Gastvortrag: Prof. Dr. Dorit Bar-On (University of Connecticut)


EW 145

Expression, Communication, and Origins of Meaning: A Philosophical Perspective

Vom 30.09. bis 03.10.2019 wird Prof. Dr. Dorit Bar-On (University of Connecticut) am Philosophischen Seminar zu Besuch sein. Am 01.10.2019 wird sie einen Gastvortrag halten. 

The puzzle of language evolution is often introduced by pointing to a great gulf – a Rubicon – separating human language from all forms of animal communication.  The greater the gulf, the more puzzling it is how human language could have possibly evolved.  In its philosophical incarnation, the puzzle takes the form of what I call ‘continuity skepticism’.  This is the idea that human mental and communicative capacities cannot be illuminated by seeing them as descendants of capacities possessed by our nonhuman ancestors.  Thus, several prominent contemporary philosophers (Donald Davidson, John McDowell, Christine Korsgaard, and Robert Brandom, to name a few) have argued that, although there is no denying that, biologically speaking, we ‘came from’ the beasts, there can be no intelligible philosophical explanation of the ‘natural history’ of human minds and human language.  This is because – they argue – the differences between full-fledged human thought and communication, on the one hand, and all nonhuman animal conduct, on the other hand, are differences ‘in kind’ and not just in degree. Human thought and language have objective, reflective, rule-governed character, whereas all nonhuman animal behavior is merely responsive, instinct-driven, and pattern-governed; and that gives little hope that human/nonhuman comparisons could shed any light on the emergence of our distinctively human capacities.

Keeping in mind the philosophical challenge posed by continuity skepticism, I am interested in evaluating a certain strategy for addressing the puzzle of language evolution adopted in recent years by a number of theorists.  According to this strategy, in addressing the discontinuity between human language and animal communication, our focus should be on explaining the emergence of cooperative, communicative intentions in our species.  So the emergence of our distinctive linguistic sophistication is to be explained by the prior emergence of our psychological sophistication. I argue, first, that this approach renders the evolutionary emergence of language less tractable than it could be, for it replaces the language Rubicon with an equally problematic psychological Rubicon.  I then propose an alternative strategy for meeting the continuity skeptic’s challenge, which seeks to identify a proper ‘middle ground’ between both human psychological and communicative capacities, on the one hand, and those of nonhuman animals, on the other.  In this spirit, I offer a theoretical reevaluation of the capacity for expressive behavior, which has long been dismissed by theorists of language evolution as irrelevant to the emergence of human language.  I argue that proper understanding of expressive behavior and the kind of communication it affords can help bring to light certain important human/nonhuman continuities that may in fact be relevant to the natural history of human mindedness and language.