- Linguistic minimalism: Origins, concepts, methods, and aims
Editors’ note: With these two reviews, we inaugurate something new for the journal. For one and the same book, a work we thought to be both important and potentially controversial, we have commissioned reviews by two scholars with differing perspectives on its content. We wanted the two reviews to be free-standing, and therefore asked the reviewers to work independently, without reading (and hence without responding directly to) each other’s reviews; but our hope is that their contrasting points of view will throw the book’s most notable features into high relief. The reviewers were given the license to be a bit expansive if they chose to, so that each piece is longer than a usual book review would be. We set them off in a separate section to draw attention to their special character. They are published in the order in which they were accepted, as is Language’s usual practice with articles (though not with reviews); in this case, this also happens to be the order in which they were received. [Brian D. Joseph/Gregory T. Stump]
Linguistic minimalism (LM) is the most ambitious presentation and defense of the minimalist program (MP) published to date. My overall assessment is that Boeckx has done an excellent job. By that I do not mean to imply that he has convinced me that the MP is a promising direction for syntax to take. In fact, if anything, the reservations that I expressed in Newmeyer 2003 have been strengthened as a result of reading LM. The book is excellent in the sense that it is a clearly written explication—indeed, perhaps the first—of what it takes for a linguistic theory to be ‘minimalist’ and why such a theory is widely regarded to be both a priori desirable and empirically promising.
I do not think that it is unfair to write that B devotes more space to explaining why the minimalist direction (broadly conceived) is the optimal one for linguistics to take than he does to elaborating the details of what a minimalist theory might look like and that he devotes more space to the latter than to outlining what fifteen years of minimalist theorizing have actually achieved. Three of the six chapters (Ch. 1, ‘The minimalist gamble’; Ch. 4, ‘The minimalist impact’; and Ch. 6, ‘The minimalist seduction’) are devoted wholly to defending the idea that minimalism is grounded in the belief that ‘nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas’ (8). Two more chapters (Ch. 2, ‘The minimalist roots’; and Ch. 3, ‘The minimalist core’) are largely historical, though the latter does develop the idea that the structure of a minimalist theory in large part reflects ‘virtual conceptual necessity’. It is only in Ch. 5, ‘The minimalist highlights’, that the reader is presented with reasonably detailed accounts of concrete grammatical phenomena whose analysis is said to represent ‘significant, albeit healthily controversial, results coming from the minimalist literature’ (159).
Despite the fact that over half of LM is devoted to arguing, on the basis of references to history’s great scientists and philosophers of science, that the minimalist direction in linguistics is scientific practice incarnate, I have little to say on that question here (see §5 below). I find B’s extensive appeals to higher scientific authority to be quite tedious and I harbor the suspicion that advocates of any theory of language imaginable could find quote after quote from Galileo, [End Page 387] Newton, or Darwin to help justify their approach.1 I also suspect that the repeated ‘look how scientific we are’ passages will strike many nonlinguist readers of LM as thoroughly otiose. My personal experience, sad to say, is that it is difficult to convince my colleagues in philosophy and the physical sciences that grammatical theory in any shape or form is—or has the potential to be—scientific. And nothing leads them to tune out faster than to hear grammatical theory compared to physical theory.2 In any event...