Closer to Theology than Geology: Toward a View of Language from the Cheap Seats (With apologies to Noam Chomsky, who did this much better, although with fewer jokes)


A physicist, hoping to make a name for herself, is constrained by certain facts; she will not, for instance, use a model of gravity based on anything other than the equation F = G(m1m2/d2).  In physics, as in all the hard sciences, a body of knowledge exists, proven and verifiable by the scientific method, which all practitioners must acknowledge.

As another example, a veterinarian, examining a flock of sheep stricken with anthrax, may belong to any “school” regarding animals and their illnesses; still, he knows that penicillin and tetracycline are the effective and proven treatment for the disease.  While fringe groups may appear (e.g., one supposes that a Christian Scientist veterinarian would recommend praying over the flock and a homeopathic veterinarian might give only a minuscule amount of medication), their models are disproved by their results (i.e., in the example above, a flock of dead sheep).

The social sciences have no such agreement. When examining the human condition and its pathology, one finds conceptual models multiplying and turning in on themselves, with an almost exponential explosion of theories.  Although the social sciences expropriate the tools and garb of hard science, they are oftentimes closer to theology than geology; that is, both social-science theory and theology are based on indirect observation of the invisible and ineffable and offer

an attempt to build a castle of reason on the clouds of mysticism.  While the hard sciences test a descriptive model through measuring its predictive power, this is rarely the case in the social sciences, where description abounds (regardless of its relationship to observed reality) and is seen as an end in itself.  Description qua description, like art for art’s sake, tends to create a product which is internally consistent, interesting on the surface and lacking the long-term, lasting value of more disciplined endeavors.

The social scientist wears the scientist’s lab coat with the same let’s-pretend attitude as the little boy stomping around the house in his father’s shoes. Consider, for example, behaviorism, at least as espoused by B.F. Skinner. Here, if one wishes to modify another organism’s overt and measurable behavior, one can refer to Skinner and the other behaviorists for techniques which are likely to work.

Whether one wishes to extinguish tantrums, encourage the use of effective studying techniques or train a pigeon to walk in a figure-eight, behaviorism generally does what it claims to do:  through viewing humans as empty vessels, controlled by their responses to environmental stimuli, behaviorism changes the environment to change the humans within it.  This view does away with all of that is unprovable, unmeasurable and sometimes mystical in the developmentalist tradition; one need not explain stages of development, unconscious drives or urges, conscience or consciousness, for they need not, in fact do not, exist in the behaviorist’s world.  Instead, life is explained as a series of stimulus(i)/response(s)/reinforcing stimulus(i) chains; one controls behavior by controlling the environment.

Without a doubt, Skinner’s techniques can and do work well; pragmatically, one can admire the utility, simplicity and effectiveness of behaviorism, while being philosophically utterly repelled by Skinner’s theoretical position and finding his view of humanity completely unacceptable.  Although Skinnerians claim that behaviorism is not a theory or a philosophy, but is simply a set of techniques, this claim is disingenuous, for the behaviorist world view is predicated on the premise that we are ghosts in the machine, that life is a series of meaningless event chains.  Acceptance of lock-step behaviorism denies the very possibility of meaning, reducing all of the universe to a series of, as Walker Percy would have it, dyadic interactions (i.e., like the events in a billiards shot, all behavior, however complex, can be broken down into individual stimulus/response chains); on these grounds alone, one can find behaviorist world view deeply troubling.

More empirically, behaviorism does have a blind spot, one which is huge, partially hidden but somehow always discernible.  This omission is that humans are more than merely bundles of behavior, and the major piece of evidence is our ability, nay, our need, to use language, an ability which Skinner never successfully explained (see, e.g., Noam Chomsky’s blistering and unanswerable attack in his classic review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior or most of Percy’s writings on semiotics and linguistics, particularly The Message in the Bottle).

There is no behaviorist explanation for what Percy calls the triadic nature of language.  That is, Percy explains, the relationship, unique in all the universe, among the word “pigeon,” the speaker of that word and the bird itself; one cannot write a stimulus/response chain to explain or define that relationship.  It is language which offers meaning, a meaning the possibility of which Skinner must deny.  In reading Skinner on language, one senses the author knows he is on shaky ground in trying to fit the language event into his theory.  Unfortunately for the behaviorist, it cannot be done.  The human capacity for language escapes the chains of stimulus and response and shows them to be no more than, at best, a partial explanation of the human condition.  Behaviorism can offer no necessary and sufficient explanation of the language phenomenon, which in my case consists mainly of found humor and jokes.

For instance: Two behaviorists have sex. Afterward, one turns to the other and says, “How was that for me?”

With her behaviorist cloak on, the behaviorist can’t explain the humor here, although she’s likely to tell it to her next class.


One thought on “Closer to Theology than Geology: Toward a View of Language from the Cheap Seats (With apologies to Noam Chomsky, who did this much better, although with fewer jokes)

  • Words are the building blocks of the individual mind……and the shared mind. So, in the beginning was the word and the word was with us and the word IS us. “Words are here, words are there, in the air and everywhere. Eat your words but don’t go crazy!” Listen to the voice in your Rice Krispies.


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