Bacon on animal communication

I have three desks in my office, which provides me with a lot of space for paper to accumulate. Much of this paper contains scribbled notes to self that I make while attending conferences and lectures or while reading, little snippets marking out things that could potentially be interesting to research. (One large reason for finally getting this blog up and running is that many of these snippets are likely to lead to only minor things, not full papers, and this provides a nice venue for following them up regardless!).

One of those snippets says merely “Bacon on animal communication”. In the last few months I’ve read both the new Copenhaver translation of Peter of Spain and Maloney’s of Lambert of Auxerre, and in the course of doing so I did a lot of cross-referencing with Bacon and also with William of Sherwood, because it’s really interesting to pick a topic and see what all four have to say on it.

I’m not sure what context, now, my note about Bacon and animal communication came up, because it’s in the notes I took while reading Lambert. “Animal communication” has two entries in the index to Bacon’s Art and Science of Logic:

Vocal sound is the same as an utterance, but ‘utterance’ is taken in two ways: commonly and properly…But if it is taken less properly, then it is taken broadly for every kind of voice of an animal, namely, for a clamor and for the hiss of snakes. Similarly, the voice of a cow as well as the locutions of animals who do modulate their osund in the fashion of men [would be utterances in the broad sense], as Aristotle distinguishes in Book Four of On Animals [¶ 114]

Maloney adds a footnote with the relevant text from On Animals, and notes that the distinction is between ‘language’ and ‘articulate sound’. Though non-human animals do not have language, they can nevertheless communicate:

A signifying utterance is one by which every animal communicates something to all or some of its species. Every animal can do this because nature did not ive each a voice in vain. We can see this clearly, because the hen clucks differently to her chicks when she calls them to eat and when she teaches them to beware of a hawk [¶ 118].

But one of the things that separates human communication from non-human communication is precisely the fact that human communication is distinguishable into communications in different languages:

Brute animals, moreover, communicate with each individual of their own species, as an ass with every ass, a lion with every lion. A man does not communicate with every man, but with some, because a Frenchman communicates only with a Frenchman, a Greek with a Greek, a Latin with a Latin, and so on [¶ 118].

Recent empirical evidence into bird calls, however, indicates that even within the same species of birds, ‘dialects’ can develop; for example, birds that live predominantly in the city develop a range of calls in a different register that allows them to communicate successfully over the sound of a city [1]. The remainder of the paragraph points out that cross-species communication happens only improperly; for example, a magpie who learns to imitate human speech can make significative utterances to humans, but the signification is only improper, and strictly speaking it does not signify “since it does not arise from the magpie with an intent to signify”.

This is all that Bacon has to say about animal communication, and in retrospect, I wasn’t entirely sure why I had noted this down to myself; it’s interesting, but there isn’t really much scope for taking it further. It was a fortuitous coincidence, then, when a few days later alerted me to this paper by U. Eco, R. Lambertini, C. Marmo, & A. Tabarroni, entitled “On Animal Language in the Medieval Classification of Signs”, Versus 38/39 (1984): 3-38. This paper arises from the observation that dog’s barks appear “in a large number of medieval classifications of signs” but each time “in a different position” (p. 3).

The root of this phenomenon can be traced back to how signs and words are classified by the ancient Greeks:

It is necessary to recall that the semiotics of the Greeks…made a clear cut distinction between a theory of verbal language and a theory of signs (p. 4).

Signs bear an inferential relation to the things they signify, such that from smoke one can infer fire, but not vice versa. Words, on the other hand stand in “a relation of equivalence and of biconditionality” (p. 5) to the things that they signify.

The Stoics began to fuse theories of signs and theories of verbal language, with the fusion being “sanctioned in an explicit way” by Augustine (p. 4), who develops a science of the genus signum, which contains as species both symptoms (i.e., what were called signs in the indented quote above) and words. The problem of the dog’s bark is located precisely in the gaps between these two species:

We will see that the latratus canis will come to occupy positions, which are different in substance, in differing classifications according to whether they are classifications of signs in general or of voces, and precisely because the classification of signa is of a Stoic origin while the classification of voces is Aristotelian. The Augustinian fusion is furthered by Boethius’s translation of Aristotle, which used nota for both symbolon and semeion and “obliterated the difference and favoured the identification” (p. 6).

As a result, there is “no difficulty in taking the sounds of animals as voces significativae” (p. 6). While some animals — such as a cricket — produce noises by means of mechanisms other than lungs (thus these noises do not count as voces), the dog’s bark is produced by the lungs, and is a “sound”; and further, animals such as dogs and horses produce this voces with an intent to signify: “The horse whinneys to call another horse or a mare: he whinneys, therefore, with some intention” (p. 7). This points to a way in which the noises made by dogs (and horses) can have a double status: Dogs “talk” not only to other dogs (within a species) but also to man (across species). The variability of where the bark of the dog is located in medieval theories of signification is due in part to this variability in the communicative uses of the barks.

The 11th and 12th C views surveyed in the paper (Peter of Spain, Lambert of Auxerre, and Garlandus Compotista are mentioned by name, p. 8) are reported to follow the Boethian proposal, that voces significative are divided into those that signify ad placitum (i.e., nouns), and those that signify naturaliter, and this includes the wails of the infirm, the bark of the dog, the whinney of the horse, and fish which make noises with their gills (p. 8) [2].

Bacon is discussed explicitly in section 9 of the paper, as he devotes an entire treatise, De signis (which I have not read), to the topic. His taxonomy takes up a full page, and is by far the most complex considered in the paper. One of the interesting consequences of his view that the bark of a dog is significative because it was uttered with intention, is that dogs (and other animals who behave similarly) must be in possession of a sensitive soul, in order to be able to be capable of having intentions (p. 18); thus, reason and will are not necessary for the development of intentions.

The authors note that “the classification of Bacon does not appear very homogeneous, as if he were dipping into two differing traditions: that of the Stoics and Augustine, on the one hand, while on the other, that of Aristotle” (p. 19), and that he attempts to handle both traditions without fusing them together. The reason for this nonhomogeneity is

because his aim is not to provide a homogeneous classification but, through a discussion of the traditional classifications of signs, to provide a different (extensional) approach to the problem of communication. With these observations, a new chapter in the history of semiotics would open (p. 22).

I guess there’s more to animal communication, and more to Bacon’s view of the matter, than I thought!


[1] See, e.g.,

[2] If anyone knows anything about these bizarre fish, let me know in the comments!

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One Response to Bacon on animal communication

  1. Pingback: Bird calls, barking dogs, and “fish which make noises with their gills” | The Mod Squad

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