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An interview on minimalism

sound as crazy as you might think. Exactly why, I™m not so sure, but in
the last seven or eight years I think there have been indications that the
question can be asked seriously. There is always an intuition behind
research, and maybe it™s off in the wrong direction, but my own
judgment, for what it™s worth, is that enough has been shown to indi-
cate that it™s probably not absurd and maybe very advisable to seriously
ask the question whether language has a kind of an optimal design.
But what does it mean for language to have an optimal design?
The question itself was sharpened and various approaches have been
taken to it from a number of different points of view.
There was a shift between two related but distinct questions.
There is a kind of family similarity between the methodologically
driven effort to improve the theories and the substantively driven effort
to determine whether the object itself has a certain optimal design. For
instance, if you try to develop a theory of an automobile that doesn™t
work, with terrible design, which breaks down, say the old car you had
in Amherst for example: if you wanted to develop a theory of that car
you would still try to make the theory as good as possible. I mean, you
may have a terrible object, but still want to make the theory as good as
possible. So there are really two separate questions, similar but sep-
arate. One is: let™s make our theories as good as we can whatever the
object is “ a snowflake, your car in Amherst, whatever it may be . . .
And the other question is: is there some sense in which the device
is optimal? Is it the best possible solution to some set of condi-
tions that it must satisfy? These are somewhat different questions and
there was a shift from the first question, which is always appropri-
ate (let™s construct the best theory), to the second question: does the
thing that we are studying have a certain kind of optimal character?
That wasn™t clear at the time: most of these things become clear in
retrospect. Maybe in doing research you only understand what you


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On nature and language

were doing later: first you do it and later, if you are lucky, you under-
stand what you were trying to do and these questions become clarified
through time. Now you have reached a certain level of understanding,
five years from now you™ll look at these things differently.
ab & lr: You have already addressed the next question, which
is about the distinction between methodological minimalism and the
substantive thesis. But let us go through the point since you might
want to add something. The Minimalist Program involves method-
ological assumptions which are by and large common to the method
of post-Galilean natural sciences, what is sometimes called the
Galilean style; even more generally, some such assumptions are com-
mon to human rational inquiry (Occam™s Razor, minimizing appa-
ratus, search for symmetry and elegance, etc.). But on top of that,
there seems to be a substantive thesis on the nature of natural lan-
guages. What is the substantive thesis? How are methodological and
substantive minimalism related?
nc: Actually there is a lot to say about each of those topics:
so take the phrase “Galilean style.” The phrase was used by nuclear
physicist Steven Weinberg, borrowed from Husserl, but not just with
regard to the attempt to improve theories. He was referring to the fact
that physicists “give a higher degree of reality” to the mathematical
models of the universe that they construct than to “the ordinary world
of sensation.”4 What was striking about Galileo, and was considered
very offensive at that time, was that he dismissed a lot of data; he was
willing to say “Look, if the data refute the theory, the data are probably
wrong.” And the data that he threw out were not minor. For example,
he was defending the Copernican thesis, but he was unable to explain
why bodies didn™t fly off the earth; if the earth is rotating why isn™t
everything flying off into space? Also, if you look through a Galilean
telescope, you don™t really see the four moons of Jupiter, you see some


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An interview on minimalism

horrible mess and you have to be willing to be rather charitable to agree
that you are seeing the four moons. He was subjected to considerable
criticism at that time, in a sort of data-oriented period, which happens
to be our period for just about every field except the core natural
sciences. We™re familiar with the same criticism in linguistics. I
remember the first talk I gave at Harvard (just to bring in a personal
example) (Morris [Halle] always remembers this), it was in the mid
1950s, I was a graduate student and I was talking about something
related to generative grammar. The main Harvard Professor Joshua
Whatmough, a rather pompous character, got up, interrupted after ten
minutes or so: “How would you handle . . . ” and then he mentioned
some obscure fact in Latin. I said I didn™t know and tried to go on, but
we got diverted and that™s what we talked about for the rest of the time.
You know, that™s very typical and that™s what science had to face in
its early stages and still has to face. But the Galilean style, what Steve
Weinberg was referring to, is the recognition that it is the abstract
systems that you are constructing that are really the truth; the array of
phenomena is some distortion of the truth because of too many fac-
tors, all sorts of things. And so, it often makes good sense to disregard
phenomena and search for principles that really seem to give some
deep insight into why some of them are that way, recognizing that
there are others that you can™t pay attention to. Physicists, for example,
even today can™t explain in detail how water flows out of the faucet, or
the structure of helium, or other things that seem too complicated.
Physics is in a situation in which something like 90 percent of the
matter in the Universe is what is called dark matter “ it™s called dark
because they don™t know what it is, they can™t find it, but it has to be
there or the physical laws don™t work. So people happily go on with
the assumption that we™re somehow missing 90 percent of the matter
in the Universe. That™s by now considered normal, but in Galileo™s


