MIT Reports to the President 1994-95

Department of Linguistics and Philosophy

The Department of Linguistics and Philosophy consists of two sections, twenty-five faculty members (five of them jointly appointed), sixty graduate students, two dozen or so visiting scientists and scholars, and a staff of six. Each section operates quite independently of the other; yet between them there is a significant overlap of intellectual interests in education and research, both among the faculty, the graduate students, and the visitors.


The linguists continue to pursue an account of natural language in terms of principles of computational economy. The `minimalist' program for linguistic theory, `zero' syntax, Optimality Theory, and the theory of distributed morphology offer somewhat different, sometimes complementary suggestions for the course that the pursuit might follow, and for the reduction of the conceptual apparatus of linguistic theory to virtual conceptual necessity. These ideas continue to be explored, developed, and challenged in research on the syntax, semantics, morphology, phonology, and on the interfaces between these modules of the grammar of natural language by MIT graduate students, faculty, and visitors.

In May, Optimality Theory was the focus of an NSF-supported workshop organized by Professor David Pesetsky, jointly with a small set of graduate students in linguistics. This three-day workshop at the Institute ("Is the Best Good Enough? Workshop on Optimality in Syntax") attracted two hundred participants from a dozen countries and four continents. Earlier, in January, Professor Pesetsky presented his optimality-theoretic research on syntax in Japan, three lectures in the Sophia Linguistica series (Sophia University, Japan).

Recent neurolinguistic research, the MEG (magnetic encephalographic) studies of language perception reported on last year, has now become a central piece of the NSF-supported joint Linguistics-Cognitive Science program ("Language: Acquisition and Computation"). This research, supported by the Office of the Provost, the NSF, and by laboratories at the University of California at San Francisco and Tokyo University, has led to ten conference presentations, the joint work of Associate Professor Alec Marantz, Professors Pesetsky and Kenneth Wexler, members of the UCSF and Tokyo University faculties, and graduate students in this department and in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science.


Research in philosophy is not so neatly programmatic as it in linguistics; thus it is best simply to list the set of topics being pursued in current research in philosophy, including at least the following: deflationary theories of meaning and reference; the logic of provability; quotational ambiguity; quantified modal logic; knowledge and counterfactual reasoning in game theory; the problem of logical omniscience; associative democracy; freedom of expression; moral relativism and moral objectivity; consciousness; holism; and Wittgenstein's meta-philosophy.


As in the past, the faculty on both sides of the Department gave a very large number of colloquium presentations and keynote talks at conferences in various parts of the United States and the world, while publishing an equally large number of journal articles, chapters in books, and reviews. In addition, the following book appeared during the past year: Professor Pesetsky's Zero Syntax: Experiencers and Cascades (MIT Press). Several other books are now in press, Institute Professor Noam Chomsky's Minimalist Program (MIT Press) among them.


As Professor Kenneth Hale completed his term as President of the Linguistic Society of America in January, Professor George Boolos assumed the presidency of the Association for Symbolic Logic. In recognition of his work on local ("endangered") languages, Professor Hale has been appointed the Edward Sapir Professor for the 1995 (summer) Linguistic Institute of the Linguistic Society of America (University of New Mexico).

A volume on the philosophy of Professor Irving Singer (The Nature and Pursuit of Love) appeared early in 1995, following a three-day conference in 1991 on his work at Brock University (Canada).

Professor Chomsky received two honorary degrees this spring: Doctor of Humane Letters (Amherst College) and Doctor of Literature (University of Cambridge, England).


A number of faculty members were on leave during the year: Professor Paul Horwich was at the CNRS in Paris and Professor Boolos in Edinburgh for the fall term; Professor Robert Stalnaker was in Paris during the spring term; Professor Judith Thomson was on leave during the spring term in Building 20; and Associate Professor Irene Heim was on leave for the entire year at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.


We note, with regret, the following departures: Professor Horwich (at the Institute since 1973), to take up a chair in philosophy at University College London; Associate Professor Michael Hardimon (at the Institute since 1987) to assume a tenured position in philosophy at the University of California at San Diego; and Ms Jamie Young (in the Department since 1986 and its Administrative Officer since 1993) to the National Research Council in Washington DC.

In turn, we welcome Ralph Wedgwood as Assistant Professor of Philosophy.

An affirmative-action goal of the Department, to increase the representation of women on the faculty to at least four from the present two, remains still to be met. However, progress in another affirmative-action direction has been made with the hiring of Michel DeGraff, presently at the University of Michigan, as Assistant Professor of Linguistics. DeGraff, who will not arrive in the Department until the summer of 1996, was appointed under the Provost's program to increase the number of minority members on the MIT faculty.

Wayne O'Neil

MIT Reports to the President 1994-95