• Linguistics and General Process Learning Theory

      Flynn, Michael; Carleton College (University of Arizona Linguistics Circle, 1987)
      This paper is sort of an extended footnote, with a faint Borgesian flavor. What I'm going to do is show how one rather prominent argument in the linguistics literature against one aspect of the research program of behaviorism fails to go through. But I'll also observe that this argument appears to have had no practical effect on linguistic investigations, and that many people seem to assume (tacitly, at least) that this argument fails anyway. So my remarks here don't move the field forward any, but what I hope they do is help to get us all a bit clearer about where we are. The argument I'll be examining, given by Noam Chomsky in Reflections on Language (Chomsky 1975), is against a point of view called "general process learning theory ", a view that regards one goal of psychological theorizing to be the discovery of laws of learning that hold across species and across domains of acquisition. Psychological theorizing is by no means a new development on the linguistics scene. It is true, I think, that in most cases the people who have thought about language (including but not limited to people we would call linguists) have done so against the backdrop of a psychological theory that they assumed to be at least on the right track, and the idea was often to see what you could make of language by applying the analytical tools that the given psychological theory made available. Bloomfield (1926) is an example of this. (For some discussion of Bloomfield's views on psychology, see Lyons 1978, chapter 3.) One also in this context thinks of Piaget, Skinner of course, as well as philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries of both the continental Cartesian variety and the so-called British Empiricists. I also think it's true that Chomsky's impact on psychology is somewhat unusual in that the flow of influence is in the other direction; that is, the question is, "If human language is like this, then what must the mind be like ?" rather than the other way around. Be that as it may, Chomsky has been, by far and away, the leading expositor of the implications of linguistics for the study of the structure of the human mind. It goes without saying that the ramifications of this work have been very rich, the pivotal role of linguistics in the "cognitive sciences" being just one indication of its influence. One of the earliest engagements at discipline boundaries was Chomsky's forceful assault on B.F. Skinner's attempt to extend the domain of behaviorist psychology to human languages. It's this argument that I want to have another look at. To do this it will be useful to try to isolate several facets of the discussion. I should perhaps reiterate, for the connoisseurs of counterrevolution who I know are out there, that my conclusion will be a modest one. I will not be concluding that after all Skinner was right and Chomsky was wrong. On the contrary, I'm going to assume that this game is over, and has been for quite some time. My goal is to call attention to what I think is an Unsolved problem which acquires its interest because it bears on how we regard linguistics as influencing our judgment about the structure of the human mind.