A Response to some comments by Omer Preminger on my comments on Chomsky’s UCLA Lectures

On his blog, Omer Preminger posted some comments on my comments on Chomsky’s UCLA Lectures, in which he argues that “committing oneself to the brand of minimalism that Chomsky has been preaching lately means committing oneself to a relatively strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.” His argument goes as follows.

Language variation exists. To take Preminger’s example, “in Kaqchikel, the subject of a transitive clause cannot be targeted for wh-interrogation, relativization, or focalization. In English, it can.” 21st century Chomskyan minimalism, and specifically the SMT, says that this variation comes from (a) variation between the lexicon and (b) the interaction of the lexical items with either the Sensory-Motor system or the Conceptual-Intentional system. Since speakers of a language can process and pronounce some ungrammatical expressions—some Kaqchikel speakers can pronounce an equivalent of (1) but judge it as unacceptable—some instances of variation are due to the interaction of the Conceptual-Intentional system with the lexicon.

(1) It was the dog who saw the child.

It follows from this that either (a) the Conceptual-Intentional systems of English-speakers and Kaqchikel-speakers differ from each other or (b) English-speakers can construct Conceptual-Intentional objects that Kaqchikel-speakers cannot (and vice-versa, I assume). Option a, Preminger asserts, is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, while option b is tantamount to (a non-trivial version of) it. So, the SMT leads unavoidably to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

I don’t think Preminger’s argument is sound, and even if it were, its conclusion isn’t as dire as he makes it out to be. Let’s take these one at a time in reverse order.

The version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that Preminger has deduced from the SMT is something like the following—the Conceptual-Intentional (CI) content of a language is the set of all (distinct) CI objects constructed by that language and different languages have different CI content. This hypothesis, it seems, turns on how we distinguish between CI objects—far from a trivial question. Obviously contradictory, contrary, and logically independent sentences are CI-distinct from each other, as are non-mutually entailing sentences and co-extensive but non-co-intentisive expresions, but what about true paraphrases? Assuming there is some way in Kaqchikel of expressing the proposition expressed by (1), then we can avoid Sapir-Whorf by saying that paraphrases express identical CI-objects. This avoidance, however, is only temporary. Take (2) and (3), for instance.

(2) Bill sold secrets to Karla.
(3) Karla bought secrets from Karla.

If (2) and (3) map to the same CI object, what does that object “look” like? Is (2) the “base form” and (3) is converted to it or vice versa? Do some varieties of English choose (2) and others (3), and wouldn’t that make these varieties distinct languages?

If (2) and (3) are distinct, however, it frees us—and more importantly, the language learner—from having to choose a base form, but it leads us immediately to the question of what it means to be a paraphrase, or a synonym. I find this a more interesting theoretical question, than any of those raised above, but I’m willing to listen if someone thinks otherwise.

So, we end up with some version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis no matter which way we go. I realize this is a troubling result for many generative linguists as linguistic relativity, along with behaviourism and connectionism, is one of the deadly sins of linguistics. For me, though, Sapir-Whorf suffers from the same flaw that virtually all broad hypotheses of the social sciences suffer from—it’s so vague that it can be twisted and contorted to meet any data. In the famous words of Wolfgang Pauli, it’s not even wrong. If we were dealing with atoms and quarks, we could just ignore such a theory, but since Sapir-Whorf deals with people, we need two be a bit more careful. One need not think very hard to see how Sapir-Whorf or any other vague social hypothesis can be used to excuse, or even encourage, all varieties of discrimination and violence.

The version of Sapir-Whorf that Preminger identifies—the one that I discuss above–seems rather trivial to me, though.

There’s also a few problems with Preminger’s argument that jumped out at me, of which I’ll highlight two. First, in his discussion of the Sensory-Motor (SM) system, he seems to assume that any expression that is pronouncable by a speaker is a-ok with that speaker’s SM system—He seems to assume this because he asserts that any argument to the contrary is specious. Since the offending Kaqchikel string is a-ok with the SM system it must run afoul of either the narrow syntax (unlikely according to SMT) or the CI system. This line of reasoning, though, is flawed, as we can see by applying it’s logic to a non-deviant sentence, like the English version of (1). Following Preminger’s reasoning, the SM system tells us how to pronounce (1) and the CI system uses the structure of (1) generated by Merge for internal thought. This, however, leaves out the step of mapping the linear pronunciation of (1) to its hierarchical structure. Either (a) then Narrow Syntax does this mapping, (b) the SM system does this mapping, or (c) some third system does this mapping. Option a, of course, violates SMT, while option b contradicts Preminger’s premise, this leaves option c. Proposing a system in between pronunciation and syntax would allow us to save both SMT and Preminger’s notion of the SM system, but it would also invalidate Preminger’s over all argument.

The second issue is the assumption that non-SM ungrammaticality means non-generation. This is a common way of thinking of formal grammars, but very early on in the generative enterprise, researchers (including Chomsky) recognized that it was far to rigid—that there was a spectrum from prefect grammaticality to word salad that couldn’t be captured by the generated/not-generated dichotomy. Even without considering degrees of grammaticality, though, we can find examples of ungrammatical sentences that can be generated. Consider (4) as compared to (5).

(4) *What did who see?
(5) Who saw what?

Now, (4) is ungrammatical because wh-movement prefers to target the highest wh-expression, which suggests that in order to judge (4) as ungrammatical, a speaker needs to generate it. So, the Kaqchikel version of (1) might be generated by the grammar, but such generation would be deviant somehow.

Throughout his argument, though, Preminger says that he is only “tak[ing] Chomsky at his word”—I’ll leave that to the reader to judge. Regardless, though, if Chomsky had made such an assumptions in an argument, it would be a flawed argument, but it wouldn’t refute the SMT.

