editor’s note


If communication is to be considered foundational and a discipline, and not merely instrumental, we must be able to define it: that is, to say what is and what is not to be considered communication, and what criteria are to be applied to communicative phenomena. Presently, the defining markers are transmission and sharing. The paper argues that transmission is not a marker, and that sharing is at best a weak marker. Taking examples at the boundaries of communication, we see that the criteria are (1) the construction of an author by a reader, (2) the belief in sharing, (3) the attribution of intention, and (4) the position of the reader. The marginalisation of communication to an instrumental function has limited the impact of the communication point of view on intellectual life; our paper provides an ontological framework, showing that communication can be seen as the primary description of the universe.

The boundary of communication

This is a paper about boundaries, edges, limits. It is a contribution to the ongoing debate about the status of communication as a field in its own right. We want to explore the line between what is and what is not communication: defining communication by its boundary. It is part of a wider project to lay the foundations for communication as a discipline, to provide methodological coherence and rigour to the communication point of view (Penman 1981, 1992, 1993, Sless 1980, 1981, 1986, 1985, 1987, 1991 & 1994)

One of the ways in which we can define our discipline is to go to its boundary, look across that boundary and see what lies beyond. In doing so, and by contrast, we also see more clearly what is part of our discipline.

If, as has been argued, communication is foundational and if, also, it has the status of a discipline, then we must be able to say what it is, where the boundaries lie.

Beginning from the communication side of the boundary, it is useful to restate the common sense views of communication from which we all began, but from which many of us now dissent. Raymond Williams, in his succinct etymological analysis of communication, reminds us of the mixed and sometimes contradictory origins of contemporary usage.

In controversy about communication systems and communication theory it is often useful to recall the unresolved range of the original noun of action, represented at its extremes by transmit, a one-way process, and share (cf. communion and especially communicant), a common or mutual process. The intermediate senses—make common to many, and impart—can be read in either direction, and the choice is often crucial (Williams 1976, p. 63).

Transmission and sharing are the terms which battle to claim the category of things we call communication; these terms have their origins in common sense usage and have become enshrined in much of the theoretical literature. But when we look over the edge, at what lies beyond communication, we shall see that the common sense notion of sharing is a only a weak marker of the boundary, and transmission is not a marker at all; as Sless (1986) argues, they are an inadequate basis for our discipline of communication. None the less, our contemporary theoretical discourse about communication must recognise our informal conversational progenitors so that we can clearly mark the difference between everyday usage of the term ‘communication’ and a more advanced and refined usage in communication theory.

We will start with some simple examples that illustrate the boundary between what is and what is not communication. The purpose of these examples is to tease out some general principles that apply to the category of things we call communication. We will then proceed to look at some historical debates in which the contemporary category of communication is either absent or highly attenuated. From such examples we will draw some interesting suggestions about the relationship between communication and science, and, by implication, some suggestions about the special place of communication research in intellectual life.

At the edge

We begin with three examples which provide a clear glimpse of the often shimmering boundary between the types of things we include within communication and those that we might exclude. The first example is the case of pulsars, the second is the case of miracles, and the third is the case of the wink/twitch.

Pulsars: messages or inanimate matter?

In 1968 a group of radio astronomers discovered, almost by accident, the existence of a radio source which showed regular fluctuations in energy. Nothing like it had ever been discovered before and there was a flurry of excitement and speculation about its origins and causes.

As the days went by the excitement rose when we found that the pulses were coming from a body no larger than a planet situated relatively close to us among the nearer stars of our galaxy. Were the pulses some kind of message from another civilisation? This possibility was entertained only for lack of an obvious natural explanation for signals that seemed so artificial (Hewish 1968).

Here is the boundary, the knife edge of the distinction between what is and what is not communication; on one side a message with an unknown author and on the other a natural phenomenon without acceptable explanation. These two different accounts of the same phenomenon—applications of two totally different descriptions—are possible even though the pulses themselves do not change. The only change is in the way they are described.

