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50 Years of Language Experiments with Great Apes

Igor Hanzel

The book approaches the language experiments with great apes performed in the last 50 years from the point of view of logical semantics, speech act theory, and philosophy of the social sciences based on the linguistic turn in philosophy. The author reconstructs the experiments with the great apes Washoe, Chantek, Lana, Sherman, Austin, Kanzi, Sarah and Sheba who were taught various kinds of languages, including the language of mathematics. From the point of view of the philosophy of science these experiments are interpreted as being part of the social sciences. The book proposes new mathematical experiments that are based on modern semantical reconstruction of the language of mathematics. The author shows that modern scientific research into great apes has shifted from natural science to social science.

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1. Introduction


1. Introduction

The aim of this study is twofold. First, I shall give an overview of the research into the language capabilities of great apes conducted in the last 50 years. This research was initiated in June 1966, when R. A. Gardner and B. T. Gardner started to teach American Sign Language (ASL) to Washoe, a female chimpanzee. I will scrutinize the language experiments based on ASL, the so-called Yerkish Language (henceforth YL), the experiments employing symbols embodied in plastic tokens (henceforth PT), and finally, the experiments targeting the great apes’ skill to master the language of mathematics. Second, I shall interpret both the nature of the languages employed in the experiments and the results of the experiments from the point of view of modern logical semantics and elements of speech-act theory.

There are two reasons for choosing this point of view, a more thorough justification of which will be given in Part 7. First, while the experiments with great apes I have mentioned involved three types of languages, none of these experiments was based on a thoroughly developed understanding of what language stands for. Instead, the scientists participating in those experiments very often tried to bypass or replace the notion of language by introducing some surrogates for it, taken, for example, from the behavioristic (Skinnerian) tradition or from some form of tentatively delineated cognitivism.

These attempts are symptom of a paradox – namely, of an unfinished turn to language in language experiments with great...

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