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On nature and language

time it was considered outrageous. And the Galilean style referred to
that major change in the way of looking at the world: you™re trying to
understand how it works, not just describe a lot of phenomena, and
that™s quite a shift.
As for the shift towards concern for intelligibility and improve-
ment in theories, it is in a certain sense post-Newtonian as has been
recognized by Newton scholars. Newton essentially showed that the
world itself is not intelligible, at least in the sense that early mod-
ern science had hoped, and that the best you can do is to construct
theories that are intelligible, but that™s quite different. So, the world
is not going to make sense to common-sense intuitions. There™s no
sense to the fact that you can move your arm and shift the moon, let™s
say. Unintelligible but true. So, recognizing that the world itself is un-
intelligible, that our minds and the nature of the world are not that
compatible, we go into different stages in science. Stages in which you
try to construct best theories, intelligible theories. So that becomes
another part of the “Galilean style.” These major shifts of perspective
define the scientific revolution. They haven™t really been taken up in
most areas of inquiry, but by now they are a kind of second nature in
physics, in chemistry. Even in mathematics, the purest science there
is, the “Galilean style” operated, in a striking way. So, for example,
Newton and Leibniz discovered calculus, but it didn™t work precisely,
there were contradictions. The philosopher Berkeley found contradic-
tions: he showed that in one line of a proof of Newton™s zero was zero
and in another line of the proof zero was something as small as you can
imagine but not zero. There™s a difference and it™s a fallacy of equivo-
cation; you™re shifting the meaning of your terms and the proofs don™t
go through. And there were a lot of mistakes like that found. Actually,
British and continental mathematicians took different paths (pretty
much, not 100 percent, but largely). British mathematicians tried to


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An interview on minimalism

overcome the problems and they couldn™t, so it was a sort of a dead
end, even though Newton had more or less invented it. Continental
mathematicians disregarded the problems and that is where classi-
cal analysis came from. Euler, Gauss, and so on. They just said “We™ll
live with the problems and do the mathematics and some day it will
be figured out,” which is essentially Galileo™s attitude towards things
flying off the earth. That™s pretty much what happened. During the
first half of the nineteenth century Gauss, for example, was creating
a good part of modern mathematics, but kind of intuitively, without a
formalized theory, in fact with approaches that had internal contradic-
tions. There came a point when you just had to answer the questions:
you couldn™t make further progress unless you did. Take the notion
“limit.” We have an intuitive notion of limit: you get closer and closer
to a point; when you study calculus in school you learn about infinites-
imals, things that are arbitrarily small, but it doesn™t mean anything.
Nothing is arbitrarily small. There came a point in the history of mathe-
matics when one simply couldn™t work any longer with these intuitive,
contradictory notions. At that point it was cleaned up, so the mod-
ern notion of limit was developed as a topological notion. That clears
everything up and now we understand it; but for a long period, in fact
right through the classical period, the systems were informal and even
contradictory. That™s to some extent even true of geometry. It was gen-
erally assumed that Euclid formalized geometry but he didn™t, not in
the modern sense of formalization, there were just too many gaps. And
in fact geometry wasn™t really formalized until one hundred years ago,
by David Hilbert, who provided the first formalization in the modern
sense for the huge amount of results that had been produced in the
semi-formal geometry. And the same is true right now. Set theory for
example is not really formalized for the working mathematician, who
uses an intuitive set theory. And what™s true of mathematics is going to


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On nature and language

be true for everything. For theoretical chemists there is now an under-
standing that there™s a quantum-theoretic interpretation of what they
are doing, but if you look at the texts, even advanced texts, they use
inconsistent models for different purposes because the world is just
too complicated.
Well, all of this is part of what you might call the “Galilean style”:
the dedication to finding understanding, not just coverage. Coverage of
phenomena itself is insignificant and in fact the kinds of data that, say,
physicists use are extremely exotic. If you took a videotape of things
happening out the window, it would be of no interest to physical
scientists. They are interested in what happens under the exotic con-
ditions of highly contrived experiments, maybe something not even
happening in nature, like superconductivity which, apparently, isn™t
even a phenomenon in nature. The recognition that that™s the way sci-
ence ought to go if we want understanding, or the way that any kind
of rational inquiry ought to go “ that was quite a big step and it had
many parts, like the Galilean move towards discarding recalcitrant phe-
nomena if you™re achieving insight by doing so, the post-Newtonian
concern for intelligibility of theories rather than of the world, and so
on. That™s all part of the methodology of science. It™s not anything that
anyone teaches; there™s no course in methodology of physics at MIT.
In fact, the only field that has methodology courses, to my knowledge,
is psychology. If you take a psychology degree you study methodology
courses, but if you take a physics degree or a chemistry degree you
don™t do it. The methodology becomes part of your bones or some-
thing like that. In fact, learning the sciences is similar to learning how
to become a shoemaker: you work with a master artisan. You sort of
get the idea or don™t get the idea. If you get the idea you can do it, if you
don™t get the idea, you™re not a good shoemaker. But no one teaches
how to do it, nobody would know how to teach how to do it.


