Skinner: From Essentialist to Selectionist Meaning

Behavior and Philosophy 25 (2):95 - 119 (1997)
Skinner has been criticized for advancing essentialist interpretations of meaning in which meaning is treated as the property of a word or a grammatical form. Such a practice is consistent with a "words and things" view that sought to advance an ideal language as well as with S-R views that presented meaning as the property of a word form. These views imply an essentialist theory of meaning that would be consistent with Skinner's early S-R behaviorism. However, Skinner's more developed account of meaning is based on his later selectionist behaviorism, and this account of meaning is aligned in many respects with the views of Darwin, Peirce, F. C. S. Schiller, Dewey, and Wittgenstein. After adopting a selectionist theory of meaning, it was inconsistent for Skinner to maintain essentialist practices although Skinner did so in response to influences that had little to do with his selectionist theory. Skinner's particular contribution to this pragmatic-selectionist tradition of meaning is the integration of meaning within his three-term contingency for operant behavior. In this account, meaning lies in the probabilistic functional relations of verbal behavior rather than in its form.
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