Crude Meaning, Brute Thought (or: What Are They Thinking?!)


  • Dorit Bar-On University of Connecticut



I address here the question what sense to make of the idea that there can be thought prior to language (both in ontogeny and among nonlinguistic animals). I begin by juxtaposing two familiar and influential philosophical views, one associated with the work of Paul Grice, the other associated with the work of Donald Davidson. Grice and Davidson share a broad, rationalist perspective on language and thought, but they endorse conflicting theses on the relation between them. Whereas, for Grice, thought of an especially complex sort is a precondition of linguistic meaning, for Davidson, there can be no genuine thought without language. I argue that both views present us with unpalatable alternatives concerning our understanding of the natural origins of objective thought and meaningful language. Drawing on what I take to be key insights from Grice and Davidson, I then lay out some broad desiderata for an intermediate position. I finally turn to a certain form of nonlinguistic communication of the sort of which both prelinguistic children and languageless animals are capable, viz., expressive communication. I propose that a proper appreciation of the character and function of expressive communication can help us trace the outlines of the desired intermediate position.


Bar-On, Dorit, 1993. “Indeterminacy of Translation: Theory and Practice.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53: 781–810.

———, 1994. “Conceptual Relativism and Translation.” In Language, Mind and Epistemology: On Donald Davidson’s Philosophy, edited by G. Preyer, F. Siebelt, and A. Ulfig, pp. 145–70. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

———, 1995. “Reconstructing ‘Meaning’: Grice and the Naturalization of Semantics.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 76: 83–116.

———, 2004. Speaking My Mind: Expression and Self-Knowledge. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

———, 2010. “Expressing as ‘Showing What’s Within’.” Philosophical Books 51: 212–27.

———, 2013a. “Expressive Communication and Continuity Skepticism.” The Journal of Philosophy 110: 293–330.

———, 2013b. “Origins of Meaning: Must We ‘Go Gricean’ ?” Mind & Language 28: 342–75.

———, 2015. “Expression: Acts, Products, and Meaning.” In Meaning Without Representation: Essays on Truth, Expression, Normativity, and Naturalism, edited by S. Gross, N. Tebben and M. Williams, pp. 180–209. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, 2016. “Sociality, Expression, and This Thing Called Language.” Inquiry 59: 56–79.

———, 2017. “Communicative Intentions, Expressive Communication, and Origins of Meaning.” In Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Animal Minds, edited by K. Andrews and J. Beck, pp. 301–12. London: Routledge.

———, 2018. “Minding the Gap: In Defense of Mind–mind Continuity.” In Wittgenstein and Naturalism, edited by K. Cahill and T. Raleigh, pp. 177–203. New York: Routledge.

Bar-On, Dorit and Mitchell S. Green, 2010. “Lionspeak: Communication, Expression and Meaning.” In Self, Language and Word: Problems from Kant, Sellars and Rosenberg, edited by J. O’Shea and E. Rubenstein, pp. 89–106. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview.

Bar-On, Dorit and Matthew Priselac, 2011. “Triangulation and the Beasts.” In Triangulation: From an Epistemological Point of View, edited by C. Amoretti and G. Preyer, pp. 121–52. New York: Oxford University Press.

Beck, Jacob, 2012. “Do Animals Engage in Conceptual Thought?” Philosophy Compass 7: 218–29.

———, 2013. “Why We Can’t Say What Animals Think.” Philosophical Psychology 26: 520–46.

Bermudez, José Luis, 2003. Thinking Without Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Berwick, Robert C. and Noam Chomsky, 2016. Why Only Us: Language and Evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Brandom, Robert B., 1994. Making it Explicit. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burge, Tyler, 2010a. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, 2010b. “Steps Toward Origins of Propositional Thought.” Disputato 4: 39–67.

Campbell, John, 2011. Review of Tyler Burge, Origins of Objectivity. The Journal of Philosophy 108: 269–85.

