Annie Webster

Annie Webster



Thesis title: The Function of Language: A Naturalistic Approach

Start year: 2015


Research topic

Language is unique to humans, and fundamental to our way of life. It gives us the capacity to communicate and explore vastly complex ideas, allowing us to create ever advancing civilisations and technologies. Yet questions concerning the functionality and existence of language remain unanswered in philosophy and the sciences. Questions include: what is the reason for it's existence? Is it a system of communication, or a mediator that improves the way we think? If it's so useful why don't we see language in other animals? What is the cause of linguistic ability in humans? How and why did these linguistic abilities come about?

In recent decades developments in the sciences -the cognitive sciences in particular- have provided new observations onto natural language, the human mind, and the process of evolution. My proposal is to endorse a naturalistic stance toward language and mind -that is to consider them as part of the natural world and open to scientific investigation- and draw upon these insights to carry these questions forward.

Current literature from the cognitive sciences tend to express two broad perspectives on the existence and function of language.

The nativist argues that we have a sort of 'innate know-how' for language, that this capacity is somehow hardwired into our brains. Strong views go as far to claim that a dedicated faculty provides us the grammatical information of language. Other views claim that innate concepts influence our understanding of the world, and therefore the sorts of words and sentence we use (eg. predisposed to have words with different uses; like nouns, adjectives and verbs). Due to the in-head nature of this view, there is an overall idea that language exists in order to provide a better cognitive function; to bring more order and flexibility to our thoughts.

The socio-culturalist, on the other hand, argues that our capacity for language is maintained by non-linguistic cognitive mechanisms; such as those associated with learning, memory, and mind- or intention-reading. The creation language comes wholly through human social interaction. It's shape and development tightly intertwined with human culture, not the human brain. By this view language is seen as a tool that allows humans to communicate and share information; whether its for highly practical reasons (such as hunting and building), or more communal reasons (such as gossiping or socialising).

The main focus of my thesis, however, is to show that these views are not inseparable, and a theory that combines elements from both has the potential to avoid the problems and issues they currently suffer as stand-alone opposing views. First, I hold that language can only be explained by innate language-specific machinery - thus agreeing with the nativist. Second, I hold that communication must be the primary function of language - thus agreeing with the socio-culturalist.

I also intend to show why the philosophical, as opposed to the strictly scientific, perspective still brings invaluable insight to this research. Firstly, philosophers have been debating these questions, and exposing the sensible from the inconsistent since the dawn of the discipline. There is much theory and literature on the relationship between thought and language; the difference between animal and human thinking; meaning in sentences and words; and what it is for something to have a purpose or function. Secondly, this area of research requires an interdisciplinary mindset which draws research from psychology, linguistics, evolutionary psychology and biology, and others. Although this is a strength it is also a weakness because theories and concepts within the individual disciplines are at risk of conflicting definitions. A philosopher is trained to avoid this, and ensure that theories are unified in a sensible way.


Cognitive science; cognition; communication; evolution; function; language; mind; philosophy


Conference papers

  • ‘Intellectual Humility’: Joint paper presented at an Intellectual Humility Conference in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Organised by Brookes Philosophy Department, Funded by John Templeton Foundation) - April 2015
  • ‘Language, you were born with it’: Presentation of MA research at the Brookes History, Philosophy and Religion Department Winter Symposium (December 2013)
  • ‘The Evolution of Language: A Case of Nature verses Nurture’: Presentation of MA research at the Brookes History, Philosophy and Religion Department Winter Symposium (December 2012)

Academic and professional training

  • BA (Hons) Philosophy (First Class), Oxford Brookes University 2009 – 2011
  • MA by Research Philosophy, The Emergence and Evolution of Language, Oxford Brookes University, 2012-2013
  • Ongoing PhD, Philosophy, Oxford Brookes University, 2015 onward

Scholarships and prizes

  • 3-Years Full-time Oxford Brookes University PhD Studentship, 2015-2018 (fees and grant)
  • Bursary to attend ESSENCE Summer School, August 2015 (week of accommodation and lunch costs)
  • Awarded funding from School of History, Philosophy and Culture, Oxford Brookes University (travel costs for conference and attendance of a seminar series)

Other experience and professional activities

  • Philosophy in Schools 2015: Trained to facilitate philosophical discussions with children in schools. Carried out sessions with children from years 7 and 8 at the Matthew Arnold School, Oxford.
  • ESSENCE Summer School 2015: Attended a week long summer school on the ‘Evolution of Shared Semantics in Computational Environments’ held at the School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh.
  • Centre for Cognition Research at University of Reading 2015-16: Participated in various reading groups, lectures, and seminars based on cognitive science, psychology, and philosophy.