What is the difference between the two descriptions? The main difference is in the account given by the researchers of the pulses’ origin. When they deemed the origin to be a ‘civilisation’ or what we might in contemporary parlance call a ‘culture’, the pulses were part of communication, a message. When they deemed the origin to be a rapidly rotating dense nugget of gas and neutrons, then the pulses were a natural phenomenon.

This example gives us our first criterion, our first glimpse of the principles that mark the boundary between what we do and what we do not consider to be communication. Do the pulses under consideration originate from a culture, making it communication and part of our discipline’s interest; or do they originate in a physical phenomenon, making them outside our field and part of physics? Note that the question of origin is not determined by the pulse itself: in principle the pulse could have either a cultural or natural origin. The question of origin is importantly part of the researchers’ description of the pulses. Of the many possible descriptions, the researchers had to decide on which seemed to them most plausible. The researchers made a choice of the most plausible explanation from their point of view, and that determined their subsequent analysis and investigation.

Applying the common sense notions of communication embodied in transmission and sharing, we can see that the pulses qualify as transmission, whether they are treated as natural or cultural in origin. But evidence of signal transmission is not evidence of communication. The mere transmission of pulses does not qualify as communication. Unfortunately, Shannon and Weaver’s model of communication as the transmission of signals, and the popular view of communication as ‘getting one’s message across effectively’, has relegated communication to a purely instrumental function, a tool for doing things, and this in its turn has led to the contemporary opportunistic confusions between communications with an ‘s’, and communication without an ‘s’. However, as critical commentaries on contemporary communications policy are beginning to recognise in our environment suffused with digital transmission systems, transmission cannot be used to delineate between what we take to be part of communication and what we choose to exclude. It will not serve as a marker between what is and what is not communication.

But what of sharing? Clearly in the case of the pulses there is no actual sharing, but for the brief moment when the pulses were considered to be cultural in origin there was the excitement of possible sharing. What distinguished the pulse as message from the pulse as natural phenomenon was the presence of an imagined author—a being that was part of a culture—on whom the researchers could project the hope of sharing. This falls far short of actual sharing yet it is a sufficient marker of the boundary, as our next example shows.


In our second example of events which straddle the boundary between what is and what is not communication, we will clearly see that we do not need actual sharing, but only the hope of sharing. This example is the contrast between the religious and the atheistic view of the world. Many events in the Bible—the rainbow after the flood, the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea—are example of events which can be read in two distinct ways. From an atheist position, even supposing these events to have actually occurred, they are explicable as natural happenings to be explained entirely by the operation of the laws of nature, like the pulses from the pulsar. By contrast a religious explanation accepts them as indications of the existence of God and as specific acts from that source.

God’s existence as a communicator is, of course, not a matter of objective fact; it is importantly a matter of faith and belief. What exists for those people who believe in miracles is a relationship between themselves as ‘readers’ and a supposed ‘text’. In other words, they see the world as a text and themselves as readers of that text, and in the process of constructing themselves as readers, necessarily they construct an author—a creator of the text. The sharing—the sense of communion with God—arises as a logical consequence of the construction of this author. The contrast between the religious and atheistic view enables us to see what is often implicit in everyday communication, namely that the constructed author is logically prior to the hope of sharing. As Mead argued, the construction of the ‘other’ precedes the construction of ‘self’.

These two different descriptions—the religious and atheistic—draw on different world views. There can be no doubt that there are people who believe in miracles and for them these events are messages. From their point of view certain events are communication from God. Atheists, by contrast, live in a universe that does not speak. There is no voice within the void, only silence beyond the boundary, perhaps for some a lonely place. However, as we shall see in a later section, those who believe in scientific explanations do not necessarily cast their descriptions on the godless side of that boundary, in a silent universe; God, the author, can still be found lurking and murmuring in the wings of their explanations.

