On Recursion

Jeffrey Watumull, Marc D. Hauser, Ian G. Roberts, Norbert Hornstein

It is a truism that conceptual understanding of a hypothesis is required for its empirical investigation. However, the concept of recursion as articulated in the context of linguistic analysis has been perennially confused. Nowhere has this been more evident than in attempts to critique and extend Hauser et al.'s. (2002) articulation. These authors put forward the hypothesis that what is uniquely human and unique to the faculty of language—the faculty of language in the narrow sense (FLN)—is a recursive system that generates and maps syntactic objects to conceptual-intentional and sensory-motor systems. This thesis was based on the standard mathematical definition of recursion as understood by Gödel and Turing, and yet has commonly been interpreted in other ways, most notably and incorrectly as a thesis about the capacity for syntactic embedding. As we explain, the recursiveness of a function is defined independent of such output, whether infinite or finite, embedded or unembedded—existent or non-existent. And to the extent that embedding is a sufficient, though not necessary, diagnostic of recursion, it has not been established that the apparent restriction on embedding in some languages is of any theoretical import. Misunderstanding of these facts has generated research that is often irrelevant to the FLN thesis as well as to other theories of language competence that focus on its generative power of expression. This essay is an attempt to bring conceptual clarity to such discussions as well as to future empirical investigations by explaining three criterial properties of recursion: computability (i.e., rules in intension rather than lists in extension); definition by induction (i.e., rules strongly generative of structure); and mathematical induction (i.e., rules for the principled—and potentially unbounded—expansion of strongly generated structure). By these necessary and sufficient criteria, the grammars of all natural languages are recursive.