In 1959 the psychological doctrine known as ‘behaviourism’ was at the peak of its influence. Pioneered in the early 20th century by Edward Lee Thorndike, Clark Hull and J.B. Watson, behaviourism rejected explanations of action in terms of mysterious inner processes such as ‘thought’ and tried to explain behaviour purely in terms of the organism’s conditioning by experience. By the middle of the century, the behaviourist approach had been developed in a detailed and radical form by B.F. Skinner. Skinner explained learning in terms of reinforcement: organisms produce novel behaviours spontaneously, and those that are positively reinforced are more likely to occur in similar circumstances in the future. This view, developed in work on rats and pigeons, was extended to cover human language in Skinner’s 1957 book Verbal Behaviour. A young linguist, Noam Chomsky, published a review of Verbal Behaviour two years later. It was perhaps the most devastating book review ever written. Chomsky argued that Skinner’s theoretical vocabulary could be applied to human linguistic behaviour only in an empty, post hoc way. He also thought that Skinner’s behaviourism had a simple architectural flaw: it held that external factors – especially experiences of reinforcement – were of ‘overwhelming importance’ in the explanation of behaviour.
more from Peter Godfrey-Smith at the LRB here.