A note on an equivocation in the UCLA Lectures

In his recent UCLA Lectures, Chomsky makes the following two suggestive remarks which seem to be contradictory:

. . . [I]magine the simplest case where you have a lexicon of one element and we have the operation internal Merge. [. . . ] You have one element: let’s just give it the name zero (0). We internally merge zero with itself. That gives us the set {0, 0}, which is just the set zero. Okay, we’ve now constructed a new element, the set zero, which we call one.


We want to say that [X], the workspace which is a set containing X is distinct from X.
[X] ≠ X
We don’t want to identify a singleton set with its member. If we did, the workspace itself would be accessible to MERGE. However, in the case of the elements produced by MERGE, we want to say the opposite.
{X} = X
We want to identify singleton sets with their members.


So in the case of arithmetic, a singleton set ({0}, one) is distinct from its member (0), but the two are identical in the case of language. This is either a contradiction—in which case we need to eliminate one of the statements—or its an equivocation—in which case we need to find and understand the source of the error. The former option would be expedient, but the latter is more interesting. So, I’ll go with the latter.

The source of the equivocation, in my estimation, is the notion of identity—Chomsky’s remarks become consistent when we take him to be using different measures of identity and, in order to understand these distinctions, we need to dust off a rarely used dichotomy—form vs substance.

This dichotomy is perhaps best known to syntacticians due to Chomsky’s distinction between “formal universals” and “substantive universals” in Aspects, where formal universals were constraints on the types of grammatical rules in the grammar and substantive universal were constraints on the types of grammatical objects in the grammar. Now, depending on what aspect of grammar or cognition we are concerned with, the terms “form” and “substance” will pick out different notions and relations, but since we’re dealing with syntax here we can say that “form” picks out purely structural notions and relations, such as are derived by merge, while substance picks out everything else.

By extension, then, two expressions are formally identical if they are derived by the same sequences of applications of merge. This is a rather expansive notion. Suppose we derived a structure from an arbitrary array A of symbols, any structure whose derivation can be expressed by swapping the symbols in A for distinct symbols will be formally identical to the original structure. So, “The sincerity frightened the boy.” and “*The boy frightened the sincerity” would be formally identical, but, obviously, substantively distinct.

Substantive identity, though is more complex. If substance picks out everything except form, then it would pick out everything to do with the pronunciation and meaning of an expression. So, from the pronunciation side, a structurally ambiguous expression is a set of (partially) substantively identical but formally distinct sentences, as are paraphrases on the meaning side.

Turning back to the topic at hand, the distinction between a singleton set and its member is purely formal, and therein lies the resolution of the apparent contradiction. Arithmetic is purely formal, so it traffics in formal identity/distinctness. Note that Chomsky doesn’t suggest that zero is a particular object—it could be any object. Linguistic expressions, on the other hand, have form and substance. So a singleton set {LI} and its member LI are formally distinct but, since they would mean and be pronounced the same, are substantively identical.

It follows from this, I believe, that the narrow faculty of language, if it is also responsible for our faculty of arithmetic, must be purely formal—constructing expressions with no regard for their content. So, the application of merge cannot be contingent on the contents of its input, nor could an operation like Agree, which is sensitive to substance of an expression, be part of that same faculty. These conclusions, incidentally, can also be drawn from the Strong Minimalist Thesis

Internal unity in science again

Or, how to criticize a scientific theory

Recently, I discovered a book called The Primacy of Grammar by philosopher Nirmalangshu Mukherji. The book is basically an extended, and in my opinion quite good, apologia for biolinguistics as a science. The book is very readable and covers a decent amount of ground, including an entire chapter discussing the viability of incorporating a faculty of music into biolinguistic theory. I highly recommend it.

At one point, while defending biolinguistics from the charge of incompleteness levied by semanticists and philosophers, Mukherji makes the following point.

[D]uring the development of a science, a point comes when our pretheoretical expectations that led to the science in the first place have changed enough, and have been accommodated enough in the science for the science to define its objects in a theory-internal fashion. At this point, the science—viewed as a body of doctrines—becomes complete in carving out some specific aspect of nature. From that point on, only radical changes in the body of theory itself—not pressures from common sense—force further shifting of domains (Mukherji 2001). In the case of grammatical theory, either that point has not been reached or … the point has been reached but not yet recognized.

Mukherji (2010, 122-3)

There are two interesting claims that Mukherji is making about linguistic theory and scientific theory in general. One is that theoretical objects are solely governed by theory-internal considerations. The other is that the theory itself determines what in the external world it applies to.

The first claim reminded me of a meeting I had with my doctoral supervisor while I was writing my thesis. My theoretical explanation rested on the hypothesis that even the simplest of non-function words, like coffee, were decomposable into root objects (√COFFEE) and categorizing heads (n0). I had a dilemma though. It was crucial to my argument that, while categorizing heads had discrete features, roots were treated as featureless blobs by the grammar, but I couldn’t figure out how to justify such a claim. When I expressed my concern to my supervisor, she immediately put my worries to rest. I didn’t need to justify that claim, she pointed out, because roots by their definition have no features.

I had fallen into a very common trap in syntax—I had treated a theory-internal object as an empirical object. Empirical objects can be observed and sensibly argued about. Take, for instance, English specificational clauses (e.g. The winner is Mary). Linguists can and do argue about the nature of these—i.e. whether or they are truly the inverse of predicational clauses (e.g., Mary is the winner)— and cite facts the do so. This is because empirical objects and phenomena are out there in the real world, regardless of whether we study them. Theory-internal objects, on the other hand are not subject to fact-based argument, because, unless the Platonists are right, they have no objective reality. As long as my theory is internally consistent, I can define its objects however I damn please. The true test of any theory is how well it can be mapped onto some aspect of reality.

This brings me to Mukherji’s second assertion, that the empirical domain to a theory is determined by the theory itself. In the context of his book, this assertion is about linguistic meaning. The pretheoretic notion of meaning is what he calls a “thick” notion—a multifaceted concept that is very difficult to pin down. The development of a biolinguistic theory of grammar, though, has led to a thinner notion of meaning, namely, the LF of a given expression. Now obviously, this notion of meaning doesn’t include notions of reference, truth, or felicity, but why should we expect it to? Yes, those notions belong to our common-sense ideas of meaning, but surely at this stage of human history, we should expect that scientific inquiry will reveal our common-sense notions to be flawed.

