The Birth of Human Imagination out of the Spirit of Language

Prof. Daniel Dor, a linguist, communication researcher and political activist, teaches at the Department of Communication, Tel Aviv University. He received his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University. He has also written extensively on the role of the media in the construction of political hegemony. His  ‘Intifada Hits the Headlines: How the Israeli Press misreported the Outbreak of the Second Palestinian Uprising’  (Indiana University Press) was titled Book of the Year 2004 in Communication by  Choice  Magazine.

Prof. Daniel Dor, a linguist, communication researcher and political activist, teaches at the Department of Communication, Tel Aviv University. He received his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University. He has also written extensively on the role of the media in the construction of political hegemony. His ‘Intifada Hits the Headlines: How the Israeli Press misreported the Outbreak of the Second Palestinian Uprising’ (Indiana University Press) was titled Book of the Year 2004 in Communication by Choice Magazine.

A post by Daniel Dor.

In Dor (2015) and subsequent work, I develop a new general theory of human language and its evolution that I think the readers of this blog may find interesting – because it carries far-reaching implications for our understanding of human imagination, its nature and evolution.

The general theories of language of the 20th century can be divided into two opposing types: cognitive and social-semiotic. Cognitive theories characterize language as an individual cognitive capacity. Back in the 1950s, Noam Chomsky famously suggested that the linguistic capacity is innately-given, formal and universal. These suggestions have been thoroughly discredited since then, and most of the cognitively-oriented thinkers about language today (Michael Tomasello is probably the most prominent figure) conceptualize about the linguistic capacity as socially-learned, functional and (for some researchers) variably spread within human populations. Social-semiotic theories, based on (some of) the older foundations set by Ferdinand de Saussure and others, conceptualize language as a social-cultural institution - a property of the collective, not of the individual mind - a major social determinant of our individual mental lives.

In my work, I suggest a different conception of language, one that I believe bridges the theoretical gap between these two types of theories, and thus, for the first time, unifies the larger field of linguistic investigation: language is a collectively-constructed and cognitively-sustained communication technology. It is one of the most important technologies we have invented in our evolutionary past. What makes it so unique among the wide array of systems that we and the other animals use for intentional communication is its very specific functional strategy. All the other systems (with the possible exception of bee dances) work with what I call the experiential strategy. They provide materials for the interlocutors to experience with their senses and thus allow for the actual sharing of experience. The experiential strategy is inherently limited: an experience can only be shared if it can be experienced by the interlocutor.

Language is the only system that goes beyond the experiential strategy. It works with what I call the instructive strategy. It allows speakers to intentionally and systematically instruct their interlocutors in the process of imagining the intended experience - instead of directly experiencing it. The speaker provides the receiver with a code, a plan, a skeletal list of the basic co-ordinates of the experience - which the receiver is then expected to use as a scaffold for experiential imagination. Following the code, the interlocutor raises past experiences from memory, and then reconstructs and recombines them to produce novel, imagined experiences. In experiential communication, the sender communicates: “this is my experience.” In instructive communication, the sender communicates: my experience is of this type - try to imagine.”

The essence of this strategy, and its implementation, lies in the fact that it requires a huge amount of collective effort to make it work, prior to actual communication - an effort of experiential mutual identification for language. The listener is not invited to share an experience with the speaker, but to create an independent, imagined experience, on the basis of the skeletal formulation of the received code, within his or her own experiential world - in isolation from the experiential world of the speaker. In the creative activity of imagination, the listener may in principle imagine in a wide variety of ways, all of which would always follow the complexities of his or her own experiential world, never that of the speaker. The code should thus be able to instruct the listener in a process in which he or she has to create not only a more or less focused image (an object of imagination, not necessarily a visual representation) - but also a focused image that more or less corresponds to the original experience of the speaker: an image of the same type.

