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Essay On Linguistic Communications


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As we have just seen, under the code model of communication, language is continuous with animal communication systems, and here it is useful to make a brief incursion into animal communication systems.

Animal Communication Systems

Though whole books have been written on the subject of the evolution of communication in animals (e.g., Hauser, 1996; Oller and Griebel, 2004), their authors have often been content to use the word without giving it a precise definition. They rely on its vernacular meaning and on a rather vague notion of information transfer6, waving at Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) quantitative definition of information. As pointed out by Owren et al. (2010), this is usually accompanied by the idea that this transfer of information is based on an encoding (on the signaler’s side) and a decoding (on the receiver’s side) process7. It is this view of communication as information transfer that makes honesty central to the evolution of communication systems.

Another line of thought was opened by Krebs and Dawkins (1984), who claim that the root of the evolution of animal communication lies in manipulation, linking the sending of a signal (the unit of animal communication systems) to a response (by the recipient) advantageous to the signaler. This view of communication was clearly influential, as shown by Maynard Maynard Smith and Harper (2003, p. 3) definition of a signal:

“We define a ‘signal’ as any act or structure which alters the behaviour of other organisms, which evolved because of that effect, and which is effective because the receiver’s response has also evolved.”

In other words, the evolution of communication is not the evolution of the signal in isolation, but rather of pairs of signal–responses. This might be thought to go all the way toward a manipulation account of communication, but this is not the case. In the comments that follow, Maynard Smith and Harper outline some consequences of their definition that put them squarely on the information transfer side. First, if the signal affects the receiver’s behavior, it must do so in a way that is not, on the whole, detrimental to the receiver (otherwise selection would rapidly eliminate receptivity to it). Second, this means, on Maynard Smith and Harper’s view, that the signal must reliably and honestly (truthfully) convey information about the environment or about the signaler’s present state and/or future behavior. In other words, the signal evolved for its behavior-altering effects, but that does not mean that it does not carry information.

A stronger challenge to the information-based studies of communication has developed, however, through a series of papers by Owren et al. (2010, for a synthetic presentation), initially inspired by Krebs and Dawkins (1984), but presenting an alternative, rather than a mere addition to the information-based view. Owren et al.’s (2010) most convincing examples are mating signals. While mating signals have generally been analyzed in the information-based literature as transmitting information to females about males’ genetic worth8, Owren et al. (2010) propose an alternative view. Mating signals, whether visual, auditory, etc., are (in general) not informing the receiver of the signaler’s genetic quality, nor is it their function to do so. Rather, mating signals exploit pre-existing sensory preferences of females. These preferences usually have evolved in entirely different contexts (e.g., foraging for food), but once evolved they are ripe for exploitation. Thus, mating signs directly impinge on females’ sensory systems, and did not evolve for the purpose of transmitting (reliable) information about the signaler’s genetic value. It is important to note that Owren et al. (2010) do not exclude the possibility that mating signals may occasionally carry (reliable) information about the signaler’s genetic worth. Rather, if they do so, this is incidental. Their main function, which explains why they evolved, is not to signal fitness, but to attract females. This, basically, is Owren et al.’s (2010) alternative view of animal communication: its main function is not to transfer information between organisms, but to induce behaviors in the receiver that are advantageous to the communicator. Eschewing the negatively loaded term manipulation, they propose an influence-based view of animal communication.

This is clearly not the place to settle that debate (the interested reader is directed to the papers in Stegmann, 2013), but there one thing worth pointing out. While Owren et al. (2010) rightly deplore the detrimental effect on the animal communication literature of the (language-inspired) information-based approach, one may equally deplore the effects on the language evolution literature of an approach based on animal communication9, however, tainted by (mis-)conceptions of human language.

One of the best examples of a view of language evolution that sees language as continuous with animal communication systems, in keeping with the code model, is Millikan’s account of language and its evolution. I will mainly discuss her most recent book centering on language (Millikan, 2005).

Millikan’s Account

Millikan’s approach to language belongs to the presently influential philosophical program aiming at “naturalizing” the mental10, concerning both mental representations and their communicative counterparts. In a move that has become classical in such programs, she aims at establishing a continuity between natural signs or meaning and non-natural signs or meaning.