As an analogy, Aristotle and his contemporaries didn’t distinguish between physics, biology, chemistry, geology, an so on—they were all part of physics. One of the innovations of the scientific revolutions, then, was to narrow the scope of investigation—to develop theories of a sliver of nature. If Aristotle saw our modern physics departments, he might look past all of their fantastic theoretical advances and wonder instead why no one in the department was studying plants and animals. Most critiques of internalist/biolinguistic notions of semantics by modern philosophers and formal semanticists echo this hypothetical time-travelling Aristotle—they brush off any advances and wonder where the theory of truth is.

Taken together, these assertions imply a general principle: Scientific theories should be assessed on their own terms. Criticizing grammatical theory for its lack of a theory of reference makes as much sense as criticizing Special Relativity for its lack of a theory of genetic inheritance. While this may seem to render any theory beyond criticism, the history of science demonstrates that this isn’t the case. Consider, for instance, quantum mechanics, which has been subject to a number of criticisms in its own terms—see: Einstein’s criticisms of QM, Schrödinger’s cat, and the measurement problem. In some cases these criticisms are insurmountable, but in others addressing them head-on and modifying or clarifying the theory is what leads to advances in the theory. Chomsky’s Label Theory, I think, is one of the latter sorts of cases—a theory-internal problem was identified and addressed and as a result two unexplained phenomena (the EPP and the ECP) were given a theoretical explanation. We can debate how well that explanation generalizes and whether it leans too heavily on some auxiliary hypotheses, but what’s important is that a theory-internal addressing of a theory-internal problem opened up the possibility of such an explanation. This may seem wildly counter-intuitive, but as I argued in a previous post, this is the only practical way to do science.

The principle that a theory should be criticized in its own terms is, I think, what irks the majority of linguists about biolinguistic grammatical theory the most. It bothers them because it means that very few of their objections to the theory ever really stick. Ergativity, for instance, is often touted as a serious problem for Abstract Case Theory, but since grammatical theory has nothing to say about particular case alignments, theorists can just say “Yeah, that’s interesting” and move on. Or to take a more extreme case, recent years have seen all out assaults on grammatical theory from people who bizarrely call themselves “cognitive linguists”, people like Vyvyan Evans and Daniel Everett, they claim to have evidence that roundly refutes the very notion of a language faculty. The response of biolinguists to this assault: mostly a resounding shrug as we turn back to our work.

So, critics of biolinguistic grammatical theory dismiss it in a number of way. They say it’s too vague or slippery to be any good as a theory, which usually means they refuse to seriously engage with it, they complain that the theory keeps changing—a peculiar complaint to lodge against a scientific theory, or they accuse theorists of arrogance—a charge that, despite being occasionally true, is not a criticism of the theory. This kind of hostility can be bewildering, especially because a corollary of the idea that a theory defines its own domain is that everything outside that domain is a free-for-all. It’s hard to imagine a geneticist being upset that their data is irrelevant to Special Relativity. I have some ideas about where the hostility comes from but they’ll take me pretty far afield, so I’ll save them for a later post and leave it here.

Play, games, science and bureaucracy

In the titular essay of his 2015 book The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber argues for a distinction between play and games. Play, according to Graeber is free, creative, and open-ended, while games are rigid, repetitive, and closed-off. Play underlies art, science, conversation, and community, while games are the preferred method of bureaucracy. This idea really resonated with me, partially because I’m someone who doesn’t really like games, but also because I think it’s perfectly consonant with something I’ve written about previously: the distinction between theoretical and descriptive science. In this post, I’ll explore that intuition, and argue that theoretical scientific research tends to center play, while descriptive research tends to center games.

The key distinction between games and play, according to Graeber, is rules. While both are leisure activities done for sheer enjoyment, games are defined by their rules. These rules can be rather simple (e.g., checkers), fiendishly complex (e.g., Settlers of Catan), or something in between, but whatever they are, the rules make the game. What’s more, Graeber argues, it’s the rules that make games an enjoyable respite from the ambiguities of real life. At any given point in a game, there are a finite number of possible moves and a fixed objective. If only we had that same certainty when navigating interactions with neighbours, co-workers, and romantic interests!

If games are defined by their rules, then play is defined by it’s lack of rules. The best example—one used by Graeber—is that of children playing. There are no rules to how children play. In fact, as Graeber observes, a good portion of play between children involves negotiating the rules. What’s more, there’s no winning at play, only enjoyment. Play is open-ended—set a group of children to play and there’s no knowing what they’ll come up with.

Yet, play is not random. It follows principles—such as the innate social instincts of children—which are a different sort of thing from the rules that govern games. Rules must be explicit, determinate, and preferably compiled in some centralized place so that, in a well-designed game, disputes can be always be settled by consulting some authority, usually a rule-book. Principles are often implicit—no one teaches kids how to play—can be quite vague—a main principle of improv is “Listen”—and are arguably somehow internal—if there are principles to playing a musical instrument, they come from the laws of physics, the form and material of the instrument, and our own innate sense of melody, harmony, and rhythm.

As this description might suggest, rules and principles, games and play, are often in conflict with each other. Taking a playful activity, and turning it into a game can eliminate some of the enjoyment. Take, for instance, flirtation—a playful activity, for which an anthropologist might be able to discover some principles. People who treat flirtation as a game understandably tend to be judged as creepy. Understandably, because gaming assumes a determinate rules—if I do X in situation Y, then Z will happen—and no-one likes to be treated like a robot. Or, consider figures like Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden. Each was faced with a conflict between the external rules of an institution and their internal principles, and chose the latter.

