Edoardo Vaccargiu and Diana Mazzarella: The Burden of Communication: Is there a Real ‘Developmental Dilemma’


According to the ostensive-inferential model, communication relies on a nested structure of communicative and informative intentions that involve high-order meta-representations (Wilson & Sperber, 2004). This idea – also called the ‘recursive mindreading claim’ (Scott-Phillips, 2014) – has raised important questions concerning the cognitive requirements for the development of communicative abilities in early ontogeny (e.g., Millikan, 2005; Breheny, 2006; Moore, 2017). In this work, we will focus on the so-called “Complex inference objection” to the ostensive-inferential model: communicative intentions are second-order intentions, hence, the ability to infer them may be difficult to acquire for developing minds (see Bar-On, 2013; Geurts, 2019). Our aim is to provide a conceptual analysis of this objection moving from the following questions: Where does this alleged complexity come from? What makes the inferential process difficult to be carried out? By disentangling two possible sources for this complexity, we spell out how the Complex inference objection can be faced from a relevance-theoretic perspective. Firstly, we will highlight how available evidence in developmental research can pave the way for addressing it. Then, following Csibra (2010), we will show how the processing of communicative intentions can be procedurally distinguished from that of non-communicative second-order mental states, thus reducing the meta-representational burden required to entertain the intentional structure of the ostensive-inferential model. Finally, we outline the impact of our analysis on the ‘recursive mindreading claim’ and on the hypothesis of a dedicated pragmatic module (Sperber & Wilson, 2002).

Bar-On, D. (2013). Origins of Meaning: Must we “Go Gricean?”. Mind & Language, 28: 342-375.

Breheny, R. (2006). Communication and folk psychology. Mind & Language, 21: 74-107.

Csibra, G. (2010). Recognizing Communicative Intentions in Infancy. Mind & Language, 25 (2): 141-168.

Geurts, B. (2019). What’s wrong with Gricean pragmatics. Retrieved online: https://exlingsociety.com/images/Proceedings/ExLing_2019/10_0001_000363.pdf

Moore, R. (2017). Gricean communication and cognitive development. The Philosophical Quarterly, 67 (267): 303-326,

Millikan, R. (2005). Language: a Biological Model. Oxford: OUP.

Scott-Phillips, T. (2014). Speaking our minds: why human communication is different, and how language evolved to make it special. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Sperber, D., Wilson, D. (2002). Pragmatics, Modularity and Mind-Reading. Mind & Language, 17: 3-23.

Wilson, D., & Sperber, D. (2004). Relevance theory. In: Horn, L.R., Ward, G.L. (Eds.), Handbook of Pragmatics. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 607-632.


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