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Dr Gabriel Dupre
Keele University
Early Career Fellowship

The philosophical significance of the competence/performance distinction

Gabe Dupre’s research focuses on the intersection between analytic philosophy of mind, language and science, and contemporary generative linguistics. Of particular interest in the past few years have been issues raised by branches of linguistics that have been historically under-discussed by philosophers, such as morphology: the study of words and their formation, and phonology: the study of linguistic sounds and sound patterns.

ceramic phrenology head
Image credit: meo, pexels.com/@xespri

At the end of June 2023, I organised a  two-day workshop, ‘Philosophy and/of Linguistics’, held at Keele Hall, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The conference consisted of eight talks by linguists and philosophers from the US, Europe and the UK, who addressed questions at the intersection of contemporary philosophy and linguistic theory. These talks varied in their focus and background assumptions, but there were several recurring themes throughout.

The central question of the conference concerned the nature of the linguistic mind. A core debate within philosophy has examined the relationship between thought and language: does language merely express pre-existing thoughts, or is the possibility of thinking dependent on a linguistic medium? Recent developments in theoretical linguistics have revitalised this ancient question. On the one hand, modern generative linguistics posits highly abstract and potentially universal grammatical structures underlying constructions which look superficially quite different across languages, suggesting that these may be the structures of thought itself. On the other, a range of linguistic phenomena seems to make distinctions not found in thought (e.g. gender marking of inanimate objects in romance languages) and vice versa, suggesting the need for a non-linguistic medium for cognition.

These debates then lead to applications concerning the relationship between individual psychology and linguistic communication and the methodological underpinnings of linguistic theory construction. Communication has traditionally been understood on the ‘code model’: an uttered sentence is to be decoded by a hearer to identify the thought underlying it. If we are to conflate thought and language, this model will need revision. Relatedly, once linguistic analyses are provided in abstract terms, quite distant from the obvious and language-specific properties of uttered sentences, this raises methodological questions about how we justify claims about such mental structures.

All of these topics and more were rigorously debated by conference attendees, making the event a great success and fostering collaboration between linguists and philosophers. Several Keele philosophers, faculty and graduate students, as well as visitors from other departments and institutions, participated in these discussions.

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