In the case of both miracles or pulsars, sharing with another entity—whether it be god or alien—does not have to occur in fact, although the hope and belief in sharing—the belief in the existence of an author—is clearly present as a logical necessity. But even without any actual sharing, both are, in principle, acts of communication from the point of view of the reader; they both fall within the discourse of communication. It could, of course, be argued that these are instances of unsuccessful communication and that communication proper involves a real sharing of understanding. However, that is another issue. Even if miracles can sustain ambiguous or indeterminate readings they are still on our side of the boundary, part of communication and therefore within the purview of our discipline.

On the communication side of the boundary we therefore find two things: first the construction of an author by a reader in a particular social position, and second the belief in the potential of sharing which is actually a belief in the existence of culture.

Rapid eye closing and opening: wink or twitch?

However, this is not the end of the story. Consider the case of the wink/twitch.

You notice that a stranger sitting opposite you in the train closes and then opens one eye, very quickly. You can describe what is happening in two ways, as a wink, or as a twitch—the same action, but a world of difference in the descriptions. If you take it to be a wink, you are seeing it as a message, a text, and you need to decide what it might mean, whether it is meant for you, and if so how to deal with it. If you take it to be a twitch, an unfortunate involuntary spasm, then you probably do your best to ignore it.

In this case, both the wink and the twitch are read as originating from the same ‘author’. It is not a question of deciding, as in the case of the pulsar, whether the pulses come from a cultural or a natural source. Here the problem is subtly different; we have to decide whether the act was intentional or non-intentional.

Clearly, we do not read all human behaviour as intentional, even though we might accept that all human behaviour occurs within a cultural context. It is possible that we read some human behaviour, even within a cultural context, as free of authorship.

In the case of the pulsar, it is clear that if we consider a pulse to be a communicative message, or in other words a sign, we must assume that its origin is cultural. Adding to this the case of the wink/twitch, we see that an event is considered to be communication if we read it as intentional. Culture, authorship, position, and intention provide us with markers at the boundary.

Unfortunately, this takes us only part of the way in marking the boundary. There are major difficulties with the concept of intention which need to be examined in more detail.


As we saw with the wink/twitch case: a wink is an intentional action, an act of communication, whilst a twitch is a non-intentional, involuntary action. Intention is therefore one of the markers at the boundary. It is impossible to talk about communication without bringing in the concept of intention. Our treatment of the term intention draws on the seminal work of the important British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (Anscombe 1972). Originally published in 1957, Anscombe’s work draws heavily on the later Wittgenstein, for whom she was both a colleague and one of the trustees and editors of his manuscripts after his death. Anscombe’s profound insights into the nature of intention were largely ignored by Austin and subsequently Searle and Grice in the development of speech act theory. Unfortunately, many contemporary scholars in linguistics and communication take their view of intention from Austin, Searle and Grice who tend to regard intention as an intrinsic part of speech acts. This has led these philosophers and those who follow them to a profound neglect of positionality.

Anscombe points to three distinct ways that talk about intention: as a noun denoting a mental object of some sort, as when we say ‘he had the intention to do such-and-such’; as a verb denoting an activity of some sort, as when we say ‘she intends to do such-and-such’, and as an adjective or adverb descriptive of something that has happened, as when we say ‘that was an intentional act’, or ‘you did that intentionally’.

Anscombe points out that this variety in ways of talking about intentional actions has led to confused thinking by philosophers and psychologists. This is especially the case with regard to the noun an intention. Because we have a way of talking about our actions which uses this form of words, as in ‘I formed an intention to x’, some psychologists and philosophers, and most lay persons, have assumed that there exists a mental object, an intention, that is denoted by the term. This is quite unhelpful in understanding the difference between intentional and unintentional or non-intentional action. Indeed in one important sense there is no difference in the actions themselves: the crucial difference lies not in the actions, but in the way we describe them, and any action may have many different descriptions.

