In recent years transformational linguists have with increasing articulateness and effectiveness expressed concern over the apparent inadequacy of learning theory in accounting for the acquisition and exercise of the syntactic structures which are believed to mediate verbal behavior. For example, a recent exchange between Braine (1965) and Bever, et al (1965a, b) is concluded with the following admonition from the linguists: "As the empirical basis for assuming an abstract underlying structure in language becomes broader and the explanatory power of that assumption becomes deeper, we recommend to all psychologists that they seriously question the adequacy of any theory of learning that cannot account for the fact that such structures are acquired" (Bever, Fodor, and Weksel, 1965b). The present paper will not deal with specific contentions about alternative grammatical formulations or alternative associationistic representations of grammatically structured behavior. The purpose is, rather, to extend the scope of the dialogue in such a way as to remove the basis for contention. Briefly, I shall try to show that although the specific criticism directed toward associationist learning theory appears to be justified at the present time, the demand that psychological theory should provide the mechanisms for acquiring and exercising iinguistic competence is a move which violates the methodological character of trapsformational theory itself. I shall try, by indicating an alternative formulation of psychological theory, to show that that move is also an unnecessary one. The alternative formulation (Ossorio, 1966a) is one which is likely to be unfamiliar to the reader. The theory has important continuities with the recent "Ordinary Languge", or "Oxford", tradition in philosophy. However, it goes significantly beyond previous formulations in scope and systematization, and is psychological rather than philosophical. It may be characterized as a systematization of what has previously been informally identified as the "Rule-following model" of human behavior (e.g., by Mischel, 1964). Four points need to be made about the theory by way of summary and introduction: (1) It is fundamentally different. In terms of Morris' classic (1938) distinction of syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic, the rule-following model is a pragmatic theory2 having the reflexive character of natural language, whereas the commonly known behavior theories in psychology are semantic theories and are subject to the linguistic stratification characteristic of artificial languages. (2) It is the methodological counterpart in Psychology, of transformational theory in Structural Linguistics. (3) Substantively, it is a "theory of performance", in the linguists' sense, but because two key conceots within the system are "competence" concepts, any systematic descrption. of a particular sort of competence, including transformational or other descriptions of linguistic competence, can be assimilated in toto. (4) The relation of the two "competence" concepts to the system as a whole and to each other guarantees that the conclusion that an English speaker does not, in general, know how to use the grammatical structures of English is non-paradoxical and has no pernicious consequences for either the behavioral account or the grammatical one. But then also, there is no problem of explaining how the speaker learned to use those grammatical structures. The two distinct competence concepts neatly separate the loci of relevance of grammatical theories and learning theories within psychological theory.

Date Created

Spring 1967


Linguistic Research Institute


49 pages; 10.92 x 7.88 inches

Document Type

Technical Report