What do we know when we learn the meanings of words?

  • Antonio Scarafone
Keywords: Wittgenstein, Tomasello, linguistic competency, practical abilities, knowledge


In this paper I will argue that, contrary to what most scholars are inclined to believe, there are important tensions between the later Wittgenstein’s views on language and Michael Tomasello’s usage-based theory of language acquisition. On one hand, Wittgenstein characterises the first steps into the acquisition of a first language as a matter of acquiring practical abilities, which, in an anti-intellectualistic vein, do not require any kind of knowledge. On the other hand, Tomasello employs a Gricean model of communication to describe pre-linguistic children’s communicative interactions, thus taking an intellectualist stance. According to this model, children are supposed to acquire the meanings of words because they are able to infer communicators’ intentions on the basis of the common ground (mutual knowledge) they establish with them. Eliciting this tension is of uttermost importance because: (i) it bears crucial implications for the explanatory relationships between language and thought; (ii) it is central to the heart of Tomasello’s project of explaining linguistic competency as based on communicative abilities. In the conclusion, I will argue that there are ways to ease the main tension if, following Richard Moore, basic communicative acts are conceived of as Minimally Gricean.


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How to Cite
Scarafone, A. (1) “What do we know when we learn the meanings of words?”, Rivista Italiana di Filosofia del Linguaggio, 12(2). Available at: http://www.rifl.unical.it/index.php/rifl/article/view/507 (Accessed: 29September2023).