Anscombe argues particularly cogently that we must not look for special characteristics, whether psychological or otherwise, when we talk about intentional action. As she says, we do not add anything to the action by calling it intentional; we are instead assigning the action to a particular class of behaviours to which an answer to the question ‘why?’ is applicable. ‘Why’ in this instance is a question about purpose, not a question about cause. When we apply the question ‘why’ to the pulses from space, miracles, and eyelid movements, we are asking what purpose lies behind them. In asking this question we are assigning them to the class of behaviours that we typically call communication.

Anscombe’s profound insight of relevance to communication was to realise that statements about an author’s intentions are logically and empirically part of one’s reading of an author’s text, not an intrinsic part of either the text or the author. Intentionality is in the eye of the reader, and by assigning an event to the class of things we call communication, as with our three cases, the reader is putting the event into the class of things about which the question ‘why’ is relevant.

The question ‘why’ is asked by a reader of an implied or inferred author. But it is not enough just to understand that an event which we call intentional is one which a reader is placing in a particular class, one which the reader believes to have originated from an author. It is also crucial to understand who is asking the question ‘why’ and in what context. This leads us to the notion of position, point of view, and frame of reference.

To sum up so far: it seems to us that whether something is or is not communication depends on how it is described; and how it is described depends on who is describing it; and who is describing it is doing so from a particular position, from a particular point of view, and using a particular frame of reference. These are not all the same, and they are all crucial to marking the boundary of communication.


In the book In Search of Semiotics (Sless 1986) Sless shows how the two common sense concepts of communication—communication as the transmission of messages from sender to receiver, and communication as the sharing of language—fail to come to terms with the essential nature of communication, which is that everyone who communicates is a participant in the process with a unique part to play and place to stand. In a very real sense, an individual is inside any communicative act that he is participating in, and therefore has a position within that act. This position can never be an outsider’s position; there can be no such thing as an objective observer of communication. The important thing to understand from this is that the criteria for determining whether or not something is communication, as discussed above, have to be determined from one’s own position: ‘this signal has an author, and is intentional, and is thus communication, from my position’. In other words, a person constructs an author, and sees himself or herself as a reader of a text, a participant in a communicative activity.

Understanding position

Because positionality involves a new way of thinking about communication, it can sometimes be difficult to understand. The wink/twitch example can help us move from the familiar but inappropriate bird’s eye view, to the unfamiliar yet appropriate positional view. In the following example, however, we are taking a bird’s eye view to describe all the characters and their behaviour; this would of course be impossible in a real research situation. We can play God here as we have invented the story.

Imagine the following. Jim has to meet up with a confederate, Joe, on a train, for a secret deal. Jim and Joe have never met, but they have a pre-arranged signal: just as the train passes a local landmark, Jim is to wink at Joe, and Joe is to respond by winking at Jim. Unfortunately, Jim and Joe get into the wrong carriages. At the agreed time, Jim blinks his eye whilst looking at the person opposite, who is not Joe, but Jack. Jack decides that the man opposite has a momentary twitch. Meanwhile, it so happens that Joe finds himself sitting opposite Julius. Just as the train passes the landmark, Julius gets a bit of dust in his eye and blinks his eye hard. Joe then pointedly blinks his eye in response. Julius thinks he is being mocked. We will leave Jim, Joe, Julius and Jack to carry on their lives whilst we try to sort out the communication activities going on.

Are the blinking eyes communicative acts or not? This question can’t be answered without also asking: ‘From whose position?’ From Jim’s position, his signal is a communicative act; the signal from his position is a sign, though it does not get the desired response. From Jack’s position, Jim’s signal is not an act of communication at all; it is a symptom of some local irritation or neurological disorder, perhaps, but not a sign. From Joe’s position, Julius’s blinking is a sign, though from Julius’s position it is not; and Joe’s signal, from both Joe’s position and Julius’s, is a sign, but one with very different meanings. We cannot answer the question ‘Is this a sign? Is it a message? Is it communication?’ without at the same time saying, ‘For whom?’