The distinction between some form of natural signification (based on correlations that are, more often than not, grounded in causality) and linguistic signification is far from new, but it was given a paramount importance in Grice’s (1989) classical analysis of meaning, which is also Millikan’s main target. Grice’s strategy was to look at two uses of the verb to mean. Thus, he began by comparing the following examples:

  • (1)

    These spots mean (meant) measles.

  • (2)

    These three rings on the bus bell mean (meant) that the bus is full.

While in the first example, the verb to mean is used in its natural sense, in the second, it is used in its non-natural sense. Grice noted that these two uses of the verb are distinguished by the implications that one is entitled to draw from each of them. While natural meaning is factive, in the sense that x means (meant) p entails p, non-natural meaning (henceforth meaningnn) is non-factive in the sense that x meansnn p does not entail p. On the other hand, meaningnn is under voluntary control in the sense that from x meansnn p one can deduce that Someone meantnn p by x. However, natural meaning is not under voluntary control (it does not license the corresponding inference). So, in short, natural meaning is factive and not under voluntary control while meaningnn is non-factive and under voluntary control.

Grice (1989, p. 219) went further, however, and added the following definition of meaningnn:

“A meantnn something by x” is roughly equivalent to “A intended the utterance of x to produce some effect in an audience by means of the recognition of that intention.”

In other words, meaningnn is not only under voluntary control: additionally, the speaker has a double intention:

  • • The primary intention to produce a given effect in her audience;
  • • The secondary intention to produce that effect via the audience’s recognition of her (the speaker’s) primary intention.

Grice was at pain to emphasize that the primary intention is crucial to the definition: cases where the audience recognizes the meaning without recognizing the primary intention are not cases of meaningnn. Additionally, Grice insisted that, though meaningnn could be conventional, it did not have to be conventional. In other words, on Grice’s view, normal linguistic communication is not a matter of encoding and decoding as such, but rather of recognizing the speaker’s primary intention.

Grice’s account of meaningnn has been Millikan’s target all along her philosophical career (the first instance was Millikan, 1984). Her goal has been to show that the psychological side of Gricean meaningnn is not necessary, that linguistic communication is indeed a matter of encoding–decoding and that meaning is conventional in a utterly non-psychological sense11. In other words, what distinguishes natural signs or meaning from non-natural signs or meaning is only factivity, not volition: natural signs are factive, non-natural signs are not (the signaler may be mistaken or deceptive). Thus, Millikan’s distinction between natural and non-natural meaning is wholly non-psychological.

Millikan’s account of meaning centrally uses the notion of function, explicitly borrowed from evolutionary biology. Millikan (1984) introduces the notion of proper function, which is fundamentally historical in the following sense: it does not refers to what an entity (be it an organ or a behavior) actually does, but rather to why that entity not only exists now, but has persisted (possibly with modifications) since its emergence, in other words, why it has been selected for. So whatever the state of your heart, and regardless of whether it actually reliably pumps blood throughout your body, its proper function is to pump blood, because this is the reason why hearts have evolved, been preserved (and improved) throughout vertebrate history. Note that proper functions are not limited to biological organisms: they can also characterize artifacts of all kinds, from institutions to tools. In other words, they can be the product of either biological or cultural evolution. The essential thing is that the entity considered has a history which explains why it persisted throughout time by the function it normally performs.

