Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Mendivil-Giro cleans the Augean stables

I am delighted to be writing this very short post advertising a very nice paper. It has appeared in the Journal of Linguisticsbut is available on lingbuzz (here). The paper is aptly entitled Is Universal Grammar ready for retirement? A short review of a longstanding misinterpretation. The author is Jose-Luis Mendivil-Giro (MG) (put in appropriate diacritics on the vowels). Here is the abstract:

In this paper I consider recent studies that deny the existence of Universal Grammar (UG), and I show how the concept of UG that is attacked in these works is quite different from Chomsky’s, and thus that such criticisms are not valid. My principal focus is on the notions of “linguistic specificity” and of “innateness”, and I conclude that, since the controversy about UG is based on misinterpretations, it is rendered sterile and thus does unnecessary harm to linguistic science. I also address the underlying reasons for these misunderstandings and suggest that, once they have been clarified, there is much scope for complementary approaches that embrace different research traditions within current theoretical linguistics.

The paper reads quickly and is surprisingly judicious and generous without being conciliatory.  Readers will note that I have made similar points far less charitably in FoL. MG surmises that the reason for the multiple confusions he identifies lies in the perfectly reasonable fact that different people are (or can be) interested in different issues relating to the wide ranging concept of ‘language.’ Perhaps. There are indeed different people interested in different things and given the complexity of the phenomena we categorize under the term ‘language.’ Further, MG is right to think that these different approaches are complementary rather than incompatible. FoL has made exactly this point several times. However, I believe that MG is being far too generous with GGs critics. I doubt that MG has correctly identified the source of the confused discussion in the literature. And one reason I believe this is that MG’s point has been made repeatedly over the last 60 years to absolutely no avail. GGers have generally bent over backwards conceding that there is room for non-GG style work in investigating the myriad properties that language knowledge and use have. What GG has insisted upon is that it’s own style of work addresses real questions and provides legitimate answers to these questions. Critics have repeatedly rejected this, as MG’s own excellent review of the literature amply demonstrates. So, if there is a confusion (or “misinterpretations”), it is rabid, and not traceable to mere differences to tastes in scientific questions. It has deeper roots. 

Ok, let me say it: the difference really lies in two incompatible conceptions of what science consists in, especially as regards the mental/behavioral sciences. The Empiricism/Rationalism (E/R) divide is the one that I have in mind, but as I have discussed it endlessly on FoL I will not go over it again here. Suffice it to say, that ifone is an Eist then GG is basically muddleheaded confusion. It cannotbe right and so its results need notbe considered. Consequently, if GG’s critics were largely Eish, it would explain the depth of their misunderstanding and their congenital inability to resist confusion/misinterpretation. 

Here’s what I mean. The tenor of many (most?) of the critiques as MG notes hardly ever go into any detail concerning specific GG proposals. As MG notes this results in critiques that are overwhelmingly dumb. The sheer ignorance of the critical discussion is wondrous to behold. The critics that MG cites and discusses really appear to know nothing at all and many (most?) completely ignore everything that GG has discovered over 60 years of research. MG notes this, and seems a bit disoriented by the fact that the main culprits seem so blithely uninformed. And it is not just one or two. They are alllike this, from Chater and Christiensen to Tomasello, Everettt, Levinson etc. etc. etc. Their critiques are really useless (and many times based on simple equivocation (I am talking to you Everett!), even if they contain a grain of truth or two (though color me very skeptical, I have been told that Tomasello’s stuff has someinteresting points) that are worth preserving given a reasonable conception of the enterprise. These kinds of “misunderstanding” are best explained methodologically. The critics don’t go into the details because they don’t believe the problem is one of detail. It is one of principle. The GG enterprise is faulty because its Rish presuppositions are untenable. If you believe this (and these people do, really!), then it is no wonder that they don’t do a deep dive into the details and confront what GGers take to be their most significant contributions.

