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'Speaking Our Minds' Book Club

From mid-June to mid-July 2015, the ICCI website has hosted a Book Club devoted to Thom Scott-Phillips’ book, Speaking Our Mind. The book has received positive reviews in various media, including the Times Literary Supplement (read Richard Moore's review here), and has been called "an amazing job" (Stuart West),“the most important and best book ever written on the evolution of language” (Dan Sperber).

The participants were: 

Thom Scott-Phillips (with a précis of his book; see also his concluding remarks)

Alberto Acerbi (his post)

Clark Barrett (his post)

Bart de Boer (his post)

Greg Bryant (his post)

Mathieu Charbonneau (his post)

Liz Irvine (her post)

Katja Liebal (her post)

Richard Moore (his post)

Olivier Morin (his post)

Ira Noveck & Tiffany Morisseau (their post)

Kenny Smith (his post)

Paulo Sousa & Karolina Prochownik (their post)

Dan Sperber (his post)

Tim Wharton (his post)

Deirdre Wilson (her post)

Tad Zawidzki (his post)

The book club was organized by Olivier Morin, with the assistance of Tiffany Morisseau, the webmistress of this site, and Dan Sperber. Thanks to Nicolas Claidière and Andrea Jenei for their help on solving technical issues.

Reflections on the Speaking Our Minds book club

I can say without reservation or qualification that the Speaking Our Minds (SOM) book club was the single most challenging and rewarding intellectual experience of my career to date. Every day for two weeks some very bright and engaged people posted extensive comments on my work, and initiated many excellent conversations. It is a privilege to have one’s work be the focus of so much attention and good quality debate, and I would like to express my gratitude to cognitionandculture.net for the opportunity.

So many good points were made that I almost want to rewrite the book! That’s an exaggeration, of course, but an online book club really is the ideal way to find out how your readers actually read your work – much better than a published review – and these insights have at the very least provided me with plenty of material for a second edition. I don’t think I would change any of the main claims, or the overall structure of the book, but if I were to edit it now, I would elaborate on and clarify many things. I won’t here repeat matters of clarification, but this does seem a good opportunity to summarise, in no particular order, some of the most important ways in which I would add to the substance of SOM in light of the book club.

Clarify that SOM does not claim to solve everything. More than one participant understood SOM as making the claim that all the interesting questions one might wish to ask about language evolution are settled and resolved. It was not my intention to suggest this. I do think SOM does is provide the right basic framework within which to frame other issues, but that is not to deny that there are many interesting and important questions that remain unanswered. I regret that this distinction is not explicit.

Communication without Metapsychology

This is an excellent book. I cannot think of another on this topic that matches its clarity, concision, accessibility, comprehensiveness, and argumentative rigor. I’m quite amazed that Scott-Phillips has managed to combine such seemingly antithetical virtues in one work. The discussion is also admirably honest: Scott-Phillips owns up to the obvious weaknesses with the view and offers strong responses.

I am a little embarrassed and anxious, therefore, because I disagree with most of the main theses of the book. Not all of them. Scott-Phillips persuades me that pure code theories of language origins are hopeless. I am also persuaded that some kind of inference is necessary to explain linguistic communication. There are also persuasive discussions regarding the dearth of combinatorial communication systems in nature, and the role of cultural attractors in the evolution of languages. However, I totally reject the main thesis of the book: that linguistic communication is entirely parasitic on ostensive-inferential communication, where this is understood in terms of metapsychological competence, in particular, the capacity to attribute recursive mental states, via the kinds of inferences that scientists use to infer causal hypotheses from observable data (chapter 1.4).

A closer look at communication among our closest relatives

I am writing this while conducting fieldwork in Zambia, with only very limited access to the internet. Therefore, I could not read already existing posts and the corresponding responses and discussions, and some of the issues I will refer to might have been raised by others already. However, as a researcher interested in the gestural and facial communication of great apes, I want to offer some comments and facts from a comparative perspective on human communication and language evolution.