On Millikan’s view, language is a communication system, on a par with the other animal communication systems, as far as its evolution is concerned. She shares with Maynard Smith and Harper’s (2003) definition of a signal the idea that signals evolve in tandem with responses (indeed, she views language as the solution to coordination problems in humans12). Her idea is that the proper function of a signal is to evoke a specific response in the receiver, and that it does so through information transfer13. While clearly the notion of information transfer involved applies to natural language as well as to animal communication systems, Millikan acknowledges that linguistic signals and animal signals are different up to a point. This can be seen through her analysis (Millikan, 2004) of vervet alarm calls. In linguistic terms, such calls (e.g., the leopard call) have a double direction of fit: both world-to-signal (i.e., the call reflects the current state of the environment, e.g., the presence of a leopard in it) and signal-to-world (i.e., the signal simultaneously enjoins the recipient to give a specific response, e.g., flying to the top of the canopy). Millikan proposes to call such double-directed signals pushmi-pullyu representations. As Millikan (2013) herself concedes, it does not make any sense to “translate” animal signals into language. For instance, the vervet leopard alarm call is in no way equivalent to the complex sentence “There is a leopard here and you must climb to the top of the nearest tree”. Though this might reflect fairly faithfully the meaning of the call, it is not a translation, because animal signals are, on the whole, holistic14: the signal means something as a whole, not as a combination of its parts. Indeed, as Millikan acknowledges, it is only with language that the two directions of fit (indication = world-to-signal and direction = signal-to-world) become differentiated.

Thus, Millikan acknowledges that animal signals are bidirectional, but linguistic utterances are not. I will now turn to a criticism of Millikan’s position, using two kinds of arguments: general arguments regarding the very notion of a linguistic signal in signal-information/response pairings, and pragmatic arguments regarding signal-information/response pairings.

Some Difficulties with Millikan’s Position

The very structure of Millikan’s theory raises major difficulties and those difficulties are all linked, in one way or another, to the essential historicity of Millikan’s notion of signal, inherited from her notion of proper function. Basically, for pairings such as those that Millikan proposes as the origin of signals to occur, the signal-type, the information-type, and the response-type each have to be perennial and the repeated couplings between signals of that type, information of that type and responses of that type also have to be perennial.

This raises difficulties for the three main components of the pairings:

  • • Signals;
  • • Information;
  • • Responses.

I will examine them one after the other.


A first and major question is what a linguistic signal should be. Under Millikan’s broad definition of a signal, something is a signal if its proper function is to trigger a specific response in an audience, through information transfer.

Signals have to be units of communication, i.e., they have to transfer the information/produce the response in their own right. Basically, this means that they have not only to be semantic units, but also have to be communicative units (though the two normally coincide in holistic animal signals, as we shall see, they do not in language). Traditionally, it has been considered that language is doubly articulated15: on a rough and ready description, at the phonological level, phonemes are combined into meaningful words; at the syntactic level, words are combined into meaningful sentences. Clearly, phonemes, being semantically vacant, are not semantic units, and hence not signals. So, the first candidates for signals are words. On the face of it, they seem to be good candidates: they are perennial enough both in their forms and in their meanings16. The main problem with words is that, while they are semantic units, they are not communicative units. Though shouting “Fire!” may be a perfectly well-formed communicative act in some circumstances, most linguistic communicative acts do not correspond to isolated words. This leaves us with the sentence, understood as a utterance-type.

There is, however, a major problem with the notion that sentences are linguistic signals in the required sense. Couched as an argument:

  • Lack of History Argument (Syntactic): Given linguistic creativity, sentences are fairly often one-off, that is, they lack the history necessary to the establishment (through signal-information pairing due to repeated correlations of signal and information) of a proper function.

To show why this is the case, I will now examine (and reject) an objection to the notion that language is characterized by linguistic creativity. This objection targets one of the core properties of language, i.e., discrete infinity.

It is to the effect that humans being finite cannot be said to produce an infinity of different sentences. This Finitude Argument has been formulated as follows by Li and Hombert (2002, p. 196): “Theoretically the number of possible sentences in English is indefinitely large because theoretically ‘the longest English sentence’ does not exist. If one chooses to describe English syntax or certain aspect of English syntax in terms of rewriting rules, one can claim that a recursive function is needed. However, one never conjoins or embeds an indefinitely large number of sentences in either spoken or written language. ‘Indefinitely large number of sentences’ or ‘infinitely long sentences’ are theoretical properties.” This seems to rests on a profound misunderstanding of both discrete infinity and recursion. To see it, an analogy with another system providing discrete infinity, i.e., mathematics, is useful. Saying that, because we do not (and could not, as finite beings) produce infinitely long sentences, discrete infinity and recursion are not relevant features of language is on a par with saying that, because we do not (and could not) count to infinity, discrete infinity and recursion are not relevant features of mathematics. The argument is, to say the least, mystifying. Arguably, recursion is needed to count up to any number greater than one, just as it is needed to produce any sentence with an embedding. Once you have the relevant recursive ability, you have the theoretical possibility of counting to infinity or to producing infinitely long sentences, and whether you do it or not is utterly irrelevant. Discrete infinity is a structural, not a behavioral property. Thus, human finitude is no argument against linguistic creativity.

