Normative evolutionary pragmatics

Bart Geurts

Much of the current research on early hominin communication adopts a psychological
stance in two ways: it is mainly concerned with psychological capacities, and folk
psychology is one of the capacities it is mainly concerned with. The focus on folk
psychology seems plausible in view of the fact that, in a great many cases, speech acts
convey information about the speaker’s mental state. For example, if Fred promises
Wilma to do the dishes by saying, “I’ll do the dishes”, then Wilma is entitled to infer that
Fred intends to do the dishes. But even if this is a salient feature of promising, there is
another as well: Fred’s promise makes him responsible for doing the dishes, and whereas
intention is a psychological state, responsibility is not; rather, it is deontic state, and thus
in the same category as obligations, rights, permissions, and so on. Every type of speech
act affects the interlocutors’ deontic states in characteristic ways, and for so-called
“normative” theories of pragmatics, this is the key feature of human communication.
The purpose of this talk is to argue that normative pragmatics holds great promise for
our understanding of the evolution of linguistic communication. One line of argument
will be developed in some detail. It concerns one of the most distinctive features of social
interaction in our species, which is that we use language to coordinate our future
activities, and in many cases far ahead. Non-human primates don’t do this, as a
consequence of which their interactions remain comparatively simple and short-term. I
argue that the evolution of communication for future coordination was enabled by two
developments: an increase of responsiveness during the communicative exchange and
the emergence of normative behaviours in the follow-up. Responsiveness was required
to coordinate future interactions, but wasn’t enough for coordinating interactions
beyond the near future, which required normativity, to boot.
To illustrate this general model, consider appointments. Speaker A proposes a lunch
appointment to B, B accepts the proposal, and just like that they have an appointment,
which will normally persist until they meet for lunch. This appointment is a normative
state which is sustained by various contingency strategies. In order to make sure that A
doesn’t miss their appointment, B is entitled to remind him, and if A doesn’t show up, B
is entitled to demand an apology and an explanation, to report A’s misconduct to
others, and so on. These entitlements on B’s part help A to keep his share in the
appointment, and vice versa.
Clearly, our social practices of making and having appointments are rich and complex,
which would be a problem for an evolutionary account if it weren’t for the fact that
these practices have a modular structure. Mastering the art of making and dealing with
appointments, as we know it, is a matter of degree. You can be pretty good at it, even
though you’re bad at making apologies, for example. Therefore, this art could evolve
step by unhurried step.