known for many years. (I also knew “Fred” Skinner, who was a neighbor, and who befriended my young son, Benjamin, with whom he walked around the neighborhood.) Chomsky responded and, with this permission, I quote his response here.

There ensued one more round of letters—and I’ve described collection as “a suite of letters in five acts.” I reproduce the exchange here. I would like to think that it is an example of how scholars can disagree profoundly but do so in a respectful way. I thank both Hank Schlinger and Noam Chomsky for their cooperation.

Act I: An Opening Foray from Hank Schlinger

Dear Professor Gardner,

I know I’m a bit late to the game, but I just read your article “Green ideas sleeping furiously” (1995), and I have the following comments.

In your article, you said the following:

“Chomsky’s review of Verbal Behavior was a major event in the movement that was to topple behaviorism and itself become a new orthodoxy,” and “His own research, however, was quite specifically grounded in linguistics and took a decidedly unusual perspective on human language.”

As for Chomsky’s research, I’m curious what you’re referring to because I just looked at all the articles he lists on his CV and didn’t see one research article; that is, no experiments.

As to Chomsky’s review toppling behaviorism, I find that curious too because I’m a radical behaviorist and the last time I looked, I’m still here and teaching behavior analysis classes at my university. And there are thousands of other behavior analysts like me all over the world who belong to numerous professional organizations and who publish in journals devoted to the experimental, conceptual, and applied analysis of behavior.

As to the new orthodoxy, again I’m curious what that was or is. It certainly wasn’t Chomsky’s “theory” of 1957, because that “theory” is gone and his positions have changed with the intellectual wind as one would expect of a non-experimental, rationalist.

As I wrote in 2008 on the 50th anniversary of Skinner’s book:

It seems absurd to suggest that a book review could cause a paradigmatic revolution or wreak all the havoc that Chomsky’s review is said to have caused to Verbal Behavior or to behavioral psychology. To dismiss a natural science (the experimental analysis of behavior) and a theoretical account of an important subject matter that was 23 years in the writing by arguably the most eminent scientist in that discipline based on one book review is probably without precedent in the history of science. 

To sum up the logical argument against Chomsky’s “review” of Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior in a rather pithy statement, a neuroscientist at Florida State University once asked rhetorically, “What experiment did Chomsky do?”

And for all of Chomsky’s and your diatribes against Skinner, his book, and the science he helped to foster, his book has been selling better than ever and is now being used as the basis of language training programs all over the world for individuals with language delays and deficits.

Science doesn’t proceed by rational argument, but by experimentation. The experimental foundation of behavior analysis is without precedent in psychology and the principles derived therefrom not only parsimoniously explain a wide range of human behaviors—yes, including language—but they have been used successfully to ameliorate behavioral problems in populations ranging from people diagnosed with autism to business and industry. And what have Chomsky’s “theories” enabled us to do?

I would say that the proof is in the pudding. The fact that some psychologists have not been convinced says a lot about them, but nothing about the pudding.

In case you’re interested, I’ve attached a couple of articles that bear on the subject. You might also want to check out this relevant article:

Andresen, J. T. (1990). Skinner and Chomsky 30 years later. Or: The return of the repressed. Historiographia Linguistica, 17,(1-2), 145 –165.


Hank Schlinger


Act II: Howard Gardner Responds

Dear Dr. Schlinger,

I appreciate your taking the time to write to me.

Clearly, we have very different views of science. As I understand it, for you science is totally experimental and good science has to change the world, hopefully in a positive direction.

I have a much more capacious view of science—going back to its original etymology as “knowledge.” There are many ways to know the world and that includes many forms of science. Much of Einstein’s work was totally theoretical; Darwin’s work was primarily observational and conceptual; whole fields like astronomy (including cosmology), geology, and evolutionary biology do not and often cannot carry out experiments.

