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Primate Sociality and the Origins of Human Language

The capacity to acquire and use language has long been held to be a distinctive characteristic of human beings. Indeed, a number of authors have suggested that humans could aptly be described as “the language animal.” In this talk, I will explore philosophical questions about the origins of language. My focus is not on questions about the historical formation and modification of particular languages, but on questions about the origins of the cognitive capacities that make the acquisition and use of language possible in the first place. I will argue that the distinctively human capacity for language has its origin in quite general features of primate social life: in the need to recognize other members of your community as individual agents that persist over time, to learn from and act together with these other individuals in ways that are both risky and highly rewarding, and to form emotionally rich and cognitively demanding relationships with a wide variety of individuals outside of your immediate family. I thus suggest that we can explain humans’ natural proclivity for language in terms of a socially-driven process of biological accommodation or a process in which enrichments to socially mediated forms of life create novel selective pressures that bring about language-relevant biological changes. I will conclude the talk by discussing some of the ways in which this social account of the origins of language might inform traditional philosophical debates about human nature more generally.

About the Lecturer:

After graduating from Calvin in 2006, Josh Armstrong received his Ph.D. in Philosophy at Rutgers University. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania before starting his current position as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at UCLA. His research explores philosophical questions about the nature of mind and language as they intersect with issues in the cognitive and biological sciences, with a particular focus on the philosophical significance of animal communication.  His writings have appeared in Philosophical Perspectives, Linguistics and Philosophy, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

March 2020
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