I follow several other blogs but I don’t often follow the comment threads. On the assumption that you might be like me I have decided to highlight a very interesting interchange on the last post “Effects, Phenomena and Unification” (here). Alex Clark pens (can you use this verb for an e-post? ‘authors’?) an interesting comment. He clarifies the discussion immensely by identifying precisely where he disagrees with the thrust of my comments. Here’s a taste of what he has to say, but I encourage you to read the whole thing:
So I think the root of our disagreement is in your final sentence of your post. What is the central fact of the matter? What is the central phenomenon that linguistics should explain? I am in a minority here because I think the fundamental empirical problem of linguistics is to account for language acquisition, and not to account for "island effects, principle A, B and C effects, weak and strong crossover effects, the PRO theorem, Superiority effects etc. "
Cederic Boeckx has a reaction that is also worth reading in full. Here is a taste:
You are not in a minority, Alex. The central problem is still language acquisition (in fact, some of us have been trying hard to relate Darwin's problem and Plato's problem), but I think it's wrong to say that the whole point is "to account for language acquisition, and not to account for island effects, principle A, B and C effects, weak and strong crossover effects, the PRO theorem, Superiority effects". You can't care about one without caring about the other….
…If you don't care about island effects, etc. you can't be claiming to care about language acquisition, because you'd be ignoring the conditions that make learning possible in the first place. (The principles guide the child: Don't do this, don't do that. That's why most of them have a negative format; cf. Chomsky 1973, which you mention: "No rule can relate X and Y ...")
To repeat, read both posts for they are very enlightening and represent two ways of thinking in the field. I bet you know that my view of things corresponds quite closely to Cederic’s. However, I would like to add a point to the one he makes for in a sense I believe that he is being too generous to Alex’s stated position.
From where I sit, Alex’s position is actually incoherent. Here’s why. If GB is a reasonable compendium of the properties of UG (as I’ve assumed it is) then it is a good description of the kinds of properties the particular Gs have. Gs are what people acquire and what makes them linguistically competent (I assume that this is common ground as nobody believes that what is acquired is a list of sentences but some kind of generative procedure, i.e. set of rules, a grammar). So, if you want to describe how someone acquires linguistic competence then you need to explain how/why particular Gs have the shapes that UG describes them as having (i.e. why they obey the GB laws of grammar). Thus, particular Gs (French, English, your G, mine, Chomsky’s, Geithner’s, Madonna’s etc.) respect principles A, B and C of the binding theory, forbid movement across islands, control exclusively into the subject positions of non-finite clauses, respect cross over restrictions etc. In other words, particular Gs (the things acquired in the course of language acquisition) conform to the strictures of UG as described by GB. So if you want to explain language acquisition then you want to explain that. In other words Alex’s sentence “…I think the fundamental empirical problem of linguistics is to account for language acquisition, and not to account for "island effects, principle A, B and C effects, weak and strong crossover effects, the PRO theorem, Superiority effects etc.” is literally incoherent for it is saying that the program is to account for language acquisition but not to account for the properties of what is acquired. It’s sort of like saying that you are interested in the dynamics of atoms at high temperatures but not in the gas laws, or in the properties of gravity but not in Kepler's laws. If GB is a roughly accurate description of UG then particular Gs will have the properties GB outlines and so learning/acquiring/osmosing/ingesting/tatooing language implies ending up with a system of rules aka a grammar, a G with those properties.
This said, I believe that Cederic response addresses Alex’s real doubts abut the generative enterprise. I suspect that what Alex doubts is that the properties that GB outlines are innate parts of FL. He thinks that either this assumption doesn’t help with the acquisition problem or that you can do without it even if it might help (see the thread here for discussion on this point). Cederic and I believe that this is wrong. But say that Alex is right (he isn’t, but as everyone who read Superman comics as a kid (before graduating to Spiderman and the Fantastic Four) bizzarro worlds are fun to consider), then it’s still the case that he should be interested in deriving the properties of GB as boundary conditions on Gs. Why? Because as a factual matter Gs have these properties. That’s what the tons of descriptive cross linguistic work of the last 60 years has empirically demonstrated. That’s why I say that from where I sit Alex’s position is either incoherent or involves a position akin to climate change denial . Either it amounts to saying that you are not interested in deriving the features of the actual systems you are interested in or it amounts to denying that the descriptive work of the last 60 years is (roughly) accurate.
In sum, the only way of avoiding incoherence is to deny that we know much about UG, i.e. to become the linguistic equivalent of a climate change denier. The descriptions we have of UG may not be perfect, but they are pretty good. Actually, in my view very good. Given this, any account of language acquisition that wants to be taken seriously must explain why Gs have the GBish properties I alluded to. In addition, I happen to believe that there are good reasons for thinking that the reason that Gs have these properties is because large chunks of UG as specified by GB are innate (i.e. accurately describe FL) when suitably reanalyzed in minimalist terms. Thus: Why do Gs have GB features? Because the language acquisition device is constrained to produce Gs with these properties. Are there gaps in this story? You bet. That’s why we keep doing research on these topics. But the argument towards innate structure starts from recognizing certain facts, viz. that the descriptions provided by grammarians over the last 60 years is roughly correct. This is where I part company with Alex, not over what the central questions are but over what the facts are.
Addendum: after posting this I saw that Alex added another comment to the earlier thread where he in fact identifies the source of his skepticism. This too is very much worth reading. I will likely post a comment on this later on today, but first the gym!