Article ID: CBB134415153

The Unmaking of a Modern Synthesis: Noam Chomsky, Charles Hockett, and the Politics of Behaviorism, 1955–1965 (2016)


A familiar story about mid-twentieth-century American psychology tells of the abandonment of behaviorism for cognitive science. Between these two, however, lay a scientific borderland, muddy and much traveled. This essay relocates the origins of the Chomskyan program in linguistics there. Following his introduction of transformational generative grammar, Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) mounted a highly publicized attack on behaviorist psychology. Yet when he first developed that approach to grammar, he was a defender of behaviorism. His antibehaviorism emerged only in the course of what became a systematic repudiation of the work of the Cornell linguist C. F. Hockett (1916–2000). In the name of the positivist Unity of Science movement, Hockett had synthesized an approach to grammar based on statistical communication theory; a behaviorist view of language acquisition in children as a process of association and analogy; and an interest in uncovering the Darwinian origins of language. In criticizing Hockett on grammar, Chomsky came to engage gradually and critically with the whole Hockettian synthesis. Situating Chomsky thus within his own disciplinary matrix suggests lessons for students of disciplinary politics generally and—famously with Chomsky—the place of political discipline within a scientific life.

Citation URI

Similar Citations

Book Lemov, Rebecca; (2005)
World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men (/isis/citation/CBB000741953/)

Article Cohen-Cole, Jamie; (2015)
The Politics of Psycholinguistics (/isis/citation/CBB001552040/)

Book Panofsky, Aaron; (2014)
Misbehaving Science: Controversy and the Development of Behavior Genetics (/isis/citation/CBB001422037/)

Thesis Panofsky, Aaron Leon; (2006)
Fielding Controversy: The Genesis and Structure of Behavior Genetics (/isis/citation/CBB001560772/)

Book Chris Knight; (2018)
Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics (/isis/citation/CBB679627884/)

Chapter Lenci, Alessandro; Sandu, Gabriel; (2009)
Logic and Linguistics in the Twentieth Century (/isis/citation/CBB001210357/)

Article Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg; (2013)
My Road to History of Science (/isis/citation/CBB001420391/)

Article Kertész, András; (2012)
The “Galilean Style in Science” and the Inconsistency of Linguistic Theorising (/isis/citation/CBB001252706/)

Article Katja Guenther; (2017)
Monkeys, Mirrors, and Me: Gordon Gallup and the Study of Self-Recognition (/isis/citation/CBB045415018/)

Thesis Feest, Uljana; (2003)
Operationalism, Experimentation, and Concept Formation (/isis/citation/CBB001561972/)

Article Cohen-Cole, Jamie; (2005)
The Reflexivity of Cognitive Science: The Scientist as Model of Human Nature (/isis/citation/CBB001031728/)

Article Simon Torracinta; (2023)
Maps of desire: Edward Tolman's drive theory of wants (/isis/citation/CBB895271926/)

Article Mandler, George; (2002)
Origins of the Cognitive (R)evolution (/isis/citation/CBB000300489/)

Article Rutherford, Alexandra; (2000)
Radical Behaviorism and Psychology's Public: B. F. Skinner in the Popular Press, 1934 -1990 (/isis/citation/CBB000111110/)

Book Timothy Wientzen; (2021)
Automatic: Literary Modernism and the Politics of Reflex (/isis/citation/CBB531268936/)

Article Bouterse, Jeroen; Karstens, Bart; (2015)
A Diversity of Divisions: Tracing the History of the Demarcation between the Sciences and the Humanities (/isis/citation/CBB001551432/)

Book Segal, Nancy L.; (2012)
Born Together--Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study (/isis/citation/CBB001320238/)

Authors & Contributors
Rutherford, Alexandra
Timothy Wientzen
Simon Torracinta
Chris Knight
Bouterse, Jeroen
Panofsky, Aaron
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
History of the Human Sciences
Science in Context
Isis: International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
History of Psychology
Foundations of Science
Yale University Press
University of Chicago Press
Johns Hopkins University Press
Hill & Wang
Harvard University Press
New York University
Linguistics; philology
Behavioral sciences
Science and politics
Controversies and disputes
Chomsky, Noam
Skinner, Burrhus Frederic
Gallup, Gordon
Miller, George Armitage
Windelband, Wilhelm
Tolman, Edward Chace
Time Periods
20th century
20th century, late
20th century, early
21st century
19th century
United States
Minnesota (U.S.)
Berlin (Germany)

Be the first to comment!

{{ comment.created_by.username }} on {{ comment.created_on | date:'medium' }}

Log in or register to comment