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Objects of the class “Verbal Behavior”

Steve Shulman-Laniel writes:

My nominee for a new “objects of the class” would be B. F. Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior” — i.e., the criticisms of the thing are more widely read than the thing itself.

Hmmm . . . I’ve heard of Skinner but not of “Verbal Behavior,” let alone its criticism. But the general idea sounds good.

What other objects are in that class?

It’s related to Objects of the class “Foghorn Leghorn” but slightly different in that here we’re talking criticism, not parody.

And here are other objects of the class “Objects of the class.”


  1. Josef Fruehwald says:

    Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior is arguably what put his Generative Linguistics on the map, and stymied behaviorist accounts of language.

    • Andrew says:


      So, Chomsky’s review, which was a criticism of the concept of verbal behavior, was itself a form of verbal behavior. How delightfully paradoxical, if this is really the case!

      • Shecky R says:

        Chomsky’s review (considered devastating by many at the time) was a critique specifically of the entire behaviorist approach to language; no more paradoxical, Andrew, than a Bayesian statistician critiquing a frequentist’s volume on statistics.

      • polymath says:

        What you’ve said is true in the everyday sense of “behavior.” But the joke is on Skinner that he suggested, in that book, that Behaviorism (spoiler: which is not the idea that organisms can be characterized as having “behaviors”) could explain human utterances.

        Behaviorism is the idea that cognition is just a response to a presented stimulus. Its insight is that you only need to discuss stimuli and responses to have a complete theory of the organism. You don’t need to discuss the organism’s “mental states.” Those might as well not exist.

        Which if you’re dealing with earthworms is plausible, and can be stretched to small mammals, but its application to learning was always.

        Chomsky’s review was a criticism of the idea that you can have language and language learning without “mental states.” In many ways it was a gift to his critics that Skinner wrote Verbal Behavior — it was unintentional self-parody.

        Chomsky used Verbal Behavior to show how Behaviorism had imported the equivalent of “mental states” (mental representations) without calling them that. And then he went on to show that you can make successful predictions by saying, “In fact mental states exist and they are constrained to work in only certain ways.”

        When Chomsky found evidence for quite detailed constraints on mental states, the Behaviorists had no good answer to that, because they were committed to the idea that mental states didn’t exist. Before “Verbal Behavior,” they might have been able to weasel-word their way out of it, but “Verbal Behavior” closed their escape route.

      • Noah Motion says:

        Skinner’s “verbal behavior” had a technical definition, and Chomsky’s whole point was that it didn’t, and couldn’t, account for much, linguistically soaking.

      • Andrew says:

        Shecky, Polymath, Noah:

        Thanks for explaining.

  2. Ethan Bolker says:

    Some related objects suggested by frequent posts on this blog:

    Any of the criticized “studies” – power pose in particular. I suspect more people (not just here) have read critiques than have read the original paper (though probably not reports on that paper).

    Perhaps retraction watch itself – have the critics generated more reads than the actual site?

  3. Jonathan (another one) says:

    The Bell Curve
    Capital in the 21st Century

  4. Paul Alper says:

    Robert Slutsky and John Darsee wrote many scientific papers with famous co-authors. Although no one reads their output today, their productivity was staggering:

    Cyril Burt’s data and his co-authors were fabricated. However, in Burt’s case, his papers may still be read because of the incendiary nature/nurture controversy and its societal implications.

  5. I read Skinner and Chomsky in a really great philosophy of mind class as an undergrad. Chomsky doubled down a decade later in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, which ruined the field by disconnecting it from language behavior and psychology.

  6. Terry says:

    I don’t know a lot about psychology research or Skinner, so maybe someone here can enlighten me.

    The Wikipedia entry on Verbal Behavior says:

    For Skinner, the proper object of study is behavior itself, analyzed without reference to hypothetical (mental) structures, but rather with reference to the functional relationships of the behavior in the environment in which it occurs. This analysis extends Ernst Mach’s pragmatic inductive position in physics ….

    Was Skinner for real when he wrote Verbal Behavior? Were there serious people who took Verbal Behavior seriously?

    To my untrained ear, it sounds silly to say that language can be understood without reference to what is going on in a person’s consciousness. And analogizing language to physics sounds horrendously unconvincing – indeed the analogy seems to undermine the theory rather than support it.

    • Andrew says:


      Sure. Academics take all kinds of things seriously that I find ridiculous, such as the “2.9103” paper of Fredrickson and Losada in psychology or the “rational addiction” theory of Becker in economics. These ideas seem to me to make about as much sense, and have about as much empirical backing, as Skinner’s verbal behavior, and you can still find prominent researchers who support them.

      Looking on the bright side, it could perhaps be taken as a strength of academics that they are willing to seriously consider ideas which are obviously ridiculous. Some obviously ridiculous ideas do turn out to be useful, and perhaps even the useless ideas can spur future development. As long as nobody tries to suppress the criticism of bad ideas, I guess we’re mostly ok.

    • Nat says:

      It was a long time ago, but it seems to me that Skinner’s main goal was to attempt to establish the simplest explanations as possible to human phenomena. Of course, he was wrong about some things. But given the state of psychology nowadays, maybe psychologists would not be in so much trouble if they had paid attention to Skinner’s attitude towards theory and data. I find his care with methodological rigour and experimental control amazing (albeit not always feasible). Ironically, Verbal Behavior takes in a lot of assumptions and not much experimental work, but by that time Skinner was more of a theorist than an experimenter (and I bet he wanted his ideas to be tested and testable). Besides, comparisons between psychology and physics are not rare to this day, but I think Skinner was trying to adopt physics’ philosophy of science rather than emulate its methods. And as a side note, he was very critical of mindless use of statistical methods and a strong advocate of replication techniques, way before high profile criticisms of psychological methods came about. But then, the so-called cognitive revolution came, and much of his great contributions were dismissed. To me, it looks like a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  7. Thanatos Savehn says:

    “STATISTICAL METHODS FOR RESEARCH WORKERS” by R A Fisher. Unhappy with the state of science in general and that of observational epidemiology in particular I, ignorant of the facts, eagerly joined many a howling online mob calling for frequentist testing to be hauled off to the guillotine. Eventually I found my way here and to other level-headed blogs like Mayo’s, took their advice and read the source materials. And so I learned that STATISTICAL METHODS FOR RESEARCH WORKERS was the opposite of a science-wrecking cookbook written by a simpleton.

    Indeed it may simultaneously have been for its first 50 years an object of a different sort of class: a book widely praised, rarely read beyond the introduction and z-tables and thoroughly misunderstood.

  8. Kaiser says:

    Cliff Notes (not quite works of criticism) read in place of the original texts

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