I love the fact that Thom Scott-Phillips does not reply to my emails. Thom’s research focuses on human communication, which he resembles to a dancing couple that respond to each other’s ostensive signals. Thom doesn’t want to dance with me 🙁
Of course, this lack of response does not invalidate Thom’s insight. However, one cannot account for communication by assuming communication. In other words, the Gricean paradigm cannot explain why a dance appears out of a situation where there was no such dance or signalling interaction.
Picture Thom’s crowded inbox. Suppose it contains my email and that of the woman who dances with him in the TED video (see the above link). Biologically speaking, the question is, why does Thom choose to respond to that woman’s signals and not to mine? This can provide clues about why our ancestors, strangely, began to prefer these ambiguous ostensive signals over the direct signals of other apes.
The answer to that question is obviously not in Thom’s psychological recognition that both the woman and I have an intention to tell him something. The answer is in the fact that the woman has, through her observable actions, persuaded Thom to respond to her.
Notice that I have not written that the signals Thom has received from this woman are persuasive. There is nothing persuasive in symbols, sounds or gestures in themselves. Rather, what is persuasive is the signaller’s behaviour toward Thom, which will be rewarding in some way if he responds to her email. Similarly, I could invite Thom for a dance with me, and my subsequent actions would explain why I produce ostensive signals, signals that communicate my intention to reward (or punish) Thom if he chooses to dance (or not) with me.
On the other hand, if we picture communication from the perspective of organisms that are always engaged or dancing, we will hardly elucidate the nature and origin of language. This is what I call a sociocentric perspective, and it affects the whole field of evolutionary biology. The ecosystem is not a society of organisms, each of whom has a function in their relations to each other, including a communicative function.
I have emailed many other communication researchers with enquiries about this topic, such as Richard Moore, Daniel Dor and some at the Language Evolution Centre at Edinburgh University, all of whom remain unresponsive. Maybe there’s none worse shod than the shoemaker’s wife, as they say. But at least it’s questionable that my signals perform a communicative function in this human ecosystem.