 In other words, for the critics, the problem is the GG belief that a reasonable view of language would root the research program in an Rish vision of science in general and the mental/behavioral sciences in particular. The critics, being Eish, reject this, and as the divide between E and R conceptions is wide, we can identify its basic unbridgeability as the underlying source of the shockingly shoddy criticisms that MG so ably surveys. Given this, I am far less hopeful than MG is that “there is a glimmer of hope” (p. 23) that these disagreements will be resolved in a rational manner.[1]They cannot be for the very idea of what is the right form of “rational” inquiry is what is being debated.

I have other quibbles with the paper. For example, I found the discussion of reduction and emergence in section 3 somewhat confusing in that it mixes up two different questions: how do linguistic claims get cashed out in wetware? and are linguistic primitives reducible to those of other cognitive domains? These are different questions (as I am sure MG knows) but the paper seems to run them together. The question of FL’s linguistic “specificity” relates more to the second than the first. Of course, if we assume that cognition supervenes on brains and brains are made up of regular biological material then linguistic objects, dependencies and principles even if very linguistically sui generiswill live in biological tissue of these brains. Where else?[2]

However, that is not, nor has it ever been the relevant issue. The question has always been whether the FoL is cognitively independent. To put this crudely in “program” talk: is the FoL program just cobbled together from routines extant in other domains of animal cognition or does it require its own specific features (primitives, subroutines, addressing mechanisms etc.). One might imagine that FL is a kind of Rube Goldberg device assembled from bits and pieces of other available cognitive faculties. This is a possibility. However, I personally doubt it, and the Merge Hypothesis (i.e. that Merge is the linguistically specific sauce that one needs to add to general cognitive and computational powers to yield FL) does as well, though it limits the specificity to this one small operation. 

Honesty compels us (me!) to admit that, to date, no minimalist account has managed to eliminate all operations rather than Merge in accounting for well established features of FL. So, to date, there is reason to think that there is more to the UG parts of FL than just Merge.[3]So whereas the Minimalist Program’s ambitions are alive and well, to date, there is still quite a bit of air between the hopes and the results. And to date, there is good reason to think that FL has quite a bit more UG in it than the standard advertising supposes. This is not a serious problem for the program, but it is worth keeping in mind when we advertise the ambitions given that the program is not exactly in its infancy anymore (it’s a robust 25 years old).

I have other quibbles as well, but enough really. MG has written a terrific paper which makes some very useful points (e.g. I love the discussion in section 4 a lot and his discussion of Tomasello, Everett and Chater and Christiansen are excellent). The paper should be widely read and I hope that it helps change the discussion to a more reasonable one. It shoulddo this. But even if it fails to blunt the overwhelming stupidity of the common critiques, it is a very good paper for insidersto read. I suspect that nowadays many GGers do not really care for the larger cognitive biological issues that once animated the field. This makes it hard to properly rebut the many claims that GG is dead that abound in the popular press. MG’s paper is a good starting point for those interested in reclaiming the cognitive/biological roots of the GG enterprise.

That said I am going to end on a pessimistic note. Despite MG’s excellent discussion, I doubt it will much change the discussion for the reasons outlined above. We are entering a new age of Eism (Deep Learning and Big Data being conspicuous signs of this), and not just in otherareas of cognition.  Its allure is alive in linguistics as well. The idea that FL exists and has special features and that it is a proper object of linguistic study is, IMO, actually taken to be rather quaint within linguisticcircles. GGers with a cognitive bent should not only worry about the barbarians at the gate, the horse has been dragged within the city limits. Let’s hope that MG’s reasonable discussion can redirect this tide, but I am not counting on it.

Last point, I was delighted to see that a major journal published MG’s paper. I could not imagine this appearing in today’s Cognitionor LIor NLLT. Kudos to the Journal of Linguistics.  

[1]Of course, that said, one should always be ready to integrate useful findings from those one disagrees with, even deeply. Those grains of truth are (perhaps) worthwhile.
[2]Though who knows, maybe there really is mind stuff. The belief that there is isn’t is largely a matter of faith.
[3]Indeed, an interesting paradox, IMO, of much contemporary Minimalist work is that it is not Merge that does most of the Grammatical heavy lifting. Rather the prime grammatical operation is AGREE and the long distance feature checking that accompanies it. I-Merge is a very secondary feature of most contemporary accounts and nobody had bothered to consider how linguistically specific the properties of AGREE are. To the degree that they are not, this is a problem for the idea that onlyMerge is linguistically proprietarty. Ditto with the features of the basic lexical atoms. Their idiosyncrasies have been well discussed by Chomsky. To the degree that they remain, there is more to UG than Merge.


