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    Mattie Burkert, a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow, presented her research at the 2018 ACLS Annual Meeting.

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    African Humanities Program Fellow Merit Kabugo studies the discourse of rural farmers. 

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Focus on Research: Mitchell Green F'05, F'00 on the Origins of Meaning and Communication


ACLS asked its fellows to describe their research: the knowledge it creates and how this knowledge benefits our understanding of the world. We are pleased to present this response from Mitchell Green, professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia.

Green_Mitchell_lgThe American Council of Learned Societies describes its mission as the advancement of the humanities, which it in turn characterizes as not limited to particular departments or fields but instead as encompassing, “…all areas of research and learning that ask fundamental questions about the way individuals and societies live, think, interact, and express themselves.” (1) The individuals mentioned in the foregoing sentence are naturally taken to be members of our own species. However, some fundamental questions about how members of Homo sapiens express themselves might also lead us to consider other species both extant and extinct. For instance, it is often said that a crucial feature defining our own species is language: while many other animals have systems of communication in some sense, only humans communicate with messages of unbounded complexity and breathtaking subtlety such as one finds in Swahili, German, or Iroquoian.

So it is often said, but is it true? And if it is true, just how important is this distinctive feature to making us who we are? After all, many non-human primates use “alarm calls” to warn one another of predators (2), and some of these calls look a good deal like nouns. So too, birdsong has surprisingly syntax-like qualities (3), and much animal communication is expressive of affective states (4). Human language, indeed, turns out not to be a single large capacity but rather a collection of smaller capacities (syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, and so on), many of which are found piecemeal in other species. (5) Is the particular combination of capacities we call language special? If so, we do well to try to understand what is special about it, and how evolution produced it.


How special is human language? How did it evolve? How important is language to making us who we are?


Questions such as the foregoing lie at the center of a recent surge of interest in the evolution and ethology (or scientific study) of communication, and they have come to dominate my research as well. This makes me something of an oddity in my area of specialization, the philosophy of language, which currently focuses almost exclusively on human language. The reason for this focus seems to be that for the last century the field of philosophy of language has centered around linguistic meaning, and this orientation inspires two questions:

  1. How is it possible for words, phrases, and sentences to be meaningful, whereas the overwhelming majority of other items in the universe are bereft of meaning—or at least bereft of meaning in anything like the sense in which linguistic items possess it?
  2. How is such meaning as linguistic expressions possess to be characterized—in terms of such Platonic notions as truth, proposition, and reference; in terms of such pragmatic concepts as action, norm, and social practice; or instead in terms of such cognitive notions as intention, belief, and understanding?

Both of the foregoing questions—how-is-it-possible and how-shall-we-characterize-it—arise naturally for Swahili, German, and Iroquoian, but cannot be posed without substantial modification for animal communication systems as we know them. (6)

As a newly minted Ph.D. in the 1990s, I wondered whether my field’s restriction to human language was due to an informed opinion that communication systems among non-human animals are so impoverished that they barely merit scholarly scrutiny. An ACLS grant I received in 2000 enabled me to pursue this question in some depth. I spent much of 2001-12 at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, familiarizing myself with literature on the evolutionary biology of communication; I also strove to be conversant with evolutionary game theory, which goes beyond classical game theory by allowing its players to be organisms (and not necessarily rational, decision-making agents), and construing their strategies as being given by their genetic makeup (rather than by a consciously entertained plan). Similarly, evolutionary game theory construes payoffs to its players in terms of relative reproductive success.

During this period I also studied classic as well as recent work in the field of animal signaling, which ranges all the way from manual gestures among gorillas to “quorum sensing” among bacteria, with birdsong, dolphin and whale vocalization, insect pheromones, and a variety of mating displays sitting between these two poles. During my fellowship year I took copious notes as I familiarized myself with this daunting literature, but produced little final product in the sense of articles or book chapters. I felt encouraged—or at least exonerated—in this by the description of the ACLS Fellowship I held as supporting, “…long-term, unusually ambitious projects in the humanities and related social sciences.”

To the questions that I have been trying to answer for a decade now (How special is human language? How did it evolve? How important is language to making us who we are?) I do not yet profess settled answers. However, I have been able to clarify and refine these questions, and to propose some potentially useful hypotheses that may help us locate answers. Here are three:

  1. Minds (in the sense of conscious, intention-driven seats of intelligence) may be less critical in the development of language than is widely assumed. Sophisticated systems of communication can get off the ground in the absence of such seats of intelligence. (7) If this is right, then conscious, intention-driven behavior may have less explanatory work to do than the long philosophical tradition suggests.
  2. Certain aspects of human language may be mirrored in other species from which we did not descend (being “analogous” rather than “homologous” in biologists’ jargon). The “syntax-like” character of birdsong may be one such example; so too our ability to put our status on the line, by such acts as promising and predicting, may find analogues in superficially quite different traits such as ostentatious mating displays among various non-human animals. (8) Here again, what at first sight might have appeared distinctively human may not be unique to our species at all.
  3. We share with many non-human animals a capacity for expressive behavior, in which we show (rather than describe) a thought, emotion, or experience. Expressive language such as expletives may accordingly be “fossils” of more primitive communicative systems, and merit the close scrutiny that more typical kinds of fossil receive. (9)

