It is generally acknowledged, by both its proponents and detractors, that
Optimality Theory has provoked a reexamination, in recent years, of the role of
functional considerations, and their typological reflexes, in phonological theory.
April McMahon's Change, chance, and optimality attempts an in-depth examination of this issue, particularly from the perspective of the relation between
synchrony and diachrony in linguistic theory.
The issue, and OT's general stance towards it, are summarised by Prince &
Smolensky (1993: 198):
One might feel compelled to view a grammar as a more-or-less arbitrary assortment of
formal rules, where the principles that the rules subserve (the ‘laws’) are placed entirely
outside the grammar, beyond the purview of formal or theoretical analysis, inert but
admired. It is not unheard of to conduct phonology in this fashion. We urge a reassessment of this essentially formalist position. If phonology is separated from the
principles of well-formedness (the ‘laws’) that drive it, the resulting loss of constraint and
theoretical depth will mark as major defeat for the enterprise. The danger, therefore, lies
in the other direction: clinging to a conception of Universal Grammar as little more than
a loose organizing framework for grammars. A much stronger stance, in accord with the
thrust of recent work, is available. When the scalar and the gradient are recognized and
brought within the purview of theory, Universal Grammar can supply the very substance
from which grammars are built: a set of highly general constraints which, through
ranking, interact to produce the elaborate particularity of individual languages.