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Project D - Levels of descriptions and interactions in linguistic representations

PI: Dr. habil. Simon Kasper (Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf)
PostDoc: Dr. Toke Hoffmeister

Research context

The question of the connection between language system and language use has been treated differently in linguistic research. Mostly, a preoccupation with the problem results in the postulation of a primacy: either in favor of the language system (e.g. in Generative Grammar via the notion of competence and introspection) or in favor of language use (e.g. in the use-based cognitive grammar theories via corpus-basedness). Overall, four different approaches can be distinguished that seek to deal with the micro-macro problem: (i) levels are treated as conceptually irreducible ("energeia" vs. "ergon", "parole" vs. "langue", act vs. entity) and cannot/should not be explained apart; (ii) micro-level distinctions are conceptually leveled (e.g., action vs. Behavior in systems theory); (iii) macro-level distinctions are cognitivated (e.g., the notion of system in Schmidt & Herrgen 2011) synchronization theory and in [usage-based] cognitive grammar theories); (iv) levels are mediated non-reductionistically via "invisible hand" explanations (e.g., in Keller 2003), with linguistic entities that are themselves the subject of the micro-macro problem set at both levels.

Subproject D works on an interdisciplinary basis. The theoretical foundations are drawn primarily from philosophical anthropology, (New) Phenomenology, and human ecology. Linguistically, the project sees itself committed to a usage-based paradigm. The theoretical direction can be terminologically concretized with Kasper (2015) as culturalistic pragmatism.

Current habilitation project

Working title: The ecological self. Linguistic representations and the micro-macro-problem.


The central task of the project is to elaborate, against the background of the other subprojects, a concept of representation that theoretically mediates the subjective, individual and the objective, supra-individual level of description of language. The aim is to solve the micro-macro problem, which consists in the incommensurability of two theoretical approaches: on the one hand, the approach to a micro-level of description, which comprises the human individual, his cognitive, emotional and bodily constitution as well as his individual productions ("energeia", "subjective mind": behavior, artifacts, actions, including speech acts, etc.), and on the other hand the access to a macro level of description whose objects are supra-individual, social, often abstract or idealized entities ("ergon", "objective mind": language systems, social systems, institutions, orders etc.). The two levels are theoretically incommensurable, insofar as the means of description and modes of explanation of one level are generally unsuitable to describe and explain the phenomena of the other (cf. "parole" vs. "langue"). In the case of the phenomenon area of language, the paradigmatic core of modern (structural) linguistics is found on the macro level with systems, variables, structures, forms and functions, but on the micro level, in addition to the instantiations of the macro units mentioned, phenomena such as perception, categorization, knowledge, meaningfulness, actions, motives, attitudes, identity, etc. have come into view. These two levels, according to the basic understanding of the project, can be bridged by a suitable concept of representation, which is thus to become a new, central concept in linguistic theory.


On the one hand, the methodology of the project is based on the theoretical approaches of the underlying disciplines. Here, hermeneutics, phenomenology, and dialectics play an important role. Linguistically, the project is oriented towards the methods of the other subprojects and uses corpus data and results of experimental settings, thus pursuing a mixed-methods approach.

Preliminary work 

With the work of Kasper (2015, 2020), two first comprehensive monographs are available that locate humans, their perceptions and actions in the world. This is done with reference to linguistic knowledge, ability, and action. Kasper's work thus represents an important frame of reference for the project, since the anthropological dimension of language and linguistic knowledge is worked through theoretically and empirically here.

Furthermore, the dissertation of Hoffmeister (2021) is an important point of reference. The theoretical explanations focus on the description of everyday life worlds as language worlds, which make the omnipresence of language and its meaning for the speakers conceptually comprehensible. On the basis of cognitive linguistic approaches, a use-based, socio-cognitive model of lay linguistic knowledge is developed, which primarily refers to the representations of meta-linguistic knowledge. However, the notion of representation here remains pre-theoretical and underspecified.

Further preliminary work:

  • Hoffmeister, Toke (2020): Subjective grammaticality theories. Emergence, dissemination, and research-practical consequences. German Language 3, 233-248.

  • Hoffmeister, Toke (2021): Language concepts in public - Cognitive representations of the system and use of the German language. In: Toke Hoffmeister, Markus Hundt & Saskia Naths (Eds.): Laymen, Knowledge, Language. Concepts, theoretical, methodological and domain-specific perspectives. (Language and Knowledge 50). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 71-103.

  • Kasper, Simon (2014): Deriving an instructional grammar. Journal of German Linguistics 42(2), 253-306.

  • Kasper, Simon / Christoph Purschke (2017): Reflections on the variationlinguistic concept of explanation. In: Helen Christen, Peter Gilles & Christoph Purschke (Eds.): Spaces, boundaries, transitions. Proceedings of the 5th Congress of the International Society for Dialectology of German (IGDD). (Journal of Dialectology and Linguistics. Supplements), Stuttgart: Steiner, 185-213.

Relation to other projects

Project D establishes references to all other projects and works out a representation concept for solving the micro-macro problem based on the results and findings of the other subprojects.