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Katz, J. and P. Postal, An Integrated Theory of Linguistic Description. Cambridge, Mass: M.I.T. Press, 1964.

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Other examples of stimulus control merely add to the general mystification. Thus, a proper noun is held to be a response “under the control of a specific person or thing” (as controlling stimulus, 113). I have often used the words Eisenhower and Moscow, which I presume are proper nouns if anything is, but have never been stimulated by the corresponding objects. How can this fact be made compatible with this definition? Suppose that I use the name of a friend who is not present. Is this an instance of a proper noun under the control of the friend as stimulus? Elsewhere it is asserted that a stimulus controls a response in the sense that presence of the stimulus increases the probability of the response. But it is obviously untrue that the probability that a speaker will produce a full name is increased when its bearer faces the speaker. Furthermore, how can one’s own name be a proper noun in this sense?

Consider first Skinner’s use of the notions stimulus and response. In Behavior of Organisms (9) he commits himself to the narrow definitions for these terms. A part of the environment and a part of behavior are called stimulus (eliciting, discriminated, or reinforcing) and response, respectively, only if they are lawfully related; that is, if the dynamic laws relating them show smooth and reproducible curves. Evidently, stimuli and responses, so defined, have not been shown to figure very widely in ordinary human behavior.6 We can, in the face of presently available evidence, continue to maintain the lawfulness of the relation between stimulus and response only by depriving them of their objective character. A typical example of stimulus control for Skinner would be the response to a piece of music with the utterance Mozart or to a painting with the response Dutch. These responses are asserted to be “under the control of extremely subtle properties” of the physical object or event (108). Suppose instead of saying Dutch we had said Clashes with the wallpaper, I thought you liked abstract work, Never saw it before, Tilted, Hanging too low, Beautiful, Hideous, Remember our camping trip last summer?, or whatever else might come into our minds when looking at a picture (in Skinnerian translation, whatever other responses exist in sufficient strength). Skinner could only say that each of these responses is under the control of some other stimulus property of the physical object. If we look at a red chair and say red, the response is under the control of the stimulus redness; if we say chair, it is under the control of the collection of properties (for Skinner, the object) chairness (110), and similarly for any other response. This device is as simple as it is empty. Since properties are free for the asking (we have as many of them as we have nonsynonymous descriptive expressions in our language, whatever this means exactly), we can account for a wide class of responses in terms of Skinnerian functional analysis by identifying the controlling stimuli. But the word stimulus has lost all objectivity in this usage. Stimuli are no longer part of the outside physical world; they are driven back into the organism. We identify the stimulus when we hear the response. It is clear from such examples, which abound, that the talk of stimulus control simply disguises a complete retreat to mentalistic psychology. We cannot predict verbal behavior in terms of the stimuli in the speaker’s environment, since we do not know what the current stimuli are until he responds. Furthermore, since we cannot control the property of a physical object to which an individual will respond, except in highly artificial cases, Skinner’s claim that his system, as opposed to the traditional one, permits the practical control of verbal behavior7 is quite false.


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11 The vagueness of the word tendency, as opposed to frequency, saves the latter quotation from the obvious incorrectness of the former. Nevertheless, a good deal of stretching is necessary. If tendency has anything like its ordinary meaning, the remark is clearly false. One may believe strongly the assertion that Jupiter has four moons, that many of Sophocles’ plays have been irretrievably lost, that the earth will burn to a crisp in ten million years, and so on, without experiencing the slightest tendency to act upon these verbal stimuli. We may, of course, turn Skinner’s assertion into a very unilluminating truth by defining “tendency to act” to include tendencies to answer questions in certain ways, under motivation to say what one believes is true.

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10 Fortunately, “In English this presents no great difficulty” since, for example, “relative pitch levels … are not … important” (25). No reference is made to the numerous studies of the function of relative pitch levels and other intonational features in English.

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9 And elsewhere. In his paper “Are Theories of Learning Necessary?” Skinner considers the problem how to extend his analysis of behavior to experimental situations in which it is impossible to observe frequencies, rate of response being the only valid datum. His answer is that “the notion of probability is usually extrapolated to cases in which a frequency analysis cannot be carried out. In the field of behavior we arrange a situation in which frequencies are available as data, but we use the notion of probability in analyzing or formulating instances of even types of behavior which are not susceptible to this analysis” (199). There are, of course, conceptions of probability not based directly on frequency, but I do not see how any of these apply to the cases that Skinner has in mind. I see no way of interpreting the quoted passage other than as signifying an intention to use the word probability in describing behavior quite independently of whether the notion of probability is at all relevant.

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12 One should add, however, that it is in general not the stimulus as such that is reinforcing, but the stimulus in a particular situational context. Depending on experimental arrangement, a particular physical event or object may be reinforcing, punishing, or unnoticed. Because Skinner limits himself to a particular, very simple experimental arrangement, it is not necessary for him to add this qualification, which would not be at all easy to formulate precisely. But it is of course necessary if he expects to extend his descriptive system to behavior in general.