Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Teaching Minimalist Syntax

I am teaching an Intro to Minimalism course here at the LSA summer institute and I have just taught my first class. It got me thinking about how to teach such a course (I know, I should have done that weeks/months ago). As you may know, I am part of a trio who have tried to address this question by writing an intro text (here). However, this was sometime ago (2005) and it is worth rethinking the topic afresh. When we wrote the book, our idea was to use GB to lever ourselves into minimalist issues and concerns. This follows the pattern set by Chomsky in his 1993 paper, the one that that set things going in earnest.  However, I am not sure that this is the right way to actually proceed for the simple reason that it strikes me that many younger colleagues don’t know the rudiments of GB (it’s even worse for earlier theories: when asked how many have read Aspects chapter 1, only a handful of hands popped up) and so it is hard to use that as stage setting for minimalist questions. But, the larger question is not whether this is useful but whether this is the best way to get into the material. It might have been a reasonable way of doing things when students were all still steeped in GB, but even then minimalist ideas had an independent integrity and so, though convenient to use GB scaffolding, this was not necessary even then and now it might be downright counter-productive.  I confess that I don’t really believe this. Let me explain why (btw, the reasons depart from those pushed in the book, which, in retrospect, iss far too “methodological” (and hence, misleading) for my current tastes).

I believe that MP has some real novel elements.  I don’t just mean the development of new technology, though it has some of this too. What I mean is that it has provoked a reorientation in the direction of research. How did it do this? Roughly by center-staging a new question, one that if it existed before, rose considerably in prominence to become a central organizing lens through which analyses are judged.  The new question has been dubbed ‘Darwin’s Problem’ (DP) (I think Cederic was the first to so dub it) in proud imitation of that lovable, though still unanswered, ‘Plato’s Problem’ (PP). Now, in my view, it is only sensible to make DPish inquiries (how did a particular complex system arise?) if we have a complex system at hand. In linguistics the relevant complex system is FL, the complexity adumbrated by UG. Now to the GB part: it provided the (rough) outlines of what a reasonable UG would look like. By ‘reasonable’ I mean one that had relatively wide empirical coverage (correctly limned the features of possible Gs) and that had a shot of addressing PP satisfactorily (in GB, via its Principles and Parameters (P&P) organization.  So, given GB, or something analogous, it becomes fruitful to pose DP in the domain of language.[1]

Let me state this another way: just as it makes little sense to raise PP without some idea of what Gs look like, it makes little sense to raise DPish concerns unless one has some idea of what FL/UG looks like.  If this is correct, then sans GB (or some analogue) it is hard to see how to orient oneself minimalistically. Thus, my conclusion that one needs GB (or some analogue) as that which will be reanalyzed in more fruitful (i.e. more DP congenial) terms.

So, that’s why I think that MP needs GB. However, I suspect that this view of things may be somewhat idiosyncratic.  Not that there isn’t a fair amount of backing for this interpretation in the MP holy texts. There is. However, there are other minimalist values that are more generic and hence don’t call for this kind of starting point.  The one that most strongly comes to mind (mainly because I believe that I heard a version of this yesterday and it also has quite a bit of support within Chomsky’s writings) is that minimalism is just the application of standard scientific practices to linguistics. I don’t buy this. Sure, there is one sense in which all that is going on here is what one finds in science more generally: looking at prior results and considering if they can be done more simply (Ockham has played a big role in MP argumentation, as have intuitions about simplicity and naturalness). However, there is more than this. There is an orienting question, viz. DP, and this question provides an empirical target as well as a tacit benchmark for evaluating proposals (note: we can fail to provide possible solutions to DP). In effect, DP functions within current theory in roughly the way that PP functioned within GB: it offers one important dimension along which proposals are evaluated as it is legitimate to ask whether they fit with PP (it is always fair to ask what in a proposal is part of FL, what learned and how the learned part is learnable?). Similarly, a reasonable minimalist question to ask about any proposal is how it helps us answer DP.

