Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How I became a minimalist and why or What would GB say?

It was apparently Max Planck who discovered the unit time of scientific change to be the funeral (the new displacing the old one funeral at a time).  In the early 1990s, I discovered a second driving force, boredom.  As some of you may know, since about the mid-1990s I have been a minimalist enthusiast. For the record, I became one despite my initial inclinations. On first reading A minimalist program for linguistic theory (a Korean bootlegged version purportedly whisked of Noam’s desk and quickly disseminated), I was absolutely convinced that it had to be on the wrong track, if not the aspirations, then the tentative conclusions. I was absolutely certain that one of the biggest discoveries of generative grammar had been the centrality of government as a core relation and S-structure as the indispensible level (I can still see myself making just these points in graduate intro syntax). Thus the idea that we dispense with government as a fundamental relation (it’s called Government-Binding theory after all!), or that we eliminate S-structure as a fundamental level (D-structure, I confess, I was willing to throw under the bus) struck me as nuts, just another manoeuver by Chomsky to annoy former graduate students.

Three things worked together to open (more accurately, pry open) my mind.

First, my default strategy is to agree with Chomsky, even if I have no idea what he’s talking about. In fact, I often try to figure out where he’s heading so that I can pre-agree with him. Sadly, he tends not to run in a straight line so I can often be seen going left when he zags right or right when he zigs left. This has proven to be both healthful (I am very fit!) and fruitful. More often than not, Chomsky identifies fecund research directions, or at least ones that in retrospect I have found interesting.  No doubt this is just dumb luck on Chomsky’s part, but if someone is lucky often enough, it is worth paying very careful attention (as my mother says: “better lucky than smart”).  So, though I have often found my work at a slant (even perpendicular) to his detailed proposals (e.g. just look at how delighted Noam is with Movement Theory of Control, a theory near and dear to my heart), I have always found it worthwhile to try to figure out what he is proposing and why. 

Second, fear: when the first minimalist paper began to circulate in the early 1990s I was invited to teach a graduate syntax seminar at Nijmegen (populated by eager, smart, hungry (and so ill-tempered) grad students from Holland and the rest of Europe) and I needed something new to talk about. If you just get up and repeat what you’ve already done, they could be ready for you. Better to move in some erratic direction and keep them guessing. Chomsky’s recent minimalist musings seemed like perfect cover.

Third, and truth be told I believe that this is the main reason, the GB stuff I/we had been exploring had become really boring. Why? For the best of possible reasons: viz. we really understood what made GB style theories tick and we/I needed something new to play with, something that would allow me/us to approach old questions in a different way (or at least not put us/me to sleep). That new thing was the Minimalist Program. I mention this, because at the time there was a lot of toing and froing about why so many had lemming-like (this is apparently a rural legend; they don’t fling themselves off cliffs) jumped off of the GB bandstand and onto the minimalist bandwagon. As I faintly recall, there was an issue of the Linguistic Review dedicated to this timely question with many authoritative voices giving very reasonable explanations for why they were taking the minimalist turn.  And most of these reasons were in fact good ones. However, if my conversion was not completely atypical, the main thrust came from simple thasaphobia and the discovery of the well-established fact that intensive study of the Barriers framework could be deleterious to one’s health (good reason to avoid going there again all you phase-lovers out there!).

These three motivations joined to prompt me, as an exercise, to stow the skepticism, at least for the duration of the Dutch lectures, assume that this minimalist stuff was on the right track and see how far I could get with it.  Much to my surprise, it did not fall apart on immediate inspection (a surprisingly good reason to persist in my experience), it was really fun to play with, and, if you got with the program, there was a lot to do given that few GB details survived minimalism’s dumping of government as a core grammatical relation (not so surprising given that it is government-binding theory).  So I was hooked, and busy. (p.s. I also enjoyed the fact that, at the time, playing minimalist partisan could get one into a lot of arguments and nothing is more fun than heated polemics).

These were the basic causes for my theoretical conversion. Were there any good reasons? Yes, one.  Minimalism was the next natural scientific step to take given the success of the GB enterprise.

