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. 
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.
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.