Evolutionary Pragmatics

Wolfgang Wildgen
Table of contents

Historically there is a link between Darwin's theory of evolution (1859, applied to humans 1870) and discussions in the ‘Metaphysical Club’ at Harvard, which began meeting in 1872 and had William James and Charles Sanders Peirce as members. Their point of view was that pragmatics is Darwin's theory of natural selection applied to philosophy. In a speech delivered in Harvard in 1872 Ch. S. Peirce sketched his ‘Pragmatism’ as a philosophy based on the practical consequences of intellectual operations. The term ‘pragmatic’ refers to Kant's “Anthropologie in pragmatischer Absicht”. From its beginning, pragmatics had therefore a strong link to anthropology (cf. Kant) and evolutionary theory (cf. Darwin) with its central concept of adaptation (cf. Verschueren & Brisard 2002). Östman (1988) points to different levels of adaptation. One has to distinguish adaptive processes found in animals which shape instincts: “Instinct can be seen as a response to the pressures of natural selection, and it thus functions as a means of preservation of the species” (Östman 1988: 11), and adaptation can have different goals: adaptation to a changing ecology, adaptation to changes in the social organization and cultural context of populations and finally adaptation to new standards of language use. When Whorf describes the world-view of the Hopi, he can point to a divergence in human cultural adaptation, which results from a separation of the Amerindian population from the Europeans some 40 to 50,000 years ago. In sociolinguistics the separation of social classes creates different codes as modes of communication in different social networks (cf. the work of Bernstein and others). On a much shorter time scale, every conversation “creates meanings in addition and/or opposition to speaker's intentions” (Östman 1988: 10). In the following sections, we will focus on the evolution of language and its pragmatic dimensions before the last out-of-Africa migration and the separation of the linguistic families.

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