Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 481-500

First online:

Imitation and conventional communication

  • Richard MooreAffiliated withDepartment of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology Email author 

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To the extent that language is conventional, non-verbal individuals, including human infants, must participate in conventions in order to learn to use even simple utterances of words. This raises the question of which varieties of learning could make this possible. In this paper I defend Tomasello’s (The cultural origins of human cognition. Harvard UP, Cambridge, 1999, Origins of human communication. MIT, Cambridge, 2008) claim that knowledge of linguistic conventions could be learned through imitation. This is possible because Lewisian accounts of convention have overstated what one must know to participate in conventions; and because the required knowledge could be learned imitatively. The imitation claim that I defend is consistent with what we know about both the proliferation of conventional behaviours in human children, who are skilful imitators, and the comparative absence of such behaviours in non-human great apes, who are poor at imitative learning.


Communication Conventions Language development Imitation Social learning