How seriously should we take Minimalist syntax? A comment on Lasnik

Lasnik’s review of the Minimalist program in syntax [1] offers cognitive scientists help in navigating some of the arcana of the current theoretical thinking in transformational generative grammar. One may observe, however, that this journey is more like a taxi ride gone bad than a free tour: it is the driver who decides on the itinerary, and questioning his choice may get you kicked out. Meanwhile, the meter in the cab of the generative theory of grammar is running, and has been since the publication of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures in 1957. The fare that it ran up is none the less daunting for the detours made in his Aspects of Theory of Syntax in 1965, Government and Binding in 1981, and now The Minimalist Program, in 1995. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, it seems like never in the field of cognitive science was so much owed by so many of us to so few. For most of us in the cognitive sciences this situation will appear quite benign, if we realize that it is the generative linguists who should by rights be paying this bill. The reason for that is simple and is well known in the philosophy of science: putting forward a theory is like taking out a loan, to be repayed by gleaning an empirical basis for it; theories that fail to do so are declared bankrupt. In the sciences of the mind, this maxim translates into the need to demonstrate the psychological, and, eventually, the neurobiological, reality of the theoretical constructs. Many examples of this process can be found in the study of human vision, where, as in language, direct observation of the underlying mechanisms is difficult; for instance, the concept of multiple parallel spatial frequency channels, introduced in the late 1960s, was completely vindicated by purely behavioral means over the following decade; see, e.g., [2]. In linguistics, the nature of the requisite evidence is well described by Townsend and Bever: “What do we test today if we want to explore the behavioral implications of syntax?.
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