As a more general comment, I specifically liked the way Thom Scott-Phillips navigates the reader through this book by providing definitions of different terms, particularly of those often causing confusion when being used by scholars of different disciplines, as well as summaries of the most important facts of each chapter together with a brief outlook about what the reader can expect in the following chapter. Furthermore, although I am interested in potential precursors of human language in other primates, thus favoring a continuous approach to language evolution, I agree that researchers interested in language evolution sometimes compare “pears and apples”, since the behaviors of interest are not correctly (or too broadly) defined. Sometimes there is a tendency to focus on similarities between humans and other primates, while at the same time, differences might be neglected. However, I will point out later why I do not agree with some of the conclusions Thom Scott-Phillips draws from comparative research, with special focus on his chapter 4, dedicated to the origins of ostensive communication.

Cats, tacs and kunvenshuns

First of all, thanks to Thom for his excellent book. I agree completely that pragmatics has been under-represented in discussions of the evolution of language (with the notable exceptions you mention). I was, I recall, the only pragmaticist speaking at Evolang in Paris in 2001. I recall also that I was advised in the strongest possible terms not to go by a certain person: he knows who he is, but shall remain nameless! Thanks also to Tiffany and Olivier, and to cognitionandculture.net, for inviting me to participate.

As someone whose interest in relevance theory has come via linguistics, rather than say, psychology, anthropology or cognitive science, I will not address the areas of the book with which I broadly agree – the centrality of ostensive-inferential communication, the emergence of language as a tool to make that more explicit, mindreading, cultural attractors etc. Much of the book is, as far as I can see, right. However, there is one thing I’d like to take issue with.

Natural language and the language of thought

I found Thom’s book extremely illuminating, insightful and enjoyable. I learned a great deal from it, and look forward to this online discussion, from which I’m sure I’ll learn a lot more.

One point where I was left feeling rather frustrated was in the brief discussion of Chomsky’s views on language and adaptation (section 6.2). I had been hoping to get some guidance on how to think about the increasingly acrimonious debates between Chomsky and others on the existence or non-existence of a dedicated language faculty or Universal Grammar, but Thom remains officially neutral on this. As he says in the Précis,

"What might be a natural object of study is an innate cognitive mechanism – sometimes called a Universal Grammar – without which we would not be able to acquire and use languages. I say that this only “might be” a natural object of study simply because whether such a mechanism actually exists is a disputed and much vexed issue, on which I am personally agnostic."

Although I would have liked to hear more on the pros as well as the cons of Universal Grammar, what mainly frustrates me is the possibility that what Chomsky means by language is not the same as what Thom means, so the discussion may be at least partly at cross-purposes.

Inferential communication and information theory

Speaking Our Minds is a timely book that very effectively frames many of the current important problems facing researchers interested in the nature of language and communication. Too few scholars today are worried simultaneously about evolutionary psychology and pragmatics, and ever since my introduction to Thom’s work with his article “Defining biological communication” I have found myself often in high agreement with his conclusions. That said, the main point of contention I would like to bring to the group here is actually a fairly fundamental issue in which my own view has recently shifted away from modern pragmatics theory. The issue concerns the purported distinction between the code model of communication and ostensive-inferential communication, and what it really adds to our current understanding. Is the supposed failure of an information theory-based code model an outdated (and false) argument from a previous time in pragmatics that needed a straw man? I’m thinking it is. 
One concern at the heart of the code model problem involves the role of inference in communication. Unconscious inference is a central concept in cognitive science: it’s everywhere. Even the most low-level adaptive problems in perception involving feature detection and integration are solved through inferential procedures. Bottom-up information across modalities is often structured statistically but highly impoverished, so computational solutions incorporate rich priors to extract meaningful data that can be further processed, eventually leading to perceptual experience. Top-down processes are central to all of cognition, and importantly, communication. I’m sure Thom would agree. There does not seem to be much objection to the application of information theory to these topics, so it’s not just a problem about inference on unobservable data. But then what is it exactly? If we are to approach human communication generally, and linguistic communication specifically, from a computational point of view, it is hard to imagine how one might model these inferential processes free from information theory. 

One explanation to rule them all?

The field of language evolution, it seems to me, is a microcosm of the evolutionary behavioral sciences more generally, in the following sense: you can maintain more or less any position you want, even in the face of data. Is there a Universal Grammar? Some are convinced there is and others are equally positive there isn’t, with subjective probabilities for the two hypotheses hovering in the high nineties and low single digits, respectively, in the opposing camps. Is spoken language evolutionarily old, or relatively recent? Take your pick. Are there language-specific cognitive adaptations, or not? It depends on your postal code.

