Week 2: Cherry's Chapter 1

Reading Questions, by Zach Tomaszewski

for CIS 702, Fall 2004, taught by Dr. Martha Crosby

1. Given that the concept of communication arises in a number of diverse disciplines (p2), do you think it is possible to say that there is such a thing as a Universal Theory of Communication? As the group represents many different fields, what does the term "communication" mean to you in your field of study / research?

I do not believe there is a Universal Theory of Communication. Communication involves too many elements to be explained by a single view. A complete theory of communication needs to explain at least the interplay between language and thought, how meaning is derived (especially in different contexts), how social codes and customs shape language, and the physical or informational aspects of transmitted sounds or signs. Currently, there are multiple disagreeing theories for each of these aspects. Agreement on all of them seems unlikely.

While I believe no single theory could give an adequate explanation of all these different aspects of communication, it may be possible to derive a framework that shows where different theories apply. For example, Robert Pirsig, in his book Lila, proposes that reality is divided into multiple "layers", each running on top of the next. A similar model is that of networking protocols.

PirsigNetworkingAspects of Communication
Dynamic experienceEnd UserPure experience
Intellectual levelApplication layerLanguage
Social levelTCP/IP layersRules of conduct/codes
Organic levelData Link layerProduction of signal; transmission and receiving
Inorganic levelPhysical layerThe signal itself

Such a framework may show how different theories are in fact necessary to deal with communication on different levels. Physics may study the sound waves of the physical signal itself. Shannon and Weaver's model of how a signal is transmitted--possibly distorted between the sender and receiver by noise--seems to deal with communication at a still basic level, but begins to deal with the abstract notion of "information." Yet Shannon and Weaver's model does not adequately explain higher-level concerns of how the meaning of the particular utterances is derived.

I'm not quite sure what my field of study is. In Linguistics, the concern is largely with the meaning of the language, as well as the syntax. Computer Science, with respect to networking, is concerned primarily only with transmission of data. Communications seems to dabble at a number of different levels, trying to unify theories contributed from different disciplines for different reasons.

2. Looking at human communication (as opposed to other forms of communication, such as animal communication), discuss some of the features that make human communication more advanced, such as the conception of time and the ability to communicate ideas.

I believe that animal communication differs from human communication by degree, and not by kind. It is not some different way of communicating, but perhaps just a simpler form of human communication. I believe that studying animal communication will show more similarities than differences between human communication.

It generally annoys me when authors attempt to differentiate humans from all other animals on some feat we can perform, whether it be communication, abstract thought, reasoning, consciousness, or tool use. It seems that, invariably, these elements are then discovered in animals, albeit perhaps in a simpler form. It is difficult to compare human communication to that of animals when we don't fully understand animal communication--the flocking of birds, whale songs, the sniffing and tail-wagging of dogs, or how apes can learn sign language.

But though not a difference of kind, human communication does seem more complex in its ability to handle abstract ideas--time, truth, nations, logic, and cognition itself. However, it may be that we ourselves do not conceive of these abstract concepts directly, but through metaphors to more concrete experiences (Lakoff).

Finally, evidence of abstract or conscious thinking is sometimes difficult to find in other people, when we share the same biology, social experience, and language. Determining that it definitely does not occur in animals is particularly difficult. Who can say that songbirds don't sing ballads of ancient fowl wars as a metaphor for current territory disputes? Or that physicists debating opposing theories aren't simply doing so to defend their intellectual territories? I see the same processes at work, simply to a different degree (or perhaps at a different level).

3. Cherry defines communication as "the relationship set up by the transmission of stimuli and the evocation of responses" (p7). How do these relationships facilitate social organization?

I suppose the term communication could be expanded to include all information or feedback received by an entity or system from its environment. This may be useful in certain situations, but the popular conception of communication is generally between two living organisms (usually human). An organism is generally not said to "communicate" with its environment--its food or physical hazards it encounters. So while an organism does regularly exhibit "discriminatory response[s]... to stimul[i]", I agree with Cherry that this is not necessarily communication.

Rather, "communication" tends to occur most frequently between two similar entities, not simply an entity and its environment. However, I also disagree with Cherry that communication is "the relationship set up by the transmission of stimuli and the evocation of responses." I do not think of it as the relationship formed, but by the process itself of transmitting stimuli and evoking responses. (A subtle distinction!) And this definition only applies at a social or biological level, since it does not provide for language, meaning, or understanding.

Also, not all communication is two-way. Mass-media, such as TV or newspapers, are examples of one-way "communication." It may be that we understand communication as a prototypical category, and not some clear-cut definition. That is, certain processes between two entities are more or less like our prototypical sense of communication--a conversation between two humans.

Certainly, communication on the social level--fashion, dress, sign codes, signals of social dominance and territoriality--facilitates social organization. However, communication on the biological level (such as pheromones and growling stomachs) and on the intellectual level (such as treatises, novels, and movies) do not directly or inherently facilitate social organization. (Indeed, many intellectual works roundly reject the current social order.)

Cherry, Colin. On human communication: a review, a survey, and a criticism. Cambridge: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1957.

Pirsig, Robert M. Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Lakoff, George. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.