, Volume 195, Issue 2, pp 603–621 | Cite as

David Lewis in the lab: experimental results on the emergence of meaning

  • Justin Bruner
  • Cailin O’Connor
  • Hannah Rubin
  • Simon M. Huttegger


In this paper we use an experimental approach to investigate how linguistic conventions can emerge in a society without explicit agreement. As a starting point we consider the signaling game introduced by Lewis (Convention 1969). We find that in experimental settings, small groups can quickly develop conventions of signal meaning in these games. We also investigate versions of the game where the theoretical literature indicates that meaning will be less likely to arise—when there are more than two states for actors to transfer meaning about and when some states are more likely than others. In these cases, we find that actors are less likely to arrive at strategies where signals have clear conventional meaning. We conclude with a proposal for extending the use of the methodology of experimental economics in experimental philosophy.


Signaling Experimental philosophy Meaning Evolution 



The authors would like to thank Andreas Blume and Elliott Wagner for comments on the paper. We would like to thank Michael McBride for advice on experimental economics and Sabine Kunrath for help with the statistical analysis of our data. Thanks to helpful audiences at GIRL 2013 and the ESSL workshop at UC Irvine 2012. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. EF 1038456. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Justin Bruner
    • 1
  • Cailin O’Connor
    • 2
  • Hannah Rubin
    • 2
  • Simon M. Huttegger
    • 2
  1. 1.Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  2. 2.UC IrvineIrvineUSA

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