This actually became more apparent to me several years later, than it was on my road to Damascus Nijmegen.  The GB era produced a rich description of the structure of UG; internally modular with distinctive conditions, primitives and operations characterizing each sub-part.  In effect, GB delivered a dozen or so “laws” of grammar (e.g. subjacency, ECP, principles A-C of binding theory, X’-theory etc.), of pretty good (no, not perfect, but pretty good) empirical standing (lots of cross linguistic support). This put generative grammar in a position to address a new kind of question: why these laws and not others? Note: you can’t ask this question if there are no “laws.” Attacking it requires that we rethink the structure of UG in a new way; not only to ask “what’s in UG ?” but also “what that is in UG is distinctively linguistic and what traceable to more general powers, cognitive, computational, or physical?”. This put a version of what we might call Darwin’s Problem (the logical problem of language evolution) on the agenda along side Plato’s Problem (the logical problem of language acquisition).  The latter has not been solved, not by a long shot, but fortunately adding a question to the research agenda does not require that previous problems have been put to bed and snuggly tucked in. So though in one sense, minimalism was nothing new, just the next reasonable scientific step to take, it was also entirely new in that it raised to prominence a question whose time, we hoped, had come. [1]

Chomsky has repeatedly emphasized the programmatic aspects of minimalism.  And, as he has correctly noted, programs are not true or false but fecund or barren. However, after 20 years, it’s perhaps (oh what a weasel word!) time to sit back and ask how fertile the minimalist turn has been? In my view, very, precisely because it has spawned minimalist theories that advance the programmatic agenda, theories that can be judged not merely in terms of their fertility but also in terms of their verisimilitude. I have my own views about where the successes lie, and I suspect that they may not coincide with either Noam’s or yours.  However, I believe that it is time that we identified what we take to be our successes and ask ourselves how (or whether?) they reflect the principle ambitions and intuitions of the minimalist program.

Let me put this another way: in one sense minimalism and GB are not competitors for the aims of the former presuppose the success of the latter.  However, minimalist theories and GB theories often are (or can be) in direct competition and it is worth evaluating them against each other.  So for example, to take an example at random (haha!), GB has a theory of control and current minimalism has several. We can ask, for example: In what ways do the GB and minimalist accounts differ? How do they stack up empirically? What minimalist precepts do the minimalist theories reflect?  What GB principles are the minimalist accounts (in)compatible with? What larger minimalist goals do the minimalist theories advance?  What does the minimalist story tells us that the earlier GB story didn’t? And vice versa? Etc. etc. etc.

IMHO, these are not questions that we have asked often enough. I believe that we have failed to effectively use GB as the foil (and measuring rod) it can be. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps because we have concluded that because the minimalist program is worth pursuing that specific minimalist theories that brandish distinctive minimalist technology (feature checking, merge, Agree, probe-goal architecture, phases etc.) are “better” or “truer” than those exploiting the quaint out of date GB apparatus.  If so, we were wrong.  We always need to measure our advances. One good way to do this is to compare your spanking new minimalist proposal with the model T GB version. I hereby propose that going forward we adopt the mantra “What would GB say?” (WWGBS; might even make for a good license plate) and compare our novel proposals with this standard to make clear to ourselves and others where and how we’ve progressed.

I will likely blog more on this topic soon and identify what I take to be some of the more interesting lines of investigation to date.  However, I am very interested in what others take the main minimalist successes to be.  What are the parade case achievements? Let me know. After 20 years, it seems reasonable to try to make a rough estimate of how far we’ve come.

[1] Here Sean Carroll goes minimalist in a different setting:
The actual laws of nature are interesting, but it’s also interesting that there are laws at all…We want to know what those laws are. More ambitiously, we’d like to know if those laws could possibly have been different…We may or may not be able to answer such a grandiose question, but it’s the kind of thing that lights the imagination of the working scientist (p.23)
This is what I mean by the next obvious scientific step to take.  First find laws, then ask why these laws and not others. That’s the way the game is played, at least by the real pros.


  1. You raise an interesting question. “I am very interested in what others take the main minimalist successes to be. What are the parade case achievements? Let me know. After 20 years, it seems reasonable to try to make a rough estimate of how far we’ve come”.

    It is rather odd for a scientist to ask this question about his own work. Would Einstein have begged others for help to answer such a question in 1935? Even odder is that, seemingly, you do not know that Chomsky has several times in print attempted to answer this question.

    In On Nature and Language (2002) your colleagues Belletti and Rizzi ask what the substantive thesis of minimalism is. Chomsky seems to admit there is none but he packages this admission in much distracting verbiage (pp. 98-102). So here are a few highlights for you: minimalism is done ‘Galilean style’ and this simply means you have to be willing to say “Look if the data refute the theory the data are probably wrong” (p. 98), that you make the “move towards discarding recalcitrant phenomena” (p. 102) and that you have to avoid “being distracted by phenomena that seem to interfere with the explanatory force of a theory” (p. 104).

    Rather surprisingly Chomsky also claims, “learning the sciences is similar to learning how to become a shoemaker: you work with a master artisan” (p. 102). With all the putting aside of recalcitrant data (like size of the client’s feet), I imagine this must be shoemaking Cinderella style: one produces beautiful shoes and if they do not fit clients chop off their toes or heels.

