"We have to learn about the conditions that set the problem in the course of trying to solve it."
(Noam Chomsky, 2008, On Phases, p.135)

On the notion "phase": is it virtually conceptually necessary?

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09 12

Currently, everybody in the minimalist camp talks about phases, but it seems fair to say that this notion itself is still up in the air, and we don’t know what it is, or what minimalism should assume it is.

Phases seem to give us a lot, but I am really worried about the independent justification people present in favor
of, say, CP and vP as phases. Chomsky’s two arguments — reducing computational complexity and the semantic definition (essentially being a proposition) — are very vague. First, we do not know what it means to reduce computational complexity, beyond common intuitions (but that’s hardly an argument!), and second, it’s not at all clear
how the proposition argument is supposed to work. It’s also difficult to come up with other tests for phase-hood.

Reconstruction effects? Maybe, but the data are not clear to my knowledge. Islands? Maybe, but one really has to be careful not to enter into circular argumentation, like: CP is a phase because it’s often an island; since CP is often an island, it’s a phase. It would have been so much better if we had independent motivation for phases, but it’s not clear what that evidence would be.

One other relevant consideration is that we want to somehow ensure the good old intuition of successive cyclicity of syntactic derivations. But, successive cyclicity itself should have no place in virtual conceptual necessity, so we are trying to derive it from a more fundamental elegance of language, which would be phase cycle, as the story goes. Another would be Chomsky’s worry about the Epstein-Seely criticism on the unvaluedness conception of viruses (if valued then they should become indistinguishable from interpretable ones in syntax), which presumably constitutes one of the pressures toward this weird technicalities of phase-level derivational simultaneity (the worry disappears as long as valuation and Transfer occurs at the same time), maybe. But I don’t see them as decisive, either.

Well, what I can wildly guess for now is that at least some kind of “interfacing operation” is virtually conceptually necessary (since CI/SM linking is the whole function of Syntax to begin with). As far as I can see there is no a priori reason for us to believe that the PF-interfacing and the LF-interfacing should exactly correspond in timing (as the Transfer theory assumes), that they are designed to occur more than once in a given derivation (as the multiple Transfer theory assumes), that they are designed to target a particular domain indicated by a designated lexical item called a phase head (as the Chomskyan phase theory assumes; compare it with Uriagereka’s multiple S-O story), or that the domain subjected to interfacing becomes invisible for later operations (as the PIC says, but see Boskovic), so all of them are intriguing open empirical questions, but at least I could have convinced myself that we might be able to learn a great more about human language by studying how the interfacing works.

Thus, my present position for phases is this: once we allow ourselves to assume that interfacing is virtually conceptually necessary, we would be immediately interested in how far we can go only with Merge and Interfacing, and Interfacing as a multiply applicable phase-head-driven `sound’-`meaning’-uniform computational load-reducing PIC-obeying operation (as people nowadays assume) is just one possible hypothesis on how Interfacing works, quite possibly subject to revision. The absence of strong empirical evidence might be already suggesting that this particular hypothesis may be wrong, but all of these plausibility arguments might be valuable, since we
are anyway availing ourselves of Interfacing and SMT, we want to have the most conceptually prefererable hypothesis of Interfacing, thus there may be some reasons for us to bet our money on it (but always with saving some reservation).

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