Chomsky has long noted the tension between description and explanation. One methodological aim of the early Minimalist Program (MP) was to focus attention on this tension so as to nudge theories in a more explanatory direction. The most important hygienic observation of early MP was that many proffered analyses within GB lacked explanatory power for they were as complex as the data they intended to “explain.” Early MP aimed to sharpen our appreciation of the difference between (re)description and explanation and to encourage us to question the utility of proposals that serve mainly to extend the descriptive range of our technical apparatus.
How well has this early MP goal been realized? IMO, not particularly well. I have had an opportunity of late to read more widely in the literature than I generally do and from this brief foray into the outside world it looks to me that the overriding imperative of the bulk of current syntax research is descriptive. Indeed, the explanatory urge, weak as it has been in the past, appears to me now largely non-existent. Here’s what I mean.
The papers I’ve read have roughly the following kinds of structure:
1. Phenomenon X has been analyzed in two different ways; W1 and W2. In this paper I provide evidence that both W1 and W2 are required.
2. Principle P forbids structures like S. This paper argues that phenomenon X shows that P must be weakened to P’ and/or that an additional principle P’’ is required to handle the concomitant over-generation.
3. Principle P prohibits S. Language L exhibits S. To reconcile P with S in L we augment the features in L with F, which allows L to evade P wrt S.
In each instance, the imperative to cover the relevant data points has been paramount. The explanatory costs of doing so are largely unacknowledged. Let me put this a different way. All linguists agree that ceteris paribus simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones (i.e. Ockham shaves us all!). The question is: What makes things not equal? Here is where the trade-off between explanation and description plays out.
MP considerations urge us to live with a few recalcitrant data points rather than weaken our explanatory standards. The descriptive impulse urges us to weaken our theory to “capture” the strays. There is no right or wrong move in these circumstances. Which way to jump is a matter of judgment. The calculus requires balancing our explanatory and descriptive urges. My reading of the literature is that right now, the latter almost completely dominate. In other words, much (most?) current research is always ready to sacrifice explanation in service of data coverage. Why?
I can think of several reasons for this.
First, I think that the Chomsky program for linguistics has never been widely endorsed by the linguistic community. To be more precise, whereas Chomskian technology has generally garnered an enthusiastic following, the larger cognitive/bio-linguistic program that this technology was in service of, has been warily embraced, if at all. How many times have you seen someone question a technical innovation because it would serve to make a solution to Plato’s or Darwin’s problem more difficult? How many papers have you read lately that aim to reduce rather than expand the number of operative principles in FL/UG? More pointedly, how often do we insist that students be able to construct Poverty of Stimulus (POS) arguments? Indeed, if my experience is anything to go by, the ability to construct a POS is not considered a necessary part of a linguist’s education. Not surprisingly, asking whether a given phenomenon or proposal raises “learnability” issues at all is generally not part of evaluative calculus. The main concerns revolve around how to deploy/reconfigure the given technology to “capture the facts.”
Second, most linguists take their object of study to be language not the faculty of language. Sophisticates take the goal of linguistics to be the discovery of grammatical patterns. This contrasts with the view that the goal of linguistics is to uncover the basic architecture of FL. I have previously dubbed the first group languists and the second linguists. There is no question that languists and linguists can happily co-exist and that the work of each can be beneficial to the other. However, it is important to appreciate that the two groups (the first being very much bigger than the second) are engaged in different enterprises. The grandfather of languistics is Greenberg, not Chomsky. The goal of languistics is essentially descriptive, the prize going to the most thorough descriptions of the most languages. Its slogan might be no language left behind.
Linguists are far more opportunistic. The description of different languages is not a goal in itself. It is valuable precisely to the degree that it sheds light on novel mechanisms and organizing principles of FL. The languistic impulse is that working on a new or understudied language is ipso facto valuable. Not so the linguistic one. Linguists note that biology has come a long way studying essentially three organisms: mice, e-coli and fruit flies. There is nothing wrong in studying other organisms, but there is nothing particularly right about it either. Why? Because the aim is to uncover the underlying biological mechanisms, and if these do not radically differ across organisms then myopically focusing on three is a fine way to proceed. Why assume that the study of FL will be any different? Don’t get me wrong here: studying other organisms/languages might be useful. What is rejected is the presupposition that this is inherently worthwhile.
Together, the above two impulses (actually two faces of the same one) reflect a deeper belief that the Chomsky program is more philosophy than science. This reflects a more general view that theoretical speculation is largely flocculent, whereas description is hard and grounded. You must know what I am about to say next: this reflects the age-old difference between empiricist and rationalist approaches to naturalistic explanation. Empiricism has always suspected theoretical speculation, conceiving of theory in largely instrumental terms. For a rationalist what’s real are the underlying mechanisms, the data being complex manifestations of the interacting more primitive operations. For the empiricist, the data are real, the theoretical constructs being bleached averages of the data, with their main virtue being concision. Chomsky’s program really is Rationalist (both in its psychology and its scientific methodology). The languistic impulse is empiricist. Given that Empiricism is the default “scientific” position (Lila Gleitman once remarked that it is likely innate), it is not surprising that explanation almost always gives way to description, for the former has not independent existence from the latter.
So what to do? I don’t know. What I suspect, however, is that the rise of languistics is not good for the future of the field. To the degree that it dominates the discipline it cuts Linguistics off from the more vibrant parts of the wider intellectual scene, especially cognitive and neuro-science. Philology is not a 21st century growth industry. Linguistics won’t be either if it fails to make room for the explanatory impulse.
 MP had both a methodological and a substantive set of ambitions. A good part of the original 93 paper was concerned with the former in the context of GB style theories.
 Living with them does not entail ignoring or forgetting about them. Most theories, even very good ones, have a stable of problem cases. Collecting and cataloguing them is worthwhile even if theory is insulated from them.
 This is evident in the review process as well. One of the virtues of NELs and WCCFL papers is that they are short and their main ideas easy to discern. By the time a paper is expanded for publication in a “real” journal it has bloated so much that often the main point is obscured. Why the bloat? In part this is a response to the adept reviewer’s empirical observations and scrambling by the author to cover the unruly data point. This is often done by adding some ad hoc excrescence that it takes pages and pages to defend and elaborate. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if the author simply noted the problem and went on leaving the general theory/proposal untouched? I think it would. But this would require judging the interest of the general proposal, i.e. the theory would have to be evaluated independently of whether it covered every last data point.
 IMO, one of the reasons for GG’s success was that it allowed the two to live harmoniously without getting into disputes. MP sharpens the differences between languists and linguists and this may in part explain its more luke warm embrace.