Skinner and the talking throat
August 21, 2012 3:20 AM   Subscribe

Calling all behaviorists! Did B. F. Skinner write that the throat, not the mind, is doing the talking when someone speaks? I believe I have read somewhere in his writings that the only thing that can be known about human speech is that the throat makes certain sounds as a response to certain stimuli. I'd like to find the source for this. Do I misremember him? That would be equally helpful to know.
posted by Termite to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Marian Breland Bailey was my instructor for Behavioral Psychology and Verbal Behavior. She was a graduate assistant of Skinner and assisted him on some of his book writing, including the book "Verbal Behavior". I can't remember for sure, but if he said that it would most likely be referenced or discussed in that book. All of my books are currently in storage from my recent move so I can't easily put my hands on my copy of the book, but if you can I'd start there.

If this question doesn't get answered, memail me to remind me to go look for the book. I make no promises that I can easily find it though!
posted by MultiFaceted at 3:26 AM on August 21, 2012

Well Skinner and Watson both kind of denied the existence of a mind whatsoever, asserting that all human behavior was just a response to simuli. So I don't know about that quote exactly, but it would fit in with his wider beliefs and theories.
posted by whalebreath at 4:22 AM on August 21, 2012

I agree with MultiFaceted that it's likely going to be in Verbal Behavior. Skinner's strict application of behaviorism to language was something that really marked him as a purist with behaviorism. This book was the one that brought out a lot of those ideas, and what you're remembering doesn't sound out of line for his beliefs.
posted by bizzyb at 6:14 AM on August 21, 2012

I think it was John Watson, Skinner's Behaviorist predecessor, who believed believed that thought was actually subvocalized speech:
Watson also introduced his theory of thinking as consisting of "subvocal speech" in the article. However, its addition was more of an afterthought as it appeared in a series of extended footnotes, not in the body of the article itself. Watson seems to have added the footnote because another article on subvocal speech by Anna Wyczoikowska was to appear in the same issue of the "Psychological Review." The theory of thinking as subvocal speech was not original to Watson. About 15 years earlier, H. S. Curtis had attempted to measure movements of the larynx during thinking.
posted by shivohum at 7:44 AM on August 21, 2012

Apparently a precursor to the book Verbal Behavior was Skinner's William James Lectures, which have the advantage of being online. Chapter One applies the standard behaviorist argument (as far as I can tell on a quick skim) to language, saying things like
We begin with the muscular behavior of the speaker, not because we wish to acknowledge that linguistic events depend upon an earthy substrate, but because it is the only observable datum with which a descriptive science of verbal behavior can begin. (p.16, emphasis in original)
posted by stebulus at 7:45 AM on August 21, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for your answers! No need to dig through the storage, MultiFaceted, I'll look the book up myself. It might have been Watson instead of Skinner, I don't trust my memory fully on this.
posted by Termite at 11:36 AM on August 21, 2012

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