The Place of Representation in the Minimalist Program

The impact of generative linguistics on philosophy has been of some substance beyond the resuscitation of nativism and the general cognitive revolution.

In particular, there has been an influence in the philosophy of language, going from the early work of Fodor and Katz up to the current day in the work of thinkers such as Higginbotham, Larson, Segal, Stanley, Ludlow, Stainton, etc.

The basis for this: linguistic representation/knowledge of language.

This is an error, which comes into focus with MP. Here, I shall just give the groundwork for diagnosing the error.


MP as less representational than its predessors.

Q1: What does this mean?

Q2: What sense of representation is involved in MP?



GB Architecture

D-Structure [X-bar schemata, theta assignment]




                     S-Structure [BT, Case, Bounding theory]




     A-P Ü PF                           LF Ž I-C


S-Structure, D-Structure, PF and LF are levels of representation.


What is a representation?


Philosophical sense: Representation as Intentional


R[S, T(L)],


where ‘S’ is a subject and ‘T’ is a theory of language L.


The Reflex thought: Representation implies represented.


…the grammar is not itself a characterization of a system of mental representation; it is the object of a speaker’s knowledge, not a description of how that object is represented by the speaker (if it is)… The grammar is what is represented, not what is doing the representing.

¾ A. George, 1989: How not to become confused about linguistics, p.91.


… the conflation of grammar with… the mental representation of grammatical objects is widespread and can lead to misrepresentation of the contents of linguistic theory.

¾ J. Higginbotham, 2001: On referential semantics and cognitive science, pp.152-3.


The Real Problem: Representations have no represented. There is no grammar / language distinction.


Second Sense of Representation


Chomsky (1955-6) on Levels:


L = [L , f , R1 ,…, Rm , l , F , w1 ,…,  wn]


(1) L = set of primes (primitive elements)

(2) f = concatenation

(3) R1 ,…, Rm = set of classes/relations defined over (1)-(2)

(4) l = set of constructed objects by (1)-(3)

(5) F = map to descriptive conditions

(6) w1 ,…,  wn = set of classes/relations defined over L and L¢, L¢,…


On the philosophical sense, it would be meaningless to think of the system as being less representational, but…



















                           A-P Ü PF                     * [SPELL-OUT]








                                                     LF Ž I-C  


PF and LF are the two remaining levels of representation.





















Level-Free Architecture













                                         A-PÜ · Ž I-C








                                         A-PÜ · Ž I-C








                                         A-PÜ · Ž I-C






Consequence?: All representational conditions naturally follow from the derivational procedure from the lexicon to A-P and I-C.


E.g.,  Epstein on C-Command


Representational c-command


a c-commands b iff

(i) the first branching node dominating a dominates b, and

(ii) a does not dominate b, and

(iii) a ¹ b







                                DP                         v ¢



                     Bill’s     friend      likes+v    VP



                                                        <likes> himself


Interpretive rule: the antecedent of himself is a matching c-commander.

Bill c-commands friend alone.

The DP Bill’s friend c-commands himself.


Derivational C-Command:

a c-commands all and only those elements of b with which a was paired by Merge/Move in the course of the derivation. If a is a merged constituent of an object constructed independently of b, a is not in a c-command relation with b.



Is this a representation-free model?


We can raise a question - at least, an apparent question - about the interpretation of L [i.e., a state of the language faculty].

      One might construe L as a step-by-step procedure for constructing Exps [i.e., <PF, LF>], suggesting that this is how things work as a real property of the brain, not temporally but as part of its structural design. Assumptions of this nature constitute a derivational approach to L. The strong derivational approach dispenses with the expression altogether, assuming that information is provided to interface systems “dynamically” [i.e., there is a cyclic, level-free transfer to A-P and I-C]…

       With richer set-theoretic assumptions, a recursive definition can be restated as a direct definition, in this case, of the following form: E is an expression of L iff …E…, where …¾… is some condition on E. One might, then, take, L to be a direct definition of the set {Exp}, adopting a representational approach….

        The apparent alternatives seem to be mostly intertranslatable, and it is not easy to tease out empirical differences, if there are any.

        Surprisingly, there is reason to believe that the questions may be real.

¾ N. Chomsky 2000: Minimalist inquiries: the framework, pp. 98-9


Computational Efficiency

(i) All relations are local (understood via Merge), none are global.

(ii) Step-by-step property: structure is built cyclically with (i) loss of information and (ii) structure always extending from the root.

(iii) Counter-cyclicity contravenes LCA.



The principled elements of S0 are the conditions imposed on FL by the systems with which it interacts. If language is to be useable at all, its design must satisfy on “interface condition” IC… The goal is to determine just what aspects of the structure and use of language are specific to the language faculty, hence lacking principled explanation at this level.

      [I]nitial conditions…


(i)   unexplained elements of S0

(ii)  IC (the principled part of S0)

(iii) general properties


Principled explanation, going beyond explanatory adequacy, keeps to (ii) and (iii). An extremely strong minimalist thesis: (i) is empty.

¾ N. Chomsky, 2001: Beyond explanatory adequacy, pp.2-3.



The representational approach falls short of principled explanation, for the conditions on a given representation can’t fall under (iii), which are general properties of an organic system. Nor can they fall under (ii), which are external/independent of FL proper. They must fall under (i). A principled explanation would derive the conditions from (ii)-(iii).