The Foundations of Linguistics

Languages as abstract objects

Workshop, 26. - 27. Juni 2015, Haus der Wissenschaft, TU Braunschweig, Germany


Christina Behme

Mount Saint Vincent University

Department of Philosophy

Halifax, NS, B3M 2J6, Canada


Martin Neef

TU Braunschweig

Institut für Germanistik

38106 Braunschweig, Germany




Confirmed Speakers:


Andras Kornai, Budapest Institute of Technology and Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Terence Langendoen, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona, and Robust Intelligence Program,  National Science Foundation

Robert Levine, Department of Linguistics, Ohio State University

Hans-Heinrich Lieb, FB Philosophie und Geisteswissenschaften, Freie Universität Berlin

Geoffrey Pullum, School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh

Scott Soames, Director of the School of Philosophy, University of Southern California


Scientific Advisor:

Paul M. Postal

Recent books

Skeptical Linguistic Essays, OUP.

Edge-Based Clausal Syntax, MIT Press.

Over the last 50 years, linguistics has discovered a wealth of intriguing facts about a wide variety of languages and provided new insights about the nature of language. At the same time, the foundations of linguistics remain a neglected and hence poorly understood topic and questions as fundamental to the discipline as „What is the ontological status of sentences“ have no generally accepted answers. This 2-day workshop aims to address this unsatisfactory state of affairs. Bringing together linguists and philosophers, we hope to shed light on foundational questions in linguistics. Traditionally, three distinct frameworks have been considered for linguistics: nominalism, conceptualism, and realism (c.f. Katz, 1981). Given that the work by Chomsky (1965), Langendoen & Postal (1984), Katz & Postal (1991), and Katz (1996) has shown that neither nominalism nor conceptualism provides a satisfactory framework, this workshop will focus on realism and provide both arguments for this position and responses to common criticism. Realism conceptualizes language as an abstract object. Adopting this framework provides two advantages: It allows linguists (1) to separate the study of language from the study of linguistic knowledge and (2) to overcome the limitations of nominalism and conceptualism. While such an approach situates research on bio-physiology and psychology outside of linguistics proper, most traditional areas of linguistic research can be subsumed under the realist framework:

„Realist linguistics requires not a new field, but merely a different interpretation of an existing one. What could remain and what would have to be eliminated require specification, but most of what generative linguistics takes to be syntax, semantics, phonology, etc., could be preserved.“ (Katz & Postal 1991: 531)

Conceiving of language as the primary subject of linguistics will allow the linguist to focus on the structure of language and to provide valuable input to the work of psycholinguists. Psychologists who study the performance and competence systems in humans will profit from having a clearer understanding of the foundational nature of language. This is turn can liberate their work from the limitations of the currently dominating conceptual framework, broaden the evidence base of linguistics, and inform ongoing debates on language acquisition and language evolution.


We invite contributions from linguists and philosophers addressing problems such as the abstractness of grammatical structure, the nature of linguistic objects, the status of linguistically necessary truths, and the status of linguistic universals, among others. Abstracts of 250-300 words, prepared for blind review, should be submitted by January 12, 2015 (extended deadline) to Martin.neef@tu-bs.de (linguistics) or Christina.Behme@msvu.ca (philosophy). Notification of acceptance will be sent by January 31, 2015.






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