This conflict, however, need not be an overall negative. Any art form at any given time follows a number of rules and conventions that, at their best, defines the space in which an artist can play. Eventually, though, the rules and conventions of a given art form or genre become too fixed and end up stifling the playfulness of the artists. I remember my cousin, who was a cinema studies major in undergrad talk about watching Citizen Kane for a class. The students were confused—this is widely lauded as one of the greatest films ever made, but they couldn’t see what was so special. The instructor explained that Citizen Kane was groundbreaking when it came out, it broke all the rules, but it ended up replacing them with new ones. Now those new rules are so commonplace, that they are completely unremarkable. While I don’t think we could develop an entire theory of aesthetics based solely on the balance between games and play, the opposition seems to be active in how we judge art.

But what does this have to do with science? Well, thus far I’ve suggested that games are defined by external rules, while play is guided by internal principles. This contrast lines up quite nicely with Husserl’s definitions descriptive and theoretical sciences respectively. Descriptive sciences are sets of truths grouped together by some externally imposed categorization, while theoretical sciences are sets of truth which have an internal cohesion. If I’m on the right track, then descriptive sciences should share some characteristics with games, while theoretical sciences should share some with play.

Much as games impose rules on their participants, descriptive sciences impose methods on their researchers. Often times they are quite explicit about this. Noam Chomsky, for instance, often says of linguistics education in the mid-20th century, that it was almost exclusively devoted to learning and practicing elicitation procedures (read: methods). The cognitive revolution that Chomsky was at the center of changed this, allowing theory to take center-stage, but we are currently in the midst of a shift back towards method. Graduate students are now expected or even required to take courses in “experimental” or quantitative methods. Job ads for tenure-track positions are rarely simply for a phonologist, or a semanticist, but rather, they invariably ask for experience with quantitative analysis or experimental methods, etc.

The problem with this is that methods in science, like rules in games, serve to fence in possibilities. When you boil it down to its essences, a well run experiment or corpus study is nothing but an attempt to frame and answer a yes-or-no question. What’s more, each method is quite restricted as to what sort of questions it can even answer. Even the presentation of method-driven research tends to be rather rigidly formatted—experimental reports follow the IMRaD format, so do many observational studies, and grammars, the output of field methods, tend to start with the phonetics and end with the syntax/semantics. So when someone says they’re going to perform an eye-tracking study, or some linguistic fieldwork, you can be fairly certain as to what their results will look like, just like you can be certain of what a game of chess will look like.

Contrast this with theoretical work, which tends to start with sometimes horribly broad questions and often ends up somewhere no-one would have expected. So, asking what language is yielded results in computer science, inquiring about the motion of the planets led to a new understanding of tides, and asking about the nature of debt reveals profound truths about human society. No game could have these kinds of results—if you sat down to play Pandemic and ended up robbing a bank, it probably means you read the rules wrong at least. But theory is not like a game, it’s inherently playful.

Now anyone who has read any scientific theory might object to this, as the writing produced by theorists tends to be rather abstract and inaccessible, but writing theory is like retelling an fun conversation—the fun is found in the moment and can never be fully recreated. The playful nature of theory, I think, can be seen in two of the main criticisms leveled at theoretical thinkers by non-theorists: that theoreticians can’t make up their minds and that they just make it up as they go along. These criticisms, however, tend to crop up whenever there is serious theoretical progress being made. In fact, many advances in scientific theories are met with outright hostility by the scientific community (see, atomic theory, relativity, the theory of grammar, etc), likely, i think, because a new theory tends to invalidate a good portion of what the contemporary community spend years, decades, or centuries, getting accustomed to, or worse yet, a theoretical advance might appear to render certain empirical results irrelevant or even meaningless.

Compare this to children playing. If children make up some rules while playing, only a fool would take those to be set in stone. Almost certainly, the children would come up against those rules and decide to toss them by the wayside.

As I mentioned, Graeber discusses games and play as a way of analyzing bureaucracy and our relationship to it. Bureaucracy—be it in government, corporations, or academia—is about creating games that aren’t fun. They are also impersonal power structures, what Hannah Arendt calls “rule by no-one”. And just as games are, bureaucracies are designed to hem in playfulness, because allowing people to be playful might lead them to realize that a better life is possible without those bureaucracies.

Within science, too, we can see bureaucracies being aligned with strictly methodical empirical work and somewhat hostile to theoretical work. We can see this in how the respective researcher organize themselves. Empirical work is done in a lab, which does not just refer to a physical space, but to a hierarchical organization with a PI (primary investigator), supervising and directing post-docs and grad students, who often in turn supervise and direct undergraduate research assistants—a chief executive, middle management, and workers. Theoretical work, on the other hand, is done in a wide array of spontaneously organized affinity groups. So, for instance, neither the Vienna Circle, in philosophy, nor the Bourbaki group, in mathematics, had any particular hierarchical structure and both were quite broad in their interests.

The distinction can even be seen in how theoretical and descriptive sciences interact with time and space. Experimental work must be done in specially designed rooms, sometimes made just for that one experiment, and observational work must be done in the natural habitat of the phenomena to be observed—just as a chess game must be limited to an 8×8 grid. Theoretical work, can be done almost anywhere: in a cafe, a bar, on a train, in a dark basement, or spacious detached house. The less specialized the better. In fact, the only limiting factor is the theorist themself. As for time, nowhere is this clearer than in the timelines given by PhD candidates in their thesis proposal. While not all games are on a clock, all games must account for all of their time—each moment of a game has a purpose. This is what a timeline for a descriptive project looks like: “Next month I’ll travel to place X where I’ll conduct Y hours of interviews. The following month I will organize and code the data…” and so on. It’s impossible to provide such detail in the plan for a theoretical work for several related reasons: The time spent working tends to be unstructured. You never know when inspiration or some kind of moment of clarity will strike. You can’t possibly know what the next step is until you complete the current step. and so on. Certainly, the playful work of theory can sometimes benefit from some structure, but descriptive work, like a game, absolutely depends on structured time and space.

