Programs can be evaluated along many dimensions. They can be fecund or sterile, cramped or expansive. All look forward not back. They are more like commencement addresses and promissory notes than eulogies or audits. I personally am a fan of the biolinguistic program for it strikes me as intellectually expansive and potentially fecund. I am not a big fan of Platonist linguistics for it strikes me as conceptually cramped and conservative. Let me explain.
When I first got into linguistics, the slogan was that linguistics was a sub-branch of cognitive psychology (CP). Chomsky’s review of Skinner, chapter 1 of Aspects and the elaborate philosophical discussion in Reflections on Language set the tone for the enterprise. Linguists were studying a mental faculty in much the way that perception psychologists were studying vision and audition. The analogies were evident: our data consisted in asking native speaker’s acceptability judgments. Our problem was to figure out how it was that humans when exposed to a pretty meager subset of the data were able to project a competence with apparently unbounded range. This latter, the “Projection Problem,” was idealized in the famous picture in (1):
(1) PLDL à UG à GL
Given linguistic input (aka: primary linguistic data) L UG names the to be identified function that takes a Language Acquisition Device (LAD, aka, kid) to a grammar of L. UG is thus the general recipe for taking kids from PLD to G. Given the nature of the projection problem, G was understood to be a set of recursive rules and so the problem was to identify what took you from outputs of G, actual uttered linguistic productions like John loves Bill, to the rules that generate the patterns in those productions. The project was complex for to study UG required knowing something about G and to study G required studying judgment patterns of native speakers. Complex, yet methodologically rather straightforward, or so it seemed to me then and now.
It is easy enough to see why this conception of the enterprise caught on so quickly. First, it responded to a deeply held philosophical intuition, viz. that language was a window on the mind. By studying the fine structure of linguistic competence it was possible to identify essential powers of human minds. Second, despite the evident idealizations (recall, Aspects bid us study the ideal speaker-hearer!), given the actual practice it sure looked like we were studying a human capacity. After all, we were plumbing speaker intuitions, making predictions about unqueried judgments, and making models, in general, of what native speakers would find agreeable or not. Third, situating linguistics in a CP context served to stretch the kinds of questions linguists should be interested in.
For example, the CP context encouraged looking for ways to study linguistic behavior using other methods. Thus, there was a burgeoning effort to apply psycho techniques to the study of linguistic behavior. Aside from the early work by Chomsky and Miller, early psycho-ling techniques were also developed, J&J Fodor, Bever, Garrett, Forster, Gleitman, Newport, Crain etc. This work took linguistics seriously enough to investigate it using standard psycho techniques and found some novel effects which have proved to be of lasting interest (think Garden Path or Filled Gap Effects). Some of this proved somewhat distracting (I am thinking of the psychological reality debates) but much of it served to develop techniques that are still in use today to investigate how Gs are used to parse and produce language. Indeed, the early debates around the derivational theory of complexity are the first attempts to see how transparent parsers and grammars are, a topic that Marcus, and Berwick and Weinberg and Phillips have investigated with surprising results.
Second, linguistics was the model science for the whole CP revolution. Linguistics made legitimate the search for native bases for many other cognitive competences: how we object permanence, causality, face recognition etc.
Thus, locating linguistics in the broader CP world was good both for linguistics (by making it responsive to the concerns of neighboring domains) and good for CP. Speaking somewhat personally, the ling dept at UMD was constructed on the premise that this kind of CP orientation was both interesting and productive. From the get-go the department was built to implement the CP vision. The idea was that the distinction between the theoretical areas (e.g. syntax, phonology, semantics, morphology) and the conjunctive ones (e.g. acquisition, processing, computational, neuro) was less one of centrality and more on of alternative platforms. Different methods can be used to study related problems. The common object of investigation was the structure and properties of FL. Given the diversity of the behavioral effects that linguistic competence gives rise to, it is to be expected that different techniques will be used to investigate it. At any rate, the unifying theme is that we were all investigating the same mental organ using different methods and tools. In my view, this has proven to be a very fecund approach. In particular, the CP perspective treats language as a natural phenomenon. It aims to limn the underlying powers undergirding complex behavior. Locating linguistics within CP means displacing it (at least somewhat) from a more general cultural setting, or a more philological context. On the CP view, the aim is to find the cognitive mechanism behind the overt behavior. One studies linguistic properties as way stations to these cognitive powers. This is to take a resolutely expansive view of the enterprise, a very good thing in my view.
However, not everyone likes this expansive view for it threatens to challenge and/or displace traditional techniques. In my view, Platonism can serve as a safe haven from the hurly burly of this CP conception. Locating linguistics within mathematics insulates it from the empirical concerns of CP. Here’s the comforting soliloquy: “What they find cannot in principle bear on what we find. After all, just as physics is incapable of upsetting mathematical truth so too work in brains, parsing, acquisition cannot bear on linguistic truth.” This is a cramped view. Why would anyone choose to endorse it?
So, in my view, the CP setting for linguistics has been extremely fecund and intellectually expansive. What of the biolinguistics vision? I can see no problem with that either. The setting is a natural extension of the CP conception on the common understanding (more a modern fashionable prejudice actually, but count me in) that minds are secreted by brains. In other words, unless one is a dualist, not a widely endorsed position nowadays (I heard someone identify it with believing in ghosts), there is a common assumption that mental capacity supervenes on brain structure. Nobody really knows how this works, but it is assumed to be true. If linguistics is a part of CP then linguistic competence too lives in brains. How? Don’t know. But there is a lot of work out there, some of it quite interesting, trying to find out. However, this work only makes sense if one believes that linguistic competence ultimately has a biological basis. Again, Linguistic Platonism questions the rational basis of this sort of inquiry. If grammars are not concretized in brains then looking for the brain bases of grammatical competence is a fool’s errand. It’s like looking for the number three in a haystack!
There are other examples that make analogous points: comparing bird song and language structure, studying FOXP2 and its effects on other species, trying to figure out why various brain insults have the effects they do, the whole brain mapping industry, all of these efforts make no sense unless language is viewed in a biolinguistic setting. Have the results been terrific to date? Not in my view. Is the perspective therefore useless? Not at all. More so than minimalism, biolinguistics is a program, a vision of language study and its fit in the wider scientific enterprise. It is possible to study language and its structure from a narrow perspective. In fact, for many questions and issues this perspective will be perfectly adequate (one reason that linguists tend not to care about the issue). However, it is hard to see what one gains by so restricting oneself to this perspective. It is possible to insulate one’s investigations from these wider concerns, but why would you want to?
So, for me the Chomsky revolution in generative grammar started by locating linguistics among the cognitive sciences. Embedding CP within biology more generally is the natural next step. It is hoped that over time, just as taking linguistics as part of CP proved invigorating for linguistic investigation, so too will looking for the biological roots of linguistic competence. At any rate, the apparent push back against the biolinguistic vision is very hard for me to understand or sympathize with. What are the “critics” afraid of? Too much excitement?