I have always perceived an inherent contradiction between Chomsky's 'no tampering' idea and ANY version of Merge (or any Merge-like operation) driven - under the principle of Economy - by the need for features of a syntactic object A to be 'checked', 'satisfied', etc. by 'properties' (features, values) of a second object B. Whether the checking/satisfaction process involves unvalued features becoming valued, or valued features becoming 'licensed', or 'agreeing' between themselves, etc. is inmaterial, as far as I can see, at this level of generality.

Not that any sophisticated reasoning is involved on my part in this respect, on the contrary: I just feel that if, say, an unvalued attribute of a category A gets valued as a consequence of A's being Merged to B (or a valued attribute of A is 'licensed' by, say, 'agreement' with a parallel attribute of B, etc.), then A, B, or both, have been 'tampered with' in a flagrant way. After all, a 'category' (a syntactic object visible to Merge) being ultimately just a set of such 'features', to the extent that the state of whatever attribute-value pair of A or B may be involved is altered by the merger, so is the object A (or B) itself.

I do not know whether 'no tampering' remains an important principle of current minimalist syntax, but, if it does, I would like to know how that difficulty (if it is such and not just a misconception of mine) has been circumvented, and, if it no longer does, I would still want to know why the idea has been abandoned.

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Isn't there a contradiction between 'feature-checking' and 'no tampering'?

Yes, there is, for the reasons you outlined.

I do not know whether 'no tampering' remains an important principle of current minimalist syntax.

The no-tampering conditions does remain a very important part of minimalist syntax.

I would like to know how that difficulty (if it is such and not just a misconception of mine) has been circumvented.

No solution to that difficulty is part of the scientific consensus of people working in minimalist syntax. Proposed solutions include moving feature checking to the externalization interface (Bobaljik has argued this, for instance) and subsuming Agree with Merge (so that Agree, not being anymore the valuation of features but the comparison of equal features, respects the no-tampering condition).

I will add, though, that the contradiction between the no-tampering condition and feature valuation should not be exaggerated. The no-tampering condition is a principle which is reasonable for reasons of simplicity of computation as null-hypothesis within the framework of minimalist syntax. Likewise, probe/goal relation in a phase-based architecture is also a plausible null-hypothesis formalization of relations between syntactic objects within minimalist syntax, for the same reasons of economy of computation. So the difficulty you outline is an instance where the general guiding intuitions of the minimalist program (derives as much as possible of the properties of syntax from economy of computation considerations and interface requirements) yield somewhat conflicting results. To me, this simply indicates that the first formal realization of the null-hypothesis cannot always (or ever) be the correct one. The reason the contradiction does not seem to bother excessively anyone, it seems to me, is that we lack clear empirically testable predictions entailed by one alternative versus the other, so the question of how to solve this difficulty is scientifically somewhat premature.

Finally, I will point out that one can easily write a formal system in which everything is structural, Merge applies freely, structure is always preserved by Merge (so the no-tampering condition holds) and yet Agree behaves as in the current feature valuation model (that formal system would rely on a heavy dose of filtering at the point of transfer). This formal system would eliminate the contradiction you outline but, again, as it does not have any obvious empirical advantage, there might be no real point in pursuing it for the pure sake of eliminating a contradiction.

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