We can complicate the matter still further by adding more participants to the scenario. Jean and Joan are in the same carriage as Julius and Joe. Jean sees Julius’s eyelid movement and at first decides it is a twitch, not communication. She then sees Joe’s eyelid movement and changes her mind: here are two messages, the first from Julius, the second from Joe in response. She gives a little smile to herself: ‘Well, well! who’d have thought it?’ Joan also sees the eyelid movements, takes it to be a wink directed at her, and turns away in confusion, thus not noticing Joe’s response.

The initial signal, the eyelid movement from Julius, has a different interpretation from each position. Each participant in the act has a different position in regard to the signal, and different logical relation to it. Since we cannot say ‘this is a sign’, or alternatively, ‘this is not a sign’, without stating for whom it is a sign or not, the first thing to understand is that the sign and who it is a sign for is an indivisible unity. In this carriage there are four separate unities, three of them signs and one of them not, each one with something in common, the moving of an eyelid, but otherwise quite different. But there is more to it than that: they do not only differ in terms of content, they have different logical relationships to each other. Let us call Julius’s relationship to his action 1 to represent that he is in the first position with regard to the eyelid movement—he is the one who blinked. However, it is not a sign for him, it is no kind of meaningful text, it was unintentional and he would not be able to give a relevant answer if someone asked him ‘Why?’. Joe’s logical relationship to it is 2: he is the immediate reader of it, as it were, and takes it as a text for himself; he believes Julius has sent him an intentional message and could answer ‘Why?’ if asked. Joan is also in position 2, since she also takes it as a text for herself. Jean is in position 3, since she observes the first signal and then observes the response to it, drawing her inferences about Julius’s wink-twitch from a third position. If Jean were to tell a friend about it later on, the friend would be in position 4 in relation to the original signal.

If a real ethnographer were sitting in the train (ie not Sless & Shrensky with this impossible external commentary), carrying out research on the incidence of eye contact among train passengers, he or she would also be in the third position here, drawing inferences which would be more or less appropriate. If the ethnographer were then to write down the observations in a book and send it to a publisher to be edited and published, the editor would be in the fourth position and the ultimate buyer and reader of the research would be in the fifth position; and so on. Each position is removed from the original sign by an act of interpretation and inference; each requires the creation of an author and the new reading of a text.

But it is even more complicated than this. The activities going on in the train carriage does not exist in a vacuum. They are part of each person’s larger communicative field. The larger communicative field for each individual is circumscribed by point of view and bounded by frame of reference.

Point of view

By point of view we mean the choices of available meanings that are open to any individual at any moment. Joe would not have interpreted the wink-twitch in the way he did if he had not been told that there was a prior arrangement. Jean has just discovered that homosexual relationships exist, and is on the lookout for them. Joan has been suffering from sexual harassment at work and feels vulnerable. Our ethnographer has been doing comparative work on eye contact for some time, and has already formed some theory about what is going on. Each individual has his or her own point of view which at any moment restricts the communicative choices he can make and how he interprets signals, from any position, including whether or not something is to be considered a message in the first place.

Frame of reference

The frame of reference differs from the point of view as it provides the boundary of what is or is not to be considered communication. Frame of reference is clearly illustrated in the pulsar example. For the period of time that the researchers thought the radio signals emanated from a single source (either terrestrial or from outer space), it was possible for them to interpret the signals as messages. Once it was discovered that there were very many sources of such signals, and all of great distances, the interpretation of the signals as messages became impossible for the astronomers. They could not accept either that so many intelligent agents would be sending the identical radio signals, or that the energy required to send them from so far away could emanate from a non-natural source. Their frame of reference, which is probably shared by many non-astronomers, is that signals of that kind must be natural phenomena. This reference point is in its turn determined by a prior frame of reference, which is, that all experience can be classified either as communication or as natural phenomenon.