Carruthers, Peter, 2009. “Invertebrate Concepts Meet the Generality Constraint (and Win).” In The Philosophy of Animal Minds, edited by R. Lurz, pp. 89–107. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cheney, Dorothy and Robert M. Seyfarth, 2003. “Signalers and Receivers in Animal Communication.” Annual Review of Psychology 54: 145–73.

———, 2007. Baboon Metaphysics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clark, Andy, 2006. “Language, Embodiment and the Cognitive Niche.” TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 10: 370–74.

Cussins, Adrian, 1990. “Content, Conceptual Content, and Nonconceptual Content.” In The Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence, edited by M. Boden, pp. 380–400. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Darwin, Charles, 1872. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. London: John Murray.

Davidson, Donald, 1974. “Belief and the Basis of Meaning.” Synthese 27: 309–23.

———, 1994. “The Social Aspect of Language.” In The Philosophy of Michael Dummett, edited by B. McGuiness and G. Oliveri, pp. 1–16. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

———, 1999. “The Emergence of Thought.” Reprinted in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, pp. 123–34. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.

Dretske, Fred L., 1995. Naturalizing the Mind. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books/MIT Press.

Dummett, Michael, 1993. Origins of Analytical Philosophy. London: Duckworth.

Fodor, Jerry A., 1975. The Language of Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gauker, Christopher, 2011. Words and Images: An Essay on the Origin of Ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Green, Mitchell S., 2007. Self-Expression. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grice, H. P., 1957. “Meaning.” Philosophical Review 66: 377–88.

———, 1982. “Meaning Revisited.” Reprinted in Studies in the Way of Words, pp. 283–303. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hurford, James R., 2007. The Origins of Meaning: Language in the Light of Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hutto, Daniel D., 2008. Folk Psychological Narratives: The Socio-Cultural Basis of Understanding Reasons. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books/MIT Press.

Hutto, Daniel D. and Erik Myin, 2013. Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds Without Content. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

———, 2017. Evolving Enactivism: Basic Minds Meet Content. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hutto, Daniel D. and Glenda Satne, 2017. “Continuity Scepticism in Doubt: A Radically Enactive Take.” In Embodiment, Enaction, and Culture: Investigating the Constitution of the Shared World, edited by C. Durt, T. Fuchs and C. Tewes, pp. 107–27. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lepore, Ernest and Kirk Ludwig, 2005. Donald Davidson: Meaning, Truth, Language, and Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lycan, William G., 1996. Consciousness and Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Malcolm, Norman, 1973. “Thoughtless Brutes.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 46: 5–20.

Manser, Marta B., 2001. “The Acoustic Structures of Suricates’ Alarm Calls Varies with Predator Type and the Level of Response Urgency.” Proceedings of the Royal Society, series B, Biological Sciences 268: 2315–24.

McDowell, John, 1996. Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Millikan, Ruth, 1984. Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books/MIT Press.

———, 1996. “Pushmi-Pullu Representations.” In Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 9, AI, Connectionism, and Philosophical Psychology, edited by J. Tomberlin, pp. 185–200. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview.

———, 2004a. “On Reading Signs: Some Differences Between Us and the Others.” In Evolution of Communication Systems: A Comparative Approach, edited by D. Oller and U. Griebel, pp. 15–30. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

———, 2004b. Varieties of Meaning: The 2002 Jean Nicod Lectures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Origgi, Gloria and Dan Sperber, 2000. “Evolution, Communication, and the Proper Function of Language.” In Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language, and Meta-Cognition, edited by P. Carruthers and A. Chamberlain, pp. 140–69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosenberg, Jay F., 2007. Wilfrid Sellars: Fusing the Images. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schiffer, Stephen R., 1972. Meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scott-Phillips, Thom, 2014. Speaking Our Minds: Why Human Communication is Different, and How Language Evolved to Make it Special. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sellars, Wilfrid, 1969. “Language as Thought and as Communication.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 29: 506–27.

Sias, James and Dorit Bar-On, 2015. “Emotions and Their Expressions.” In Emotional Expression, edited by C. Abell and J. Smith, pp. 46–72. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tormey, Alan, 1971. The Concept of Expression. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.