The socio-political implications of behaviourism and the Chomskyan revolution in linguistics

James McElvenny

University of Sydney

A key aspect of the ‘Chomskyan revolution’ of the late 1950s and early 60s – through which generative grammar became established as the dominant paradigm of linguistics in America and the wider world – was the rejection of behaviourist psychology, a received doctrine of the previously dominant approach of American structuralism. While Chomsky directed his academic attacks at what he saw as behaviourism’s scientific inadequacy, there was also a strong social and political dimension to his position. He later commented that behaviourism ‘give[s] a cloak of neutrality to the techniques of oppression and control’ (Chomsky 2004[1974]:165). This was no wild interpretation on Chomsky’s part: many behaviourists were publicly committed to reforming society through behavioural control. B.F. Skinner, a leading behaviourist of the post-World War II period and the target of Chomsky’s (1959) most famous anti-behaviourist polemic, went so far as to sketch out his vision for a behaviourally controlled society in a utopian novel (Skinner 1948). Leonard Bloomfield, the figure chiefly responsible for introducing behaviourism into American structuralism, commented in a speech in 1929: ‘I believe that in the near future [...] linguistics will be one of the main sectors of scientific advance, and that in this sector science will win through to the understanding and control of human conduct’ (Bloomfield 1930:553). In this talk we will examine the social and political implications of behaviourism and the role these may have played in twentieth-century American linguistics. We will also make a comparison between Chomsky’s revolt against American structuralism and Horace Kallen’s critique of logical empiricism (as presented by Reisch 2005), a comparison that functions both at the abstract level of their intellectual and historical context and at a personal level: Bloomfield was not only a founding figure of American structuralism but also an adherent of logical empiricism and a contributor to the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science (Bloomfield 1938).