Amidst this free-for-all, many have tried their hand at finding the holy grail of language evolution: the single unique feature from which all the rest of language’s notorious complexity follows, the one explanatory ring to rule them all. Examples include Michael Tomasello’s candidate, shared intentionality, and Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch’s recursion. With Speaking Our Minds (SOM), Thom Scott-Phillips introduces and defends his own candidate for what makes human language special: ostensive-inferential communication, which is in turn made possible by recursive mindreading. SOM mounts an impressive theoretical argument, and along the way makes a strong plea for the importance of bringing pragmatics to the fore in thinking about language evolution. I think the praise that the book has received is well-deserved, and I can’t imagine any serious scholar in the field of language evolution won’t feel compelled to read it and to engage with its arguments.

Intending to speak our mind, and speaking our mind

Thom Scott-Phillips' contribution consists in further grounding Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson’s Relevance Theory into an evolutionary and cognitive framework for the advent of human language. I take it that the central thesis of Scott-Phillips’ book is that language is not an organ. Rather, it is the result of the joint capacity for ostensive-inferential communication—a side product of increased social capabilities for recursive mindreading—in addition to the production and cultural transmission/transformation of conventional codes. Scott-Phillips’ project is a difficult one and, to me, the synthetic review he offers in his recent book is an important step forward.

I want to focus on a mechanism that, in my view, is important for Scott-Phillips’ project, but not directly discussed in the book: the capacity to produce public displays from private, mental representations. I will see how it relates to some of the conceptual points made in the book — the issue about continuity and discontinuity between natural and conventional codes, and the role of natural codes in the evolution of ostensive-communication.

Communication, culture, and biology in the evolution of language

Speaking Our Minds is an enjoyable book, providing an excellent survey of some of the perennial and current issues in the field of language evolution, as well as providing a clear summary of Thom’s position on the central role of ostensive-inferential communication in language origins. I hope neither author will mind if I say that it reminded me very strongly of Jim Hurford’s recent (and rather more monumental) books on the same topic, which is perhaps not so surprising since Thom studied with Jim. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s a very bold book, since some of the crucial evidence that Thom would need to nail down his position isn’t available – I can’t help but be struck by how many cells in table 4.2 (which in reviewing the evidence for the human-uniqueness of capacities for ostensive-inferential communication is really the heart of the book’s argument) are filled “Not (yet) directly studied”. I hope the book stimulates some of that work.

I want to make two comments here, on sections of the book where Thom touches most closely on work that I am most familiar with, on the cultural evolution of language (Chapter 5) and (much more briefly!) how that changes our understanding of what the biological capacity for language actually is (Chapter 6).

Enjoyable, but doesn't solve the mystery

(This post forms part of our "book club discussing Thom Scott-Phillip's latest book with its author. This précis introduced the discussion.)

I have read Thom Scott-Philips’ book with great pleasure, but also with a very critical eye. It is extremely well written— I have read most of it during long train rides and had no difficulties concentrating on it. For someone who is as easily distracted as myself that says quite something. I also felt myself almost persuaded by the arguments, but in the end there are many things with which I disagree.

I do agree that pragmatics and inference are extremely important in language, and that they perhaps deserve more attention than they usually get. However, I also do think that Thom presents too much of a straw man argument. Most serious students of language evolution have been convinced of the importance of pragmatics and inference for a long time (although, given the complexity of the subject they may not have made it the focus of their research). The position that Thom appears to be arguing against is perhaps the syntax-centred, Chomsky-inspired formal view of language. However this position is of decreasing importance in both linguistics and the study of language evolution. I definitely do not agree that the ostensive-inferential model proposed by Thom solves all problems of language evolution.

Alignments across disciplines

By Ira Noveck & Tiffany Morisseau

This book left a very positive impression on us both. It is practically a manifesto for clear thinking about doing proper Gricean analyses in applied areas of communication. Speaking our minds (SOM), which describes and reshapes the theoretical landscape in the evolutionary biology of communication, allowed us to compare and contrast that field of inquiry with the field of experimental pragmatics, the area we know best. Here is how the two are similar: Both fields make room for the Code model and a Gricean Ostensive-Inferential model, both recognize Grice’s monumental proposal as important, and yet in each of our respective fields, it seems like a majority takes it for granted that the Code model should be the point of reference.

