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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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2. The Gesture-Signs: Washoe and Chantek


2. The Gesture-Signs: Washoe and Chantek

2.1 Washoe

The project to teach a gesture-sign language was delineated by the Gardners as follows (1974, 3):

Project Washoe … is best understood as a pilot study in a program aimed at establishing a truly comparative psychology of two way communication … we set out to demonstrate that a chimpanzee could achieve a significant degree of two-way communication by using a genuine form of human language.

The realization of this project was characterized from its beginning by the attempt to bypass any characterization of human language and/or language in general. They gave two reasons for this. First, linguistics and psycholinguistics did not succeed in devising a behavioral definition of language (Gardner and Gardner 1975, 244), and, second, the more technically oriented linguists seemed “to be concerned with ideal performance of theoretical human beings, with little or no acknowledgment of the difference in competence between toddlers and college professors” (Gardner and Gardner 1974, 3). As a consequence, the Gardners tried to avoid any a priori definition of language.

As is evident from the following quotation, it is worth mentioning that the Gardners understood the term “behavioral” in a strongly naturalist (natural science) tradition: “Our research on teaching sign language to chimpanzees proceeds from the assumption that any form of behavior, human, or animal, if it exists at all, exists as a natural, biological phenomenon” (Gardner and Gardner 1978, 37). This, in turn, led them to state...

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