The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics: 40th Anniversary

An interview with Pim Levelt


In 2020, our institute celebrated its 40th anniversary. Over the past few decades, impressive scientific results have been achieved. All the more reason for asking our founding father Pim Levelt to explain who we are and why we are here.


How was the Institute established?

Scientific innovation is core business of the Max Planck Society. Its scientific members often take the initiative for innovative endeavors in new, promising fields of research. That also happened in the early 1970s, when a number of Max Planck directors pleaded for a new Max Planck enterprise in the interdisciplinary area of language and psychology. President Reimar Lüst then established a committee to further explore these ideas. Two members of the committee, psychiatrist Detlev Ploog and biophysicist Werner Reichardt, already worked closely with colleagues from MIT, then the hotspot of the cognitive revolution, with Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar and Eric Lenneberg’s biology of language. The other two members, sociologist Jürgen Habermas and educational philologist Wolfgang Edelstein, were both involved in issues of acculturation and the central role of language in that process. After the committee advised him positively on the scientific potential of these developments, president Reimar Lüst authorized the committee to prepare the establishment of a Max Planck Project Group in the interdisciplinary field of psychology and language. It would be a try-out for the establishment of a permanent Max Planck Institute. The committee prepared such a proposal, including me as the first scientific leader. The proposal was then accepted by the two Max Planck Sections involved, the Biological-Medical and the Humanities Sections. The Project Group was launched in 1976 and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics took off on January 1st, 1980.

What would society miss if our Institute didn't exist?

European society would have missed an international scientific hub in the emerging field of linguistic cognitive neuroscience. The study of our unique and crucial mental capacity, and its use in communication, would have remained scattered for a long time to come.

How would science have been disadvantaged without the Institute?

After World War II, the United States were leading in the new information and communication sciences, established by Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener and their co-workers. During and right after the war these interdisciplinary, partly technical fields were libeeally financed by leading centers at MIT and Harvard. Jerome Bruner and George Miller, for instance, could establish the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies. Linguistics was temporarily in the driving seat of the emerging “cognitive science”. Devastated Europe was no match in these fields, in spite of great minds such as Alan Turing and Alexander Luria. It took two decades before Europe, especially continental Europe, got back on its feet in these sciences. The Max Planck initiative raised Europe-wide awareness of these flourishing fields and their great potential. More importantly, it created Europe’s first large-scale scientific institution that could match American leading institutions at MIT, Harvard, Stanford and New Haven. As a result, a stream of American colleagues came to visit, co-operating in joint projects and inspiring a new generation of European researchers in the language sciences. Without the Institute, it would have taken much longer before the global balance in the language sciences and in particular in psycholinguistics had become restored.

How would you describe the personality, the soul, of our institute?

The one characteristic and permanent trait of the Institute is its interdisciplinary approach to language. The preparation committee’s explicit objective had been to integrate cognitive, generative, biological and neuroscientific approaches to language, following revolutionary developments at MIT, Harvard and other American institutions. That objective was immediately implemented when we started the Project Group. It was not organized in terms of disciplines (like linguistics, psychology, neurology), but in terms of interdisciplinary projects in adult and child language use, such as the generation of deictic, anaphoric and elliptical expressions, the child’s developing conception of language, and speech acts in fluent and disfluent aphasics. Almost all staff had been recruited from strictly monodisciplinary departments. The explicit requirement to jointly conceive and run such projects initially created major stress and distrust. “Don’t touch my theoretical framework, my methodology.” Interdisciplinarity was achieved the hard way during these initial years.

Interdisciplinarity ranges between inter- and intrapersonal. The just described “forced” interdisciplinarity was interpersonal. Two or more monodisciplinary scientists sat together to approach a designated common problem. In the intrapersonal case a scientist is a professional in two or more disciplines, applying them ad libitum in solving complex problems. Eric Lenneberg, for instance, was both a linguist and a neuroscientist.

Interpersonal interdisciplinarity is always team work. Although that has been the dominant phenotype in the history of our Institute, occasional intrapersonal cases have been around, such as Peter Indefrey (both a linguist and an MD) and Asifa Majid (with degrees in linguistics and psychology). But an entirely new kind of intrapersonal interdisciplinarity emerged in the Institute’s interdisciplinary setting. PhD students working in interdisciplinary teams acquired two (or three) sciences, fully integrated, as a matter of course. They are “native” psycholinguists.

Interdisciplinarity has, over the years, enormously expanded in the Institute’s approach to language. Next to the initial linguistic, psychological and neurological perspectives on language, the Institute has added anthropological, computational/mathematical, neurobiological and genetic approaches. The Institute is relatively unique in the breadth of its interdisciplinarity.

How do we preserve our personality?

The Max Planck Society has several interdisciplinary institutes. That is no surprise, since important innovations in science often occur when developments in two (or more) mono-disciplines cross, approaching the same problem from different perspectives. Such institutes are typically organized in terms of departments for the different disciplines. Ideally, these departments engage in intensive research co-operation. That often succeeds, but not always. It does happen that departments isolate themselves from the rest of the Institute, behaving like independent institutes. This risk increases as institutes grow. In a small place, such as our Institute during its pioneer years, you can hardly evade staff from other departments or research groups. There is full mutual acquaintance and often much shared social life. Unavoidably, this gets lost as departments extend and their number increases. As a result, interdisciplinary interaction is no longer a matter of course; it has to be guarded.

Happily enough, that is certainly possible, as our Institute exemplifies. Not only are all of our directors themselves involved in interdisciplinary cooperation, but they have also created multiple mechanisms for the promotion of interdisciplinary research, ranging from “strategic retreats” to cross-departmental lunch meetings to “Max Planck Proudly Presents”, Levelt Innovation Awards and much more. Important in this respect has also been the creation of the common space areas in the Institute, where thoughts are roaming freely among who happens to be around.

