Philosophical Topics

Volume 50, Issue 1, Spring 2022

Inferentialism on Naturalized Grounds

Antonio Scarafone, John Michael
Pages 135-159

Getting Ready to Share Commitments

Paul Grice’s theory of meaning has been widely adopted as a starting point for investigating the evolutionary and developmental emergence of linguistic communication. In this picture, reasoning about complexes of intentions is a prerequisite for communicating effectively at the prelinguistic level, as well as for acquiring a natural language. We argue that this broadly ‘Gricean’ picture rests on an equivocation between theories of communication and theories of cognition, and that it leads to paradoxical or implausible claims about human psychology. We defend an alternative conception of prelinguistic communication, inspired by Bart Geurts and based on the notion of commitment. Adopting a commitment-first approach makes it possible to avoid the pernicious equivocation, and it provides a better systematization of the key empirical findings. We develop our argument with respect to (1) infants’ sensitivity to ‘ostensive signals’; (2) infants’ pointing; (3) and infants’ endorsement of normative attitudes in joint activities. Finally, adopting a commitment-first approach makes it possible to argue that sophisticated forms of psychological reasoning are enabled by the mastery of a rich natural language, rather than being a prerequisite for acquiring one.