This alignment can also be seen with how theory and method interact with the superstructures of scientific research, that is, the funding apparatuses—granting agencies and corporations. Both sorts of structures are bureaucratic and tend to be structurally opposed to theoretical (read: playful) work. In both cases, funders must evaluate a bunch of proposals and choose to fund those that are most likely to yield a significant result. Suppose you’re a grant evaluator and you have two proposals in front of you: Proposal A is to do linguistic fieldwork on some understudied and endangered language focusing on some possibly interesting aspect of that language, and Proposal B is to attempt to reconcile two seemingly contradictory theoretical frameworks. Assuming each researcher is eminently qualified to carry out their respective plans, which would you fund? Proposal A is all but guaranteed to have some results—they may be underwhelming, but they could be breakthroughs (though this is very unlikely)—a guarantee that’s implicit in the method—It’s always worked before. If Proposal B is successful, it is all but guaranteed to be a major breakthrough, however there is absolutely no guarantee that it will be successful—if the researcher cannot reconcile the two frameworks, then we cannot draw any particular conclusion from it. So which one do you choose? The guarantee, or the conditional guarantee? The conditional guarantee is a gamble, and bureaucrats aren’t supposed to gamble, so we go with the guarantee.

So, bureaucratic funding structures are more inclined to fund methods-based research, that’s fine as far as it goes—theoretical research is dirt cheap, only requiring a nourished mind and some writing materials—but grants aren’t just about the money. Today, grants are used as a metric for research capability. If you can get a lot of grants, then you must be a good researcher. Set aside the fact that virtually any academic will tell you that grant-writing is a particular skill that isn’t directly related to research ability, or that many researchers delegate grant-writing to their post-docs, the logic here is particularly twisted: Granting agencies use past grants as an indication of a good researcher, so do hiring committees. This makes sense—previous success in a process is a good indicator of future success—provided everything stays more or less the same. Thus the grant system and other bureaucratic systems are likely to defend the status quo, by funding descriptive rather than theoretical work.

If my analysis is correct, then the sciences are being held back by the bureaucracies that are supposed to enable them such as university administration and funding agencies. They’re also held back by their own mythology—the “scientific method”—which promises breakthroughs if only they keep playing the game. This should not be too surprising to anyone who considers how bureaucracies hold them back in their day-to-day lives. What’s frustrating about this though, is that academia, more than any sector of modern society, is supposed to be self-organized. University administrators (Deans, Presidents, Provosts, etc.) are supposed to be drawn from the faculty of that university, and funding organizations are supposed to be run by researchers. So, unlike the bureaucracies the demean the poor and outsource jobs, the bureaucracies that stifle academics are self-imposed. The positive side of this is that, if academics wanted to, they could dismantle many of their bureaucracies tomorrow.

Self-Promotion: I posted a manuscript to Lingbuzz.

Hi all,

I’ve been working on a paper for a few months and it’s finally reached the point where I need to show it to some people who can tell me whether or not I’m crazy. To that end, I posted it on LingBuzz.

It’s called “A workspace-based theory of adjuncts,” and be forewarned it’s pretty technical. So if you’re just here for my hot takes on why for-profit rent is bad, or what kind of science generative syntax is, or the like, it might not be for you.

If it is for you, and you have any comments on it, please let me know.

Happy reading!

Why is temporary injustice bearable?

In my last post, I argued that being required to pay rent to a private entity for housing is an injustice. However, as I was thinking about it, I couldn’t help but think of examples were rent is justified, or perhaps just a bearable injustice. Consider, for instance, travel accommodations—hotels, hostels, B&Bs. A person travelling to another city to attend a conference, or a wedding, or to perform, will, in many cases have to rent a room for the duration of their stay. This, according to my reasoning, could be considered an injustice, but few people would agree that the hotelier-guest relationship is the same as the landlord-tenant relationship. Or consider a longer-term rental—a person who moves to a city and, rather than buying a new home sight-unseen, opts to rent an apartment while they house-hunt. Again, my reasoning says that this is an injustice, but definitely a bearable one. Or perhaps a young academic is hired for, say, a two-year position in a city far from their home. In all likelihood signing a two-year lease will be less of a burden than buying a home only to have to sell it in two years.

Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Amboy (California, USA) — 2012 — 4” / CC BY-SA 4.0

If rent is unjust, why is it bearable if it’s temporary? Or perhaps it’s only unjust when it’s a permanent situation.

Or consider a slightly more recognized injustice: wage labour. In his book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, historian Eric Foner writes about the early development of the Republican Party in the mid-19th century. Most people familiar with US history are aware that the early Republican Party was anti-slavery, few people know that it was also anti-wage-labour. In fact, many Americans, including Frederick Douglass, considered wage labour to be not that different from slavery. Wage labour existed prior to the mid-1800s, as did the opinion that it was not that different from slavery—the wikipedia article on “wage slavery” notes that Cicero expressed this opinion—but something had happened so that a political party could be successful by being against wage labour. What happened was the industrial revolution. Previously, wage labour was mostly confined to farm-hands or apprentices. This situation was acceptable because it was understood that a farm-hand or an apprentice would save their wages to buy their own plot of land or workshop, thus becoming their own boss. The industrial revolution changed this. It was completely unreasonable to expect a factory girl to save up her wages to buy her own mill. The industrial revolution made wage labour permanent. So, wage labour wasn’t unjust enough to mobilize people, but permanent wage labour was so odious that resistance to it propelled a new political party to the White House.

Again, we have an injustice that is bearable when temporary, and unbearable when permanent. Why?

I don’t have a good answer, so the rest of this post is mostly me just thinking out loud.

What do you think?

It’s not that it’s temporary, it’s a means to an end

When we consider the temporary situations above, we can see that they are also all, a means to an end. You stay in a hotel so that you can attend a friend’s wedding. Someone new to a city rents an apartment so that they can properly look for a house to buy. An apprentice submits to an artisan so that she can become an artisan herself. Perhaps these situations are bearable because we can view them as a means to an end and temporariness is just a by-product.

