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