    What seems to justify the Galilean style is the alleged fact “that the world itself is unintelligible, that our minds and the nature of the world are not that compatible” (p. 100). Some of the insights that hide the fact that Chomsky has no substantive thesis are: physicists “can’t explain in detail how water flows out of the faucet or the structure of the helium atom” (p. 99), mathematicians worked “without a formal theory, in fact with approaches that had internal contradictions” (p. 101), “for theoretical chemists there is now an understanding that there is a quantum-theoretic interpretation of what they are doing (p. 102), that cell division might be the “sort of perfect” result of a “beautiful process” (p. 103), “evolution can’t climb hills” (ibid.), and “the fact that you don’t have an eye at the back of your head is poor design: we would be way better off if we had one, so if a saber tooth tiger was coming after you, you could see it” (p. 104). These are of course deep and surprising insights, worthy of the Einstein of linguistics, though, frankly, I fail to see how they have anything to do with linguistics. However, Chomsky did claim that his framework gave rise to “new questions like the question of substantive optimality rather than only methodological optimality” (p. 105). Surely ten years of work on this question must have generated many results, maybe a topic for a future blog? Make sure you incorporate the answer Chomsky gave when, in The Science of Language (2012), philosopher James McGilvray asked “what [do] you take to be your most important contributions” (p. 76). As far as I can tell ten years of research on questions of substantive optimality have not generated substantive answers.

    For my detailed discussion of the surprising absence of substantive results in the most celebrated research program of linguistics see, but also consult recent works of fellow linguists like Peter Culicover, Dan Everett, Ray Jackendoff, Paul Postal, Geoff Pullum, and Pieter Seuren. And then, instead of taking cheap shots at some psychologists, address some of the substantive criticisms of minimalism put forward there. Because, to borrow another of your phrases: “That’s the way the game is played, at least by the real pros”.

  2. Hmm, I have my views about what the successes have been and plan to write about it, as I think I said. However, I was interested in what others thought who share my views. I guess you are not interested in what others have to say about things that you have opinions on. Here we apparently differ. So, yes I think there are achievements, I suspect they are different from what Chomsky would point to, but c'est la vie.

    It may have escaped your notice that I distinguished between Minimalism as a program and minimalist theories,a ruing that we should be evaluating the second to find out how fecund the first has been. I don't know what Chomsky takes to be the highlights, though I suspect that the unification of phrase structure and movement would be near the top of his list, as would be the simplification of UG with the elimination of DS and SS. I also think that he would like the identification of cyclicity with something like a no tampering condition. But these are guesses. In truth, I am interested but in another sense I don't care. I believe that there have been real results, empirical, theoretical and methodological. I have written about this at length professionally. Some people agree, others don't. Fine. This is not atypical in scientific work (as I recall Einstein was not a fan of quantum mechanics). Nor do I look for consensus. The people you mentioned I believe are largely wrong headed, though some have made valuable contributions, in my view. But so it goes.

    Too bad you don't see how what Chomsky says about the Galilean method relates to linguistics. I would suggest trying harder.

  3. Thanks for the suggestion, I did [some time ago] and came to the conclusion that 'Galilean style' is as much a misnomer for Chomsky's science as Cartesian linguistics' is for his linguistics. For a more accurate description of Galilean style science i recommend

    Fischer, K. (1992). Die Wissenschaftstheorie Galileis – oder: Contra Feyerabend. Zeitschrift fuer allgemeine Wissenschaftslehre, 23, 165 – 197.

    I wish Chomsky would stop this name dropping and call things what they are: Chomskyan. For better or worse he had a huge impact on linguistics [and beyond] so there is no need to line up the great minds of the past as alleged supporters. In fact it reminds me of the silly tendency East German authorities had to trace communism to the work of Aristotle.

    If you do not know what Chomsky takes the successes to be i recommend reading his 'Science of Language '[2012], I have cited his entire answer here:

    It is very different from: 'the unification of phrase structure and movement or the simplification of UG with the elimination of DS and SS or identification of cyclicity with something like a no tampering condition.' - what you list are in fact the kinds of things I would have expected in an answer, not the basically vacuous answer given by Chomsky. So it is really not me who denies there have been substantial results...

  4. I find the 'Galilean style' a useful category and it is standardly used in history and philo of science literature. There is an important difference between how the 17th century greats approached scientific inquiry and these distinctions are useful roadmaps for navigating the landscape. I think that Chomsky is right to think that his work fits into this framework quite snugly. He is not a Feyerabendian, so far as I know. I, however, have learned a lot from Feyerabend, though I think Laymon has made some reasonable points about some of what he said. At any rate, I think taht Chomsky has correctly described Galileo's methods (Descarte's too btw) and is right to point to this as a paradigm of how to conduct research. It has proven successful and imitation is thus a reasonable strategy.