Consider the following as corroboration:

  • Suppose the government instituted a new program: Every citizen’s first home will have to be a rental. They pay market rent to a private landlord for 8 years. After the 8 years are up, they are granted ownership of a home.
    • The most obvious objection to this would be to question why you would have to pay rent for 8 years. If you’re going to be granted property anyway, why not just skip the 8 years and start with the property.
    • This policy would become slightly more palatable if a portion of your rent went towards the property. That is if it changed from an arbitrary requirement to a means to an end.
    • Conclusion: An arbitrary, but temporary injustice is less bearable than a means to an end.

The bearable temporary situations are sometimes more brutal than the unbearable permanent situations.

There are still some vestiges of the old apprenticeship system today. The two that spring to mind are the restaurant business and academia. At the top of these sectors are highly respected professionals—chefs and professors—who have a degree of independence not widely found in the rest of society. But at the bottom you find people working highly demanding jobs for low pay and little esteem. As a grad student, my work and studies had the tendency to occupy my entire life. If a regular waged job did the same, I wouldn’t have tolerated it.

Hotel guests surrender a amount of privacy that no tenant would willingly surrender. If I knew my landlord was entering my apartment when I was out, or monitoring my internet usage and TV watching habits, I’d be tempted to take legal action.

The contrast between temporary and permanent is not well understood.

As philosophers and poets like to stress everything in this world is temporary. Buildings collapse, empires fade, everyone dies. Despite this, we still seem to innately divide entities, situations, states, and eventualities into permanent and temporary. A camp is a temporary settlement, while a town is permanent. Visiting is temporary, residing is permanent. A US War in Afghanistan is temporary, US rule in Afghanistan is permanent. What does it even mean to be temporary or permanent?

Maybe even these temporary injustices shouldn’t be bearable

In his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, anthropologist David Graeber writes about the apprenticeship system in the pre-industrial anglosphere. Under this system, a male child of a certain age would be sent by his parents to apprentice with a master. The child would become part of the master’s houshold, meaning he would be expelled from his childhood household. Eventually, the apprentice would become a journeyman, get married, start a household of his own, and be considered an adult. Graeber points out that such a system was peculiar to the northwestern Europe and that southern European observers were shocked with the barbarity with which, say, English parents treated their children. In Italy, by contrast, adulthood wasn’t achieved through such arduous means. Young men spent their youth socializing until they decided to start working for themselves. So, maybe even the temporary wage labour of pre-industrial times was bad.

Similar things can be said about temporary rent. In many of the cases I cited above, we could think of a way of meeting these needs without charging rent. In most cases this could be achieved by some system of reciprocal hospitality. We often hear that one of the great virtues of some of the poorest agrarian societies was hospitality. I always heard that in Ireland, it used to be the case that if a traveller showed up on your doorstep, you would take them in and share your meager food with them. Such hospitality is still the norm in some sectors of society. Hospitality is generally expected of friends and family. Grad students often offer “crash-space” to visiting grad students. Same goes for many musicians.

Note, these are all quite informal, but it’s not hard to imagine how they might be formalized. I, for instance, am a member of a labour union (CUPE 3902). Suppose my union created reciprocal agreements with similar unions in other areas, such that if I was travelling through those areas, my union’s partner union would provide me with lodging and if a member of a partner union travelled here, we would provide them with lodging. Or suppose hospitality was made a municipal service, paid for by residents of a town or city, so visitors or new residents would not need to rent a hotel or hostel room in a city that wasn’t their own. I don’t think these are utopian ideas. In fact, I’d wager that if you looked, you’d find many historical precedents for them.

Is rent moral or just?

Rent strikes are occurring in many locations in response to the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Many worker-renters have lost their income, and can no longer afford rent. The common response to a rent strike often to ask whether it is moral for tenants to withhold their rent. This, I think, is the wrong question to be asking, or perhaps, the wrong way to frame the question. The better question is the title of this post: Is rent moral? Or, put another way, is it just (as in justice) that a large portion of the people in our society pays a portion of their income to landlords? In this post I’ll argue that the answer to these questions is “No, rent is not moral or just.”

The structure of my argument is as follows:

  1. Housing is a human/civil right.
  2. A system in which access to a human/civil rights is subject to exchange is immoral/unjust.
  3. Rent is essentially payment for access to housing.
  4. Therefore, rent is immoral/unjust.

I will take the first point as a given. The second seems straightforward, but it hides some nuance that I’ll discuss below. The third is the most important, and perhaps least understood portion of the argument. The final point, I believe, follows logically from the first three.

It is immoral/unjust to charge for access to a human/civil right.

Human and civil rights are those rights which are inherent to all human beings and citizens respectively. We can and should inquire into and debate what those rights are, but that’s not the point of this post. Among the rights that most reasonable people can agree upon are the right to food and clean water, the right to free expression, the right to a fair trial, and the right to vote. The latter three tend to be explicitly laid out in the constitutions of most, and unless you are a fanatical free-market fundamentalist, you would likely object if your government explicitly gave the public square, the courts, and the voting booths to private actors who then charged an access fee to them. If, in order to defend yourself against criminal charges, you had to pay a fee to CourtCo, you would rightly feel that your rights had been violated.

In fact, there is a way in which many arguments about reforming civic institutions boil down to to arguments about whether the state or the private sector is effectively imposing access fees to those institutions. One argument in favour of breaking up companies like Facebook and Google is that these companies now control large portions of the public square and impose fees, albeit indirectly, for access the it. If this argument is correct, then we would have to say that Facebook and Google are restricting our right to free expression.

The right to food is perhaps a little more complicated because, unlike free expression, fairness, and voting, food is a physical commodity. Most people, I think, would agree that they don’t have their human rights violated every time they go grocery shopping or go to a restaurant. So why is it okay to exchange money for food and not for access to the ballot? Because many people laboured and invested money to produce that food and make it so we can walk into a grocery store and buy a piece of fruit, and the money you pay is to compensate for that labour and investment. Also because, in many ways, the market for foodstuffs is a quintessentially free market: If you’re not willing to pay the sticker price for filet mignon, you don’t have to buy it. You can buy a cheaper cut of beef, or a cheaper meat, or non-meat proteins.

