Here are two unconnected comments about previous posts. The first is a little rantish as it relates to a shibboleth I believed I had chopped to the ground. The second is an obvious point about Chomsky’s first lecture that I stupidly forgot to remark on but is really very important. Here they are:
1. Ewan makes the following comment (here):
I try not to give up hope that some day linguists and psychologists will deconflate indispensable generic notions like abstractness and similarity from issues about being domain-general or domain-specific. Completely orthogonal and there isn't much hope for the field until that distinction is made. The exchange between Norbert and Alex in the first comment thread gives me a bit of optimism (because Norbert came around) but it can get tiring to have to say it again and again and again.
There is nothing to object to in the content of this remark. Who wouldn’t want these notions “deconflated”? However, I find a lot to object to in its connotation, and in two ways.
The first is the suggestion that linguists (like moi) have finally “come around” to recognizing that these dimensions are orthogonal. This suggests that there was a time when there was widespread confusion among linguists on this matter. If so, I don’t know who was so confused and when it was. We have long known that both domain general and domain specific acquisition mechanisms need notions of abstractness and similarity to get them to go beyond the input. There is no “learning” without biases and there are no biases without a specification of dimensions of similarity, some of them “concrete” and some of them “abstract.” Abstract, in such contexts, means going beyond dimensions afforded by a purely perceptual quality space (see Reflections on Language for a long discussion of these themes in the context of a critique of Quine). Empiricists have long argued that all we need are such perceptual dimensions and they have been more than happy to assume that coding these dimensions is an innate part of the mind. Part of what Rationalists have argued is that this is insufficient and that more “abstract” dimensions of generalization are required.
This noted, there is a second question: what’s the nature of the abstractness required? Is the abstractness that is required peculiar to some domain (e.g. peculiar to visual computations or linguistic computations or auditory computations alone), or are these all aspects of one and the same kind of abstract computation. This is where the domain general/domain specific meets the abstract/non-abstract dimension. Let me explain.
Domain general explanations are, ceteris paribus, preferable to domain specific ones. Why? Because they are more general. That means that they potentially apply to a wider range of data than domain specific accounts apply to precisely because they are domain general. And, all things being equal, this means that were they empirically adequate they would have more kinds of evidence in their favor than domain specific accounts would have. So, imagine a world (not this one from what we can tell at present) where we could unify vision and language in one set of common principles. And say that these principles could explain things like Island Effects or the ECP or Binding Effects etc. as well as the Muller-Lyer illusion or Common Fate. This would be a GREAT theory and clearly better than a purely linguistic specific explanation of Islands, the ECP etc. Moreover, it’s obvious why, but let me say it anyhow: it would be better because it explains more than the purely domain specific linguistic account does. For the record, UG has nothing to say about the Muller-Lyer illusion. So, to repeat, were there such accounts linguists like me would rejoice and pop open the champagne, and nominate the relevant scientists for Nobel Prizes. All agree that such domain general accounts would be very nice to have, and there is a sense in which Minimalists are betting that some might be available. So as far as our druthers are concerned, we are all singing from the same hymnal.
So, given this huge agreement among all good thinking people what’s the fighting all about. Well, it’s NOT about this! Rather the above noted aspirations have never come close to realization. The problem linguists like me have with domain general explanations of linguistic phenomena of interest is that they do not currently exist!!! The reason I resist all the hype surrounding a very attractive prospect is that it seems to have relieved advocates of concretely coming up with the goods. The reason I respect domain specific, i.e. UGish, accounts is that they are currently the only game in town (actually, I think that there are a few more general accounts of a minimalist variety, but they are rightly controversial). In other words, I respect domain specific accounts for empirical reasons. Moreover, IMO, the big difference between those inclined to dismiss domain specific accounts and those that don’t is that the former respect the discoveries GG has made over the last 60 years and those that don’t, really don’t. Alex C and I had a long involved “debate” about this (here) and I think that it is fair to say that we agreed that we considered different things to be key data currently in need of explanation. I take the results to 60 years of work of GG to give us a whole slew of effects that should be the targets of linguistic explanation. He is “interested in a different problem.” And, as of this moment in time he has nothing to say about these effects and so the domain specific accounts are the only ones available. As I’ve also suggested, I think that ignoring these effects is bolstered by insisting that they do not really exist. This leads different interests to couple with a kind of skepticism about what GG has found. It is psychologically, if not logically, comforting to ignore GG results if one denies the validity of these results (e.g. see (here).
If this diagnosis is correct (and, of course, I believe it is) then the domain general vs domain specific issues have never been confused, nor have they ever hindered fruitful dialogue. The gulf between linguists and some cognitive researchers has to do with what the worthwhile problems are taken to be. GGers refuse to be diverted from their discoveries by promises of a potential theory that might one day in ways we do not yet begin to comprehend solve our problems. As I’ve state repeatedly, give us some concrete domain general accounts and they will be carefully considered. I personally hope they exist and are produced soon. But as I learned when I was about 7, wishing things to be so doesn’t make them so.
So, contra Ewan the problem is not that GGers like me don’t “get” the distinctions he considers vital to internalize. We get them alright. We just don’t see how they are currently relevant. Moreover, I would argue that pointing to the “failure” Ewan identifies, serves simply to throw sand in GGers eyes. It tells us to discard or demote results that we have labored hard to gain in favor of theories that don’t yet exist (not even in the faintest outline) and that address problems in ways that we think overly simplistic. It’s cloud cuckoo land advice and serves only to mislead the interested parties as to what the real fight is about. It’s not that some prize domain general accounts and others prize domain specific ones. It’s that what GGers want to explain currently have only domain specific accounts and that those with domain general stories to peddle are trying to convince us that we should stop worrying about the facts we have found. No thanks.
2. On Lecture 1
One point I should have made about lecture 1 but did not was that it’s amazing that this is Chomsky’s first lecture on a series of very technical topics in minimalist grammar. It’s clear that he thinks that what follows is interesting because it is situated in a long tradition of questions about minds, brains, evolution, learning and more. Put another way, the technical discussion that follows should be understood as addressing these far more general questions.
This is Chomsky’s standard modus operandi, and it is what makes GG so exciting IMO. GG has always been part of the Rationalist tradition (as the lecture makes clear). Thus, the success of the GG enterprise is philosophically very telling. It is rare that large philosophical issues can be related to concrete empirical issues, albeit abstract ones, but this is one such case. What Chomsky has always been very good at showing is how very abstract philosophical concerns are reflected in detailed empirical worries and how empirical problems commit hostages to large-scale philosophical positions. What the first lecture makes clear is that Chomsky is a modern incarnation of the 17th and 18th century natural philosophers. Big empirical issues have philosophical roots and each has implications for the other. That’s an important insight, and nobody delivers it better than Chomsky.
 Gallistel and King, for example, doubt the coherence of a generalized “sensing” mechanism (as opposed to visual or olfactory sensing) and they seem to doubt the coherence of a purely domain general notion of sensing as an abstraction.