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Origins of Meaning: Must We ‘Go Gricean’?


  • Work on this paper was supported by a 3-year NSF grant [Award # 0925896] for collaborative research (with Mitchell Green). Preliminary research was undertaken while I was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center 2010–11. I thank Mitchell Green for collaborative work that helped shape the view defended in this paper. Special thanks to Carol Voeller for immensely valuable discussions and comments on several drafts. An anonymous referee, Brady Clark, Ian Ground, Randy Hendricks, Doug Long, Richard Moore, Matthew Priselac, Dean Pettit, Robert Seyfarth, and Ulrich Stegmann all provided helpful feedback, and members of my Expressive Communication and Origins of Meaning (ECOM) Research Group ( have helped through discussions and research assistance. Thanks to audiences at the Institute of Philosophy, University of London (24 March 2011) and the Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit in Edinburgh (28 March 2011).

Address for correspondence: Department of Philosophy, CB#3125, Caldwell Hall, UNC-Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27517–3125, USA.



The task of explaining language evolution is often presented by leading theorists in explicitly Gricean terms. After a critical evaluation, I present an alternative, non-Gricean conceptualization of the task. I argue that, while it may be true that nonhuman animals, in contrast to language users, lack the ‘motive to share information’ understood à la Grice, nonhuman animals nevertheless do express states of mind through complex nonlinguistic behavior. On a proper, non-Gricean construal of expressive communication, this means that they show to their designated audience (without intentionally telling)—and their designated audience recognizes (without rationally inferring)—both how things are in the world and how things are with them. Recognizing that our nonhuman predecessors were already proficient—though non-Gricean—sharers of such information would free us to focus on the more tractable problem of explaining how linguistic expressive vehicles came to replace, augment, and transform the nonlinguistic expressive means to which nonhuman animals are consigned.