Thursday, March 29, 2018

Imagine no substantive possessions

Bill Idsardi & Eric Raimy

Let’s return now to the beginning of the exposition. Reiss 2016:1 starts out with a Lennon-Ono riff ( , thanks Karthik!):
“Imagine a theory of phonology that makes no reference to well-formedness, repair, contrast, typology, variation, language change, markedness, ‘child phonology’, faithfulness, constraints, phonotactics, articulatory or acoustic phonetics, or speech perception.”
(I wonder if you can.) Having excluded all of this stuff he wants to argue “that something remains that is worthy of the name ‘phonology’.” Unless he’s using these terms in ways we don’t understand, there would seem to be no substance left at all, as the resulting phonology can’t make reference to the motor and perceptual interfaces and any statements about precedence relations (phonotactics) are excluded. We’re also puzzled about how one can construct a formal system without employing any well-formedness conditions (axioms). And a theory without any substance is not a theory of anything. Similarly, an interface that doesn’t effectively transmit any information between two modules is not an interface but the lack of an interface.

Put in Marrian terms (Marr 1982, you knew this was in the cards when you started reading), there have to be some linking hypotheses between the computational, algorithmic and implementational levels (Marr p. 330 "the real power of the approach lies in the integration of all three levels of attack" emphasis added), and there must be reasonable interfaces which include compatibility in data structures between any connecting sub-modules contributing to the overall solution of the problem (e.g. the different visual coordinate systems, Marr 1982:317ff).

Max Papillon tells me [wji] that I’m misreading all this, and that I’m not the target audience anyway. (I do get it that I’m not considered much of a phonologist these days, the basis of a long-running joke in the Maryland department.) Perhaps then this is all a Feyerabend 1975 ish move, providing an ascetic formalist tonic to the hedonistic excess of substance, as Feyerabend 1978:127 explains in one reply to a book review (in the section called “Conversations with Illiterates”):
“I do not say that epistemology should become anarchic or that the philosophy of science should become anarchic. I say that both disciplines should receive anarchism as medicine. Epistemology is sick, it must be cured, and the medicine is anarchy. Now medicine is not something one takes all the time. One takes it for a certain period of time, and then one stops.” (emphasis in original)
Strengthening the comparison with Feyerabend, I recall Joe Pater’s comment to Mark Hale after Mark’s talk at the MIT Phonology 2000 conference, “I know what you are. You’re a philosopher!” The Feyerabend analogy is how I understood the Hale & Reiss 2000 charge of “substance abuse”: there’s too much appeal to substance, and this should be reduced (take your medicine). As a methodological maxim "Reduce Substance!" then I'm all on board. But let's not confuse ourselves into thinking that all reference to substance can be completely eliminated, for the theory has to be about something.

Fortunately, we think there are relatively concrete proposals to be made that start right where Chomsky suggests, with features and precedence. Our proposal (tune in next time) can be read as Raimy 2000 on steroids, with dollops of Avery & Idsardi 1999, Poeppel & Idsardi 2012 and Kazanina, Bowers & Idsardi 2017. (Do people take steroids with dollops of anything? Maybe with those articles as a chaser? Sorry for the mixed metaphors.)

Let’s sum up here with an attempt at our understanding of what substance and substantive should mean in the context of developing modular theories for complicated things like speech and vision. Entities or relations in the model are substantive to the degree that they do explanatory work within the model and have lawful connections across the interfaces to entities and relations in other modules. Such things are the substance of the theory. Entities or relations in the model that do not have such lawful connections are the (purely) formal or non-substantive things (we will suggest some). But this can be a hard matter to establish in any particular case, for the lawful connections will tend to be partial rather than total. The bumper sticker version of all this is “substantive = veridical and useful”.

Next time: Swifties


  1. 1. Precedence keeps getting mentioned, but I don't see that there is any disagreement about this topic. Here's some signs that we agree:
    a. In our about-to-come-out textbook (Phonology: A Formal Introduction, 2018, MIT Press), Alan Bale and I put a lot of effort into developing a semantics for segment insertion and deletion rules---the difficulty is all about keeping track of (abstract) precedence relations.
    b. I recently supervised a PhD thesis on precedence: Shen, David Ta-Chun. 2016. Precedence and search: Primitive concepts in morpho-phonology. Doctoral Dissertation, National Taiwan Normal University. I was also on the Bridget Samuels's committee, and she also is deeply interested in precedence relations in phonology.
    (For the benefit of readers, I'll point out that not just one, but TWO of my former students have ended up in the Maryland PhD program based on undergraduate work in the Idsardi/Raimy PRECEDENCE framework that I introduced them to!)