The idea that all experience has to be ordered and organised by some kind of pre-experience schema if it is to be meaningful was first suggested by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century. Schema theories have had a checkered history but are becoming increasingly accepted in the late twentieth century as providing a more useful way of describing human behaviour. An important thinker in this area is Erving Goffman (1974) whose work on framing has been influential in many fields. Following the schema philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Goffman shows that experience is organised into two broad classes of primary frameworks which he calls the ‘natural’ and the ‘social’. Natural frameworks identify occurrences that are seen as undirected, unoriented, unanimated, unguided, wherein no wilful agency causally and intentionally interferes, no actor guides the outcome. Social frameworks on the other hand provide background understanding for events that incorporate the will, aim, and controlling effort of an intelligence, a live agency, wherein motive and intent are involved. The distinction between the two is one between events and deeds, or as one might say, happenings and doings.

Disputed frameworks

Which parts of experience are placed within which frame is determined not only by individual point of view and position, but is also determined by culture. In our culture, for instance, we do not generally assume that thunder is a message from an angry god or that illness is the result of a magic spell. These are usually considered happenings, not doings, in our society, but may well be seen as intentional deeds in another, or by individuals in subcultures within our mainstream culture. But even within our mainstream culture there are disputed classifications: is a dream a meaningful experience or a meaningless epiphenomenon? Is the universe an expression of God’s purpose or the result of a series of accidents?

This brings us to a consideration of one of the most famous disputes in history—the argument between Galileo and the Catholic church in the early 17th century as to whether the earth moved or not. We will see that this is not an argument about scientific facts but an argument about communication; a semiotic argument about the reading of texts.

The Council of Trent, set up in 1546 to counter and control the ‘petulant spirits’ of the Reformation, decreed that anyone who did not accept the Church’s interpretation of the Old and New Testaments would be anathema. The role of the Church in this matter was purely exegetic: there was no problem regarding the truth of the Bible, only its meaning. The truth of the Bible was de dicto, meaning ‘in the words’; the Bible was the immediately revealed word of God, and had been written as dictated by God. Thus there could be no error in Scripture, whether it dealt with faith and morals or with any accidental piece of historical information such as an individual’s age or the clothes he wore. It was true because it was written. Passages in the Bible distinctly state that the earth is immobile and the sun moves; so any statement to the contrary must be anathema.

In 1543, three years before the Council of Trent’s pronouncements, Copernicus published his book on the revolution of the planets around the sun, but it was not until 1616 that the theory contained in it was condemned by the Church according to the doctrine of the Council of Trent. It seems to be that the theory was acceptable in those intervening years because until that time it was purely speculative. The problem for the church began when Galileo, using the newly-invented telescope, began to demonstrate that the theory could be supported by observation and experiment. For Bellarmine, Galileo’s main opponent, there was nothing dangerous in regarding Copernican theory as a fiction which happened to be useful in calculating celestial motions; the great danger lay in treating it as the real structure of the world, because it made out the Scriptures to be false, thus destroying faith.

Galileo’s response is interesting because, as a good Catholic, he did not disagree that the word of God was the ultimate truth. His argument was that God had written two texts, not one: the book of nature and the book of revelation. He argued that we need to understand the language in which each is written. The method used to read the book of revelation is biblical exegesis which constitutes the logic of religious belief, and the method used to read the book of nature constitutes the logic of science. Science and religion are consistent because God is the truthful author of both books. God wrote the laws of nature into the structure of the world at creation. The order of nature of God’s plan for the salvation is expressed as a set of propositions and read off as true, just like the Bible.

This was not a purely Catholic response. Galileo’s Protestant contemporary, Kepler, equally believed that astronomy provided a means to see the power and glory of God, complementing the goals of religion as set out in the Bible. From its beginning, science was seen as an offshoot of religion, with its own exegetic demands, its own methods of reading a text which provided truthful propositions about God’s purpose. The frame of reference was the same in each case, in that scientific knowledge was contained within the larger universe of communicative phenomena.

