LINGUIST List 23.453

Mon Jan 30 2012

Review: Linguistic Theories; Philosophy of Language: Ludlow (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 30-Jan-2012
From: Dennis Ott <>
Subject: The Philosophy of Generative Linguistics
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at

AUTHOR: Ludlow, PeterTITLE: The Philosophy of Generative LinguisticsPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2011

Dennis Ott, University of Groningen

SUMMARY''The Philosophy of Generative Linguistics'' by Peter Ludlow (henceforth, L) is acollection of L's views on philosophical topics related to the theory ofGenerative Grammar. As stated in the Acknowledgments, various parts of the bookhave previously appeared in presentations and papers by L and collaborators.

Chapter 1 (''Linguistic Preliminaries'') presents some basics of linguistictheory. L sketches the transition from Standard Theory to Extended StandardTheory and subsequent developments (so-called ''Government & Binding Theory'' andthe Principles & Parameters framework). Topics addressed include X-bar theory,movement rules and islands, generative semantics, quantifier raising, thearchitecture of the ''Lectures on Government & Binding'' model (Chomsky 1981), andthe syntax-semantics interface.

Chapter 2 (''The Ontology of Generative Linguistics'') takes as its starting pointChomsky's (1986) distinction between E-language and I-language. L adds to thisthe notion of ''psy-language'' (language as a psychological state of anindividual), ''a thesis about the language faculty that is part of our cognitivepsychology, but which we do not suppose to supervene exclusively on intracranialfacts'' (p. 48), in turn based on his view that psychological states can bewidely or narrowly individuated. L then goes on to suggest that the term''knowledge'' in the context of language (''knowledge of language/linguisticrules'') ought to be replaced with a notion of HAVING linguistic knowledge. Hediscusses the relation between linguistic data (such as judgments), linguisticphenomena and linguistic theory, concluding that the theory attempts to explainphenomena, for which data provide evidence.

Chapter 3 (''Data, Intuitions, Judgments'') makes the case ''that linguisticintuitions are best described as linguistic judgments and [that] they arereliable sources of data.'' L argues that the linguistic intuitions relevant tolinguistic theory are instances of judgment, elicited in experiment andreflecting to some degree the knowledge encoded in the internal grammar; he thengoes on to argue that such judgments are by and large reliable, addressingvarious objections that have been raised against the value of linguisticjudgments. The chapter contains further discussion of scientific methodology,such as a rejection of naïve falsificationism, and the limited explanatory scopeof internalist linguistic inquiry.

Chapter 4 (''A Role for Normative Rule Governance?'') proposes that normativityshould be taken seriously by theoretical linguists, at least to the extent thatthe notion enters into individual rule-following. L suggests that rule-followingby an individual is essentially due to normative guidance by the rules ofgrammar, and suggests a definition of normativity that meets the needs of suchan approach.

Chapter 5 (''Worries about Rules and Representations'') addresses various concernsraised by philosophers against the idea of constructing an explanatory theory ofI-language. L discusses Quinean indeterminacy arguments (the facts alone do notallow us to determine WHICH of the possible grammars describing the facts is theone that is instantiated in a speaker) and Kripkean worries aboutrule-following. As for the former, L appears to follow Chomsky in assuming thatbroader issues concerning theoretical adequacy do allow the theorist to chooseamong weakly equivalent grammars; as for the latter, L's position appears to bethat these worries may require a more externalist view of grammar (his ''widepsy-language'').

Chapter 6 (''Referential Semantics for Narrow psy-Languages'') probes theprospects of referential semantics within a theory of I-language, now construedas ''narrow psy-language.'' L recaps the arguments presented in Ludlow 2003 andthe response in Chomsky 2003, and responds to Chomsky's response. L argues for''expressivist semantics'' as an alternative to truth-conditional semantics, whichhe claims is compatible with his conception of psy-language.

Chapter 7 (''Best Theory Criteria and Methodological Minimalism'') discusses therole of simplicity and formal rigor in theory construction. L argues that theonly real motivation for either desideratum is that it reduces the ''cognitivelabor'' on the part of the scientist familiarizing herself with a given theory.

