I am teaching an Intro to Minimalism course here at the LSA summer institute and I have just taught my first class. It got me thinking about how to teach such a course (I know, I should have done that weeks/months ago). As you may know, I am part of a trio who have tried to address this question by writing an intro text (here). However, this was sometime ago (2005) and it is worth rethinking the topic afresh. When we wrote the book, our idea was to use GB to lever ourselves into minimalist issues and concerns. This follows the pattern set by Chomsky in his 1993 paper, the one that that set things going in earnest. However, I am not sure that this is the right way to actually proceed for the simple reason that it strikes me that many younger colleagues don’t know the rudiments of GB (it’s even worse for earlier theories: when asked how many have read Aspects chapter 1, only a handful of hands popped up) and so it is hard to use that as stage setting for minimalist questions. But, the larger question is not whether this is useful but whether this is the best way to get into the material. It might have been a reasonable way of doing things when students were all still steeped in GB, but even then minimalist ideas had an independent integrity and so, though convenient to use GB scaffolding, this was not necessary even then and now it might be downright counter-productive. I confess that I don’t really believe this. Let me explain why (btw, the reasons depart from those pushed in the book, which, in retrospect, iss far too “methodological” (and hence, misleading) for my current tastes).
I believe that MP has some real novel elements. I don’t just mean the development of new technology, though it has some of this too. What I mean is that it has provoked a reorientation in the direction of research. How did it do this? Roughly by center-staging a new question, one that if it existed before, rose considerably in prominence to become a central organizing lens through which analyses are judged. The new question has been dubbed ‘Darwin’s Problem’ (DP) (I think Cederic was the first to so dub it) in proud imitation of that lovable, though still unanswered, ‘Plato’s Problem’ (PP). Now, in my view, it is only sensible to make DPish inquiries (how did a particular complex system arise?) if we have a complex system at hand. In linguistics the relevant complex system is FL, the complexity adumbrated by UG. Now to the GB part: it provided the (rough) outlines of what a reasonable UG would look like. By ‘reasonable’ I mean one that had relatively wide empirical coverage (correctly limned the features of possible Gs) and that had a shot of addressing PP satisfactorily (in GB, via its Principles and Parameters (P&P) organization. So, given GB, or something analogous, it becomes fruitful to pose DP in the domain of language.
Let me state this another way: just as it makes little sense to raise PP without some idea of what Gs look like, it makes little sense to raise DPish concerns unless one has some idea of what FL/UG looks like. If this is correct, then sans GB (or some analogue) it is hard to see how to orient oneself minimalistically. Thus, my conclusion that one needs GB (or some analogue) as that which will be reanalyzed in more fruitful (i.e. more DP congenial) terms.
So, that’s why I think that MP needs GB. However, I suspect that this view of things may be somewhat idiosyncratic. Not that there isn’t a fair amount of backing for this interpretation in the MP holy texts. There is. However, there are other minimalist values that are more generic and hence don’t call for this kind of starting point. The one that most strongly comes to mind (mainly because I believe that I heard a version of this yesterday and it also has quite a bit of support within Chomsky’s writings) is that minimalism is just the application of standard scientific practices to linguistics. I don’t buy this. Sure, there is one sense in which all that is going on here is what one finds in science more generally: looking at prior results and considering if they can be done more simply (Ockham has played a big role in MP argumentation, as have intuitions about simplicity and naturalness). However, there is more than this. There is an orienting question, viz. DP, and this question provides an empirical target as well as a tacit benchmark for evaluating proposals (note: we can fail to provide possible solutions to DP). In effect, DP functions within current theory in roughly the way that PP functioned within GB: it offers one important dimension along which proposals are evaluated as it is legitimate to ask whether they fit with PP (it is always fair to ask what in a proposal is part of FL, what learned and how the learned part is learnable?). Similarly, a reasonable minimalist question to ask about any proposal is how it helps us answer DP.
Let me say this another way: in the domain of DP simplicity gains an edge. Simple UGs are preferred for we believe that it will be easier to explain how simpler systems of FL/UG (one’s with fewer moving parts) might have evolved. The aim of “simplifying” GB makes a whole let of sense in this context, and a lot of work within MP has been to try and “simplify” GB; eliminating levels, unifying case and movement, unifying Phrase Structure rules and transformations, unifying movement and construal (hehe, thought I’d slip this in), deriving c-command from simpler primitives, reducing superiority to movement, etc.
Let me end with two points I have made before in other places but I love to repeat.
First, if this is correct, then there is an excellent sense in which MP does not replace GB but presupposes it. If MP succeeds, then it will explain the properties of GB, by deriving them from simpler more natural more DP-compatible premises. So the results, though not the technology or ontology of GB will carry over to MP. And this is a very good thing for this is how sciences make progress: the new theories tend to derive the results of the old as limit cases (thing of the relation between Einstein’s and Newton’s mechanics or classical thermodynamics and statistical mechanics). Progress here means that the empirical victories of the past are not lost, but they are retained in a neater, sleeker more explanatory package. Note, that if this is the correct view of things, then there is also a very good sense in which minimalism just is standard scientific practice, but not in any trivial sense.
Second, if we take this view seriously, it is always worth asking of any proposal how it compares with the GB story that came before: how’s its coverage compare? Is it really simpler, more natural? These are fair questions for unless we can glimpse an answer, whatever their virtues, the analyses raise further serious questions. Good. This is what we want from a fecund program, a way of generating interesting research questions. Put enough of thsee together and new minimalist theories will emerge, ones that have a new look, retain the coverage of earlier accounts and provide possible answers to new and interesting questions. Sounds great, no? That’s what I want minimalist neophytes to both understand and feel. That’s what I find so exciting about MP, and hope that others will too.
 Let me say again, that if you like a theory other than GB then that would be a fine object for DPish speculation as well. As I’ve stated before, most of the current contenders e.g. GB, LFG, HPSG, RG etc. seem to me more or less notational variants.