More crucially, the argument is no answer to our worry regarding the absence of history for sentences. Even though each human, being a finite organism, cannot produce an infinity of different sentences with different contents, linguistic creativity as a structural property of language allows each human to produce sentences different from all those produced before, with contents different from all of those produced before. This being so, the fact that sentences may not have the necessary history to function as signals in pairs of signal-information/response remains a central problem. In sum, human finiteness is not an argument against linguistic creativity and is no answer to the absence of history for sentences.

This, then, is the first major problem for Millikan’s theory and it is, obviously, a syntactic argument. There are, however, further objections to her proposal and we will now turn to information.


Regarding information, Millikan has concentrated on two main pragmatic phenomena, illocutionary force (Millikan, 1984, 2004, 2005) and implicatures of the scalar variety (Millikan, 2005). Beginning with the former, from 1984 on, her argument has been mainly based on the pairing between sentence forms (affirmative, interrogative, imperative, etc.) and the corresponding speech acts, covering both information and response. Leaving responses aside for further discussion later on, let us concentrate on information17. The “information” pairing is between sentence form and illocutionary act (or illocutionary force) and, as Millikan herself acknowledges (following Strawson, 1964), fairly often, an utterance can be linked to widely different illocutionary forces. Consider (3):

  • (3)

    Peter will come tomorrow.

Depending on the circumstances, this can indeed be interpreted as a promise, a menace, a warning or a prediction. Millikan proposes to get around this problem through a multiplicity of (proper) functions. As said above, the proper function of an entity is not what it actually does but why it has persisted through time. And even if it is not always reliably associated with that function, it is sufficient that it is associated with it often enough. Thus, the existence of occasional functions different from the proper function of a sentence is not a problem. Here, it is interesting to look at Millikan’s view of language change (which concerns the emergence of implicature readings). According to Millikan, if a linguistic form with a given proper function becomes associated often enough with another different function, this second function will become its new or additional proper function. In other words, the proper function of a linguistic item depends on the frequency with which this item is associated with this function and a linguistic signal can have several functions, proper or otherwise.

Let us look at an example:

  • (4)

    The pianist played some Mozart sonatas.

Notoriously, this utterance can be given two interpretations:

  • (5)

    The pianist played at least some ( = some and maybe all) Mozart sonatas. [semantic interpretation].

  • (6)

    The pianist played only some ( = some and not all) Mozart sonatas. [pragmatic interpretation].

According to Millikan, the initial proper function of (4) is to communicate (5). However, (4) is sometimes used to communicate (6) and, in time, this gives rise to a new function for (4). In addition to (5), (4) has also the function of communicating (6).

There is something mysterious about the process, however. How is it, if the proper function of (4) is to communicate (5), that, on the first occasion of its being used to communicate (6), the hearer will recognize that this is the case? Here, we turn to a first pragmatic argument:

  • First Occasion Argument: If meaning is established through repeated pairings, for such a pairing to take off, the meaning of a linguistic signal (or construction) has to be established on the occasion of its first production. A pragmatic inference will more often than not be necessary.

Note that the same argument applies to (3) above. Suppose that the initial function of (3) is to convey the illocutionary force of prediction. How does (3) acquire the additional functions of conveying the illocutionary forces of warning, menace of promise?

A final problem to do with first occasion arises for those signals who are associated with a given speaker meaning on a single occasion (one-off), as is clearly the case for some creative metaphors, such as18:

  • (7)

    “She smiled herself to an upgrade” (Adams, 1979).

  • (8)

    “We laughed our conversation to an end” (Hart, 1992).