    Everyone has to be interested in precedence---like if you are doing OT and want to understand how Correspondence works.

    2. Max Papillon (one of the students mentioned above) is right about what I mean by substance. Readers of this blog might not be aware that there are linguists out there, trained at MIT, or by people who were trained at MIT, whose webpage research statements say things like
    ``A more plausible hypothesis [than innateness-cr], I believe, is that natural language sound patterns emerge from trade-offs between functional pressures on speech as a system of communication: principally, the demands of the articulatory system (the imperative to use minimally effortful movements of vocal tract organs in speech production) and the auditory system (the imperative to avoid confusion, by producing words which are sufficiently distinct from other words).'' []

    That's an extreme example of what I am trying to respond to with SFP, although there are more subtle examples all over. I don't understand why such ideas have been squelched in generative syntax, but survive/thrive in the PHON world.

    In my recent paper in the Routledge volume with the title Substance Free Phonology, I tried to clarify the various ideas that I, perhaps sloppily, group together under my use of the term, so I won't repeat that discussion here. I think I have extended the term slightly from how Mark Hale and I used it in our book, and he may not agree that the extension makes sense.

  2. Ah, Charles, c'mon, you can't really expect me and Bill (at least me) to not talk about precedence... and yes, I think at least the three of us (you and us) agree on the substantive aspect of precedence.

    I think we all also agree that there is a lot of 'substance abuse' and so we're trying to find the right prescription to cure this ailment. We are being more Lakatos in defending substance but don't worry we'll get fairly close to full blown Feyerabend (without the womanizing) when we begin to wade into precedence.

  3. We'll get to the proposal in the next post. It's different from Bale & Reiss. And in a later post we'll go through what the definition of precedence in Bale and Reiss is, building up through the set theoretic and tuple formulations. Precedence isn't a primitive notion there, and it takes some interesting work to get at it.

  4. I just found this series of posts and am pretty excited to dig in. A quick note for now; I think you're overselling the integration aspects of Marr's approach. He also wrote:

    Each of the three levels of description will have its place in the eventual understanding of [...] information processing, and of course they are logically and causally related. But an important point to note is that since the three levels are only rather loosely coupled, some phenomena may be explained at only one or two of them. This means, for example, that a correct explanation of some psychophysical observation must be formulated at the appropriate level. (Marr, 1982 p.25, emph mine)

    Shameless self-plug: I spent a few pages of my dissertation (sec. 5.1 and 5.2) talking about phonology in and as cognitive science, including the place of Reiss-ish ( phonology (and "symbols & rules" phonology more generally).

    1. Thanks Fred. Of course we've already given the counter-point quote from Marr, page 330, "the real power of the approach lies in the integration of all three levels of attack". But I think the main argument for the centrality of the integration point is given throughout chapters 2-5 where the arguments for the various proposals for the visual system rely on the coupling between levels of explanation again and again, especially between the computational and algorithmic levels. Putting it flippantly, you find the coupling story throughout the book, but Marr only says "loosely" on page 25.

      And here's a link to Fred's thesis:

  5. Bale & Reiss is finally available, and we look forward to more discussion and criticism from members of the FoL community, many of whom have already contributed one way or another---Max played a big role in getting us started on this project; Norbert and Elan made it into the first exercise in the book (both as good guys); Bill and Jeff H. gave endorsements; and so on.
    Here's the site:
    and here is what MIT PRess said about getting a discount:

    Promo code is MPHONOLOGY30. This code is good starting now until 12/1/18, and takes 30% off the list price of the book (both print and MIT Press ebook formats). It can be used more than once and for multiple copies.
    Until our shopping cart launches, folks wishing to use the code should order directly from our distributor Triliteral by calling 1-800-405-1619 or by emailing and mentioning the code.