Day 3 consisted of no new panel sessions--- just summaries and discussion. In the morning, we tried to raise and discuss in more detail the most important issues that emerged from the meeting.
One interesting issue in the morning discussion was the idea of 3rd Factor principles and the extent to which they can, in practical terms, constrain the theories we develop. This had been a recurring theme, and people clearly pulled in different directions here. Hornstein had already spoken out strongly in favour of top down general principles that are used to constrain the questions we ask and the kinds of solutions we seek at the linguistic level. 3rd Factor principles such as general cognitive limitations and proclivities, and logical facts about memory, or learning, or the way symbolic systems configure themselves for maximum efficiency etc. are the boundary conditions for what the grammar ends up looking like, and have contentful implications, apparently belied by their abstractness. Rizzi expressed in a clear calm way what I take to be the source of resistance many working linguists feel in practice which is that we don’t have clear enough ideas to make a priori choices about what those 3rd factor principles are. There is an empirical dimension to these facts, and our choices of which are relevant where, that makes it hard to use them at a concrete level. What is the `perfect solution’ to the problems imposed by the interfaces? And why do we think that what our human logic considers to be conceptually perfect, or simple, is what biology considers to be perfect? Maybe biology thinks repetition and overlap and reuse is `perfect’. We are all just speculating here.
I think Rizzi is right in this, but I also think Hornstein is right to emphasize the role of top down theorizing, and the drive for abstractness in keeping syntax healthy.
In the afternoon we attempted a much more positive contribution by trying to brainstorm as a collective to come up with a consensual list of major results and mid level generalizations that had emerged within the generative linguistic tradition in particular.
This seemed important for a number of reasons.
A. It is important because it reminds us of what our current state of knowledge is and allows the next questions to be asked in a way that will be genuinely cumulative and productive.
Generative syntax has often been accused of being narrow, jargonistic, or impenetrable, so that gives us a second reason.
B. It is important to try to state the important discoveries and generalizations of the field in terms that are general enough to transcend frameworks and particular implementations, as a healthy mental exercise for ourselves.
Actual day to day syntactic analysis requires formal discipline and precision in practice, to ensure that the model one builds is indeed capturing the data one has described, and specialized terminology is unavoidable. (If I understand Müller correctly, the substance of his complaint about our field was that much recent work seems to have lost the skills or inclination to pursue a syntactic analysis at this `algorithmic’ level. I don’t know if this is true or not. It might be. There’s unfortunately a fair amount of shoddy syntactic papers out there, but there’s good and bad work in every field). At the same time, we certainly do not want to say that the results of the generative enterprise are confined to those discovered in one particular framework or architecture. Or that those discovered in different frameworks and in different eras are not commensurable. Nobody in the room wanted to say that. And with respect to older versions of Chomskian grammar such as GB, it was explicitly affirmed that GB was responsible for establishing certain MLGs for the field that are a central part of the cumulative legacy of generative syntax.
Our mathematical linguist on the ground here in Athens, Thomas Graf, kept insisting and reminding us that he could not see that anything substantive could hinge on the differences at the level of grammar architecture that the field often seems to be preoccupied with arguing about. This came up strongly in the derivations vs. representations session, and again in the discussions of how the formal grammar interacts with the parser.
In discussions over lunch and dinner, we syntacticians felt compelled to pursue this with Graf in more detail. There is a strong intuition among us, that some theories (with a little t) are just better at capturing particular generalizations than others. We did not like to be told that these `small-t-differences’ were illusory, and not worth arguing about. Graf, in turn, voiced a completely different perspective on small-t-Differences that resonated strongly with me. In mathematics, the reality of a phenomenon transcends small-t-differences, but choice of small-t framework is a powerful determinant of how easy it is to solve a particular analytic problem, whether generalizations emerge in a way that is intuitive to the human perceiver, and even the kinds of issues one even looks at. So translating into different small-t frameworks is actually a Thing--- a positive tool, that allows you to walk all the way around a particular problem and see its front side and its back side and its top side etc. Some small-t-theories allow a particular pattern to emerge gracefully to our senses where their translation into a notational equivalent would not. Being able to be precise about our small-t-theories but also in some cases switch between them should a be seen as a source of strength for problem solving, not a source of point-scoring fodder for article publications.
In addition, we have a third reason for why attempting to state the midlevel generalizations is important.
C. It is important because it allows us to scale up our claims to a level of granularity at which we are able to interface with our colleagues in related academic disciplines, potentially narrowing the commensurability gap.
Having said that, the exercise of trying to do this in a group of one hundred people, and syntacticians of different persuasions was difficult, frustrating and instructive in equal measure.
It is easy to agree when the discussion takes abstract form.
But as soon as an actual list was attempted, disagreements started to emerge about what counted as a mid level generalization: why/if we should be doing this at all; how theoretically charged the terms should be; judgements of size and/or importance; level of crosslinguistic generality; how much consensus does there need to be on something for it to make it onto that list. It's a minefield.
After three days of stimulating discussion, and No Shouting (unlike what I had predicted), irritations started to emerge. There was so much residual good will in the room, that most of us stuck at it and battled through. If we get a List that anybody likes at all or thinks is important, it will be a triumph of unity. And I still have hope that such a list will emerge. A committee has been put in charge of taking the 50 or so bullet points on our communally generated first draft and making it into something that makes sense. But I fear that the difficulties here are representative of deep internal disagreements/perspectives about the current state of the field.
In my next post, I will continue with my summary of where I think the internal faultlines are. I will reiterate my support for the exercise in articulating MLGs, and I will give an example of my own version of the list in one small subdomain of syntax that I actually know something about (Argument Structure).