LINGUIST List 12.1823

Mon Jul 16 2001

Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Lotfi, RE: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study
  2. Dan Everett, Re: 12.1819, Disc: Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Message 1: RE: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Date: 14 Jul 2001 13:15:28 EDT
From: Lotfi <>
Subject: RE: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Dan Everett wrote:
>this is the old story which everyone knows but which each new
>generation of grad students reacts to as novel.
and then:
>In general, when Chomsky says 'uncontroversial' he means
>'controversial'. I think in his dialect the 'un-' prefix is a
>positive marker.
Is it still an academic discussion? Whether the story is old or
not, and how grad students react to it do not seem to be of much
significance to this discussion. And if I think something is still
controversial, all I need do is say that! Why should I make a comment
on the edge of rudeness?
Ahmad R. Lotfi
Ahmad R. Lotfi, Ph. D
Department of the English Language, Chair
Azad University at Khorasgan
Esfahan, IRAN.
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Message 2: Re: 12.1819, Disc: Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Date: Sat, 14 Jul 2001 10:34:31 -0500
From: Dan Everett <>
Subject: Re: 12.1819, Disc: Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

> From: (Kevin R. Gregg)
> Subject: Re: 12.1816, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

> ****So, e.g., the interior of brown dwarfs, gravity, electricity,
> particles, heritability, acidity, etc. etc. etc., are all outside the
> other than being abstractions useful to a particular theory? It's
> disturbing to see a point missed that has been recognized for decades in
> the natural sciences and in the philosophy of science. *Nothing* of
> scientific interest is ever studied directly; what is studied directly is
> evidence--data--that with luck we hope to use to make valid inferences
> what *is* in fact of interest. As Bogen & Woodward put it in a well-known
> article, 'scientific theories typically do not predict and explain facts
> about what we observe'. Again, Wesley Salmon: 'our efforts at finding
> causal relations and causal explanations often--if not always--take us
> beyond the realm of observable phenomena. ... There is no logical
> in the fact that causal mechanisms involve unobservables; that is just the
> way our world happens to work.'

The late Wesley Salmon was a friend and colleague of mine when I was at the
University of Pittsburgh. I understand your point here and the implications
of my criticism of Chomksyan theory for other disciplines are neither lost
on me nor on Pragmatism more generally. Of the many things that one might
say in reply to your point, just imagine a cosmology that got all the facts
about 'wobbly revolutions' of stars without, say, needing to posit black
holes. Then a theory which posited them would be less attractive - why
accept something which can in-principle never be directly observed as an
explanation? In the case of astronomy, one accepts such things because it is
useful to do so. Likewise in quantum theory. But Linguistics ought not to be
confused with physics. The similarities of abstraction are utterly
superficial. UG is proposed as something real. Something which we come
closer and closer to via more and more study. That is like many sciences,
granted. Now singularities have a direct role to play and their properties
emerge from their explanatory role. They are dispensable when that
explanatory role, their usefulness, is no longer needed. They are
supposedhowever to be spatially and temporally bounded and they are intended
to be inherently concrete, just not provably so in our current state of
knowledge. Moreover, singularities are evaluated based on data that does not
need to be pure. Any physical phenomena requiring the positing of them will

But UG is quite a different matter. First, it is in principle neither
spatially nor temporally bounded, as black holes are expected to be. Second
it claims to be a representation of pure grammar, stripped to 'virtual
conceptual necessity' (and what is necessary and allowable is nothing more
than tree structures, by and large). How could one study it? One would have
to sort through the data and decide that this or that datum is not a result
of function, history, or sociological factors (among others). Then that
datum would bear on UG. It is not possible to make that decision, however.
UG is an essence. Its essence is partially derived from the layers of other
material constructed around it (LF, PF, etc.) and being in principle more
and more reifiable until we arrive at the essence of grammar. Not being a
physicist, I cannot swear that there is nothing like this in physics. But if
there were, the problem would be the same.

Chalmers: '...descriptions of observable
> states of affairs are in general quite inappropriate for constituting the
> building blocks from which scientific knowledge is constructed...'

This is hardly new with Chalmers. But he has a vested interest in this kind
of statement, since he studies consciousness. Still, though, it is unlikely
that he studies it via pure thought. He must use abduction, induction, and
deduction from observables just like the rest of us. Observables *are* the
appropriate building blocks. Even studies of UG purport to work this way.

> One could go on, but the point is that there's no reason whatever to hold
> linguistics to some standard of evidence which *no* other empirical
> is held to.

This is an old line of defense. A very old story indeed. It is, moreover,
not what is being done here. First, I am not talking about Linguistics per
se. I am talking about one variant of it, UG. And the standard is not one
that other empirical sciences fall short of. UG does, though.

The theory (or theories) of Universal Grammar may turn out, of
> course, to be totally off-base, but that's another question. The fact
> we can't study UG 'directly' is of precisely as much force, i.e. none, as
> fact that we can't study muons directly.

See John Goldsmith's posting. It seems right. I am not denying science. But
UG makes claims that go far beyond the claims of other disciplines. For
example, Chomsky claims that language is a perfect biological system. There
is no other biological system like this and biologists find this claim
wacko. No other theory makes such claims. Don't fool yourself with the
entirely inappropriate, but incredibly common, way of excusing UG by
comparing it to physics. There is little to compare there at any level.
Rather, UG should be compared with Freudian constructs.

Dan Everett
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