  1. "Indeed, an interesting paradox of much contemporary Minimalist work is that it is not Merge that does most of the Grammatical heavy lifting [but] the prime grammatical operation AGREE and the long distance feature checking that accompanies it"

    Yeah, I find that very puzzling too, especially since (as was discussed here recently) the features entering into AGREE are also pretty robustly the same cross-linguistically.

  2. What do you mean by "rationalist"? The "pure reason" Kant critiqued?

    Though who knows, maybe there really is mind stuff. The belief that there is isn’t is largely a matter of faith.

    No, it's a very strong parsimony argument. The amount of things we've learned in the last 20 years about how the brain works en gros et en détail is staggering.

    1. I mean the rationalism of Descartes, Leibniz and Kant with Chomksy as a modern expositor.

      Parsimony arguments are pretty weak. I once heard a great lecture at Hopkins by Vernon Mount astle where He noted that what we understand neurowise involve the earliest parts of perception and sensation. When it comes to all things considered reasoning (Fodor’s central systems) we know next to nothing. The brain mechanism behind higher cognition (including, say, object recognition, abduction etc) are totally mysterious. And if Gallistel is right then even the simp,e basis of neura computation remain opaque. S, yes, we don’t know much and the conviction that cognition is based in brain activity (or reduces to it) is largely faith based. I share this faith, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we have any idea how neural sysmtems manage higher cognition. We know very little.

    2. OK, I haven't read enough philosophy to be sure what you mean.

      Parsimony arguments, however, are pretty much all we have in science. (They're hidden in "falsification" a lot.) And if you'd try to count the assumptions that would be needed to postulate "mind stuff" just in physics, I think you'd give up at a pretty large number. The effects of brain injuries and dementia have not so far begun to conflict with old Heraclitus: "A blow to the head confuses a man's thinking; a blow to the foot has no such effect; this cannot be due to an immortal soul." (No idea how exact this second- or third-hand quote is.)

      On the topic of Chomskyan grammar, though, what do you think of this?

  3. Nice article, thanks for calling attention to it.

    I still don’t know how we decide whether a mechanism is “specific to language,” least of all when we are studying it or proposing it. I agree that Chomsky’s UG hypothesis is clear and plausible, even the best game in town, but not that it is a “moral certainty” (re your April 16th post).

    Chomsky’s position is clearly staked out, that there are general properties of cognition relevant to language (FLB, Faculty of Language in the broad sense), and then there is Universal Grammar, or FLN, what you call the “special sauce” which transforms a nonlinguistic animal into a linguistic one. I think Chomsky has been pretty consistent in using the term UG to refer to mechanisms specific to FL, though the disclaimer in note 1 of Beyond Explanatory Adequacy is potentially important:
    that UG is language-specific *as a system*, but might be made up of parts which are not language-specific.

    Clearly FLB has to exist, even down to there being some human-specific components to FLB, for the simple reason that kittens don’t talk. But the alternative to a “language-specific” FLN is that FLB contains some mechanisms which are central to language but are not “language-specific” (except “as a system,” as Chomsky put it).

    I am not saying I put any stock in Tomasello’s claim that human social instincts are all that is needed, or Christensen & Chater’s claim that a string-processing ability is all that is needed. Clearly, as you and Mendívil-Giró note, they haven’t paid serious attention to the linguistic facts and hence don’t have any explanations for them.

    It seems that cognitive abilities related to social interactions, imitative learning, coordinated activities like hunting, toolmaking, spatial memory, reasoning and planning, and all sorts of other things could have developed in a way that created the components for language. For all we know, Merge is an adaptation which is useful for toolmaking, and breath control is useful for swimming, and when you put those two together you get an ability to sing, which is great for social cohesion, allowing groups to get bigger, and then demands on feeding the bigger groups led to symbolic thought emerging as part of a cognitive system for efficient foraging, and then a mechanism of reference plus the system of symbolic thought made it easier to keep track of individuals in the large group, and then those systems all together allowed language. I guess this would be a version of the “Rube Goldberg” device you were talking about. I’m not putting it forward as a serious proposal, but I do think something like it would challenge your “moral certainty” claim.