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An interview on minimalism

OK, all that is on the methodological side. Then there is a totally
separate question: what™s the nature of the object that we are studying?
So, is cell division some horrible mess? Or is it a process that follows
very simple physical laws and requires no genetic instructions at all be-
cause it™s just how the physics works? Do things break up into spheres
to satisfy least energy requirements? If that were true, it would be sort
of perfect; it™s a complicated biological process that™s going the way
it does because of fundamental physical laws. So, beautiful process.
On the other hand, we have the development of some organ. One fa-
mous one is the human spine, which is badly engineered as everyone
knows from personal experience; it™s a sort of a bad job, maybe the
best job that could be done under complicated circumstances, but not
a good job. In fact now that human technology is developed you find
ways of doing things that nature didn™t find; conversely, you can™t do
things that nature did find. For example, something as simple as the
use of metals. We use metals all the time; nature doesn™t use them
for the structure of organisms. And metals are very abundant on the
Earth™s surface but organisms aren™t built out of metals. Metals have
very good constructional properties, that™s why people use them; but
for some reason, evolution couldn™t climb that hill. There are other
similar cases. A case that really isn™t understood and is just beginning
to be studied is the fact that the visual or photosensitive systems of all
known organisms from plants to mammals access only a certain part
of the sun™s energy, and in fact the richest part is not used by organ-
isms: infrared light. It™s a curious fact, because it would be highly
adaptive to be able to use that energy, and human technology can do
it (with infrared detectors), but, again, evolution didn™t find that path
and it™s an interesting question why. There are at the moment only
speculations: one speculation is that there just isn™t any molecule
around that would convert that part of the light spectrum into


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On nature and language

chemical energy; therefore, evolution couldn™t by accident hit on the
molecule the way it did for what we call the visible light. Maybe that™s
the answer. But if that is the case, the eye is in some sense well designed
and in other senses badly designed. There are plenty of other things
like that. For example, the fact that you don™t have an eye at the back
of your head is poor design: we would be way better off if we had one,
so if a saber tooth tiger was coming after you, you could see it.
There are any number of questions of this kind: how well de-
signed is the object? And no matter how well or badly, to answer that
question you have to add something: designed for what? How well
designed is the object for X? And the best possible answer is: to let
“X” be the elementary contingencies of the physical world and let
“best design” be just an automatic consequence of physical law, given
the elementary contingencies of the physical world (so, for instance,
you can™t go faster than the speed of light, and things like that).
A quite separate question is: given some organism, or entity,
anything you are trying to study “ the solar system, a bee, whatever it
may be “ how good a theory can I construct for it? And you try to con-
struct the best theory you can, using the “Galilean“Newtonian style,”
not being distracted by phenomena that seem to interfere with the ex-
planatory force of a theory, recognizing that the world is not in accord
with common-sense intuition, and so on.
These are quite different tasks. The first one is asking how well
designed the system is, that™s the new question in the Minimalist Pro-
gram. Of course “design” is a metaphor, we know it™s not designed,
nobody is confused about that. The Minimalist Program becomes a
serious program when you can give a meaningful answer to the ques-
tion: what is the X when you say “well designed for X”? If that can be
answered, then we have, at least in principle, a meaningful question.
Whether it is premature, whether you can study it, that™s a different


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An interview on minimalism

matter. All of these things began to emerge after the P & P program had
essentially cut the Gordian knot by overcoming the tension between
the descriptive problem and the acquisition or explanatory problem;
you really had the first genuine framework for theory in the history of
the field.
The problems didn™t arise clearly until the 1950s, although the
field has been going on for thousands of years. Until the 1950s there
was no clear expression of the problem; the fact that on the one hand
you had the problem of describing languages correctly, on the other
hand you had the problem of accounting for how anyone can learn any
of them. As far as I am aware, that pair of questions was never coun-
terposed before the 1950s. It became possible to do it then, because
of developments in the formal sciences which clarified the notion of
generative process and so on. Once the basic questions were formu-
lated, you had the tension, in fact paradox. The Pisa seminars provided
the first way of overcoming the paradox and therefore gave an idea of
what a genuine theory of language would be like. You must overcome
the paradox. Then there is a framework, and a consequence of that is
the rise of new questions like the question of substantive optimality
rather than only methodological optimality.


