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Reboul Anne - Social evolution of public languages : between Rousseau’s Eden and Hobbes’ Leviathan

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Conférence donnée par Anne Reboul dans le cadre du séminaire "Language, cognition and computational models".

In the past few years, the question of the evolution of language has clearly favoured social accounts, which basically have defended a strong link between public languages and prosocial tendencies toward group cohesion and cooperation. The two main such accounts have contrary causal directions : according to Dunbar (1996, 2004), language evolved to replace grooming as a tool for group cohesion, while according to Tomasello (2008, 2009), sharing, as a major tendency of human nature, gave way to the sharing of information through public languages, as a means for sharing states of mind including emotions. These accounts seem to favor a fairly Rousseauist view of human nature, according to which linguistic communication is seen as altruistic cooperation, and seem, at least partly, based on a fairly misguided interpretation of the Gricean notion of cooperation.

Such views of the evolution of public languages, and more generally, of the evolution of communication are profoundly problematic anyway, given the basic tenets of the theory of natural selection : altruistic cooperation, including altruistic communication, could never have evolved. Rather, one should expect communication either to be mutualistic (which seems roughly to be the case for animal communication systems) or to be basically strategic or tactical, aimed by the agent at the realisation of his or her ultimate goal through the effects of the communication on the mental states and on the behavior of the addressee (Krebs & Dawkins 1984). And this is perfectly compatible with Gricean cooperation, as long as a necessary distinction is made between distal (non-Gricean, manipulative) and proximal (Gricean, cooperative) intentions.

Basically, strategic or tactical communication is tantamount to manipulation, itself often associated to lying. This is obviously a possibility, but hardly a necessity : manipulation can quite well be associated with telling the truth, though it necessitates lesser forms of deception, notably that the agent hides his/her manipulative (distal) intentions and his/her ultimate goals. Is there a way to support this alternative view of the evolution of public languages ? Well, the universal existence in human languages (and in no other animal communication system) of implicit communication seems to give such a supporting evidence. Implicit communication, though it would seem a highly risky form of communication as it is subject to failure in a way that explicit communication is not, fulfills two important functions relative to such a strategic or manipulative view of the evolution of public languages. It allows the speaker to bypass his/her hearer’s epistemic vigilance ; and it allows the speaker to deny his/her manipulative intentions by denying any commitment to the information thus communicated (Reboul 2011, in press). Additionally, its frequent use in politeness, if politeness is seen as a way to safely navigate dominance relations, is also manipulative.

Finally, what we know of the political organization of hunter-gatherer groups, which seem to be the best models for the groups of humans in which public languages have evolved since about 200,000 years ago, gives a strong reason for the evolution of implicit comunication : such groups work on an egalitarian and consensual basis (Boehm 1999, 2012), which is strongly (and occasionally murderously) enforced. Decisions at group level are discussed and so-called leaders are supposed to keep a low profile and to refrain from pushing forward their own positions. Implicit communication is a good way to circumvent such socially enforced prescriptions.

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