David Lewis in the lab: experimental results on the emergence of meaning

Synthese 195 (2):603-621 (2018)
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In this paper we use an experimental approach to investigate how linguistic conventions can emerge in a society without explicit agreement. As a starting point we consider the signaling game introduced by Lewis. We find that in experimental settings, small groups can quickly develop conventions of signal meaning in these games. We also investigate versions of the game where the theoretical literature indicates that meaning will be less likely to arise—when there are more than two states for actors to transfer meaning about and when some states are more likely than others. In these cases, we find that actors are less likely to arrive at strategies where signals have clear conventional meaning. We conclude with a proposal for extending the use of the methodology of experimental economics in experimental philosophy.

Author Profiles

Hannah Rubin
University of Missouri, Columbia
Simon Huttegger
University of California, Irvine
Justin Bruner
University of Arizona


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