April 02, 2008

Bickerton raised the white flag, transferring control to the semantic demands of individual words

Bickerton’s attack was the more radical because it denied recursion’s existence altogether and moved the focus away from syntax (what the rules and procedures of generative grammar are all about) to the semantic/symbolic/attentive demands of individual words. Most striking was the reception of Bickerton’s presentation received. The applause was the loudest and longest observed by this blogger after any of the presentations. Then none of the questioners defended either Chomsky or recursive syntax.
The absence of a defense does not mean generative grammar has lost its adherents. It is only the odd ones among them who are interested enough in the evolution of language to even think of attending such a conference, but the absence of all the leaders of the effort to understand the evolution of generative grammar—Steven Pinker, Marc Hauser, Tecumseh Fitch, Ray Jackendoff, and Paul Bloom — cannot be entirely a coincidence. It is somewhat like the day the rioters of St. Petersburg awoke to find all sign of the tsar’s retinue was gone. Something decisive had happened.
But any reader of Thomas Kuhn knows that failed paradigms do not go away. They persist until they can be replaced by something else. On the other hand, readers in the history of psychology know that Kuhn was an optimist. There have been many paradigms in the history of psychology, but they have all run into rocks. Instead of being replaced by a new, better paradigm, the earlier, chaotic condition returns. Thus, despite the fact that psychology is about the same age as evolutionary biology, it has made nowhere near the same progress.
The philosopher John Searle argues that psychology keeps running into the same rock: the mind/body puzzle. In every case a new paradigm attempts to explain some set of psychological phenomena in non-mentalistic terms, but is eventually wrecked when it becomes clear that seemingly mentalistic phenomena can no longer be shoved aside.
This story appears to have been repeated in the wreck observed in Barcelona. The generative-grammar paradigm attempted to explain all language in terms of syntax, a set of rules and procedures that could sidestep the mentalistic problem of meaning. But meaning has ultimately forced itself into the field. Bickerton raised the white flag, transferring control to the semantic demands of individual words. (It was, by the way, remarkably courageous of Bickerton to change his mind so publicly. As someone who has written many stories about the history of science, I know how rare it is to change one’s mind and prepare to move on.)
The question the conference has left unanswered is whether a new paradigm will appear or whether the study of language evolution will simply fall back into the chaos and confusion that made taboo all inquiry into speech origins. I will discuss that in future posts (as I now return to my once-weekly blogging), but perhaps I should leave this one by acknowledging that the final mood of the conference seemed quite optimistic. There were about 170 registered participants, perhaps half of them students. The presence of so many students gave people hope that the field will continue to grow. But, says I, those students are going to have to cut themselves a new path. Email this March 16, 2008 in evolang 2008

It has become clear that linguistics in a Chomskyan vein have a hard time coming to grips with the facts of language evolution
The idea that the co-evolutionary relationship of language and brain is one of the most important factors in the evolution of language has moved to the center stage
“Language’s controlling element is semantics, not syntax.” evolang 08 (Wish I'd been there)

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