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Exorcising Grice’s ghost: an empirical approach to studying intentional communication in animals

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  • Simon Townsend
  • Sonja Koski
  • Richard Byrne
  • Katie Slocombe
  • Balthsar Bickel
  • Markus Boeckle
  • Ines Braga Goncalves
  • Judith Burkart
  • Tom Flower
  • Florence Gaunet
  • Hans Johann Glock
  • Thibaud Gruber
  • David AWAM Jansen
  • Katja Liebal
  • Angelika Linke
  • Adam Miklosi
  • Richard Moore
  • Carel van Schaik
  • Sabine Stoll
  • Alex Vail
  • Bridget Waller
  • Markus Wild
  • Klaus Zuberbühler
  • Marta Manser
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1427-1433
Number of pages7
JournalBiological Reviews
Issue number3
Early online date2 Aug 2016
DateAccepted/In press - 27 May 2016
DateE-pub ahead of print - 2 Aug 2016
DatePublished (current) - 5 Jul 2017


Language’s intentional nature has een highlighted as a crucial feature distinguishing it from other communication systems. Specifically, language is often thought to depend on highly structured intentional action and mutual mindreading by a communicator and recipient. Whilst similar abilities in animals can shed light on the evolution of intentionality, they remain challenging to detect unambiguously. We revisit animal intentional communication and suggest that progress in identifying analogous capacities has been complicated by (i) the assumption that intentional (that is, voluntary) production of communicative acts requires mental-state attribution, and (ii) variation in approaches investigating communication across sensory modalities. To move forward, we argue that a framework fusing research across modalities and species is required. We structure intentional communication into a series of requirements, each of which can be operationalised, investigated empirically, and must be met for purposive, intentionally communicative acts to be demonstrated. Our unified approach helps elucidate the distribution of animal intentional communication and subsequently serves to clarify what is meant by attributions of intentional communication in animals and humans.

    Research areas

  • communication, language evolution, intentionality, vocalisation, gesture

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    Rights statement: This is the author accepted manuscript (AAM). The final published version (version of record) is available online via Wiley at Please refer to any applicable terms of use of the publisher.

    Accepted author manuscript, 407 KB, PDF document

    Licence: CC BY-NC


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