Prof. Dr. Sebastian Löbner (General Linguistics)

On the research unit

The research unit "Functional concepts and frames" investigates so-called functional concepts and their relation to a certain very general type of description, the "frames" used in cognitive psychology (Lawrence Barsalou). Functional concepts (FCs) describe their referents as something which for a given object is unique, e.g. its "length", its "meaning", its "name", her or his "mother" etc. Since they define their referent in relation to a given object, FCs are relational; they are inherently unique due to the property of applying to just one referent. These properties of FCs are reflected in grammar: due to their relationality FCs often occur embedded in possessive constructions (viz. "its length", "the length of the paper") and since they apply to only one object they are usually used with a definite article. With an FC it is possible to provide a precise description of the object that specifies a single aspect of it (e.g. its length, name, meaning etc.). Most FCs constitute a relatively recent achievement of human language which emerged along with, and due to, the development of the sciences. The linguistic projects A1, A2, A3, A4, A5 explore the criteria for the recognition of FCs and investigate the grammatical, semantic and contextual properties of FCs in a typological and historical perspective.

Barsalou considers frames a universal format of description which constitutes the structure of all our mental concepts. Frames describe their objects by a set of attributes such as "form", "function", "origin", etc., for which a more or less precise value is specified in the frame. The choice of attributes and the specification of their values yield a description which can be compared to the way a person is described in a passport. According to Barsalou's view, all our cognitive categories and all individual objects we know are represented in our minds by such frames.

Taken as concepts, the attributes in frames are themselves FCs. Put this way, any mental description is accomplished by specifying the values for an appropriate set of functional concepts. (This does not mean, however, that our languages possess terms for all these attributes; probably most of the attributes built into our mental frames are not, or not yet, named in our languages.) Conversely, FCs actually lexicalized in our languages immediately reveal components of those frames that our cognition employs.

The projects concerned with the philosophical and general scientific aspects of FCs and frames investigate the formal properties of this format of description (B1), the neural correlates of FCs and frames (B2), the role of frames in the evolution of sciences (B5 for medicine) and the history of the theory of concepts in metaphysics (B3).

Begin August, 2005
Expected duration 6 years
Extent 9 projects from General Linguistics, Computational Linguistics, Romance Linguistics, Philosophy, Cognitive Science and Medical History
Object languages German, English, French, Korean (furthermore Georgian, Indonesian and Vietnamese in associated projects)
Object sciences Medicine, Philosophy, Linguistics