This is not to say that the current system by which we distribute food and other necessities is perfect. Poor people do not enjoy the same access to nutritious food as middle and upper class people. Indigenous people in Canada do not have access to clean drinking water. Corporations engage in price-fixing and hold monopolies over seeds for necessary crops. Recent days have seen instances of price-gouging and hoarding of necessities. These all represent injustices resulting from flaws in our society that we should reform.

The point that you should take from this discussion is that commerce and rights are not necessarily morally incompatible. However, if the commerce that amounts to the buying and selling of access to those rights is an injustice. Next, I’ll argue that rent, at its core, is the buying and selling of access to housing, a human right.

What does rent pay for?

To answer this question, Consider the following thought experiment:

Suppose you are a renter. You rent your primary residence, a detached house, from the owner of that house. At the outset of your lease, everything is included in your rent: utilities, garbage/recycling collection, internet, cable TV, a landline telephone, etc. Suppose, then, that you decide you have no need for cable or a landline, (Everything’s on the internet now) so, you go to your landlord and ask them to cancel those services and reduce your rent accordingly. They agree and your rent goes down a bit. Suppose you then decide you want to pay directly for utilities, internet, garbage/recycling collection, etc. so you make another agreement with your landlord and your rent goes down again.

At this point, your rent is not zero so you ask your landlord why. They respond that they still have maintenance costs, property taxes, and a mortgage on the house to pay off. So you offer to take over the maintenance of the house, and tell your landlord that you’ll pay the property taxes directly and mortgage payments directly, and your landlord accepts.

Is your rent zero after this?

I think the answer is “no” here. Even if a renter directly payed every cost that their landlord incurred, they would still need to fork over a portion of their monthly income to the landlord. What is that portion for? It can’t be compensation for the landlord’s labour or capital investment—those have already been taken care of. The only thing that’s left is that the residual rent pays for access to housing.

It follows, then, that rent, being a fee for access to a human right, is unjust.

Note also, that rent is fundamentally different from condo fees, mortgage payments, and the purchase price of a house/condo. Condo fees pay for building upkeep and amenities, mortgage are temporary loan payments, and the purchase price of a home is generally negotiated freely between equal parties. And, of course, these descriptions are idealizations. There’s plenty of room for injustice in all of these transactions.

A radical conclusion? Hardly

This all might seem a bit radical, but on the contrary, none of it is even that new. Housing as a human right is in section 25 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it forms the basis of Canada’s National Housing Strategy. The immorality of charging someone for something that is rightfully theirs is a basic moral principle, but it’s been explored in a more nuanced way by philosopher Michael Sandel in his 2012 book What Money Can’t Buy. Finally my analysis of what rent pays for was done better and more stridently by that radical economist—the one who taught us that the economic value derives mainly from labour, not capital, and that whenever capitalists get together, they conspire to undermine free markets—none other than Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter XI, recently highlighted in Existential Comics, #337). So, I don’t think anything I’ve written here should be judged new or radical, but I suspect that many people would have such judgements. This, I think points to a deeper problem in our current culture.

Postscript: Morality and justice

Thus far, I’ve blurred the line between morality and justice—two concepts that are related but distinct. Roughly speaking, the distinction between the two is linked to the distinction between individuals and systems. The actions of individuals can be moral or immoral, but systems can be just or unjust. But, as I said, they are linked concepts. For instance, many moral quandaries occur because they are embedded in unjust systems. Take perhaps the most basic one: “Is it wrong for a person to steal a loaf of bread to feed a starving family?” Most people would acknowledge that stealing is morally wrong—though they might argue about what constitutes stealing—but justifiable when it’s necessary. Likewise, most people would agree that a society in which some families are starving cannot be a fully just society. Perhaps this gives a good functional definition of injustice as that which makes immoral acts justifiable.

In the society in which I currently live—Toronto, Ontario in 2020—a sizable chunk of people rent their homes from private landlord—either individuals or corporations. This is an unjust situation. But what can we say morally about landlords, who benefit from this injustice? I believe it’s safe to say that extracting rent from anyone for access to a basic human right is not a moral way to make a living. I believe that the existence of corporations whose sole purpose is to extract rent from workers and entrepreneurs is morally unjustifiable. I also believe that some landlord-tenant arrangements can be morally neutral or perhaps approach moral neutrality because they are, in fact, based on agreements between equals. Consider a situation in which a family takes out a mortgage to buy a home, but then has to move away for reasons of work. Suppose that family finds another family willing to rent the home and agrees that the rent will be entirely based on upkeep, taxes, and mortgage payments. And suppose that once the mortgage is paid off, the renters have the option of a reduced rent covering only upkeep and taxes, or switching to a rent-to-own arrangement. I think such a situation would be morally neutral. This, however, leaves a spectrum from neutral to unjustifiable.

But regardless of where a landlord might fall on this spectrum, they are harmed by the unjust system that they participate in. Being the beneficiary of an unjust system, I think, has a damaging effect on a person’s soul. In the case of landlords, we can see this when some landlords bemoan the fact that they are not free to enter rental units or evict tenants at will. They see this as an encroachment on their rights, but the rights being encroached upon are those that would allow them to violate basic rights of their fellow humans. We can see it when some landlords frame themselves as charitable benefactors, who grant their tenants the right to a home, completely ignoring the fact that they profit from their purported charity. And we can see it in how a number responded to the fact that their tenants are losing income in the current pandemic, not as an understanding equal, but in the same way that a gangster responds when a local shop owner can’t make payments. None of this behaviour should be surprising: Rent is an unjust system and unjust systems inflict moral damage on everyone within them.

Media analysis and voter preference: A parable

(This post is in response to a twitter argument I got into that was tipped off by an inane and glib tweet from a Bloomberg opinion writer. The gist of the tweet was that a Chomskyan analysis of the media coverage of a political campaign was useless. The results of an election merely reflects voter preference.)