An even more fundamental difference: I basically accept Thomas Kuhn’s argument, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that the big changes in science involve the adoption of fundamentally different questions and even fundamentally different views of the world. Physics in Aristotle’s time turns out to have been a wholly different enterprise than it was for Newton; Einstein, and then quantum mechanics entailed paradigm shifts again. A similar evolution/revolution occurred in other fields, ranging from biology to geology.

In the field that we both know—psychology—there were what are often called mini-paradigm shifts from the associationism and structural-functionalism of the nineteenth century to the behaviorism of the early decades of the 20th century, to the cognitive revolution (which I chronicled in The Mind’s New Science), and now-again—the emergence of cognitive neurosciences, including psychology.

These paradigm shifts occur for many reasons—and the shifts are not all progressive—but they affect what promising younger scientists (whether theoretically or empirically oriented) consider to be questions/problems worth investigating and how they proceed to investigate them.

It’s in this spirit, and on the basis of this analysis, that I, and many others, claim that over the last several decades, the behaviorist approach was replaced by a cognitive approach to psychological (and related) issues and questions. Neither Skinner nor Chomsky caused this change; but they serve as convenient “stand-ins” for a process that involved many scientists doing many kinds of theoretical and empirical work in many societies.

Turning to your specific point, neither I (nor, I believe Chomsky) dismiss the belief that one can affect behavior by rewards and punishment. Indeed, nearly everyone in the world believes this—including the proverbial grandmothers. From our perspective, the behaviorist approach has two crippling difficulties:

  1. When results come out differently than anticipated—for example, behavior changing for all time because of one positive or negative experience or behavior failing to change despite several experiences—then the analysis is simply reconfigured to account for the results. If a behavior changes, then it must have been reinforced. In that way, as with psychoanalysis, it becomes circular.
  2. While the experimental analysis of behavior may explain certain aspects of verbal behavior, it leaves out what many of us consider to be the most interesting and important set of questions: what is language, how does it differ from other human processes and behaviors, how do we account for the universals of language as well as the speed and similarity with which languages are acquired, despite their superficial differences.

None of this should be seen as an indication that your own work is anachronistic or as a critique of the work per se—but it is a claim that the world of science moves on and that what was on center stage in the U.S. (and the Soviet Union) seventy years ago is now decidedly a side show.

I may post parts of our exchange on my website. Please let me know if you prefer to be identified or not.




ACT III: Communication from Noam Chomsky

Thanks for letting me see the exchange. I have a different view of what an experiment is. Take standard elicitation of the judgments about grammatical status and interpretation, e.g., the example that apparently troubled him: “colorless green ideas….”, “revolutionary new ideas…”, “furiously sleep ideas green colorless,” etc. – the kind of judgments that litter my papers and all papers on linguistics. Each is an experiment, in fact, the kind of experiment familiar for centuries in perceptual psychology. By now they have also been replicated very carefully by controlled experiments, e.g. Jon Sprouse’s, which show that the judgments used as illustrations in standard texts have about 98% confirmation under carefully controlled experiment. Furthermore, there is experimental work of the kind that Schlinger would regard as experiment under his narrow view, in psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics, confirming many of the conclusions drawn in theoretical work based on the usual kinds of (highly reliable) elicitation experiments, e.g. work showing crucially differential brain activity in invented languages that do or do not conform to deep linguistic universals.

In contrast, work in the Skinnerian paradigm has yielded essentially nothing involving language or other domains related to human (or even animal) higher mental processes. Or for that matter anywhere apart from extremely narrow conditions.

I always felt that the death-knell for Skinnerian (and indeed most) behaviorism was Lashley’s serial order paper, apparently ignored (as far as I could determine then, or have since) until I brought it up in my review. And the last nail in the coffin should have been Breland-Breland on instinctual drift. And shortly after a mass of work by others trained within that tradition: Brewer, Dulaney, by now too many others to mention.



ACT IV: Hank Schlinger’s Further Comments

Dear Howard,

Again, thank you for your reply. I appreciate the opportunity to have this exchange. Below are my comments.

