What kind of a science is Generative Syntax?

Recently, I found myself reading Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations. I didn’t make it that far into it—the language is rather abstruse—but included in the fragments of what I did read was a section in which Husserl clarified something that I’ve been thinking about recently, which is the place of theory in a science. In the section in question, Husserl defines a science as a set of truths that belong together. So, the truths of physics belong together, and the truths of economics belong together, but the former and the latter don’t belong together. But what does it mean, Husserl asks, for truths to belong together?

Husserl’s answer is that it can mean one of two things. Either truths belong together because they share an internal unity or because they share an external unity. Truths—that is, true propositions—are linked by an internal unity if they are logically related. So, a theorem and the axioms that it is derived from share an internal unity, as would two theorems derived from a set of internally consistent axioms, and so on. The type of science characterized by internal unity, Husserl calls abstract, explanatory, or theoretical science. This class would include arithmetic, geometry, most modern physics, and perhaps other fields.

A set of truths has external unity if the members of the set are all about the same sort of thing. So, geography, political science, history, pre-modern physics, and so on would be the class of sciences characterized by external unity. Husserl calls these descriptive sciences.

When I read the description of this dichotomy, I was struck both by how simple and intuitive it was, and by how meaningful it was, especially compared to the common ways we tend to attempt to divide up the sciences (hard sciences vs soft sciences, science vs social science, etc). the distinction also happens to neatly divide fields of inquiry into those that generate predictions (theoretical sciences) and those that do not (descriptive sciences). Why does a theoretical science generate predictions while a descriptive one does not? Well consider the starting point of either of the two. A theoretical science, requiring internal unity, would start with axioms, which can be any kind of propositions, including universal propositions (e.g., “Every number has a successor”, “”No mass can be created or destroyed.”). On the other hand, a descriptive science, which require external unity, would start with observable facts, which must be particular propositions (e.g., “The GDP of the Marshall Islands rose by 3% last year”, “That ball fell for 5 seconds”). This matters because deductive reasoning is only possible if a systems has at least some universal premises. So, a theoretical science generates theorems, which constitute the predictions of that science. A descriptive science, on the other hand, is limited to inductive reasoning which at best generates expectations. The difference being that if a theorem/prediction is false, then at least one of the axioms that it is derived from must be false, while if an expectation is false, it doesn’t mean that the facts that “generated” that expectation are false.

Turning to the question I asked in my title, what kind of science is Generative Syntax (GS)? My answer is that there are actually two sciences—one theoretical, one descriptive—that answer to the name Generative Syntax, and that most of the current work is of the latter type. Note, I don’t mean to distinguish between experimental/corpus/field syntax and what’s commonly called “theoretical syntax”. Rather, I mean to say that, even if we restrict ourselves to “theoretical syntax,” most of the work being done today is part of a descriptive science in Husserl’s terminology. To be more concrete, let me consider two currently open fields of inquiry within GS. One which is quite active—Ergativity, and one which is less popular—Adjuncts.

Ergativity, for the uninitiated, is a phenomenon having to do with grammatical case. In English, a non-ergative language, pronouns come in two cases: nominative (I, he, she, they, etc), which is associated with subjects, and accusative (me, him, her, them, etc) which is associated with objects. An ergative language, also has two cases: ergative, which is associated with subjects of transitive verbs, and absolutive which is associated with objects of transitives and subjects of intransitives. To be sure, this is an oversimplification, and ergativity has been found to be associated with many other phenomena that don’t occur in non-ergative languages. Details aside, suppose we wanted to define a science of ergativity or, more broadly, a science of case alignment in Husserl’s terminology. What sort of unity would it have? I contend that it has only external unity. That is, it is a descriptive science. It begins with the fact that the case systems of some languages are different from the case systems that most linguistics students are used to. Put another way, if English were an ergative language, linguists would be puzzling over all these strange languages where the subjects always had the same case.