Another generally appreciated feature of the work is the way Thom clears away misconstruals and addresses incorrect assumptions, for example when he points out that shared function does not mean shared histories:

Combinatoriality and codes

I read this book as part of an interdisciplinary reading group at Cardiff. As we found, there’s a lot to agree with in the book, but the commentary below focuses on two points that we found confusing.

Combinatorial communication

Chapter 2 claims to be about the impressive expressive power of language: we can construct an infinite number of sentences, expressing new ideas and capturing a huge range of meanings with a finite set of building blocks. At least, this is what Pinker and Fodor and others find extraordinary about language. The apparent target explanation of this chapter is whether code communication or ostensive communication is the most likely route to it. But instead of trying to explain the productivity and expressivity of language by focusing on compositionality and systematicity, the chapter focuses on ‘combinatorial’ communication of a particular kind. However, this neither fits with usual definitions of either combinatoriality (combining meaningless units) or compositionality (combining meaningful units where the meaning of the whole is composed of sub-meanings of parts), and I think ends up answering a very different sort of question.

No communication without reputation, no reputation without communication

I chose to organise an ICCI book club around Speaking Our Minds because it is an exceptional book in more than one way. It ties together two research traditions¬—the pragmatic approach to linguistics and the Darwinian legacy in biology—, that lie at the heart of our field. It does so in a perfect format—the book is a delight to read, and to teach. Yet a good Book Club book should be more than a good book: it should also stir up discussions.

Speaking Our Minds (SOM) is sure to do that: here is a book that claims to solve every major problem linked with the birth of human language! I won’t be the only one who doubts that. I think that Thom Scott-Phillips’ account of how human communication evolved leaves at least one key problem unsolved: How is communication stable in the face of free-riding and deception? In the two sections of SOM that he devotes to that issue (6.5.–6.6), and in his paper On the correct application of animal signalling theory to human communication, Thom rejects the standard solutions to the problem. In the field of language evolution, these tend to come from signalling theory, and to involve the Handicap Principle . With some nuances, I share his grim view of the prospects of signalling theory. Yet his own solution is not just extremely sketchy, at times it verges on circularity.

Cultural attraction, “standard” cultural evolution, and language

Speaking Our Minds
 (SOM) was a great pleasure to read. This slim book provides even a non expert like myself with an accessible but, at the same time, in-depth treatment of language evolution. Scott-Phillips proposes us a coherent and, according to him, exhaustive, picture of the origins and evolution of language. The big questions are answered: we can proceed to the next topic.

I wonder how the community of linguists will feel in regard to this bold attitude (by the way, I am all for bold attitudes). As for myself, I can comment on a particular aspect of the book, that is, the role assigned to cultural attraction in explaining some of the features of language.

Key notions in the study of communication

I am enthusiastic about Thom Scott-Phillips’ book. It integrates cutting-edge research in several fields, from biology to pragmatics, relevant to the study of the evolution of human communication and it redirects the whole enterprise in a new, much more promising direction. This, however, is not the place to wax lyrical about the book; so, let me focus on a single conceptual question of broad relevance where Thom makes a very valuable contribution, but one that, I believe, still needs more work on the part of all of us.

In chapter 2, table 2-1, Thom proposes a set of “definitions of key terms in communication” developing the idea that “if an action [of one organism] causes a reaction [of another organism], and both are designed for the purposes of playing that role in the interaction [between the two organisms], then we can term the action a signal and the reaction a response, and the overall interaction communicative. If however, one half or the other was not designed for these purposes, then the action is either a cue or a coercitive behaviour.” ActionReaction

The idea of defining key notions in the study of communication and related phenomena in term of the presence or absence of interfacing designs or functions is a brilliant one (suggested by John Maynard Smith and David Harper and developed in an original way by Thom), but one that raises a number of difficult issues. I’ll focus on just one such issue.

