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

Simon W. Townsend, Sonja E. Koski, Richard W. Byrne, Katie E. Slocombe, Balthasar Bickel, Markus Boeckle, Ines Braga Goncalves, Judith M. Burkart, Tom Flower, Florence Gaunet, Hans Johann Glock, Thibaud Gruber, David A. W. A. M. Jansen, Katja Liebal, Angelika Linke, Ádám Miklósi, Richard Moore, Carel P. van Schaik, Sabine Stoll, Alex VailBridget M. Waller, Markus Wild, Klaus Zuberbühler, Marta B. Manser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

72 Citations (Scopus)


Language's intentional nature has been 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1427-1433
Number of pages7
JournalBiological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society
Issue number3
Early online date2 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2017


  • Communication
  • Language evolution
  • Intentionality
  • Vocalisation
  • Gesture


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