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Luck and the value of communication

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Abstract

Those in the Gricean tradition take it that successful human communication features an audience who not only arrives at the intended content of the signal, but also recognizes the speaker’s intention that they do so. Some in this tradition have also argued that there are yet further conditions on communicative success, which rule out the possibility of communicating by luck. Supposing that both intention-recognition and some sort of anti-luck condition are correctly included in an analysis of human communication, this article asks what the value of events satisfying these conditions is. I present a puzzle concerning the value of intention-recognition which is analogous to the Meno Problem in epistemology, but ultimately argue that this puzzle is solveable: the signaling-relevant value of intention recognition can be vindicated. However, I argue that the version of this puzzle that concerns the further proposed luck-proofing conditions on communication can not be answered. I argue therefore that communication, as analyzed by many, is no more valuable qua signal than a proper subset of its conditions. Human communication is then not a uniquely valuable signaling event.

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Notes

  1. There is a massive amount of literature on the question of non-human animals’ capacity for metarepresentation; a relatively recent review of this literature is Burge (2018). Important recent philosophical work on the relationship between human and non-human communication includes (Armstrong, 2021; Bar-On, 2013a, b).

  2. Strictly speaking, the first puzzle is aptly posed even to someone who accepts just the second and fourth of these premises, but for the solution that I offer to be available, one must also accept the first (intentionalism). In any event, those who accept that signaling success requires intention recognition will likewise generally accept intentionalism. The second puzzle is aptly posed to anyone who accepts even just the third and fourth premises below.

  3. While I will speak, at times, of “successful communication” and “successful understanding”, I take this to be strictly speaking redundant, as I treat both “communicate” and “understand” as success terms. Moreover, in what follows, the term “communication” is intended to be understood as referring to the kind of signaling transaction that humans paradigmatically engage in.

  4. This presentation is not precisely Grice’s own, as it borrows language from the subsequent tradition he inspired, notably Sperber and Wilson (1986, 2015) who, with others in the cognitive sciences, often refer to the sort of communication we’re targeting here as “ostensive-inferential communication”. These theorists are concerned with analyzing human communication in general, rather that “speaker meaning” in particular, as Grice was.

  5. Bezuidenhout (1997) for instance suggested that signalers and receivers will often represent objects under different modes of presentation, and that this is entirely compatible with successful communication, arguing that “we need recognize only speaker-relative content and listener-relative content and a relation of similarity holding between these two contents” (1997, p. 198). Buchanan (2010) argues that, for linguistic signals involving quantification, there might be multiple ways of restricting the domain of this quantification which yield different propositions, but which a signaler would find it equally acceptable for the receiver to arrive at. He suggests in fact that signaler’s informative intentions might be aimed at something more like a “propositional template” than a specific proposition. For further discussion of the idea that communication doesn’t require coordination on identical contents, see also Carston (2002) and Onofri (2018, 2019).

  6. Note that attribution doesn’t contain what would be needed in order to restrict cases of successful communication to those of successful speaker meaning, as articulated in Grice (1957). Speaker meaning requires that the receiver bear \(\alpha \) to p because of the recognition that the speaker intends this, whereas the above allows that the receiver merely see that the speaker did intend this, without requiring that this stand in a causal relation to her bearing \(\alpha \) to p.

  7. Of course questions and commands may still give rise to some knowledge, e.g. that a signal occurred, or even that the signal meant what it did. But this is knowledge about the signal itself, not about the world, and I take it is not the sort of knowledge that a theorist like Evans (1982) thinks communication aims at.

  8. Note that attitude already builds in a relation of dependence, because it requires that the receiver bear \(\alpha \) to p because of the signal.

  9. What about signals that don’t seem to provide new information, even of the kind carried by questions or commands? Consider what Malinowski, thinking of “free, aimless social intercourse” such as comments on weather, called “phatic communion” (Malinowski, 1936, p. 313)—does such intercourse initiate any sort of information transfer? On its face it may not seem like it, since comments about the weather, say, are often already known to be true. Due to lack of space, I will simply gesture at two options for pushing back against this conclusion: first, one might engage in further interpretation of the notion of information transfer so that cases where System 1 brings about a heightened salience of a piece of information in System 2 count, perhaps drawing upon the discussion of such cases in Sperber and Wilson (2015). Secondly, in the spirit of Malinowski’s own view, we might insist that phatic communion does pass on some sort of novel information having to do with affirmation of the addressee’s continued personhood in the community.