1. Yes, we have different views of science, but you misread my view. I do not think science is or should be totally experimental, but I do believe that the natural sciences—and you, or other psychologists, may not want to include psychology in that exclusive club (see below)—have proceeded first by experimentation, the results of which led to laws and then theories, which were used to understand and make predictions about novel phenomena. And, while the goal of science it not necessarily to change the world, the natural sciences, through experimentation, have enabled us to cure and prevent diseases, for example, and to develop technologies that have dramatically changed our world, in many instances, for the better. 

1a. Einstein’s theoretical work was based on the experimental foundation of physics. And while much of Darwin’s work was observational, he also conducted experiments, and his thinking was informed by experimental biology.

1b. It is true, as you say, that astronomers, geologists, and evolutionary biologists in some cases may not be able to conduct experiments, though sometimes they do—and must. But their theoretical work is predicated on the discovery of laws through experimentation with things here on earth that are observable, measurable, and manipulable. Otherwise, they are no better than philosophers.

2. I know you have written about the so-called cognitive revolution; I have your book. I say, “so-called because one psychologist’s cognitive revolution is another psychologist’s cognitive resurgence (Greenwood, 1999), myth (Leahey, 1992), or even rhetorical device (O’Donohue & Ferguson, 2003). As Leahey (1992) points out, “But we need not assume that Kuhn is good philosophy of science, and instead rescue psychology from the Procrustean bed of Kuhnianism. His various theses have been roundly criticized (Suppe, 1977), and the trend in history and philosophy of science today, excepting Cohen, is toward emphasizing continuity and development instead of revolution.” (p. 316).

3. As for the claim by you and other cognitive revolution proponents that “the behaviorist approach was replaced by a cognitive approach to psychological (and related) issues and questions,” not all cognitive psychologists adhere to that position. The cognitive psychologist Roddy Roediger (2004) called it a “cartoon view of the history of psychology.” That, plus the frequent statements by cognitivists that Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviornot only demolished the book but behaviorsm as well, remind me of the real fake news spewed by Fox News, and now Trump, that is accepted as truth because it is repeated so often. It’s a bit like saying that humans evolved from apes, ignoring that apes still exist. Yes, the predominant view among psychologists is a cognitive one, but it has always been the case. And, behavior analysis still exists. The idea that there ever was a behavioristic hegemony is absurd. Even some of the so-called behaviorists, such as Tolman and Hull, were barely indistinguishable from today’s cognitive psychologist. 

4. Calling the results of decades of systematic experimentation—which by the way, is promoted in almost every introductory psychology textbook I have ever seen as the only method to discover cause and effect—on operant learning “rewards and punishment,” is like calling the centuries of experimental work which led to the theory gravity “apples falling from trees,” which “nearly everyone in the world believes …including the proverbial grandmothers.” That fails to appreciate or even understand what systematic experimentation contributes to our understanding and, yes, knowledge, of the world.

5. Your depiction of the “two crippling difficulties” of the behaviorist approach are simply caricatures created by cognitivists to justify the necessity of their (the cognitivists’) anachronistic, dualistic, view of psychology. Without providing references, your first difficulty remains an unsupported assertion. And, numerous behavior analysts, starting with Skinner himself, have dealt effectively with your second difficulty. The fact that cognitivists refuse to be convinced is the real issue.

6. Back to the beginning, we—and I mean you and I as stand-ins for cognitive and behavioral psychologists—do have different views of science. My science is importantly based on, but not limited to, experimentation. In other words, going back to Watson’s (1913) call to action, a natural science. Yours is apparently based mostly on reason and logic (a rationalist position, like Chomsky’s) and as Skinner once wrote (in a book apparently relegated to the historical trash heap by the cognitivist’s hero—Chomsky) about appealing to hypothetical cognitive constructs to explain language behavior, “There is obviously something suspicious in the ease with which we discover in a set of ideas precisely those properties needed to account for the behavior which expresses them. We evidently construct the ideas at will from the behavior to be explained. There is, of course, no real explanation” (p. 6). This, in a nutshell, is the weakness of the cognitive approach.

