Stephen C. Levinson is an influential social scientist, known for his studies of the relations between culture, language and cognition, currently one of the scientific directors of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He received a BA in Archaeology and Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and received a PhD in Linguistic Anthropology from the University of California Berkeley. He has held posts at the University of Cambridge, Stanford University and the Australian National University, and is currently Professor of Comparative Linguistics at Radboud University. Among other distinctions, he is winner of the 1992 Stirling Prize, Fellow-elect of the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, member of the Academia Europaea, and 2009 Hale Professor of the Linguistic Society of America.
Levinson's earliest work was with John Gumperz in interactional sociolinguistics, studying the interaction patterns in a multilingual community in India. He has written extensively on pragmatics, producing the first comprehensive text book in the field (1983). He locates his work on pragmatics under what he has called the Gricean umbrella (2000:12ff.), a broad theory of communication that focuses on the role of conversational implicatures. His work with Penelope Brown on language structures related to formality and politeness across the world led to the publication of Politeness: Universals in Language Usage (1978/1987), a foundational work in Politeness theory.
From 1991 onward Levinson has led his own research lab, funded by the Max Planck Society and based at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Work in his Language and Cognition group (formerly Cognitive Anthropology research group) focuses on linguistic diversity and its importance to cognitive science. The group has played a pioneering role in developing the field of semantic typology and new models of language documentation. ,  In 2009, Levinson co-wrote (with Nicholas Evans) a hotly debated article contesting the existence of non-trivial linguistic universals and arguing that linguistic diversity is a crucial datum for cognitive science.
Levinson was one of the driving forces behind a re-evaluation of the notion of linguistic relativity in the early nineties, publishing (with Gumperz) an influential review of the issue (Current Anthropology, 1991) and co-editing (with Gumperz) a volume on the topic with contributions of experts from various fields (Gumperz & Levinson 1996). An influential paper with Penelope Brown titled Immanuel Kant among the Tenejapans: Anthropology as Empirical Philosophy won the 1992 Stirling Award of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. Levinson's work on language and space (Levinson & Brown 1993, Levinson 2003, 2006) demonstrated a form of linguistic relativity by showing that speakers of languages which use different spatial systems solve non-verbal spatial tasks in distinct ways. His recent work describes the relations between culture of the inhabitants of Rossel Island, and their Yélî Dnye language.
References cited and notable publications
- Levinson, Stephen C. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22235-4.
- Brown, Penelope; Stephen C. Levinson (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Studies in interactional sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-30862-3.
- Levinson, Stephen C.; Penelope Brown (1993). "Background to "Immanuel Kant among the Tenejapans"". Anthropology Newsletter 34 (3): 22–23.
- Levinson, Stephen C.; Penelope Brown (1994). "Immanuel Kant among the Tenejapans: Anthropology as empirical philosophy". Ethos 22 (1): 3–41. JSTOR 640467.
- Levinson, Stephen C. (2000). Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature. MIT Press.
- Levinson, Stephen C. (2003). Space in language and cognition: explorations in cognitive diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Evans, Nicholas; Stephen C. Levinson (2009). "The Myth of Language Universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32: 429–492. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999094X.
- Gumperz, John J.; Stephen C. Levinson (December 1991). "Rethinking Linguistic Relativity". Current Anthropology 32 (5): 613–623. doi:10.1086/204009. ISSN 0011-3204. JSTOR 2743696.
- Levinson, Stephen C.; Pierre Jaisson (2006). Evolution and culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Levinson, Stephen C.; David P. Wilkins (2006). Grammars of space. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.