The process of articulating and defending these and related hypotheses has by now produced one solo book, one co-edited volume of essays, and about two dozen articles for journals, encyclopedias, and edited collections. It has also inspired a rewarding collaboration with Dorit Bar-On, professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina. Bar-On and I have a common interest in the evolutionary origins and conceptual foundations of communication, and we currently share a Collaborative Research Grant from the National Science Foundation for work on this topic. We have been writing articles, have organized two conferences and are planning a third, and are working with faculty and students in philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and anthropology to build a research network that will encompass both the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia. We expect this collaboration to continue well into the future as we articulate and substantiate our approach to the origins of meaning and communication.


So while ... a linguist will take for granted a notion of meaning in her research on language change, a philosopher will put that notion under a conceptual microscope to try to understand what it comes to.


But what does such “research” look like on a daily basis? While I am not attached to a lab and am not engaged in field studies of animal communication, I take myself to be responsible for following the main trends in such areas as the evolution and ethology of communication. I am thus at one remove from the experimental and observational sciences, and I take this to be an advantage. The disciplinary exigencies of the sciences, including the pressure to secure grants and the need to maximize publication numbers in pursuit of those grants, make it difficult for researchers to stray too far from their own specialized fields. By contrast, I can take a bird’s-eye view of the vast diversity of animal communication systems so long as they bear some relevance to my ultimate lines of inquiry. At that level of abstraction, I scrutinize notions that tend to remain implicit rather than elucidated in these empirical studies—notions such as representation, meaning, knowledge, information, communication, signal, convention, and coordination. So while, for instance, a linguist will take for granted a notion of meaning in her research on language change, a philosopher will put that notion under a conceptual microscope to try to understand what it comes to. Is the meaning of a sentence anything like the way in which a tree frog’s bright coloration “means” that it is noxious? And is the ability of thoughts to represent the world on a par with the ability of words to do so, or are the two kinds of “representation” quite distinct? Answers to such questions will determine whether a single theory will account for a wide array of communicative phenomena, or rather whether multiple theories will be needed to account for this diversity.

Large questions about meaning and communication are integral to the philosophical quest to understand ourselves and our relation to other species that either have preceded our own or with whom we currently share our planet. Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and many other philosophers have speculated on such issues. The current expansion of research on the evolution of language and communication make this a propitious time for philosophers to draw upon and, if possible, expand this legacy. Timely support from the American Council of Learned Societies has put me in a position to contribute to research on the origins of meaning and communication, and I am honored by the opportunity I have been given to represent the humanities in this endeavor.

Mitchell Green F'05, F'00 received a Contemplative Practice Fellowship for his study on "Subtle Self-Knowledge" and a Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship for his project "Expressive Meaning: Self-Expression and Self-Constitution in Language and the Arts." The complete series is available here.

  1. ACLS Frequently Asked Questions Back to text. Back to text.
  2. R. Cheney and D. Seyfarth, How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species (U of Chicago P, 1992). Back to text.
  3. P. Marler and H. Slabbekoorn (eds.) Nature’s Music: The Science of Birdsong (Elsevier, 2004). Back to text.
  4. The locus classicus of this insight is Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Paul Ekman’s recent edition of this book not only makes Darwin’s text newly accessible, but also sets his most significant claims in the context of contemporary research in psychology and neuroscience. See Ekman (ed.) The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, 4th ed. (Oxford UP, 2009). Back to text.
  5. This point is made by T. Fitch, The Evolution of Language (Cambridge UP, 2009). Back to text.
  6. A reliable introduction to the philosophy of language is W. Lycan’s, The Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge, 2008). Back to text.
  7. Bar-On and I defend this point in "Lionspeak: Expression, Meaning and Communication," E. Rubenstein (ed.) Self, Language and World: Problems from Kant, Sellars and Rosenberg (Ridgeview, 2010) pp. 89-106. Back to text.
  8. I develop and defend this latter point in my article "Speech acts, the handicap principle, and the expression of psychological states," Mind and Language, vol. 24 (2009), pp. 139-63. Back to text.
  9. I develop a theory of expression in my book, Self-Expression (Oxford U.P., 2007), and Bar-On defends a complementary approach to the topic of self-knowledge in her Speaking My Mind: Expression and Self-Knowledge (Oxford UP, 2005). The suggestion that certain words and phrases in modern languages are fossils of earlier communicative systems is made by R. Jackendoff, Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution (Oxford U.P., 2003). Back to text.
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