As an editor of a mainstream psychology journal recently said in reply to a colleague of mine who wrote in his submission that “if psychology is to be a natural science, then it has to study the actual behaivor of individual organisms,” “Why should psychology aspire to become a natural science? Psychology is a social science.”

This seems to be a (or the) critical difference between our respective disciplines.

Yours truly,


P.S. Here are a couple of more recent (than Kuhn) approaches to the philosophy of science.

Hull, D. L. (1988). Science as a process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hull, D. L. (2001). Science and selection: Essays on biological evolution and the philosophy of science. New York: Cambridge University Press.



Greenwood, J. D. (1999). Understanding the cognitive revolution in psychology. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 35, 1-22.

Leahey, T. H. (1992). Mythical revolutions in the history of American psychology. American Psychologist, 47, 308-318.

O’Donohue, W., & Ferguson, K. E. (2003). The structure of the cognitive revolution: An examination from the philosophy of science. The Behavior Analyst, 26, 85-110.

Roediger, H. L. (2004). What happened to behaviorism? APS Observer (


ACT V: Howard’s End (for this play…)

Dear Hank,  

Thanks for continuing our conversation. Here are some quick responses:

1. We do have different views of science but, in your recent note, you put forth a more reasonable perspective. You say that the natural sciences proceed from experimentation. I’d rather contend that science can proceed from observations, from experiments, from interesting ideas, and even from grand theories. The “conversation” is continuous and can go in many directions.

2. On the nature of experiments, Noam Chomsky makes an important point. There is not a sharp line between observation, informal investigations and more formal experiments. When it comes to judgments of grammaticality, there is no reason for large subject masses, control groups, high power statistics. Almost all judgments are pretty clear—and in the few ambiguous cases can be investigated more systematically, if they is reason to do so. And of course, modern linguistic theory has generated thousands of experiments, reported in dozens of journals.

The most difficult question you raise is whether there has indeed been a revolution, and whether Kuhn’s formulation helps us to understand what happened as cognitivism moved center stage (to continue my dramaturgical metaphor) and behaviorism become a side show. There is no way to ‘test’ these propositions. The discipline that will eventually determine whether my account of the last century, or your account of the last century, is more accurate is intellectual history or the history of science.

Indeed, we can each quote many contemporary scholars and observers who support ‘our’ respective positions, but in the end, the judgments that matter will be made by history.

3. That said, I don’t accept your contention that I am a rationalist and not an empiricist. The record does not support your contention (hundreds of empirical and experimental studies over almost five decades). In more recent years, I do think of my work as social science rather than natural science, but social science has empirical standards and measures as well, and I use them as rigorously as appropriate.





With the fifth act completed, the curtain descends on our conversation… at least for now. But I’d be delighted if others who read the exchanges would join in.


5 Comments on “Contrasting Views of Human Behavior and Human Mind: An Epistemological Drama in Five Acts”

  1. David C Palmer November 18, 2017 at 6:25 pm #

    Lashley, 1951, on serial order

    Professor Chomsky cites Lashley’s 1951 paper on serial order in behavior as sounding the death knell of Skinner’s behaviorism, but perhaps Chomsky’s view of the latter enterprise is incorrect. Here is Lashley’s thesis:

    “My principal thesis today will be that the input is never into a quiescent or static system, but always into a system which is already actively excited and organized. In the intact organism, behavior is the result of interaction of this background of excitation with input from any designated stimulus. Only when we can state the general characteristics of this background of excitation, can we understand the effects of a given input.” (p 112)

    Compare this to Skinner’s remarks a few years earlier:

    “But [verbal responses] are not entirely quiescent or inanimate when they are not appearing in one’s own behavior … It is only when we can conceive of a response as varying in strength along a continuum between zero and the threshold or beyond, that we can make any effective use of functional relations. A relationship which considered only two values of the dependent variable – the presence and the absence of a response – would not be very productive.” (1948, p. 25-26)

    Skinner explicitly rejected the position that Lashley critiques. In Notebooks he writes:

    “Lenneberg (Biological Foundations of Language) criticizes the simple-minded notion of the link-by-link chaining of verbal responses—a straw man commonly set up in attacks on behavioral learning theory. I suppose it goes back to Watson. In running a maze, playing a melody, or reciting a poem, the travestied account is that response A evokes response B, which then evokes response C, and so on. I don’t know whether anyone ever said that, but it doesn’t matter. Surely there is some linkage, and we make use of it to get a running start when we forget. But response B doesn’t erase the stimulus effect of response A, and response C is no doubt controlled by both, with some weakening as the distance increases.” (p. 276)

    Skinner’s contrary position is evident from, among other things, his discussion of autoclitic frames, which account for much of the grammatical structure of language.

    As for the influence of the Brelands’ work, Chomsky’s understanding is guided by wishful thinking, not by the facts. Their work was indeed surprising, but the importance of operant-Pavolovian interactions was rapidly acknowledged by Skinner (see his 1963 paper on the phylogeny and ontogeny of behavior), and is now part of the empirical foundation of behavior analysis.

    There is much excellent empirical work done by psycholinguists, and there is no reason why it cannot be integrated with established behavioral principles. I am unqualified to assert that Chomsky’s nativism has played no useful role in guiding that research. However, I am prepared to offer a challenge: Let him specify a linguistic universal, putatively genetically determined, and I will undertake to teach a child to violate that universal using Skinnerian principles of behavior. If there are innate constraints, they should become clear in the process.

    David Palmer
    Smith College

    • William Ahearn November 21, 2017 at 4:20 pm #

      Well, we’re waiting. (crickets)

  2. Don Davis (@gnu_don) November 21, 2017 at 4:35 pm #

    History is showing us who is correct.
    The Chomskyian approach to language has proven relatively untenable and unrealistic. The hardwired, ‘GOFAI’ approach to language and language learning has been disregarded in favor of more behavioral and Bayesian approaches to language learning and processing. Once the faulty assumptions of a bygone Chomskyian error were discarded for the more pragmatic – and efficacious behavioral approaches, language parsing took a huge leap forward (cf. Brooks, 1996; Sutton & Barto, 1998).

    Gardner’s quandaries regarding the behavioral answers to language are well answered in Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. Though for a more nuanced understanding of behavioral approaches to language, one would be well served by reading about Relational Frame Theory. The ‘big’ questions asked by cognitivists about the behavioral approach to language are pretty much answered in a preface by Jan de Huower to ‘Advances in Relational Frame Theory’ (Dymond & Roche, 2013); the core texts and key work by Barnes-Holmes, et al., might then be thought of as an added bonus (Barnes-Holmes et al., 2002). Although Barnes-Holmes uses the term ‘post-Skinnerian’, many behaviorists see RFT as very Skinnerian

    As to concerns about discerning sources of behavioral control, i.e., ‘influence’. Sure, it’s a problem, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that we as a society are better served by adopting convenient rationalizations (Moore, 2003).

    I would add that a great number of parents of children with autism and self-injurious behavior who have benefited from ABA would also point out whom history has shown to be correct. [Some might add that such behaviors are fundamentally different from ‘higher level’ thinking. Really? By whose metric? Are children with special needs truly, qualitatively different from ‘G/T’ children? That seems a very insulting position.]

    Barnes-Holmes, Y., Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Roche, B. (2002). Relational frame theory: A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, Volume 28, 101–138.

    Brooks, R. A. (1996). Behavior-based humanoid robotics. In Proceedings of the 1996 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems ’96, IROS 96 (Vol. 1, pp. 1–8 vol.1).