The appendix consists of an interview with Noam Chomsky conducted by L, alsoavailable online (

EVALUATIONContrary to what the fairly general title of the book might be taken to suggest,L's book is not an introductory textbook; rather, it presents L's personal viewson various philosophical issues related to linguistic theory. As such, the bookis certainly relevant to linguists interested in the bigger questions behind theresearch program they are engaged in, although they are likely to see theirexcitement about the book curbed by various shortcomings.

The overall organization of the book is rather loose, in a way that leaves thereader puzzled at times. It remains unclear, for instance, what relation thecontents of the first chapter bear to the subsequent chapters, and the choice oftopics (such as islands, generative semantics, X-bar theory, etc.) in this firstchapter appears rather random. Moreover, at various points L's exposition missesthe mark quite a bit: e.g., his discussion of X-bar theory fails to mention oneof its central properties (endocentricity), designed to rule out exocentricrewrite rules; examples of quantifier raising, including tree representations,are presented without ever explicitly stating what interpretive result is gainedfrom covert transformations. Such omissions, while trivial to professionallinguists, are bound to confuse linguistically naïve readers, who this chapterappears to be intended for. (Likewise the section titled ''The MinimalistProgram,'' which, curiously, is mostly made up of a very brief discussion offormal semantics à la Heim and Kratzer 1998.)

I also felt uneasy about what seem to me to be conceptual errors and confusionscontained in the book. For instance, L states in the introduction that the firstchapter reviews first ''Government and Binding Theory'' (roughly, the theorydeveloped in Chomsky 1981, 1986) and then proceeds to ''the Principles andParameters framework, which grew out of Government-Binding Theory,'' followed by''some remarks on the Minimalist Program.'' This is a rather misleadingdescription: P&P is a research hypothesis guiding theory construction (onepossible theory being that sketched in Chomsky 1981), and so is the MinimalistProgram (which takes over P&P's basic conceptual assumptions and adds somefurther considerations into the picture). Again, such inadequacies in thepresentation may mislead the uninitiated reader quite severely.

On the other hand, from the point of view of a professional linguist, the bookelaborates on a number of rather obvious points that don't seem to warrant thespace devoted to them. For instance, L explains that

''it seems implausible to suppose that the structures and forms being posited forlinguistic objects (including PRO and trace, or, for that matter, wordboundaries) can be found in the intrinsic physical properties of either writtenor spoken tokens alone; there is no interesting sense in which the relevantproperties are found in physical properties of the acoustical signals or inkmarkings on the page. It seems equally implausible to think that theseproperties inhere in linguistic social relations -- no tacit convention is goingto yield the principles of binding theory, for instance.'' (p. 60)

In chapter 3, we read:

''I would argue that linguistic judgments are not judgments about rules, or evenrule compliance […]. They are simply judgments about linguistic facts, and thesefacts are determined by the linguistic rules.'' (p. 69)

At least for researchers engaged in Generative Grammar acquainted with itsfounding documents (such as Chomsky 1965), such statements and the discussionssurrounding them yield little insight, and one cannot help but feel like L isbeating dead horses at various points in the book.

In some cases, moreover, L fails to make explicit his motivation for enteringinto a discussion in the first place, leaving the reader wondering about therelevance of the argument. The clearest example of this is chapter 4, where Lstarts out with the proposition that linguistic principles ''normatively guide''linguistic competence, noting that this is in general not considered a veryhelpful (or attractive) position. He then continues: ''But perhaps we can stillmake sense of the idea'' (p. 90), only to enter into a defense of the normativeview of linguistic principles, while offering no further motivation for why thiswould be an interesting view to hold (or an insightful line of reasoning topursue) after all. The ensuing discussion runs through various formulations ofthe notion of ''normative rule-following,'' while leaving the reader without anyclear indication of why the issue should have any bearing on the theory ofGenerative Grammar.

My main criticism of L's book, however, is that, for the most part, it losesitself in quibbling about terminology while, at least to my mind, addressingrelatively few issues of substance. L's notion of psy-language, for instance,remains rather mysterious (at least its ''wide'' version; ''narrow psy-language''appears to be equivalent to I-language in Chomsky's usage), and so does itssupposed role in theory construction; L's claim in section 2.3 that we should''distinguish between an agent's grammar [and] the agent's psychogrammar (whichis the psychological state in virtue of which I have that grammar)'' does nothelp in this regard, since no evidence is offered in support of this ontologicaldistinction. (It seems to me that L's discussion would have benefited fromtaking seriously Chomsky's remarks in the appended interview: ''[Y]ou define atechnical notion in the context of an explanatory theory. You don't just definea technical notion out in space'' [p. 175].) Another example is L's criticism ofthe terms ''know'' and ''cognize'' (as in ''knowing/cognizing a language''), which heproposes should be replaced with the term ''have (linguistic knowledge).'' Itremains open of what practical relevance this move is, beyond expressing aterminological preference.

