Dr. Michal Gleitman

Areas of specialization:

philosophy of language and continental philosophy (especially French)

Areas of competence:

philosophy of mind and feminist philosophy


I was awarded the Polonsky Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute in 2013, after completing a Ph.D. in philosophy at Emory University in May 2012. I also have a master’s degree in philosophy from Tel-Aviv University where I was a student at The Adi Lautman Interdisciplinary Program for Outstanding Students.

My dissertation, supervised by Prof. Thomas Flynn, dealt with the role of convention in linguistic understanding and questioned the extent to which linguistic communication must be conventional in order to be successful. Using the work of philosophers Donald Davidson and Jean-Luc Nancy I argued that the truly significant role of linguistic conventions is not facilitating successful communication but serving as a shibboleth that separates language users from non-linguistic creatures, thereby demarcating the boundaries of the community of language users.

My current research, which I am pursuing as a Polonsky fellow, stems from the questions I raised in my dissertation and attempts to define “speakerhood” not as a person’s ability to master linguistic conventions, thereby rethinking what it takes to be a language user. By examining language development in individuals with language and communication disorders (mainly people with autism) I am attempting to figure out what accounts for a person’s ability to understand and be understood by others whether they use linguistic conventions or not. The struggles of individuals with autism (verbal and nonverbal) to communicate successfully provide a unique perspective on the various skills required for being considered a competent speaker as well as on the connection between thought and language.

My work on autism is part of my wider interest in borderline speakers – individuals whose uncertain linguistic competence leads to a questioning of their mental abilities. The difficulty of assessing the mental abilities of nonverbal individuals (some people with autism, people with other disabilities that affect linguistic competence, as well as nonhuman animals) leads to an underestimation of their mental abilities and consequently to a further undervaluation of their communication efforts. This aspect of my work deals with the connection between thought and language and concentrates on theory of mind (or mindreading) in nonhuman animals and young children, particularly in connection with linguistic competence (or lack thereof).

Ultimately, I hope to develop a more flexible theory of language that does not rely on a binary conception of “speakerhood” (in which one is either a speaker or not) but rather allows for degrees of “speakerhood”. By viewing “speakerhood” as a continuum, I aim to achieve a conception of language that is more empirically accurate and complements recent developments in cognitive science as well as the diversity of everyday experience with language.