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.


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