- The minimalist program: The nature and plausibility of Chomsky’s biolinguistics by Fahad Rashed Al-Mutairi
Al-Mutairi offers an informed, philosophical appraisal of the foundations of current generative theory as pursued under the guise of the minimalist program (MP). The volume is offered as a neutral assessment, although A happily describes some pro-minimalist work as marked by ‘erroneous conclusions and pretentious proclamations’ (5). Indeed, the cumulative effect of the volume is so negative as to make A’s exhortations of disinterest seem faux, even if well intentioned. Furthermore, the volume too often reads as if A is trying to figure out what Chomsky means; thus, there is a surfeit of quotations, and too little charitable insight. The book, then, is not an introduction to first-order minimalist work—nary a tree graces its pages, and no linguistic phenomena are discussed, save to exemplify a certain line of reasoning. This might make for a not-so-easy read for those unversed in the technical discussions. The absence of syntax also casts a shadow over much of A’s reasoning, for it is difficult to talk about the MP at such length while so assiduously avoiding any actual linguistics—all of which is unfortunate, for A clearly knows his Chomsky, and does make many interesting points along the way.
I shall, of necessity, be selective in my discussion; in particular, I have nothing to say on the evolution of language. It seems to me that A is correct in thinking that the issue is ultimately extraneous to the understanding of the MP, even if the MP does offer an intriguing perspective on the topic.
After an introduction, Ch. 2 presents a historical sketch of generative linguistics from its inception and offers a general characterization of the development of the MP as a shift from conceiving of universal grammar (UG) as an explanans to an explanandum, where what does the explaining now is interface conditions independent of language narrowly conceived and general conditions on optimal computation of the kind one may expect to find in natural systems (what is now often referred to as ‘third factors’). The foil for much of this discussion is pro-minimalist work from Cedric Boeckx, Norbert Hornstein, and others, who, at least in some publications, view the history of the field as one of changing goals, with apparent breaks between the early work, the middle period, and later MP work. A is correct to reject such a punctate picture: (i) at no stage was the goal of a grammar mere extensional adequacy as would at best be delivered by a combinatorial conception of a grammar sans any evaluation measure or, crucially, its satisfying the kind of explanatory desiderata that transformations were designed to capture (the latter point A curiously neglects); (ii) cognitive concerns were animating goals from the beginning; and (iii) the MP is not premised on the goal of explanatory adequacy somehow being achieved in the so-called government-and-binding period. Still, A’s conception of the MP only really became explicit some ten years or so after the first MP-oriented work. In the earliest MP work, the clear motivation on offer is that theory-internal levels are (apparently) explanatorily redundant, and so related technology is called into question, such as indexes and X-bar theory as a stipulated remnant of the phrase structure base of earlier approaches. Movement and phrase structure combination (called Merge) become aspects of a unitary cycle, with movement applying before any designated structure of a ‘level’ is complete. One can, clearly, appreciate such reasoning—say, in regard to tough-constructions—without having any general picture in mind of UG or ‘third factor’ issues, which A considers to be the principle motivation for the MP. A sketch of the architecture of an MP grammar is presented in line with the general view of UG as an explanandum, which is okay as far as it goes (phase theory and the issue of labels or...