In such cases, there is no way to recover the intended meaning through semantic compositionality, and pragmatic inferences to the speaker’s intentions are obviously necessary.

This is not the only difficulty, however. If a single linguistic signal can have several (proper) functions, this approach leads to widespread ambiguity in linguistic signals. And this suggests a second pragmatic argument:

  • Ambiguity Argument19: This approach supposes widespread ambiguity in linguistic signals. The resolution of that ambiguity will have to be done through pragmatic inferences.

Note, however, that what is central to Millikan’s view is not the absence of context-based pragmatic inference per se, but rather the absence of the Gricean kind of pragmatic inferences. Specifically what this means is that Millikan does not reject contextualism as such but that she rejects any brand of contextualism in which either the context includes psychological representations (e.g., speaker’s intentions or beliefs) or the interpretation process leads to psychological representations (e.g., By X, the speaker meant Y).

Here, it is interesting to go back to Millikan’s analysis of natural signs. As she notes, while natural signs do not have proper functions, they are nevertheless paired with types of information: smoke and the presence of a fire, clouds and future rain, etc. However, while natural signs are factive, they are not necessarily paired bi-univocally with the information they convey. Sometimes, two different natural signs with identical forms will be associated with two different informations depending on which environment each of them occurs in. Let us take an example. It so happens that identical tracks can be left by, e.g., a small bird and a small rodent. However, in wood A, there are only birds and no rodents, while in wood B, there are only rodents and no birds. Thus, natural signs with the same form will be read (factively) as corresponding to birds in wood A and to rodents in wood B. In other words, even natural signs can be context-dependent relative to the information they convey. If this is the case, why not apply the same solution (context-dependency) to sentences? Sentences would always be associated with context types, and utterance types would correspond not to sentences, but to couples of sentences and context-types. It is these composite utterance types that would be paired with proper functions, rather than sentences in isolation. And, obviously, such composite utterance types would make perfect sense as signals in signal-information/response pairs. Note that on such a view (which reflects Millikan’s see Millikan, 2004, Chap. 10), nothing like a Gricean “psychological” account is needed. The type of contexts concerned do not include any representation of the speaker’s intentions or beliefs, or indeed, of anyone’s mental states.

Let us now come back to example (3) above. As said before, a sentence such as Peter will come tomorrow may be understood as a promise, a menace, a warning or a prediction. Can we make sense of this in terms of utterance type, i.e., in terms of couples of sentences and (non-psychological) context types? In this specific case, it seems rather difficult to distinguish between these different illocutionary forces without appealing to mental states in both the speaker and the hearer. Presumably, leaving aside the fairly neutral speech act of prediction, what illocutionary force such an utterance will have will very much depend, not only on the speaker’s intention but also on what she knows, or believes she knows, about her hearer’s mental attitudes to Peter’s coming. The same reasoning applies to (4): whether it will be interpreted as (5) or (6) will depend at least in part on the intention the hearer attributes to the speaker.

In other words, the requirement that the context be non-psychological seems a gratuitous complication as far as linguistic communication is concerned, as distinguishing between different illocutionary forces will, more often than not, depend on the representation of the relevant attitudes in the speaker, the hearer or both. There is yet another worry, which again, goes back to the first occasion argument. Given that utterance types are themselves composite, being couples of sentences and context types, one can also ask how such couples come into existence, leading to a higher order first occasion problem. This problem is especially acute for linguistic communication, given decoupling, which allows speakers to speak of absent or non-existent objects, introducing a further difficulty as both the signal and its referent have to be present for any association process to operate.

Hence, neither the assumption of widespread ambiguity for sentences, nor the assumption of composite utterance types, leading to semantic inflation, can work given psychological parsimony. Basically, exchanging semantic parsimony + psychological inflation, as proposed by Grice, for semantic inflation + psychological parsimony, as proposed by Millikan, is not tenable. Whether one goes for semantic parsimony or for semantic inflation, one cannot escape psychological inflation. Thus, it does not seem that composite utterance types can play the role of signals in signal-information/response pairs either.


