B.F.Skinner’s Breakthrough Approach to Verbal Behavior


In the view of most people, each human has inside him the following:

  • An inner non-physical agent of action
  • A non-physical universe of thoughts, feelings, desires, emotions, and the like

From time to time, a speaker’s inner agent may choose to express one of the non-physical entities using words. This triggers events in the non-physical universes of listeners, causing understanding, actions, and perhaps expression of ideas from them. The non-physical inner agents and entities are considered to be sine qua non. This seems to have been the view from the dawn of human thought.

A Brief History of The Skinnerian View of Language

Skinner published an alternate view of language in 1957, in his famous book Verbal Behavior. (I have no doubt that this book will be hailed as one of the most important books of all time. As a supportive reviewer of the book put it, “Like it or not, the camel’s nose is in the tent”.) The book was not a hasty effort. It was under construction for about 30 years. Earlier versions of the approach was presented in lectures in 1948. Chomsky published a “mean and uncomprehending” review of the book in 1959, without appearing to have read most of the book.

The Skinnerian View of Language

The following are the important points:

  • No inner agent of action nor a non-physical inner universe is assumed to exist in humans. References to the above are considered to be explanatory fictions (say, similar to “the vital force” once popular in biology).

Utterances are learned behavior produced by variables in the environment. No inner agent of action is invoked — such inner agents of action are considered to be explanatory fictions. Several variables act upon a speaker causing him to emit a verbal response at a particular instant in time. This acts on a listener causing him to act. Utterances are operants. All we know about operants can be readily applied to verbal behavior also.

This is a huge step forward, in the history of human thought.

Cut Stuff

When the effects of current setting etc on what is spoken is pointed out, this scarcely generates any excitement, since the contribution from these variables is considered to be trivial when compared to the major role played by the inner agent of action.  An example may help. When a man picks up a telephone and calls, the role played by the telephone is considered to be minimal, compared to the role played by variables inside him which causes him to make the call.


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