    Citing Galileo is hardly name dropping. He does not frequent parties that either Chomsky or anyone else currently goes to. This is silly.

    Calling things Chomskyan for him would be like Turing calling his device a Turing Machine. You are kidding right? I can call it Chomskyan, and I do. If he did people like you would be up in arms noting his overbearing arrogance and noting that others, e.g. Galileo, said these things first.

    Chomsky's biggest success was posing a set of questions that are answerable and deep. He made linguistics part of cognitive psychology and ultimately neuroscience, though this is more ambition than result at this moment. However there have been lesser results. LGB is a great book, Aspects is a great book, On Why Movement is a great article, The Minimalist Program is a great book. All of these have made lasting contributions. If asked (I did) what he thinks are among the most interesting things that the MP has found, he notes the the things I mentioned. These, however, may be wrong. These are theoretical contributions, that in my view, have done pretty well over the last 5 years, but they are more ephemeral precisely because they are empirical although at a pretty high level.

    There is a risk that if you don't know anything about linguistics that Chomsky's popular writings will lead you off in a wrong direction. The gist is always accurate, but details and subtleties are put aside for clarity of presentation for the uninitiated. Maybe you might start with LGB if you are interested in getting into the heart of things.

  5. I find it interesting to learn what 'people like me' would Chomsky accuse of. But you are mistaken. If Chomsky's science would be 'Galilean' I would not at all object to him using the label [though i would not 'be up in arms' if he would not either]. But is style is so distinct from Galileo's that it not only deserves a different label but is actually misleading to call it Galilean. Further the aspects of Galileo's style which could be charitably called similar to Chomsky's style are the ones Descartes strongly objected to. Given that Chomsky calls his approach also Cartesian he advocates a style he would have to reject. So it would be by no means immodest if Chomsky would call his style not Galilean - merely honest.

    Thank you for the reading suggestion. i have read LGB more than once. Given that Chomsky calls it a "substantial break from earlier generative grammar" [p.7] and that you hold there were no such breaks in Chomsky's work it surprises me you would recommend it. But i agree that compared to later works it was informative [presumably more so at the time it came first out]. I have a very different opinion about The Minimalist Program and think it is best we agree to disagree. There are in fact very few books of Chomsky I have not read. But to become knowledgeable about your field surely I need to read more than Chomsky's work - so what are your recommendations?

  6. In my view the style is similar; lots of thought experiments, lots of clearing conceptual confusion. But further discussion would not clarify matters so let's stop. Btw, as you no doubt know words like 'honest' are very loaded and you do yourself a disservice by suggesting there is dissimulation on Chomsky's part. I have never seen Chomsky call an intellectual opponent a liar in print but it seems to be the sort of charge that his disgruntled interlocutors have no problem throwing about. Very bad form and very bad taste. As my mother would say; not the way a well brought up person should behave.

    Read LGB again. MP is a break but because a new question is being asked, not because the results are being thrown out. I tried to explain how in an earlier reply so I will leave aside further comment.

    There aree several books that on MP that stress the continuity with earlier work. One that I am fond of is the text I wrote with Nunes and Grohmann called "Understanding Minimalism." We start each chapter with a GB review and try to show what Minimalism tries to bring tot the table. The book discusses early minimalism, but it still reflects much of how I take the issues to align. There is other excellent stuff out there as well. Most of the work on superiority is intriguing, the stuff on linearization re islands and phase spell out is also new and interesting. I would also look at the stuff on the copy theory by Nunes, Boskovic and on Islands by Merchant and Lasnik.

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  8. Hello,
    Thanks for the great blog.
    I'm enjoying your posts and I'm learning a lot from this Blog.

    So, successes in Minimalist Program.
    I think the following studies are "great step forward".
    I don't know if we can call them successes, but I think:

    Epstein's studies on derivational c-command, Uriagereka's studies on Multiple Spell-Out, Hale & Keyser's studies on thematic relations, you and colleagues' studies on construal relations.

    These studies are, I think, great attempts to derive GB stipulations from elementary operations/relations.

  9. Myo, thanks for being the first to play. I agree with your picks and would add the work on copy theory both wrt connectedness effects and phonological copy constructions, the very interesting work on ellipsis and why it is sometimes obviated under deletion, and theoretical work on the sources of c-command. I hope to discuss some of these further in the future but feel free to weigh in and say what you think is interesting and how/why/if it reflects minimalist aspirations/tenets. Thanks again.

  10. Thanks Norbert.
    I haven't thought about copy theory in that way.

    I forgot to put it in the previous comment, but I think transformation/move as "last resort" as Chomsky proposed in KoL, is/was another "step forward". I don't know if others agree, but to me KoL looks like the beginning of the Minimalist Program.