Adjuncts, a fancy term for modifiers, are the “extra” parts of sentences: adjectives and adverbs, the things newspaper editors hate. Adjuncts contrast with arguments (subjects, objects, etc) and predicates, which each sentence needs and needs in a particular arrangement. So, the sentences “She sang the song with gusto after dinner” and “She sang the song after dinner with gusto” are essentially identical, but “She sang the song” and “The song sang her” are wildly different. On its face, this is not particularly interesting—adjuncts are commonplace—but every unified theory of GS predicts that adjuncts should not exist. Take the current one, commonly called minimalism. according to this theory sentences are constructed by iterated application of an operation called Merge, which simply takes two words or phrases and creates a new phrase (Merge(X, Y) → {X, Y}≠X≠Y). It follows from this that “She sang the song” and “The song sang her” are meaningfully distinct but it also follows (falsely) that “She sang the song with gusto after dinner” and “She sang the song after dinner with gusto” are also meaningfully different. From this perspective, the study of adjuncts doesn’t constitute a science in itself, but rather it is part of a science with internal unity, a theoretical science.

So, despite the fact that research on ergativity and research on adjuncts both tend to be described as theoretical syntax in GS, the two are completely different sorts of sciences. Inquiry into the nature of adjuncts forms part of the theoretical science of syntax, while work on ergativity and, I would conjecture, the majority of current work that is called “theoretical syntax”, its use of formalisms and hypotheses notwithstanding, forms a descriptive science, which would be a part of a larger descriptive science.

Both sorts of science are valuable and, in fact, often complement each other. Accurate descriptions of the heavens were vital for early modern physicists to develop their theoretical models of mechanics, and novel theories often furnish descriptivists with better technology to aid their work. Where we get into trouble is when we confuse the two sorts of sciences. There’s an argument to be made, and and it has been made by John Ralston Saul in his book Voltaire’s Bastards, that many of the problems in our society stem from insisting that descriptive social sciences, such as international relations, economics, and law, and even much of the humanities have been treated like theoretical sciences.

Turning back to syntax and taking a micro view, why am I grinding this axe? Well, I have two main reasons: one selfish, the other more altruistic. The selfish reason is that I am a theoretician in a descriptivist’s world. This manifests itself in a number of ways, but I’ll just highlight the immediate one for me: the job market. The academic job market is insanely competitive, and PhD students are expected at least to present at conferences in order to make a name for themselves. This is a problem because (a) there are no theoretical syntax conferences and (b) a standard 20 minute talk, while often sufficient to present a new descriptive analysis of a phenomenon, is not ideal for presenting theoretical work.

Beyond that, I think the confusion of the two sorts of sciences can exacerbate imposter syndrome, especially in graduate students. It took me a while to figure out why I had such a hard time understanding some of my colleagues’ work, and why some papers on “theoretical syntax” had such wildly different characters, arguments, and styles from others. I eventually figured it out, but every so often I see a grad student struggling to make sense of the field and I just want to tell them that they’re not wrong, the field doesn’t really make sense, because it’s actually two fields.

3 thoughts on “What kind of a science is Generative Syntax?

  1. Interesting food for thought!
    Could you elaborate a bit what kind of struggle you speak of in the last paragraph? Where does the impostor syndrome come from? I don’t quite get that yet, but I feel like I might relate.

    Like

    1. The way I see it is that descriptive work and theoretical work each requires a certain skillset or inclination to do properly, and most graduate students interested in “theoretical syntax” arrive at grad school with one of those skillsets/inclinations. Because of the common equivocation in the use of the term “theoretical”, these graduate students will, in short order, read a paper, take a seminar, or attend a research talk that is billed as “theoretical syntax” but is not what their familiar form of “theoretical syntax”. Most students in this situation will struggle to grasp the paper, seminar, or talk in question but won’t understand why, or won’t have the vocabulary to express why. With no one to do say “Don’t worry about it, that’s the other kind of ‘theoretical syntax’.”, what is the graduate student to think except that the fault lies with them.

      From my own experience, I arrived at grad school inclined towards theory, with some training in that direction and was always felt stupid listening to and reading descriptive work. I eventually figured out the dichotomy, at least intuitively, and gained a vocabulary to talk about it, largely thanks to a blog post by Norbert Hornstein (http://facultyoflanguage.blogspot.com/2014/01/how-much-theoretical-work-is-there-in.html).

      I feel more for my descriptivist colleagues though. For better or worse, “theory” and its derivative terms carry a certain prestige in scientific communities, so there’s no descriptivist equivalent of Hornstein or Chametzky arguing that what they call “theoretical” is actually descriptive. Very few people actively seek lower prestige.

      Like

Leave a Reply to Dan Milway Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s