This is a very ambitious goal. The strategy of instructive communication does this through the coordinated investment of enormous social energies in the never-ending process of the careful mapping and marking of those points in experience, and those ways of speaking, which the different speakers within the community may, more or less reliably, count on in the process: “when I use this word, imagine a thing of this type (not that)”; “when I use this word together with this one, imagine this type of experiential relationship (not that)”; “when I arrange the words in my sentence this way, imagine you look at the whole experience from this type of perspective (not that)”; and so on. It is precisely in this sense that language is a technology: each of its components has to be built before it can be used.

Language is thus the only system that allows for communication that actually bridges the experiential gaps between speakers – through the systematic instruction of imagination. In doing that, it opens new venues for human communication, sociality and cognition that would otherwise remain closed. This is the secret of its success. As speakers, we seem to implicitly know that, because this is how we value our linguistic exchanges. Other things being equal, the more your words force me to imagine - the more communicatively valuable they would be for me (provided that I manage to meet the challenge). Listening to sports on the radio, we need as much play-by-play description as we can get, and radio sportscasters are often virtuoso speakers; on television, where we visually experience the game by ourselves, it would be a horrible nuisance. This is so not just for assertives, but for all speech acts: I can use language to order you to do something you have already experienced doing, but the communicative value of language really shows itself when I order you to do something you have never done before, when you have to imagine what you need to do before you can do it.

Many other animals seem to be able to imagine at a basic level. As Michael Corballis and others have shown, they are capable of mental time travel, the internal re-experiencing of past events and situations. What is unique about human imagination is exactly the fact that it is creative: we can re-arrange and intersect our past experiences to produce imagined experiences that go far beyond what we have actually experienced. As Eva Jablonka, Simona Ginsburg and I show in collaborative work on the evolution of language, the emergence and further evolution of language as a collectively-constructed technology must have been the main driving engine behind the evolutionary emergence of creative imagination. Every advancement in the technology required more imagination; every new imagined experience required further technological development. The more dependent human society became on the technology of language, the more individuals in it were selected for their imaginative capacities. With time, society itself came to acquire imagined properties in and of itself. There is a straight line here from the very origins of language all the way to Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities.

I will not be able to delve here into the details of this process, but I will conclude with two remarks that I think would be of interest. First, all linguistic communication requires an effort of the imagination on the side of the interlocutors, but as far as the speakers are concerned, we may distinguish between two types of situations. In the first situation, speakers simply communicate their own experiences: they do not have to imagine the contents of their messages (they do have to imagine in order to assess their interlocutors’ knowledge and attitude, but this is another matter). In the second situation, speakers actually imagine the content of their messages (or some parts of them). They do that whenever they say something that isn’t completely based on their real experiences. This may be done with no intention to deceive, as in fiction (see Brian Boyd’s recent work on the evolution of stories), but its use for lying, linguistic deception, is its true foundation. Lying must have been the original function of language that required a serious effort of imagining-for-speaking. In experiential communication, interlocutors can verify the message in real time. As the literature on animal deception shows very clearly, this is why complex experiential deception is very hard to perform. The very fact that language requires the interlocutors to imagine the message means that it also deprives them of the ability to verify. It thus opens totally new venues for deception, and these are all based on the speaker’s ability to creatively imagine-for-speaking. Lying is such a strong tool of deception that it actually revolutionized human social relationships, and constituted a new regime of epistemic suspicion, in which liars and lie-detectors engaged in constant battle. As both sides of the lying arms race consistently improved their performance along evolutionary time, the selection pressure for better imagination remained constant throughout. We would not be as imaginative as we are if it weren't for the lie.

Second, the claim that human creative imagination is developmentally connected with language, both phylogenetically and ontogenetically (pretend-games are especially important here), doesn’t mean that the activation of imagination in real time is always linguistically-based. But in linguistic communication, everything that we imagine is based on the socially-constructed worldview of the meanings of language. The effort of free imagination, in art and elsewhere, is thus always an effort to free the mind from the social constraints encoded in language.


Dor, Daniel (2015). The Instruction of Imagination: Language as a Social Communication Technology. OUP.