Dorit Bar-On: “How to do things with nonwords” (Biology & Philosophy)

Check out Dorit Bar-On's recent article in Biology & Philosophy, "How to do things with nonwords: pragmatics, biosemantics, and origins of language in animal communication." This article features Ruth Millikan’s biosemantic framework, and benefited from several ECOM-based collaborations.


Recent discussions of animal communication and the evolution of language have advocated adopting a ‘pragmatics-first’ approach, according to which “a more productive framework” for primate communication research should be “pragmatics, the field of linguistics that examines the role of context in shaping the meaning of linguistic utterances” (Wheeler and Fischer, Evol Anthropol 21:195–205, 2012: 203). After distinguishing two different conceptions of pragmatics that advocates of the pragmatics-first approach have implicitly relied on (one Carnapian, the other Gricean), I argue that neither conception adequately serves the purposes of pragmatics-first approaches to the origins of human linguistic communication. My main aim in this paper is to motivate–and begin to articulate–an intermediary conception whose scope is narrower than Carnapian pragmatics but broader than Gricean pragmatics. To do so, I first spell out what I take to be the key insight offered by proponents of the Gricean approach concerning the emergence of linguistic communication, namely, its being communication ‘from a psychological point of view’ (Tomasello, Origins of human communication, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2008). I then develop this insight using key elements from the anti-Gricean ‘biosemantic’ account of linguistic communication due to Ruth Millikan (Millikan, Language, thought, and other biological categories: New foundations for realism, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1984, Millikan, Tomberlin (ed), Philosophical Perspectives 9, Ridgeview Publishing, Atascedero CA, 1995, Millikan R (2006) Varieties of Meaning. Mass.: The MIT Press (paperback edition), Cambridge, Millikan, Beyond concepts: unicepts, language, and natural information, Oxford University Press, Oxford UK, 2017, and elsewhere). I argue that the intermediary pragmatics-first approach that I propose, which draws on both Gricean and Millikanian resources, would be better equipped to serve the purposes of those who search for potential precursors of human linguistic communication in animal communication.