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B.F. Skinner (1904 1990)

Lifespan: 1904 - 1990

Related: verbal - behaviour - linguistics

Biography

Burrhus Frederic "B. F." Skinner (March 20, 1904 August 18, 1990) was an American psychologist and author. He conducted pioneering work on experimental psychology and advocated behaviorism, which seeks to understand behavior as a function of environmental histories of experiencing consequences. He also wrote a number of controversial works in which he proposed the widespread use of psychological behavior modification techniques, primarily operant conditioning, in order to improve society and increase human happiness; and as a form of social engineering. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B. F. Skinner [Nov 2006]

Verbal behavior

Verbal Behavior (1957) is a book written by B.F. Skinner in which the author presents his ideas on language. For Skinner, speech, along with other forms of communication, was simply a behavior. Skinner argued that each act of speech is an inevitable consequence of the speaker's current environment and his behavioral and sensory history, and derided mentalistic terms such as "idea", "plan" and "concept" as unscientific and of no use in the study of behavior. For Skinner, the proper object of study is behavior itself, analysed without reference to mental structure, but rather with reference to the structure and history of the environment in which particular behaviors occur.

Verbal Behavior touches on many perennial issues in philosophy, most notably the issue of rationalism vs. empiricism. For rationalists, the structure of human knowledge comes from within and is largely innate: we may learn from experience, but the essence of human thought is the ability to reason to acquire new knowledge through deduction and induction, and to reduce the clamour of information that reaches us through our senses to pure mathematical concepts such as "square" and "melody". In its extreme form, as espoused by Descartes, rationalism holds that virtually all knowledge may be arrived at by "pure reason", i.e. by logical reasoning from a set of self-evident first principles. From this perspective, the role of the senses in the formation of knowledge is merely that of a catalyst, accelerating a process which is internal to the mind/brain. In contrast, Skinner was an extreme empiricist, arguing that notions such as "reason", "idea", "knowledge" and "concept" have no scientific significance. For example, a speaker of English could not, according to Skinner, be said to have a "knowledge of English" in any well-defined sense he would merely have acquired a set of behaviors which allowed him to respond appropriately during English conversations.

The book itself has been no less controversial than these broader philosophical issues, and is probably now more famous for the controversy surrounding it than for its actual contents. Particularly famous is Noam Chomsky's scathing review [1] (http://cogprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/archive/00001148/00/chomsky.htm), which is said by many to have initiated a "cognitive revolution" in Psychology, a shift from the study of behaviour for its own sake to a study of the mental mechanisms which underly it. Empiricist ideas about behavior are still being explored, especially in the field of cognitive science known as connectionism. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verbal_Behavior [Nov 2004]

Verbal Behavior (1957) - B. F. Skinner

Verbal Behavior (1957) - B. F. Skinner [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Verbal behavior is a classic work and one the most neglected and underrated scientific texts of century, erroneously believed by many to have been conclusively demolished by Noam Chomsky (whose work in competition with Freud's is possibly the most overrated). Skinners analysis of verbal behavior differs from other accounts both in psychology and linguistics in being entirely naturalistic and free of the quite far-reaching metaphysical assumptions about 'meanings' and 'rules' inherent in traditional approaches. The latter focus on an idealized and abstract entity (grammatically correct language) which does not really exist, whereas Skinner analyses the verbal behavior actually performed by people. He demonstrates that a large amount of linguistic phenomena can be interpreted and explained by the principles of operant conditioning which have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments and he explores the consequences of this analysis for problems normally only addressed by philosophers, such as the nature of meaning, the social aspects of language, the possibility of a private language and the nature of thinking. Many philosophers will surprised to learn that some of the best ideas of the later Wittgenstein can be found more clearly and elegantly expressed by Skinner. --Germund Hesslow via Amazon.com

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