Perfection and imperfections
II

ab & lr: The Minimalist Program explores the thesis that hu-
man language may be a “perfect system,” a system optimally designed
to meet certain conditions imposed by other cognitive systems that the
language faculty interacts with. But what are the leading ideas about
what would count as “perfection”? Some clarification is useful here.
One can easily imagine criteria of perfection or optimality accord-
ing to which human language would be far from optimally designed.


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On nature and language

Consider for instance the ubiquitous presence of ambiguity in natu-
ral language, a property which a “superengineer” would presumably
avoid, given certain goals (to use a metaphor you often refer to in
your minimalist writings). One could also argue that language, as an
abstract computational capacity, is less than optimally adapted to the
human performance system (with memory limitations, and so on),
as it can give rise to all sorts of unusable structures (garden paths,
center embedding, etc.), as you have often pointed out. Such criteria
of optimal design are a priori conceivable and not unreasonable, but
clearly they are not what is intended here. So, what kind of criteria of
perfection make the minimalist thesis sustainable?
nc: Let™s distinguish two questions. One is: what do we mean
by optimality? Few rules is better than more rules, less memory used in
computation is better than more memory used etc. There are some, not
precise, general ideas about what optimality is. The second question
is: what conditions is the system supposed to meet? I think what you™re
raising has to do with that question and you™re absolutely right: there
can be various points of view. If you take a standard functionalist
point of view, you would ask: is the system designed for its use? So,
is it going to be well designed for the uses to which people put it?
And the answer there is “apparently not”; so the system does not
seem to be all that well designed for use for the kind of reasons you
mentioned (ambiguities, garden paths, lots of expressions that are
unintelligible, expressions that are perfectly intelligible but not well
formed). In some sense the system is not well designed for use, at least
not perfectly designed for use, but it has to be designed well enough
to get by. That™s all that we discover: it™s designed well enough to get
by. That raises the question: can we find other conditions such that
language is well designed, optimal for those conditions? I think we
can, from a different perspective. So, instead of asking the standard


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An interview on minimalism

functionalist question, is it well designed for use?, we ask another
question: is it well designed for interaction with the systems that are
internal to the mind? It™s quite a different question, because maybe
the whole architecture of the mind is not well designed for use. Let
me see if I can make an analogy: take some other organ of the body,
say, the liver. You may discover that the liver is badly designed for life
in Italy because people drink too much wine and they get all sorts
of diseases of the liver; therefore, the liver wasn™t well designed for
function. On the other hand, the liver might be beautifully designed
for interaction with the circulatory system and the kidney and so on,
and those are just different things. From the point of view of selection,
natural selection, things must be well designed, at least moderately
well designed for use, well designed enough so that organisms can
reproduce and so on. But a totally separate question is: forgetting the
use to which the object is put, is it well designed from the perspective
of internal structure? That™s a different kind of question, and actually
a new one. The natural approach has always been: is it well designed
for use, understood typically as use for communication? I think that™s
the wrong question. The use of language for communication might
turn out to be a kind of epiphenomenon. I mean, the system developed
however it did, we really don™t know. And then we can ask: how do
people use it? It might turn out that it is not optimal for some of the
ways in which we want to use it. If you want to make sure that we
never misunderstand one another, for that purpose language is not
well designed, because you have such properties as ambiguity. If we
want to have the property that the things that we usually would like
to say come out short and simple, well, it probably doesn™t have that
property. A lot of the things we would like to say may be very hard to
express, maybe even impossible to express. You often find that you
can™t express simple intentions and feelings that you would like to


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On nature and language

convey to somebody; a lot of personal interactions collapse because of
things like that in ordinary life. So, the system is not well designed in
many functional respects. But there™s a totally separate question: is it
well designed with regard to the internal systems with which it must
interact? That™s a different perspective and a new question; and that™s
the question that the Minimalist Program tries to answer.
The way I would like to think of it now is that the system is
essentially inserted into already existing external systems: external
to the language faculty, internal to the mind. So there™s a sensori-
motor system which is there, independently of the language; maybe
it is somewhat modified because of the presence of language, but

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