A few comments on 'Speaking Our Minds'

By Paulo Sousa and Karolina Prochownik

We would like first to thank the ICCI team for the invitation to participate in the book club around Thom Scott-Phillips’ Speaking Our Minds, where a new theory of the evolution of human language and communication is put forward. This is a fantastic book full of groundbreaking ideas, and we are pretty much persuaded by the proposal. We are not experts on the topic and in our commentary we shall focus on some aspects of the book that we thought could have been approached from a slightly different angle or could have been a bit more elaborated, without presuming that our concerns challenge the core tenets of the book in any respect.


Scott-Phillips characterizes communication as a type of interaction that involves actions and reactions that have functional interdependence, where the source of the function may be natural selection or human intentionality (SOM, 29–33). We couldn’t avoid the feeling that this characterization is not specific enough. Take a physical fight between members of two species with attack-defense dispositions that evolved complementarily (e.g., in the context of a predator-prey relationship). All behavioral aspects of the fight seem to be communicative according to the above characterization, but it seems to us that only some aspects related to the transmission of information are communicative, and the above characterization does not seem to have the conceptual resources to specify the relevant aspects.

Why do children but not apes acquire language?

In his introduction to Thom Scott-Phillips’s Speaking Our Minds, Olivier Morin mentioned my review of the book in the TLS. For reasons of length I could not include more substantive objections to chapters 3 and 4 of Thom’s book in that review. However, since the gaps in his argument undermine his claim to have explained why humans but not apes acquired language, I don’t think the issues are trivial. While I develop some of these points elsewhere (see the footnote for details), since some of those papers are not yet out, this discussion seems like as good a place as any to point out the reservations that I have with some of the central claims of the book.

Central to Scott-Phillips’s explanation of why humans alone evolved language are, he claims, two cognitive abilities: the ability to act with and understand fourth order meta-representations, and the ability to distinguish between ‘informative’ and ‘communicative’ intentions. Scott-Phillips argues that humans but not apes acquired language because they possess both of these abilities in ways that apes do not. I don’t think this claim is defended adequately in his book.

'Speaking Our Minds': A précis

9781137334565"Speaking our Minds: Why Human Communication is Different and How Language Evolved to Make it Special" Palgrave, 2015 (212 pages). The book on the publisher's page.

Communication and language have always been key topics for research at the interface of cognition and culture. Rightly so, given the central role that linguistic communication plays in human social and cultural life. In fact, communication and language are doubly important, since they occupy both sides of the cognition and culture coin. On the one side is a cognitive ability, to engage in linguistic communication in the first place. On the other side are cultural objects, namely languages themselves, which are collections of communicative conventions shared within a population. This double importance is reflected in the ambiguity of the phrase “language evolution”, which is used both to describe the study of how humans evolved to communicate in the ways that they do, and the study of how languages themselves evolve, culturally, to take the various forms that they do.

In 1866 the Société de Linguistique de Paris declared that it would no longer consider correspondence on the topic of language origins (“La Société n’admet aucune communication concernant, soit l’origine du langage – soit la création d’une langue universelle”). This “ban” is often said to have curtailed language evolution research, only for it to be reawakened in the 1990s, but this clichéd history has little truth to it. A great deal of language evolution research occurred between 1866 and 1990. Darwin himself speculated on the origins of language just a few years after the Parisian edict, and several 20th-century research agendas directly address language origins. The clearest and most well-known example is the many attempts to teach human language to non-human apes. Contrary to common assertion, 1990 was not year zero for language evolution research.

It is however fair to say that it was during the 1990s that something like an academic field of language evolution began to emerge.

Cultural Evolution at the Santa Fe Institute

Last May, Daniel Dennett gathered, at the Santa Fe Institute, a handful of people who have written about cultural evolution. The general impression was that (as he tweeted some time later) "the meeting revealed a lot of unexpected comon ground". The International Cognition and Culture Institute is happy to publish, by way of proceedings, each participant's summary. Comments are open!

Daniel Dennett's introduction (with comments).

Participants' summaries (in alphabetical order): Susan BlackmoreRobert BoydNicolas ClaidièrePeter Godfrey-SmithJoseph HenrichOlivier MorinPeter RichersonDan SperberKim Sterelny.

(We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of Louis Godbout, which made the meeting possible.)


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