Let me say this another way: in the domain of DP simplicity gains an edge.  Simple UGs are preferred for we believe that it will be easier to explain how simpler systems of FL/UG (one’s with fewer moving parts) might have evolved. The aim of “simplifying” GB makes a whole let of sense in this context, and a lot of work within MP has been to try and “simplify” GB; eliminating levels, unifying case and movement, unifying Phrase Structure rules and transformations, unifying movement and construal (hehe, thought I’d slip this in), deriving c-command from simpler primitives, reducing superiority to movement, etc.

Let me end with two points I have made before in other places but I love to repeat.

First, if this is correct, then there is an excellent sense in which MP does not replace GB but presupposes it. If MP succeeds, then it will explain the properties of GB, by deriving them from simpler more natural more DP-compatible premises.  So the results, though not the technology or ontology of GB will carry over to MP.  And this is a very good thing for this is how sciences make progress: the new theories tend to derive the results of the old as limit cases (thing of the relation between Einstein’s and Newton’s mechanics or classical thermodynamics and statistical mechanics). Progress here means that the empirical victories of the past are not lost, but they are retained in a neater, sleeker more explanatory package.  Note, that if this is the correct view of things, then there is also a very good sense in which minimalism just is standard scientific practice, but not in any trivial sense.

Second, if we take this view seriously, it is always worth asking of any proposal how it compares with the GB story that came before: how’s its coverage compare? Is it really simpler, more natural? These are fair questions for unless we can glimpse an answer, whatever their virtues, the analyses raise further serious questions. Good. This is what we want from a fecund program, a way of generating interesting research questions. Put enough of thsee together and new minimalist theories will emerge, ones that have a new look, retain the coverage of earlier accounts and provide possible answers to new and interesting questions. Sounds great, no? That’s what I want minimalist neophytes to both understand and feel. That’s what I find so exciting about MP, and hope that others will too.

[1] Let me say again, that if you like a theory other than GB then that would be a fine object for DPish speculation as well. As I’ve stated before, most of the current contenders e.g. GB, LFG, HPSG, RG etc. seem to me more or less notational variants.


  1. I am completely on board with the methodological assumptions here -- in particular the importance of Darwin's problem. But there are two things which may just be terminological which worry me.
    So you say:
    "it makes little sense to raise DPish concerns unless one has some idea of what FL/UG looks like"

    That makes a lot of sense, but there is also a sense in which we should integrate DPish concerns into our search for what FL/UG looks like.
    We now know (in a sense) that any valid theory of FL/UG must be reasonably simple in some evolutionary sense (though it could be quite complex in some other senses); maybe we didn't know that in the 1960s, since we didn't know what the time scale was or how many genes there were and so on. So it makes sense to put DP as a constraint on our search for FL/UG and integrate it into the construction of our theory of FL/UG.

    Secondly, the term FL/UG worries me. What evolved is the ability to learn languages -- and that part of GB -- namely the Parameter part -- is no longer part of the theory. So lets assume the correctness of the part of GB that you maintain is an effective theory. This defines a class of grammars G; it tells you about the properties of the Gs. But it doesn't tell you how those Gs are acquired. Indeed the only proposal on the table is the parameter-setting model which seems incompatible with DP. So it seems there is a problem lurking in the vagueness of the term FL/UG: do we mean here the set of grammars or the language acquisition device?

  2. I agree that DPish concerns should function as kinds of boundary conditions. The way I see it, there is an analogue within minimalism of the "observational, descriptive, explanatory" adequacy triad of yore. The right minimalist theory should be observationally adequate in that it derive the generalizations of (e.g.) GB. It would be descriptively adequate if it described our actual FL/UG (i.e. got the right basic operations, conditions etc.). And it is explantorily adequate if it can derive FL/UG given the right "environmental" input (the input that drove evolution, i.e, some combination of mutation, exaptation, environmental pressure etc.)