Manoush finds herself staying in a hotel in a small city that’s not her own. One evening she is deciding where to go for dinner. She really has a craving for burgers, so she looks for some burger places in the vicinity and finds only one that’s open: Maria’s Burgers.

Being unfamiliar with the the area, Manoush asks at the hotel front desk about Maria’s. The desk clerk hesitates and gives a non-committal answer, “I don’t eat there, but to each their own.”

Manoush is perplexed. “Is there something wrong with Maria’s?” she asks.

The clerk then proceeds to give a litany of negative facts about Maria’s: It had a health code violation last year; Maria has a reputation of being a demanding boss; The head cook quit last month; etc. After listening to this, Manoush decides that she shouldn’t eat at Maria’s and goes to Sal’s Seafood across the street from Maria’s.

What can we say about how Manoush’s choice reflected her preferences? Did she really not want a burger? Did the desk clerk convince her that she didn’t want a burger after all?

Assuming everything the desk clerk said was factually correct, did Manoush make the right decision for herself? What if there was another side to all of those facts: Maybe, for instance, the health code violation caused Maria to completely rethink her cleanliness standards and since then, Maria’s is routinely the cleanest restaurant in town. What if Sal’s Seafood had similar issues that the clerk didn’t mention for some reason? Perhaps Sal was related to the hotel’s owner and had a fierce rivalry with Maria, Or Sal was in the habit of letting the hotel desk clerks eat for free?

Theory first, then description

Picking up on a unfollowed line of reasoning from my last post, I’d like to argue what might seem like a bold claim: The only practical way to make any discoveries or advances in any science, including syntax, is by starting with the theory.

First let me head off a possible objection, namely the Kuhnian objection that sciences don’t advance, they simply move from paradigm to paradigm. If this were true, then there is a version of my claim which is still defensible: If discoveries or advances are possible in syntax or any science, then they are possible only by starting with the theory. So, if the Kuhnian is right, then my claim is might be strictly academic, but it’s not necessarily wrong. Of course, if the Kuhnian objection is correct, then the fact that you are reading this now is tantamount to a literal miracle.

Since I take discoveries and advance to be two separate things, I’ll take them one at a time, starting with the latter.

A science advances, in my estimation, when one of two things happen: either an additional general truth is derived, or two general truths are subsumed under a single general truth. Theoretical sciences traffic in general statements, and they do so using deductive reasoning. Since deduction generates true statements from true statements, then it stands to reason that theoretical sciences are capable, in principle, of advancing. Descriptive sciences, on the other hand, traffic in particular truths (i.e., facts) and does so by a combination of observation and induction. Since observation only yields facts and induction cannot reliably derive general truths from facts, descriptive sciences cannot advance.

Turning to discoveries, which I take to be the addition of novel existential truths to our knowledge. Since existential statements (i.e., “There are X” or “X exists”) are derivable from particular statements, they can in principle be derived in a descriptive science. Hence, my use of the qualifier “practical” in my claim. My claim regarding discovery, then, is that descriptive scientific work can reliably make discoveries only insofar as it is guided by theoretical scientific work. To argue for my claim, I will first employ a thought experiment:

A densely freckled patient wishes to know whether they have any signs melanoma. They first visit a lab tech who is trained in taking biopsies but whose knowledge of melanoma is purely instrumental. He can take a biopsy, run a test on it, and interpret the results of that test. His diagnostic plan is to biopsy every single freckle on the patient’s body.

The patient’s second visit is to a trained dermatologist, whose understanding of the general nature of melanoma, allows her to recognize likely tumors by sight alone. Her diagnostic plan is to carefully examine the patient’s skin and order biopsies on the likely tumors.

Which diagnostic plan would you choose if you were this patient?

Clearly the dermatologist’s plan is more practical, and it is only possible because of her theoretical understanding of melanoma. Of course, both methods would have a good shot at discovering a tumor if it existed, assuming the lab tech is exceptionally thorough and the dermatologist is exceptionally knowlegable about melanoma. However, suppose we increased the amount of patients that wished to be screened. Clearly the rate of discovery of tumors would go down in either case, but likely the decline would be greater for the lab tech, whose initial burden of work is greater. Or suppose we vary the degree of thoroughness of the lab tech and the degree of tumor-knowledge of the dermatologist. An increase in thoroughness, would likely slow down the lab tech, while an increase of tumor-knowledge would speed up the dermatologist. In both cases, theoretical knowledge trumps descriptive skill because theoretical knowledge allows us to distinguish relevant data from irrelevant data.

The second part of my argument comes from the history of science, specifically the discovery of the planet Neptune. The story, at least according to Wikipedia, goes as follows: multiple astronomers noticed the the orbit of Uranus (Neptune’s neighbour closer to the sun) did not line up with what Newton’s theory of gravitation predicted. This led them to hypothesize a yet to be discovered planet whose gravitational pull disturbed the orbit of Uranus. And beyond just hypothesizing it’s existence, they, and in particular Urbain Le Verrier, were able to calculate its position in the sky at a particular time, and an astronomer with access to a suitable observatory, following Le Verrier’s instructions was able to observe Neptune in 1846.

This on its own is a powerful demonstration of the usefulness of theoretical science, but it’s made more powerful when you take into account the fact that Galileo observed Neptune as early as 1613, but he did not discover it. While this may seem like a contradiction, it makes more sense when you add that Galileo failed to recognize that Neptune was a planet, mistaking it for a star, because he had no reason to think he would find a planet there.

To sum up, descriptive science is incapable of making advances, because it traffics in particulars. And while it is indeed capable of making discoveries it is horribly inefficient. Theoretical science, on the other hand, is perfectly suited to advances, and can guide descriptive science to discoveries like a rider guides a horse.This leads to an inversion the prevailing wisdom that says only once we have a broad description of the relevant phenomena are we in a position to build a theory. On the contrary! Only once we have a clear theory are we even able to know what the relevant phenomena are.

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.