Wednesday, September 30, 2020


What is communication, fundamentally? There seem to be three ways of characterizing it that you find, with different variations. Suppose A communicates something to B.

(1) Illation: A's words or actions are evidence from which B infers what A intends.

There seem to be clear cases where communication is primarily inferential in this way. For instance, if A has to improvise some way to communicate something to B, then B can't be relying on some kind of prior familiarity, but must be inferring what A means by A's improvised signs.

(2) Evocation: A's words or actions evoke ideas in B that are like A's ideas.

Communication often seems to happen without anything definitely identifiable as inference. And people do talk as if there are cases where two people can be 'on the same wavelength', i.e., are not inferring what the other means but are 'syncing up', interpreting the same things in the same way, and adjusting without much thought to what the other is communicating.

(3) Communion: A's words or actions, presented, are now common to both A and B.

'Communication', of course, literally means something like 'making-common' or 'sharing'. It seems that there are cases of communication in which it's not clear that inference or evocation is the primary point, because it's not so much about what's going on in the minds of the people involved -- it's more a matter of making something accessible to both, regardless of what ideas they might have.

Each of these ways of thinking about communication plausibly explain enough cases that they probably all are legitimate ways of thinking about communication. The two questions would be, though, (A) whether one is more fundamental than the others; and (B) whether the relationship is conjunctive or disjunctive -- that is, do all forms of communication involve all three or are there cases exclusively one or the other?

With regard to (A), I think there is a good case that we should primarily think of communication as a making-common. It's not common in philosophical accounts to emphasize this but it does, as noted before, give communication its name, and at least many cases of illation and evocation presuppose a prior sharing of words or actions.

With regard to (B), it's harder to say. If we take the disjunctive route, then there may be cases of illation without evocation, etc. If this is understood in such a way that you could have illation or evocation without communion, then we could still accept the answer given to (A), and would hold that the non-communion forms of communication are degenerate or nonstandard forms. But one could also take communion to be part of every kind of communication, and just hold that illation or evocation or both is optional. If we take the conjunctive route, all communication involves all three to some extent, although in particular cases one or two of them might be secondary with respect to what is communicated. My own inclination is toward the conjunctive approach, but it's not very easy to pin down each of the three in every case, and the disjunctive approach is probably the easier approach for which to argue.