The same criticism applies to L's alternative to referential semantics outlinedin chapter 6, termed 'expressivist semantics.' L here responds to rejections ofreferential semantics as a component of I-language (Hornstein 1984, Chomsky2000) and attempts to present a non-referential alternative relying on''attitudes'' (rather than truth values) and ''referential intentions'' (rather thanreferents), considered ''expressivistically kosher basic elements'' (p. 144). Thenet effect of this move is that standard semantic types like e, t, , etc.are replaced by the types i, A, , etc., and compositional operations likepredicate modification are rephrased in terms of ''attitude fusion'' and the like.While one may or may not agree with L's intention of ''internalizing'' semantics,the problem is that L's approach is so sketchy that it proved impossible (forthe present reviewer, at least) to evaluate whether or not it makes anysubstantial contribution, or rather presents a mere terminological variant ofextant semantic theory. As things stand, one gets the impression that L islargely engaged in attaching new labels to familiar concepts, which is hardlysatisfying.

The highlight of the book is chapter 3, which presents a convincing argument forthe validity of traditional modes of data collection, relying on linguisticjudgments as an important (but by no means exclusive) source. Quoting fromChomsky 1965, L rightly points out that the lack of EXPLANATIONS, rather than alack of DATA, is the primary problem of linguistic theory, and convincinglyargues for the reliability of linguistic judgments (as supported by recentempirical investigations, see e.g. Sprouse et al. 2011). Furthermore, L arguescogently against taking lightly the notion of FALSIFICATION of a theory byapparent counterexamples (a naïve interpretation of which will lead to''Frankensteinish theories'') and for a non-monotonic notion of theoreticalprogress, in which 'coverage' of some pieces of data may at times be sacrificedto explanatory depth. L also rightly emphasizes the limited explanatory scope ofgenerative theories of linguistic competence, which are in principle concernedwith merely one ''component in a symphony of elements that in concert mightexplain everything about 'actual use of language''' (p. 87). The considerationspresented in this chapter should be useful to beginning linguistics students andas a reminder to professional linguists as well.

Although they can hardly do justice to the broad scope of L's book, the aboveremarks should make clear that I found many parts of it not very convincing andrather unsatisfying. That is not to say that L's book is uninteresting, however.It tackles a number of highly relevant and contentious conceptual issues, as inchapter 7's discussion of ''methodological minimalism'' and formal rigor, and L'sequally contentious positions on these issues provide a fruitful base forfurther debate. In general, I find L's ambition to elucidate some of thephilosophical underpinnings of Generative Grammar honorable, although I'm notconvinced that the resulting book advances our understanding in these areas.

REFERENCESChomsky, N. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

Chomsky, N. 1986. Knowledge of Language. New York: Praeger.

Chomsky, N. 2000. New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N. 2003. Reply to Ludlow. In Hornstein & Antony 2003, 287-295.

Heim, I. & A. Kratzer. 1998. Semantics in Generative Grammar. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hornstein, N. 1984. Logic as Grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hornstein, N. & L. Antony (eds.). Chomsky and His Critics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ludlow, P. 2003. Referential semantics for I-languages? In Hornstein & Antony2003, 140-161.

Sprouse, J., C. T. Schütze, & D. Almeida. 2011. Assessing the reliability ofjournal data in syntax: Linguistic Inquiry 2001-2010. Ms.,

ABOUT THE REVIEWERDennis Ott received his Ph.D. in linguistics from Harvard University in2011 and is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the ERC-supportedproject INCOMPLETE PARENTHESIS at the University of Groningen. His researchinterests in theoretical syntax include movement and locality, ellipsis,and clausal complementation; he is also interested in issues concerninglanguage acquisition and the philosophy of language and linguistics.

Page Updated: 30-Jan-2012