The dispute between the church and Galileo was about which of these two texts—the Bible or nature—and which exegetical methods—biblical interpretation by the fathers of the church or observation and interpretation by an individual—should prevail in any dispute. The Catholic church, still smarting from the reformation, was in no mood to have its authority questioned. It took the view that in matters of textual interpretation—biblical or natural—the church was the superior authority over the individual. The dispute between the church and Galileo was primarily about power and authority. Galileo tried to turn it into a debate about different hermeneutic methods—a semiotic issue concerned with resolving the differences between two texts which are supposed to have the same meanings. Galileo lost, power and authority prevailed.

The Galileo episode was not a clash between religion and science, as the modern reader might interpret it. It was not a dispute across the boundary between what is and what is not communication. It was a clash within the territory of communication, between two rival methods of textual analysis and interpretation.

God or nature?

This brings us back to the question we asked at the beginning of the last section: is the universe an expression of God’s purpose or a series of accidents? For both the Catholics and Protestants of the early days of science, there was no problem: both were ways of understanding the universe which was a book with one author. To the modern mind it may seem strange that scientists with such critical and analytic minds as, say, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle could alternate between science and mysticism, seeing both as equal demonstrations of the same kind of truth.

After the fervour of the counter-reformation had diminished, the political and cultural power of the Catholic Church became considerably less, and was eventually overwhelmed by the explanatory power and success of the scientific method. This became especially so as the nature of scientific inquiry changed, and became less a quest for absolute certainty and more a system of probability and hypothesis testing.

The question we want to ask is whether scientific inquiry and religious inquiry have become two separate frameworks, or whether scientific inquiry, once inseparable from the universe of God’s meaning and the attendant hermeneutic methods, is still a part of that universe. If it is the latter, then we will have to say that scientific phenomena are in some way part of the universe of things we consider to be communication.

Science: communication or not?

What is the relation between religion and science in the present day? On the face of it, it seems as if science has developed its own frame of reference well away from religion and hence communication, no longer concerned with textual exegesis. However, a closer look at some of the philosophy of science that has been written in the past decade suggests otherwise.

Paul Davies in The Mind of God (Davies 1992), four hundred years after Galileo, gives us a view of science as a contemporary method of textual exegesis. It seems that science remains firmly within the boundary of communication.

The raw data of observation rarely exhibit explicit regularities. Instead we find that nature’s order is hidden from us, it is written in code. To make progress in science we need to crack the cosmic code, to dig beneath the raw data and uncover the hidden order. I often liken fundamental science to doing a crossword puzzle. Experiment and observation provide us with clues, but the clues are cryptic, and require some considerable ingenuity to solve. With each new solution, we glimpse a bit more of the overall pattern of nature…What is remarkable is that human beings are actually able to carry out this code-breaking operation, that the human mind has the necessary intellectual equipment for us to ‘unlock the secrets of nature’ and make a passable attempt at completing nature’s ‘cryptic crossword’…We find a situation in which the difficulty of the cosmic code seems almost to be attuned to human capabilities. To be sure, we have a pretty tough struggle decoding nature, but so far we have had a good deal of success. The challenge is just hard enough to attract some of the best brains available, but not so hard as to defeat their combined efforts and deflect them onto easier tasks.(p 148–149)

At the conclusion of the book, Davies reflects:

We have cracked part of the cosmic code. Why this should be, just why Homo sapiens should carry the spark of rationality that provides the key to the universe, is a deep enigma. We, who are children of the universe—animated stardust—can nevertheless reflect on the nature of that same universe, even to the extent of glimpsing the rules on which it runs. How we have become linked into this cosmic dimensions is a mystery. Yet the linkage cannot be denied.

… Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor by product of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here. (p 232)

Galileo lived at a time when the intellectual world was suffused with textual exegesis. His arguments were, in his day, marginalised. They were no match for the dominant paradigm of the seventeenth century.