Let me now come to my third objection to Millikan, relative to the response type associated with the signal. Going back to Millikan’s central example, speech acts, the “information” pairing is between sentence form and illocutionary act, but the “response” pairing is between sentence form and perlocutionary act. Here, it is important to see why Millikan shares with Maynard Smith and Harper the view that it is not signals that have evolved, but rather signal–response pairs. This makes sense on an evolutionary view (be it biological or cultural) because, while conveying information does not as such make sense in evolutionary terms (information is a precious commodity, so why share it?), triggering responses in others, as long as these responses are advantageous to the signaler, makes perfect sense. So, on a view such as Millikan’s, according to which language is a communication system, it seems reasonable to see linguistic signals (whatever they are) as paired with responses rather than only with information.

Millikan’s main example is assertion, which, on the response side, is, according to her, paired with receiver’s belief. Obviously, not all assertions lead to receiver’s belief, but, as indicated above, for the pairing between assertion and receiver’s belief to be established (or, in other words, for receiver’s belief to be the proper function of assertion), it is sufficient that assertion be paired with belief often enough. Here, I want to discuss the appropriateness of belief as a receiver’s response in an evolutionary perspective.

On the face of it, it would seem that any receiver’s response in signal–response pairs should be detectable if the pairing is to have evolved20:

  • Detectability of Response Argument: for signal-response pairings to get off the ground, both the signal and the response must be detectable (respectively, by the receiver and by the signaler).

The problem with belief is not only that it is a mental state (and as such less easy to detect than a behavior or an action); it is in addition especially difficult to detect among mental states. While intentions are fairly often obvious from bodily preparation for action21, and emotions or feelings are detectable through facial expressions, belief seems to be wholly internal and not linked to any specific exteriorization22. One could argue of course that, given a belief with a certain content in her hearer, the speaker can detect its presence through his behavior interpreted via Theory of Mind, i.e., via the attribution of mental states. This, however, not only seems uncertain (see below), it also is not clear whether Millikan would agree with such a development, which is tantamount to re-introducing a rather Gricean (psychological) factor in the evolution of communication. Thus, belief appears to be a fairly strange candidate for a response in signal–response pairings.

This, however, is only a first objection. A second, and potentially more decisive objection is that responses, on such a view, have to be advantageous to the signaler (or, in the case of language, to the speaker). But belief as such is not advantageous to the speaker. Rather it is the behavioral consequences of the receiver’s belief (his deciding “to act on his belief”, so to speak) that may be advantageous to her. But, how exactly a hearer will act on his belief will depend on a host of other things, including his other beliefs and his desires, which strongly underdetermines the behavioral consequences of his (speaker induced) belief. Let us suppose, for instance, that John wants to go, while Mary wants him to stay. Mary could say:

While the belief that it is raining might indeed induce John to stay, it might equally well make him take his umbrella, phone for a taxi or do a number of other things, none of which is staying, and none of which is what Mary wishes him to do. In other words, even in such simple cases, hearer’s behavioral responses are far from being obvious and there is certainly no way to predict them with any degree of certainty. And linguistic communication is of course far from being limited to such simple circumstances. In other words:

  • Underdetermination of Behavioral Response Argument: In humans at least, the automaticity or even the frequency of a given response to a given linguistic signal is largely underdetermined, undermining the pairing of signals and responses.

So Millikan’s choice of example, associating a linguistic signal (assertion) with a response that is a mental state (belief) can be explained through the fact that human action is not so automatic that it can be reliably associated with signals, barring imperatives in such strongly authoritative circumstances that the hearer has no choice but to comply. This, however, has two fairly negative consequences for her view of the evolution of linguistic communication: first, mental states are not the most detectable of responses, which raises a major difficulty for a signal-response pairing account such as hers (Detectability of Response Argument); second, mental states are additionally only indirectly advantageous to the speaker: they can only be advantageous to her if they lead her hearer to a behavior that she wants him to perform, but this is uncertain in most cases (Underdetermination of Response Argument).

Thus, Millikan’s endeavor to “de-psychologize” language and range it among all other animal communication systems fails. We will now turn to Scott-Phillips’s (2015) highly different view of language as a communication system.