    Dymond, S., & Roche, B. (Eds.). (2013). Advances in relational frame theory: Research and application. Oakland, CA: Context Press.

    Ingvarsson, E. T., & Morris, E. K. (2011). Post-Sskinnerian, Post-Skinner, or Neo-Skinnerian. Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, and Roche’s Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition. The Psychological Record, 54(4), 1.

    Moore, J. (2003). Behavior analysis, mentalism, and the path to social justice. The Behavior Analyst, 26(2), 181–193.

    Sutton, R. S., & Barto, A. G. (1998). Introduction to reinforcement learning (Vol. 135). MIT Press Cambridge.

  3. Matthew Normand November 21, 2017 at 5:34 pm #

    A main problem is the simplistic conceptualization of reinforcement as an almost “M&M” psychology, whereby actions must be obviously and intentionally rewarded. For example, the idea that parents must praise children for speaking for speaking to be learned behavior. Reinforcement is pervasive, varied, and often subtle. For example, research demonstrates that a range of subtle social responses can function as reinforcement for what people say. A conversation partner leaning forward attentively, or nodding, or muttering “mmm hmm” can result in the speaker talking more about those things (e.g., Greenspoon, 1955). Even more, if two conversation partners are available, people have been shown to speak more to the partner that responds more positively—in direct proportion to how much more positively they respond compared to the other conversation partner (e.g., Conger and Killeen, 1974).

    As for the assertion that the idea of reinforcement is unfalsifiable and circular, this, too, is based on a simplistic conceptualization of reinforcement. Reinforcement describes detectable (observable, in some way) relations between changes in behavior and changes in the physical and/or social environment. The changes in the environment that result in changes in the behavior can be demonstrated. When certain environmental changes are made to follow behavior, behavior increases in strength (frequency, intensity, etc.). When those same changes are made to no longer follow behavior, behavior decreases in strength. When those changes again follow behavior, behavior again increases in strength. In this way, the relation between the environment and the strength of behavior is demonstrated by systematic changes in the behavior that correspond to systematic changes in the environment. Nothing is circular because “reinforcement” simply describes these changes, it does not appeal to anything operating at any other level of observation and, most importantly for a natural science, the description involves only observable variables. Nothing is inferred beyond what is directly observed, and nothing, therefore, is reified.

    The basic behaviorist position is that of proposing the minimal necessary conditions to account for a phenomenon—a phenomenon that is defined in the minimal terms necessary, with the fewest assumptions possible. The burden of proof is on those who contend that more is at play. Maybe more is at play, but it must first be clearly established that the more exists. In the simplest terms, Skinner simply extended Morgan’s Canon to include human animals.

    Two things, at minimum, seem clear: 1) We have not yet exhausted the explanatory power of Pavlovian and operant learning because very few people are well versed in the complexities of such learning, and even fewer people study it in the context of complex human behavior; and 2) Pavlovian and operant learning are facts in the bag, even if one questions how much they can actually explain, especially in terms of human behavior. Still, these processes must be accounted for in any explanation of behavior, and they almost never are. Even if the correct explanation ends up involving more than Pavlovian and operant processes, those process are still at work at some level, in some way. If researchers don’t understand these processes and identify the role they are playing, everything else is for naught. It is, to perhaps (or maybe not) be a bit hyperbolic, the psychological equivalent of ignoring gravity.

    Matt Normand, Ph.D.
    Professor of Psychology
    University of the Pacific

  4. Don Davis (@gnu_don) November 23, 2017 at 1:01 pm #

    Considering that the majority of visitor’s to Gardner’s blog are educators and educational researchers – it’s worth pointing out that behaviorism is misrepresented, i.e., inaccurately, in psychology and education courses.
    Todd and Morris (1983) wrote a nice article about this years ago, which is freely available here:

    Todd, J. T., & Morris, E. K. (1983). Misconception and miseducation: Presentations of radical behaviorism in psychology textbooks. The Behavior Analyst, 6(2), 153.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s