First of all, let me say that I can't think of any other syntax conference I've been to that has been that much fun. The format of brief panel presentations followed by one hour discussions worked incredibly well, much to my own surprise, and the range of topics that were touched on was very diverse (Gillian has a great summary on her blog). That said, I can't shake the feeling that most of the issues people worried about are ultimately small potatoes and that nobody was inclined to really question the foundations of the field, not even as a thought experiment to demonstrate their usefulness. I suppose that puts me in what Gillian calls the Grumpy camp, though I prefer to think of it as a healthy predilection for permanent improvement through criticism. Anyways, let's talk a bit about why all the nice discussions won't bring about any of the changes the field needs, even those everybody in Athens agreed on.
Institutional IssuesThere was a broad consensus that generative syntax isn't doing enough outreach and interdisciplinary research and that this is the main reason why, first, the public has no idea what the field is about, and second, Minimalism has little traction in neighboring fields like computational linguistics or psychology. It was also generally agreed upon that generative syntax can engage with these and many more fields, be it sociolinguistics, biology, diachronic linguistics, and so on. But here's the catch: on the third day, all participants were asked to come up with research questions for the future. And that's where you could get a very clear look at the real priorities of the audience.
I don't have access to the compiled list, but as far as I remember the only question relating to any of the interface issues listed above was one on diachrony, and even that one had to be added by Ian Roberts who had been actively championing this connection since the first day of the workshop. So the attitude seems to be: "All this interdisciplinary stuff is super important, but we're not gonna change one iota of our research program to accommodate it. We're gonna be standing over here doing business as usual while we wait for somebody else to do the outreach for us." Well, I'm sorry, but that's not how interdisciplinary research works.
Interdisciplinary research is not a one-way road where you send out missionaries to preach the gospel to the heathens outside generative grammar, interdisciplinary work is an active process that requires both parties to assimilate some ideas from the other. If none of the interdisciplinary work gets cited by you, if it is never discussed in your journals, if it has no sway over how you conceptualize certain problems, then it isn't interdisciplinary research, it's a PR campaign. I can't help but think of a remark by Colin Phillips on this blog about the insularity of syntax, in the sense that a lot of syntax-heavy work is still considered outside of syntax because it involves some aspects that have not traditionally been part of the generative enterprise. This is a very unhealthy attitude: if you are so attached to your vocabulary and your canon of research problems that any project that does not fit those criteria is automatically outside of your line of work, then fruitful collaboration is nigh impossible. Even if you are raising an army of students doing interdisciplinary work, the fact that this work has lesser status in the eyes of the average syntactician handicaps it on a scientific as well as an institutional level.
This problem is compounded by the fact that Minimalist models operate at a level of granularity that does not line up well with any of the questions asked in neighboring fields. Which takes us to the next point.
The Granularity IssueOne point I kept insisting on throughout the workshop, to the extent that even I couldn't hear it anymore at the end of day 3, is the importance of abstraction. And of course I've also harped on this point in my previous post, but it bears repeating (and I have a few new aspects to add).
Generative syntax has the reputation of being a very abstract science, but it actually isn't. It is very much invested in the nitty-gritty details of its technical machinery, and those details are incredibly nitty and even more gritty. Norbert and David Adger have claimed on this blog that this is merely a matter of presentation, a helpful guide for carving out new problems and generalizations --- syntacticians, they say, are not in any danger of missing the forest for the trees. In my discussion with David Adger I was inclined to agree; that is no longer the case.
My change of heart is due to a little experiment I accidentally conducted during the last but one session of the workshop, where participants were asked to come up with important discoveries of generative syntax, in particular regarding universals. What I found striking is that these universals took the form "for any language L, property P holds of L". Those are certainly interesting universals, but they are not the only kind of known universal. There is a higher-order type of universals, which we might call "class universals" in contrast to the more standard "structure universals". Class universals take the form "property P holds of the class of natural languages". A mathematical example would be that the class of natural languages is not closed under reversal or union, that is, the fact that L and L' are natural languages does not necessarily imply that the mirror image of L is a natural language, nor is the union of L and L' (even if we discard lexical differences). What makes class universals special is that they frequently do not tell you anything about individual languages --- the fact that the reversal of L is not necessarily in the class tells you absolutely nothing about L.
So against this backdrop I presented the non-closure under reversal example and asked whether anybody could think of linguistic universals that hold at the class level. The replies I got, however, were phrased in terms of structure universals, and as I just pointed out this is bound to fail because class universals do not necessarily tell you anything about individual languages. I believe that this immediate jump back to structure universals is due to the fact that the established Minimalist machinery provides no way of talking about universals that aren't structure universals. It looks like thinking purely in terms of the Minimalist machinery blinds you to properties that cannot be expressed that way. I take this as an indication that the restriction to a very specific level of granularity has been harmful to the field.
I could add some more points about why the current level of granularity is an impediment for connecting syntax to psycholinguistics, how a lot of ink has been spilled on rather immaterial issues of technical implementation, or why formal equivalence results are actually a good thing that we should endorse happily rather than erecting an elaborate system of assumptions just so that one particular implementation can emerge as the winner at the chosen level of description. But I've talked about these things many times before, and Gillian has done an excellent job summarizing this very discussion from a syntactician's perspective.
Who or What Needs to Change?What I have said above won't convince the dogmatic syntactician who is adamant that the standard methodology of generative syntax is the only way of producing insightful results. I am not sure whether said dogmatic syntactician exists. At least the Athens audience was very open-minded, and David Adger has also argued for pluralism on this blog.
There is a major problem with the pluralism attitude, though. If you have infinite resources, then of course you embrace pluralism since there is absolutely no downside to it. In such a world, it is perfectly fine for syntacticians to just keep asserting the status quo while new resources are poured into producing interdisciplinary research and work that operates at different levels of granularity. If you can do everything, do everything. Alas, resources are, in fact, limited in the real world, and they are even more limited in syntax, and they will keep shrinking if the Minimalist community sticks with its current modus operandi.
The way I see it, syntax will keep losing traction in other fields. While outreach is recognized as important, nobody is willing to make the necessary changes. Note that this isn't just an issue of outreach. Even if, say, biologists were so interested in Minimalism that they wanted to get some research started on their own, they would hit the brick wall of granularity. The majority of research questions that were proposed at the workshop were so specific and technical in nature that nobody outside the narrow corridor of Minimalist thinking could ever see how they are related to something they care about.
Pluralism is not enough because if the majority of syntacticians do not change their approach, the remaining resources will be too little for the non-standard work to gain traction. And that will mean that even the standard work in syntax, without any allies in neighboring fields, will eventually be stripped of all resources. Syntacticians have to actively appreciate problems of broad relevance and encourage research along those lines, otherwise their work will be perceived as irrelevant by the powers that be, with all the negative consequences that entails. As Norbert likes to say, there's no such thing as a booming Classics department.
Just to be perfectly clear, I'm not saying that all syntacticians should suddenly become psycholinguists, sociolinguists, or computational linguists. But the field has to rethink why it does things the way it does and whether it isn't missing important generalizations. At the very least, it has to move away from this attitude of passively following the interdisciplinary work with polite (dis)interest while actively shielding its own work from the implications of that research.