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Review of  The Philosophy of Generative Linguistics

Reviewer: Dennis Ott
Book Title: The Philosophy of Generative Linguistics
Book Author: Peter Ludlow
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Philosophy of Language
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.453

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AUTHOR: Ludlow, Peter
TITLE: The Philosophy of Generative Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2011

Dennis Ott, University of Groningen

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

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

Chapter 2 (''The Ontology of Generative Linguistics'') takes as its starting point
Chomsky's (1986) distinction between E-language and I-language. L adds to this
the notion of ''psy-language'' (language as a psychological state of an
individual), ''a thesis about the language faculty that is part of our cognitive
psychology, but which we do not suppose to supervene exclusively on intracranial
facts'' (p. 48), in turn based on his view that psychological states can be
widely or narrowly individuated. L then goes on to suggest that the term
''knowledge'' in the context of language (''knowledge of language/linguistic
rules'') ought to be replaced with a notion of HAVING linguistic knowledge. He
discusses the relation between linguistic data (such as judgments), linguistic
phenomena and linguistic theory, concluding that the theory attempts to explain
phenomena, for which data provide evidence.

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

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

Chapter 5 (''Worries about Rules and Representations'') addresses various concerns
raised by philosophers against the idea of constructing an explanatory theory of
I-language. L discusses Quinean indeterminacy arguments (the facts alone do not
allow us to determine WHICH of the possible grammars describing the facts is the
one that is instantiated in a speaker) and Kripkean worries about
rule-following. As for the former, L appears to follow Chomsky in assuming that
broader issues concerning theoretical adequacy do allow the theorist to choose
among weakly equivalent grammars; as for the latter, L's position appears to be
that these worries may require a more externalist view of grammar (his ''wide

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

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

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

Contrary 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 views
on various philosophical issues related to linguistic theory. As such, the book
is certainly relevant to linguists interested in the bigger questions behind the
research program they are engaged in, although they are likely to see their
excitement about the book curbed by various shortcomings.

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

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

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

''it seems implausible to suppose that the structures and forms being posited for
linguistic objects (including PRO and trace, or, for that matter, word
boundaries) can be found in the intrinsic physical properties of either written
or spoken tokens alone; there is no interesting sense in which the relevant
properties are found in physical properties of the acoustical signals or ink
markings on the page. It seems equally implausible to think that these
properties inhere in linguistic social relations -- no tacit convention is going
to 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 even
rule compliance […]. They are simply judgments about linguistic facts, and these
facts are determined by the linguistic rules.'' (p. 69)

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

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

My main criticism of L's book, however, is that, for the most part, it loses
itself in quibbling about terminology while, at least to my mind, addressing
relatively 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 its
supposed 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 (which
is the psychological state in virtue of which I have that grammar)'' does not
help in this regard, since no evidence is offered in support of this ontological
distinction. (It seems to me that L's discussion would have benefited from
taking seriously Chomsky's remarks in the appended interview: ''[Y]ou define a
technical notion in the context of an explanatory theory. You don't just define
a technical notion out in space'' [p. 175].) Another example is L's criticism of
the terms ''know'' and ''cognize'' (as in ''knowing/cognizing a language''), which he
proposes should be replaced with the term ''have (linguistic knowledge).'' It
remains open of what practical relevance this move is, beyond expressing a
terminological preference.

The same criticism applies to L's alternative to referential semantics outlined
in chapter 6, termed 'expressivist semantics.' L here responds to rejections of
referential semantics as a component of I-language (Hornstein 1984, Chomsky
2000) and attempts to present a non-referential alternative relying on
''attitudes'' (rather than truth values) and ''referential intentions'' (rather than
referents), considered ''expressivistically kosher basic elements'' (p. 144). The
net effect of this move is that standard semantic types like e, t, , etc.
are replaced by the types i, A, , etc., and compositional operations like
predicate 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 (for
the present reviewer, at least) to evaluate whether or not it makes any
substantial contribution, or rather presents a mere terminological variant of
extant semantic theory. As things stand, one gets the impression that L is
largely engaged in attaching new labels to familiar concepts, which is hardly

The highlight of the book is chapter 3, which presents a convincing argument for
the validity of traditional modes of data collection, relying on linguistic
judgments as an important (but by no means exclusive) source. Quoting from
Chomsky 1965, L rightly points out that the lack of EXPLANATIONS, rather than a
lack of DATA, is the primary problem of linguistic theory, and convincingly
argues for the reliability of linguistic judgments (as supported by recent
empirical investigations, see e.g. Sprouse et al. 2011). Furthermore, L argues
cogently against taking lightly the notion of FALSIFICATION of a theory by
apparent counterexamples (a naïve interpretation of which will lead to
''Frankensteinish theories'') and for a non-monotonic notion of theoretical
progress, in which 'coverage' of some pieces of data may at times be sacrificed
to explanatory depth. L also rightly emphasizes the limited explanatory scope of
generative theories of linguistic competence, which are in principle concerned
with merely one ''component in a symphony of elements that in concert might
explain everything about 'actual use of language''' (p. 87). The considerations
presented in this chapter should be useful to beginning linguistics students and
as a reminder to professional linguists as well.

Although they can hardly do justice to the broad scope of L's book, the above
remarks should make clear that I found many parts of it not very convincing and
rather 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 in
chapter 7's discussion of ''methodological minimalism'' and formal rigor, and L's
equally contentious positions on these issues provide a fruitful base for
further debate. In general, I find L's ambition to elucidate some of the
philosophical underpinnings of Generative Grammar honorable, although I'm not
convinced that the resulting book advances our understanding in these areas.

Chomsky, 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:
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 & Antony
2003, 140-161.

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

Dennis Ott received his Ph.D. in linguistics from Harvard University in 2011 and is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the ERC-supported project INCOMPLETE PARENTHESIS at the University of Groningen. His research interests in theoretical syntax include movement and locality, ellipsis, and clausal complementation; he is also interested in issues concerning language acquisition and the philosophy of language and linguistics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0199258538
ISBN-13: 9780199258536
Pages: 240
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