    Parameters are under reconsideration, I agree. And there is a problem lurking here. the main tension is that internal parameters are a problem for minimalist theories as they complicate FL/UG and so burden (or apparently burden) Darwin's Problem. I agree this needs addressing. Some have tried to analogize parameters to epigenesis. I frankly don't understand the analogy, but this is likely because of my ignorance about the mechanics of epigenesis. At any rate, I agree that this needs to be addressed if one is to use GBish theories as providing the sources of observational adequacy. So, yes, this format is fraught with pitfalls. However, isn't this true of most "programmatic" pictures? So, tread carefully but keep going. Thx for the observations. I will keep them in mind.

  3. The question I have regarding "what approach to take in teaching minimalism" is this: what is the students' knowledge set of syntactic theory when walking into the class? If they are taking a course in minimalism, we could assume that they don't have a background in minimalism. But they don't seem to know GB either. So, what do they rest their (theory of syntactic) ideas upon?

    My guess is that it's some kind of pan-Chomskyan theory. For instance, they've learned some things that are part of GB, like binding theory, but "governing category" was idealized in the intro textbook and the problematic cases largely suppressed. X'-theory they know, and they probably have an understanding of why X'-theory is better than lexically-specific PS rules. But I'm guessing that students also come to a course in minimalism these days already accepting the big-V little-v distinction and that PISH is a given. That's not GB.

  4. A quibble about 'observational' vs 'descriptive' adequacy. There is a) getting the facts right b) getting the generalizations right. On one possible interpretation, observational is a), descriptive is b). To see the difference, note that you could get the facts about Ancient Greek NP structure by having 19 almost identical versions of the NP rule (one for each morphologically distinct combination of gender-number-case features), but many generalizations would be missed. So, arguably, observational but not descriptive adequacy (I once looked at a book where somebody proposed to do this for a computational grammar of German, where 8 copies of the NP rule were required). This is in accord with my reading of the discussion of levels of adequacy in phonology spanning pg 30-31 of Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (Mouton version).

    To get to explanatory adequacy, in the sense of that discussion, we need to have some story about how people can learn whatever generalizations they are learning; I think it would have been better if everybody had renamed this 'projective adequacy' when Stan Peters published his paper about it in 1972 iirc, but they didn't. So then Darwinian Adequacy would be that the projectively adequate theory has to be something that could have evolved.

    I'll note that it seems to me to be pretty much the same thing as Goldsmith's idea (in his paper in the New Empiricism book) that in 2 part MDL, you need to include the length of the grammar theory as well as the grammar, tho he seems to me to be advocating an excessive degree of fussiness about the actual bookkeeping (but, the general idea, after a bit of thought, seemed right to me).

    In this perspective, LFG could be described as an approach where people insist strongly on descriptive adequacy, but are more relaxed about projective adequacy, which is a sensible stance if you think that learning theory is more powerful than Chomsky proposed to assume that it was in the early 1980s. LFG-ers are also rather diverse in their views, some taking a more parameter-like view whereby the GF's etc are fixed by UG, others not assuming this (e.g. me).

  5. Well, it's true that in the book you refereed to (which is a very good introductory one, talking from a personal point of view), a great amount of new ideas and innovations in the framework of MP are introduced as comparable stuff to the old GB. And I suppose that this must be the strategy of introducing syntax in university classes. But, as you said, this strategy has some serious drawbacks, for instance learning the notion of governance , which is out of use, or learning transformational analysis, trace theory and so on.

    I think that this happens because the transition from a first primary stage of formal linguistic analysis to a more concrete and innovative one, which is surely the MP, is yet in progress. It may be completed when a unified minimalist theory emerge, but this has yet to happen. There is great progress in particular fields of the MP architecture, as you have already mentioned but I don't believe that this constitutes a general theory of the language CS, for many reasons, historical, methodological and others.

    In all the domains of scientific inquiry there are some methods, or ideas that are either old-fashioned or rejected by new ones. I think that we have to keep from the GB, or other approaches, whatever is necessary and compatible for an introduction to MP. Anything else has to do with the history of linguistics and remains as residue, or historical record by which a future researcher, who will be interested in elaborate and analytic work, may be inspired.