Research Articles

The Surplus of Signification: Experience and Language in Humans and Chimpanzees

Much of my research focuses on the human language faculty. But when reflecting on language, a question never far from my mind is the following: What are the fundamental differences between language-using animals like us and other higher animals, so similar to us in so many respects, that do not use language? Research into animal cognition in recent decades has challenged our assumptions about human exceptionalism. Where our basic cognitive endowment is concerned, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that humans are tremendously different from, say, chimpanzees. And yet, when we look at our human cultural, technological, and linguistic form of life as a whole, there can be no doubt that it is unique within the animal kingdom. How should we explain these differences? The view of the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty is corroborated by recent developmental and comparative psychology. Both propose that there is a perspectival character to human experience that is lacking in the experience of other higher animals. I offer an account of the genesis of uniquely human perspectival experience. I emphasize the role that species-unique motivations and affectivity play in driving this genesis. Along the way, I develop an alternative account of the continuity between life, mind, and culture to the one proposed by Merleau-Ponty and contemporary enactivists.

Read this paper at the publisher’s site, or at my page.

See also my paper on the phenomenology and neuroscience of language experience and processing.

Click here to return to the main research page.

“The ‘Surplus of Signification’: Merleau-Ponty and Enactivism on the Continuity of Life, Mind, and Culture.” 2020. Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy. DOI: 10.5195/jffp.2020.919.

Who’s more of a monkey, my nephew William or his best pal Mackenzie?

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