MIT Reports to the President 1995-96


The Department of Linguistics and Philosophy consists of two sections, twenty-four faculty members (five of them jointly appointed), sixty graduate students, two dozen or so visiting scientists and scholars, and a staff of seven. 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. In the most recent National Research Council rating of graduate programs in the United States, Linguistics and Philosophy were ranked first and tenth, respectively--on faculty quality; second and seventh, respectively--on program effectiveness.


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 syntax, semantics, morphology, phonology, and on the interfaces between these modules of the grammar of natural language by MIT graduate students, faculty, and visitors.

Neurolinguistic research, in addition to rapidly developing work on language growth and use, is now a central piece of Linguistics research at MIT, and has led directly to the [Mind Articulation] Project, a five-year, joint MIT Linguistics/Tokyo University Physiology project supported by the Research and Development Corporation of Japan.


Research in philosophy is not so neatly programmatic as it is in linguistics; thus it is best simply to list the wide range of topics pursued in current research in philosophy at MIT, including but not exhausted by the following: the philosophy of phonology and morphology; theories of consciousness and the mind-body problem; causation and laws of nature; the analysis of fundamental metaphysical concepts: substance, attribute, essence, set, identity, etc.; problems at the intersection of ethics and historical sociology; foundational questions of quantum physics; the analysis of natural laws and their role within scientific theories; applied aesthetics; the foundations of "possible worlds" semantics for modal and conditional logics; the ontology of events; the identity across time of people and other physical objects; the principles of rationality governing ethical reasoning; and the role of evaluative thoughts in practical reasoning.


As in the past, the faculty on both sides of the Department gave--in the course of the year--a very large number of colloquium presentations, keynote talks at conferences, and workshops 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 books appeared during the year: Institute Professor Noam Chomsky's The Minimalist Program (MIT Press) and his Powers and Prospects: Reflections on human nature and the social order (Allen & Unwin and the South End Press); Professor Joshua Cohen's Associations and Democracy, with Wisconsin's Professor Joel Rogers (Verso); and Professor Judith Thompson's Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity, with Princeton's Professor Gilbert Harman (Blackwell).


Who's Who in America judged Professor Chomsky, together with various sports figures and Elie Wiesel, to be among its "50 Great Americans". A "nice desk clock" (in Professor Chomsky's well-chosen words) accompanied this designation.


A number of faculty members were on leave during the year: Professor Ned Block spent the year in Paris at the CNRS; Professor James Harris lectured in Argentina (Río Negro), Paris, and Amsterdam during the fall term; Professor David Pesetsky devoted much of his fall term leave to completing the second of his two volumes on syntactic theory and to the important educational policy issues at the nexus of linguistics and reading; and Professor Judith Thompson spent the spring term as Fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study (Oslo), during which time she also addressed the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and delivered the Hagerstrom Lectures at the University of Uppsala (Sweden).


It is with sadness that we report the deaths this spring of Professor George Boolos and of Thomas S. Kuhn, Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy and History of Science, Emeritus. Professor Boolos, the first MIT graduate of the Institute's PhD program in Philosophy, was to have become the third person to hold the Rockefeller Professorship in Philosophy, and had also been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for the academic year 1996-97.

Three persons have retired from the faculty. Institute Professor Morris Halle (who, with Professor Chomsky, founded MIT's graduate program in linguistics in 1961); Professor Harris--at the Institute since 1964 and on the faculty since 1967; and Professor Emeritus Richard Cartwright, who has retired again, this time from teaching--having continued as a Senior Lecturer on Philosophy for the two years since his "first" retirement.

It is with pleasure that we note the promotion of Alec Marantz to the rank of Professor, and with regret, the resignation of Professor Block of Philosophy (at the Institute since 1971), to take up a faculty position at New York University. In turn, we welcome Vann McGee as Professor of Philosophy, and two new Assistant Professors of Linguistics: Michel DeGraff and Cheryl Zoll.

With the appointment of Cheryl Zoll, the affirmative-action goal of the Department, to increase the representation of women on the faculty to at least four from the present two, moves a step closer to realization. Moreover, progress in another affirmative-action direction is made with the arrival of Michel DeGraff, 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 1995-96