There is another, quite essential tool in the Institute which keeps interdisciplinarity going. It is the Technical Group (TG). In almost all other interdisciplinary Max Planck Institutes, the disciplinary departments have their own technical support groups. From day 1 our Institute decided to create one overall Technical Group for the institute as a whole, combined with an interdepartmental Research Facilities Committee. This was not merely more economical and efficient, but it also facilitated the use of innovative tools for one department or research group by another department, often interactively leading to even more advanced technology. The TG, moreover, in many cases pioneered tools by themselves, “offering” them to interested staff in different departments.

A final essential condition for the preservation and further development of the Institute’s interdisciplinary “personality”, is its integration with the Radboud community and institutes. First and foremost, that is the Donders Institute. Its research centers, especially the Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging, not only provide the neurological imaging and other tools for much of the Institute’s research, but are also an impressive source of expertise in a wide range of related scientific fields. There is also the joint Baby and Child Research Center. The IMPRS provides us with a steady stream of young, highly motivated multidisciplinary talent from all over the world.

How do we guard our academic freedom?

Academic freedom is the conditio sine qua non for innovative research. Nothing is more characteristic of the Max Planck Society than its fostering of academic freedom in research. Never ever in my long Max Planck career have I been told what to study, what theoretical framework to use, what methods to use, with whom to co-operate, what applications to aim for. I would jokingly tell colleagues that I didn’t have a research program, but followed the thoughts I woke up with in the morning. Of course, that basic freedom gets restricted as research takes shape. Team work requires the participants to pay their agreed share in the joint project, PhD students can make a flying start precisely by accepting a research assignment within a larger ongoing project, and so on. Still, scientific team work is essentially anarchistic: the best ideas should govern the process, not scientific authority. That aspect of scientific freedom should always be guarded in a Max Planck Institute. It requires openness and tolerance in project meetings, it requires staff and students to feel safe and fully accepted in their research teams.

What is the pioneering nature of our discoveries?

Discoveries cannot be planned. You cannot require a PhD student to discover something. Some do, many don’t. A dissertation should demonstrate the student’s ability to perform research following the best theoretical and methodological standards of their field. The situation is different for tenure track and higher level appointments in science. Much more important than the number of publications or h-index is the answer to “What has the candidate discovered?” Although discoveries cannot be planned, a good scientist creates optimal conditions for discoveries to be made. Sometimes this requires long-term, intensive data collection. Wolfgang Klein’s discovery in our Institute of the “basic variety” in untutored L2 acquisition was such a case. It had required L2 longitudinal acquisition data for a structured set of L1/L2 pairs. And the discovery came as a total surprise, undermining all existing theories of L2 acquisition. In other cases, a new experimental methodology makes it possible for an unknown phenomenon to reveal itself. Antje Meyer’s introduction of the “implicit priming” technique almost immediately revealed the strictly incremental nature of phonological encoding, a discovery with far-reaching consequences in production research. – This was dissertation work, by the way! Steve Levinson’s discovery of the “absolute” orientation system, next to the intrinsic and deictic ones, had required comparative experimental field work in illiterate societies. Here also, the discovery came as a surprise. In other cases, the scientist has reasons to expect a particular effect to exist and sets up the experimental conditions for it to appear. That happened in the now classical study by Hagoort, Brown and Groothusen, in which the Syntactic Positive Shift in the EEG signal was discovered. In still other cases the computational scientist conceives of a computational model which predicts an unlikely experimental result. That led to Ardi Roelofs’s important discovery of lemma competition during lexical selection – also dissertation work. Occam’s razor, “go for the simplest explanation”, can induce competent scientists to cast doubt on dominant “Zeitgeist” theories and discover simpler, more elegant explanations. That was twice achieved in the Institute, in both cases experimentally undermining the all-dominant full-feedback theories of lexical access, first by Roelofs for speech production and then by Cutler’s team for speech comprehension. In both cases feedforward processes alone turned out to suffice as explanations.

These and many, many other discoveries made in the Institute over the years have been pioneering for quite different reasons. In many cases they established new, long-lasting research paradigms. In other cases, they created important experimental tools. In still other cases, they toned down the excessive claims of dominant, trendy theories. In all cases, they were building blocks for ever more precise and more encompassing theories of the language user.

What is our place in the scientific field?

The liberal funding by the Max Planck Society, the interdisciplinary breadth and size of the Institute, the international composition of our staff and students, the exceptional scientific talent we have been able to attract over the years, the Institute’s “hub” function in many European and more global scientific networks, have made us a world-wide leading institution in psycholinguistics.

How should we appraise our discoveries amidst discoveries by others and rapidly changing knowledge?

As a leading research institute, we have, in the past, often determined the larger research agenda in designated subfields. That was true for my own book Speaking. It has been the case for my team’s research in spoken lexical access and similarly for, first, William Marslen-Wilson’s and later Anne Cutler’s teams’ work in lexical comprehension. Another example: Steve Levinson and his team clearly set the agenda for world-wide cross-linguistic research in spatial cognition. I am sure similar feats are being achieved by our present departments. More often than not, however, we are equal-level players in a highly competitive scientific world. Still, we cannot enough capitalize on our rather unique scientific advantage: we can run quite long-term scientific projects. It allows us to attain far more depth and scientific accumulation than our less advantaged colleagues, who must hop from one to the next short-term financed project. I have often greatly admired dear colleagues who managed to keep playing in the first league under such circumstances.

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