I heard in a philosophy of the mind lecture that Skinner's behaviorism went out of favor in the 50s mainly due to Chomsky's critique of Skinner's behaviorist account of language acquisition.

When I looked further into the question, it seemed that Chomsky's reply to Skinner is based on a theory of universal grammar, based in turn on a concept of innate ideas. Innate ideas as a concept have been discredited as far back as Kant.

My questions:

  1. If Chomsky had to resort to something even more outdated than behaviorism, how is he considered to have decisively refuted Skinner?
  2. Are there any more recent arguments against Skinner's theory of language acquisition?
  • Interesting +1 I am reading this now chomsky.info/articles/1967----.htm, but it takes time, so pardon me not to answer. So far as I read,there is nothing to do with Skinner's proposal ( Chomsky says it is an empiricism ) and the language in general when we consider the language, whose origin is very complex. For example
    – user13955
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 4:01
  • @AlexanderSKing can you clarify what you mean by "Innate ideas as a concept have been discredited as far back as Kant." Also can you justify the claim that his universal grammar is just a species of what was "discredited as far back as Kant". Both of these seem to be claims that would be deeply contested rather than just assumed.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 4:08
  • 1
    @virmaior Chomsky argues for a universal grammar that we are born with. He says that's why young children exhibit far more linguistic ability than mere exposure to what their environment can provide them with. This is basically the same as DesCartes and others innate ideas: ideas that are in the mind independently of experience and perception. Commented May 6, 2015 at 4:26
  • @virmaior the Hume and the empiricists dismissed innate ideas off the bat. Kant conceded that they were right. Very few people today would argue for the theory innate ideas. Commented May 6, 2015 at 4:38
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    Mary Midgely made the argument that it was the lack of any concept of 'inner life' that sunk behaviouralism. Commented May 6, 2015 at 21:31

1 Answer 1


Chomsky has never advocated "innate ideas" -- his position has been that humans have innate knowledge, which is a different thing. You can just as well phrase that as having an innate cognitive faculty (specifically pertaining to language), physically embodied in terms of some genetically-endowed fact of the brain (though he leaves the details of that claim to be fleshed out by others).

  • While still reading the material in the link in the questioner's comment line, it seems there seems to be so space for me to think Chomsky supported innate idea, in another words, a priori
    – user13955
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 5:25
  • I mean no space, sorry.
    – user13955
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 5:36
  • 2
    Regardless of how universal grammar is characterized it is currently rejected by most linguists, it can not account for variations in grammar across language groups and a number of other things. So if Chomsky's criticism is based on that it is no "decisive refutation". My impression is however that Chomsky simply pointed out superficiality of behaviorism, it can not possibly achieve its stated ends with its stated means. It is similar to Kant, his refutation of the ontological argument stands regardless of the status of his philosophy.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 21:40
  • What is your evidence that universal grammar is currently rejected by most linguists?
    – user6726
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 21:59
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    I should have said language psychologists, structural linguists still love generative grammar. Short of taking a poll the best evidence is Chomsky's own behavior, he was "modifying" UG every time there was contrary evidence, and lately reduced it to something that covers anything at all:"In Chomsky's most recent formulation, the so-called "minimalist program," universal grammar reduces to what he calls "unbounded Merge." As irrefutable as it is useless.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 23:38

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