Chomsky often claims that the conceptual underpinnings of the Minimalist Program (MP) are little more than the injunction to do good science. On this view the eponymous 1995 book did not break new ground, or announce a new “program” or suggest foregrounding new questions. In fact, on this view, calling a paper A Minimalist Program for Linguistic Theory was not really a call to novelty but a gentle reminder that we have all been minimalists all along and that we should continue doing exactly what we had been doing so well to that point. This way of putting things is (somewhat) exaggerated. However, versions thereof are currently a standard trope, and though I don’t buy it, I recently found a great quote in Language and Mind (L&M) that sort of supports this vision. Sorta, kinda but not quite. Here’s the quote (L&M:182):
I would, naturally, assume that there is some more general basis in human mental structure for the fact (if it is a fact) that languages have transformational grammars; one of the primary scientific reasons for studying language is that this study may provide some insight into general properties of mind. Given those specific properties, we may then be able to show that transformational grammars are “natural.” This would constitute real progress, since it would now enable us to raise the problem of innate conditions on acquisition of knowledge and belief in a more general framework….
This quote is pedagogical in several ways. First, it does indicate that at least in Chomsky’s mind, GG from the get-go had what we could now identify as minimalist ambitions. The goal as stated in L&M is not only to describe the underlying capacities that make humans linguistically facile, but to also understand how these capacities reflect the “general properties of mind.” Furthermore, L&M moots the idea that understanding how language competence fits in with our mental architecture more generally might allow us to demonstrate that “transformational grammar is “natural”.” How so? Well in the obviously intended sense that a mind with the cognitive powers we have would have a faculty of language in which the particular Gs we have would embody a transformational component. As L&M rightly points out, being able to show this would “constitute real progress.” Yes it would.
It is worth noting that the contemporary conception of Merge as combining both structure building and movement in the “simplest” recursive rule is an attempt to make good on this somewhat foggy suggestion. If by ‘transformations’ we intend movement, then showing how a simple conception of recursion comes with a built in operation of displacement goes some distance in redeeming the idea that transformational Gs are “natural.”
Note several other points: The L&M quote urges a specific research strategy: if you are interested in general principles of cognition then it is best to start the investigation from the bottom up. So even if one’s interest is in cognition in general (and this is clearly the L&M program) then right direction of investigation is not from, e.g. some a priori conception of learning to language but from a detailed investigation of language to the implications of these details for human mental structure more generally. This, of course, echoes Chomsky’s excellent critiques of Empiricism and its clearly incorrect and/or vacuous conceptions of reinforcement learning.
However, the point is more general I believe. Even if one is not Empiricistically inclined (as no right thinking person should be) the idea that a body of local doctrine concerning a specific mental capacity is an excellent first step into probing possibly more general capacities seems like excellent method. After all, it worked well in the “real” sciences (e.g. Galileo’s, Copernicus’ and Kepler’s laws were useful stepping stones to Newton’s synthesis) so why not adopt a similar strategy in investigating the mind/brain? One of GGs lasting contributions to intellectual life was to demonstrate how little we reflexively know about the structure of our mental capacities. Being gifted linguistically does not imply that we know anything about how our mind/brain operates. As Chomsky likes to say, being puzzled about the obvious is where thinking really begins and perhaps GG’s greatest contribution has been to make clear how complex our linguistic capacities are and how little we understand about its operating principles.
So is the Minimalist Program just more of the same, with nothing really novel here? Again, I think that the quote above shows that it is not. L&M clearly envisioned a future where it would be useful to ask how linguistic competence fits into cognition more broadly. However, it also recognized that asking such “how” questions was extremely premature. There is a tide in the affairs of inquiry and some questions at some times are not worth asking. To use a Chomsky distinction, some questions raise problems and some point to mysteries. The latter are premature and one aim of research is to move questions from the second obscure mystical column to the first tractable one. This is what happened in syntax around 1995; the more or less rhetorical question Chomsky broached in L&M in the late 60s became a plausible topic for serious research in the mid 1990s! Thus, though there is a sense in which minimalism was old hat, there is a more important sense in which it was entirely new, not as regards general methodological concerns (one always values simplicity, conciseness, naturalness etc) but in being able to ask the question that L&M first posed fancifully in a non-trivial way: how does/might FL fit together with cognition more generally?
So what happened between 1968 and 1995? Well, we learned a lot about the properties of human Gs and had plausible candidate principles of UG (see here for some discussion). In other words, again to use Chomsky’s framing (following the chemist Davy), syntax developed a “body of doctrine” and with this it became possible to use this body of doctrine to probe the more general question. And that’s what the Minimalist Program is about. That’s what’s new. Given some understanding of what’s in FL we can ask how it relates to cognition (and computation) more generally. That’s why asking minimalist questions now is valuable while asking them in 1967 would have been idle.
As you all know, there is a way of framing the minimalist questions in a particularly provocative way, one that fires the imagination in useful ways: How could this kind of FL with these kinds of principles have evolved? On the standard assumption (though not uncontroversial, see here on the “phenotypic gambit”) that complexity and evolvability are adversarial, the injunction to simplify FL by reducing its linguistically proprietary features becomes the prime minimalist project. Of course, all this is potentially fecund to the degree that there is something to simplify (i.e. some substantive proposals concerning what the operative FL/UG principles are) and targets for simplification became worthwhile targets in the early 1990s. Hence the timing of the emergence of MP.
Let me end by ridding off on an old hobbyhorse: Minimalism does not aim to be a successor to earlier GB accounts (and its cousins LFG, HPSG etc). Rather MP’s goal is to be a theory of possible FL/UGs. It starts from the assumption that the principles of UG articulated from 1955-1990s are roughly correct, albeit not fundamental. They must be derived from more general mental principles/operations (to fulfill the L&M hope). MP is possible because there is reason to think that GB got things roughly right. I actually do think that this is correct. Others might not. But it is only once there is such a body of FL/UG doctrine that MP projects will not be hopelessly premature. As the L&M quote indicates, MP like ambitions have been with us for a long time, but only recently has it been rational to hope that they would not be idle.
 Btw, L&M is a great read and those of you who have never dipped in (and I am looking at anyone under 40 here) should go out and read it.