    In a Rube Goldberg case like this, there are several non-language specific components which make language possible (I mean, in this toy example, symbol-making, breath control, Merge, and reference). Following up on Chomsky’s note in BEA, we could say that the collection of four mechanisms is UG, though none of the components are UG. This seems a little awkward terminologically: it would mean that Merge actually isn’t UG but it’s part of UG; and until we understand those other components, we don’t know that.

    In actual practice, it seems not to matter at all to how we do linguistics whether Merge has a function outside linguistic cognition; we could be using it to breathe, for all we know, and whether we do or not would not change our linguistic analyses. So in this sense the question of whether a mechanism is specific to language seems like more of a distraction than a guiding research question, for an ordinary syntactician like myself.

    1. Rube Goldberg is exactly what I as a biologist expect. He's in everything else in life after all. Ask me about the mammalian middle ear... or about DNA itself!

    2. agree with much of what Peter says here, though actual linguistic work, which, as the paper notes, is usually entirely ignored by critics, does pose a challenge: noone seems to have a good way to explain many robust linguistic phenomena in a way that involves non linguistically specific mechanisms - though perhaps some such mechanisms may be at play elsewhere in cognition, computation, or the physical world. Indeed, there's a paper by a certain Adger and Svenonius that makes just this point ;-)

    3. @Peter/David
      We have virtually no evidence for anything cognitively analogous to language (or possibly derivative thereof (i.e. discrete maths) in any other species. IF this is correct, then there is an obvious explanation: there is something cognitively special about language. There are several ways of being cognitively special: (1) it comprises familiar parts but arranged in novel ways (2) it comprises familiar parts arranged in novel ways PLUS something novel parts (say a new kind of function). Why go for 2? Well because from what we can tell there is nothing that exhibits the kinds of discrete structured unbounded hierarchy that we find in Gs. Nor do we know of any way of deriving this kind of unboundedness piecemeal. So, if this is correct, then there is at least ONE thing distinctive about language, something that is quite indubitable and one that is a central feature of our G capacities: the bout that allows for this discrete unbounded hierarchy. Given, that I take these facts to be pretty self evident and given that nobody has any idea how to get these kinds of "objects" in any way other than as coming in whole I assume that it is morally certain that it came in whole and that is that. Now morally certain does not mean that we might not be wrong. It just means that the odds are very long and that we have no good reason to deny the obvious. One does need reason to deny the obvious and that is what grounds the moral certainty. Or that is my case.

      Second point: does any of this matter to the working syntactician? I doubt it because I doubt that the working syntactician (WS) gives a rat's a*** about FL or how it is put together. WS cares about languages and their properties that can be investigated using philological means. In other words, what makes a WS are the tools s/he uses. When psychologists do this, we think them (ahem) quaint. But when WS does it we take this seriously. I don't so much. IF the question is what's FL look like and what is linguistically specific if anything then to the degree that syntactic investigation fails to answer this question then to that degree these methods are not germane. I agree that this might imply that lots of what gets done by syntacticians is of dubious relevance to this question. In fact, I've argued as much.


    4. Continued:

      Now as a matter of fact, I don't believe this. Anymore than I believe that other things that WSs ignore (e.g. what's universal in Chomsky's sense) are relevant. How are universals relevant in everyday work? Well, they are the things that you assume are true and put boundary conditions on further explanation. So, structure dependence is not ups for grabs when you study a G phenomenon. If it "looks" false then you analyze it till you show that it is not. Or this is the standard default practice. How about more MPish assumptions? E.g. Merge being sui generis?