  10. This proposed solution is inspired by the attempt in Kvanvig (2003) to solve the analogous problem concerning knowledge. However, one needn’t find Kvanvig’s solution to that problem persuasive in order to accept the solution I sketch here to the first value problem concerning communication. For instance, Kvanvig’s solution to the value problem for knowledge requires accepting a variety of subjective internalism as the correct standard of epistemic justification, but the solution I give here neither requires this nor makes any analogous move to allow the problem of communication’s value to put pressure on communication’s analysis.

  11. Some deontologists will disagree with this framing, which supposes that the good is prior to the right. However, I take it that there are at least some deontologists who won’t. See Sylvan (2020) for discussion.

  12. Discussion of epistemic consequentialism and its alternatives has abounded in the last few years (see e.g. essays in Grajner & Schmechtig, Grajner and Schmechtig (2016); Ahlstrom-Vij & Dunn, 2018). While a rejection of epistemic consequentalism isn’t uncontroversial, nor is it without recent support (e.g. Berker, 2013, 2015; Andow, 2017; Littlejohn, 2018; Snow, 2018; Roberts et al., 2018; Sylvan, 2020).

  13. Some might be resistant to the idea that understanding is rule-guided in any way—so-called pragmatic particularists (Buchanan and Schiller, 2021) for instance, will say that audiences understand speakers by making inferences to the best explanation, but that there are no principles more specific than that that guide interpretation. Properly understood though, my claim about signaling having constitutive norms is compatible with the particularists’ line—I have said merely that signaling as an activity is defined by an orientation, at the audience node, toward the recovery of the information encoded in the signal. I have said nothing about how that recovery is to be executed.

  14. Here, as throughout, I use “luck” as a pre-theoretically intuitive description of what is going on here, but with no technical conception of luck or, relatedly “deviance,” in mind. Of course, there are certainly kinds of luck that do not undermine communication, just as there are some that do not undermine knowledge (a point made nicely in Pritchard (2005a)). It being a matter of luck that the interlocutors met up when they did does not, for instance, seem to undermine the possibility of communication between them.

  15. The literature does include at least one suggestion that utterance-understanding can be achieved by luck, in Byrne and Thau (1996, p. 148). Someone without the intuition that luck ever undermines communication does not accept one of the premises that this article began by listing, and so the second puzzle here may just not be a puzzle that applies to them, just as the first puzzle didn’t apply to theorists who reject the necessity of attribution. However, along the lines of what Heck (1996, p. 155) noted in response to Byrne and Thau, if one is inclined to argue that human declarative communication is essentially aimed at enabling testimonial knowledge and that knowledge itself is underminable by luck, this adds a further reason, beyond mere intuition, to suspect that communication is underminable by luck as well. This commitment about the purpose of human declarative communication is one I take no stance on here but, as discussed in Sect. 3, it is compatible with my account.

  16. Note that Buchanan doesn’t actually claim that the addition of the ib-feature requirement makes for a jointly sufficient set of conditions on utterance-understanding, just that it is a further necessary one.

  17. Peet (2017) makes this argument with reference to a case from Heck (2014).

  18. This proposal is similar in spirit, if not in exact letter, to some modal conditions on communication suggested by Peet (2019), though Peet takes himself to be offering conditions on “knowledge-yielding communication” rather than communication per se, as we are.

  19. This conclusion might be troubling for someone who thinks that IBFR is a plausible condition on communication, even if one doesn’t think that its addition makes for a jointly sufficient set of conditions. Note that I am offering no argument against IBFR’s being part of the analysis of utterance-understanding—I remain agnostic on this issue. I’m only alleging that it contributes no further signaling-relevant value.

  20. Millikan here is concerned that Dretske’s view makes natural signs themselves too rare—but her argument extends nicely to showing why we shouldn’t want information transfer from these signs to be too rare either.

  21. One might have further doubts on the grounds that it is a very odd story on which value flows from intentions to their satisfactions, rather than vice versa.

  22. What is incompatible with my view is the idea that knowledge production is the characteristic goal of signaling per se—but this doesn’t mean there aren’t signaling event-types that are knowledge-conducive.

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Acknowledgements

For their help with the development of this paper, I would like to thank Josh Dever, Ray Buchanan, Henry Schiller, and the audiences at the 2019 Ontario Meaning Workshop, the 2019 Mentoring Workshop for Pre-Tenure Women in Philosophy, and the 2020 Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology Conference. I would also like to thank my anonymous reviewers, whose feedback made the paper immeasurably better.

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Hyska, M. Luck and the value of communication. Synthese 201, 96 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-023-04077-7

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