Gregory Shepherd shows how, since the seventeenth century, communication has in its turn become marginalised—Galileo’s two texts have resulted in a bifurcated sense of the world in which things linguistic are contrasted with things scientific, where the latter are the ones that matter; the bifurcation culminated in Descartes’ dualist view of the universe, a dualism that still exists in most disciplines. This demotion of language has led to the view that communication is nothing more than a vessel to be shaped and manipulated in order to best transmit the material it contains. The inadequacies of this way of looking at communication is well-described in Michael Reddy’s criticism of the conduit metaphor. But this marginalisation of communication to an unproblematic instrumental function ironically leaves scientists like Davies dangerously unaware of the logical necessities that drive reasoning within the boundary of communication.

Two things emerge from Davies’ view of science. Like Galileo, Davies sees nature as a text and also, like Galileo, he sees purpose in the universe. To return to Anscombe, once we regard the universe as a text, the universe necessarily belongs to the particular class of things to which an answer to the question ‘why?’ is applicable. Imagining that the universe is a text logically necessitates the creation of an author with intentions. The mind of a man brings forth the mind of god. But Galileo’s logic is quite different to that of Paul Davies. For Galileo in seventeenth century Europe, the world was suffused with the presence of God; God’s existence is the first premise, from which the conclusion necessarily follows that nature is a text and that there is purpose in the universe. For Davies in twentieth century Australia, God is not a necessary first premise: Davies begins with nature as text, infers from this that there is purpose, and concludes that God exists.

Anscombe’s insights, so obviously building on Wittgenstein’s massive contribution to contemporary understanding of communication, demonstrates the clear linkage between questions of ‘why’ with questions of communication and language. But that link is sometimes missed, as Stephen Hawking demonstrates vividly in A Brief History of Time (Hawking 1988):

Up to now most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand the people whose business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories…In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists. Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of this century, said, ‘The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.’ What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists…If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God. (p 174–175)

Hawking clearly but mistakenly sees science as outside language and communication: here is Descartes’ bifurcation at its logical conclusion. Yet it is clearly the case that developing theories enabling people to understand the universe is a semiotic challenge, a problem of communication. Far from being outside the boundary of our discipline, science remains firmly within our area of concern.

Galileo, Davies and Hawking are separated by four hundred years of massive social and intellectual change, yet actually the difference between them is slight. This is partly because communication scholars have contributed so little to general intellectual thought over that period. Otherwise Davies, Hawking and others would be far more cautious in the way they use terms like code and crossword as their metaphors for describing the natural world. We have a long way to go in developing our discipline and making its impact felt in the wider intellectual community.

Where are the boundaries?

Three logical possibilities present themselves for defining the boundary of communication. First we might argue that the world divides into two distinct categories: things that are communication and things that are not. It does not follow from this bifurcation that one category is inherently more or less important than the other, although clearly Hawking takes communication to be a trivial category, as can be seen in his dismissal of language.

The second possibility, most clearly present in traditional epistemology, is that we have knowledge of the world in general, and that communication is a subcategory within that.

The third possibility—the one that emerges out of this paper and presents an altogether radical view on which to base the disciplinary claims and foundational nature of communication—is that communication is the primary description of our universe, within which we locate all other types of knowledge as a subcategory. Galileo, Davies and Hawking show that science, for them, carries with it the murmuring voice of a constructed author. Even for the scientists who do not construct an author, it is possible to argue that they remain within the semiosphere and apply a rigorously limited set of interpretive strategies. From this point of view, science remains an aspect of the semiosphere; even if we deconstruct the author, remove the question ‘why’ and silence the murmuring voice of God, we do so from within the semiosphere. We impose a particular discipline on our communicative activity from a particular position, and limit the range of our exegetical questions, reducing the world of signs to symptoms and indexes and looking for causes instead of purposes.

Our discipline is thus a matter of position and framework, not a matter of intrinsic properties within defined subject matter. The boundary—any boundary—of communication is a construct. In an important sense, there are no boundaries, except of our own making. END


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