      Well, here you adopt the view that there is AT MOST one sui generic operation. This sets an agenda: show that the standard features of UG are reducible to a Merge based G. If you can, great. If not, then revamp the agenda. I agree with you two that much of what linguistics has found is not yet within shouting distance of this goal. But, perhaps unlike you, I think that we can show that much that was though sui generic is likely not, at least of the Merge Hypothesis is right. So, one "practical" consequence is what sorts of operations you are willing to allow into your analyses (at least without lots of very powerful evidence) and what sorts of projects you think central to current work. Can this ALONE demonstrate that Merge is sui generic? Nope. But then linguistic work alone is unlikely to be compelling evidence that, say, structure dependence is an innate feature of FL Gs.

      In sum, what the WS works on is her/his concern. IMO, much of what is studied does not bear on the issue of the structure of FL. To that degree what WS does is not relevant to this issue. In my view, tant pis. In yours, well we have a big tent. But it is interesting that we do agree on this, though our conclusions diverge regarding the value judgment of the work. I find it less appealing, you find it of little concern. Maybe this reflects that I am at the end of my life as a WS and you are in the productive middle period. Maybe.

    5. As a working syntactician, I *am* interested in FL. The issues of universality versus variation are central to everything I do, and yes, I mean universal in Chomsky’s sense.

      Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any cross-linguistic variation, as in the configuration for quantifier-variable binding discussed in the article that David mentioned; there’s also startlingly little variation in the key properties of A-bar movement, or in the gross functional hierarchy of the clause or of the DP, and so on. Other times there is interesting variation, as in directed motion, sentential negation, and a bunch of other things.

      I think that figuring out what is variable and what is universal pushes our understanding of FL forward. We have to posit principles and mechanisms which are flexible in just the right ways.

      In analyzing linguistic phenomena like these, I am regularly forced to posit principles and mechanisms that go far beyond anything that can be justified on the basis of research on language-independent cognition. That goes for the variable stuff as well as the universally invariant stuff.

      For me, the question of which of these descriptive (or hopefully explanatory) devices will ultimately turn out to be language-specific, and which will turn out to be an adaptation of something else, is more remote. My understanding of extralinguistic cognition is dim enough that I simply can’t use it much as a guide, the way I can use the difference between universal, parametrized, and more variable phenomena.

      Obviously I want to stipulate as few mechanisms as possible, but I think that holds anyway, independently of whether the mechanisms can be somehow linked to "general cognition" (if there even is such a thing).

    6. I guess that I agree up to a point. I agree that the invariances are interesting and constitute a big part of what standard methods have contributed to understanding the structure of FL. Comparative G work, IMO, is suggestive but one really needs some PoS style arguments to cement the conclusions. These can be often provided. More careful PoS work that looks to see the contours of the actual input is better still and artificial G tests are also useful. All by themselves, distributional data strikes me as weaker.

      How about ling specificity arguments? I think that if one is moved by MP reasoning then something that WSs tend to do will be strongly resisted: if two constructions differ we attribute the difference to different syntactic mechanisms. I think that this is replete in the literature (e.g. raising vs matching approaches to RCs). Covert constructionism is rampant in current syntax (IMO). This is something that MP views should discourage. Of course Ockam will too, but such Ockam arguments are weaker than the empirical reasons for resisting this that MP considerations suggest. So, if one buys the idea that something is special then one also buys the idea that only VERY little is and this should have a strong effect on what you analyze and how.

    7. I see your point. Maybe my thinking is colored by my belief in modularity. If syntax is a module, then it is quite natural that it should make highly restricted use of mechanisms. It doesn’t matter whether the mechanisms are also used in other modules; syntax should have few of them either way. So I am still motivated to seek consolidation among syntactic mechanisms, even if I don’t have so much confidence in which of them are language-specific.

    8. Last comment from me: I am not sure I see how the modularity of syntax implies anything about how restricted its mechanisms are. It just means that its mechanisms' applications are not conditional on information from other modules. I understand modularity to imply information encapsulation, not necessarily a restricted use of mechanisms. Or to put this another way: in building a modular FL what's wrong with grabbing cognitive operations already mentally available. Of course, you will never grab more than you need (Ockam) but why not grab extensively if required (and there is almost always some difference that you can hang the extra mechanisms on).

      At any rate, I don't see how/why modularity implies or suggests "highly restricted use" of mechanisms. Though I agree that this is what you want.

      I leave you the last work. Thx.