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Reflections on Verbal Behavior at 60

2 hours, 53 minutes
3.0 BACB

“Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior is a theory on the behavior of speakers given the contingencies of reinforcement provided by listeners.”

Henry Schlinger


Very few books are celebrated on their 50th or 60th anniversary. Dr. Henry Schlinger makes the case for why Verbal Behavior is one of those books. Skinner himself noted that “It will, I believe, prove to be my most important work” (Skinner, 1977, p. 379). The story of how this book came to be is almost as complex as the topic itself. The story has it that once at a Harvard dinner with some famous philosophers, Skinner began discussing behaviorism. There was acknowledgment of operant conditioning, but Alfred North Whitehead said that when it comes to humans, behaviorism simply could not explain verbal behavior. As part of his challenge to Skinner, he said, “Let me see you explain the following sentence: No black scorpion is falling upon this table.” Skinner couldn’t explain it at the moment, but in his thoughtful consideration of Whitehead’s challenge, Skinner began creating the foundation for what would become Verbal Behavior. Skinner chooses to analyze the variables that control the utterance of a term instead of asking what a term means. It is a functional analysis of language that emphasizes multiple causalities—a completely behavioral account for verbal behavior which can be carried out without knowledge of neurology or genes, but that’s not to say that knowledge of those things wouldn’t make it more complete. In Skinner’s later work, he says that the book is not about language: “A language is a verbal environment that shapes and maintains verbal behavior. As an environment, it is composed of listeners. Linguists have usually studied listening rather than speaking (a typical question is why a question makes sense), but Verbal Behavior is an interpretation of the behavior of the speaker, given the contingencies of reinforcement maintained by the community.”

Learning Objectives

What you’ll learn in the course and be able to do afterward

  • Describe how Skinner came to write Verbal Behavior (VB)
  • Describe the earliest forms of what eventually became VB
  • Identify Chomsky’s main criticisms of Skinner’s book and MacCorquodale’s rebuttals
  • Describe Skinner’s reaction to Chomsky’s review and who actually replied to Chomsky in print
  • Describe the VB “controversy” from both outside and within the field
  • Describe the points about VB I made in my 2008 article, “The Long Goodbye: Why B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior is Alive and Well on the 50th Anniversary of its Publication”
  • Describe the main points of the Dymond and Alonso-Álvarez’s reply to my article
  • Describe the main points of my rejoinder to their article
  • Describe some of the statements RFT proponents have made about Skinner and VB
  • Describe the “controversy” about VB from within behavior analysis, for example, regarding the definition of verbal behavior and Skinner’s use of interpretation in his book
  • Describe how I view the scope and parsimony of VB
  • Describe what I see as the revolutionary approach in Skinner’s book
  • Describe the implications of VB for the behavior of the listener and for listening, including the points in my 2008 article, “Listening Is Behaving Verbally”
  • Describe the implications of what Skinner referred to as “instructing” or conditioning the behavior of the listener in terms of function-altering effects of verbal stimuli
  • Describe a simple example of derived relational responding and explanations from RF theorists and, more parsimoniously, in terms of the basic unit of operant analysis


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