Re: Standard definition

From: Bill Spight (
Date: Fri 25 Oct 2002 - 20:16:24 GMT

  • Next message: Bill Spight: "Re: Standard definition"


    Def Meme = a unit of cultural inheritance

    Some problems with that definition:

    1) "Inheritance" is, OC, used metaphorically here. It might be better to speak of transmission, since inheritance suggests vertical transmission, while horizontal transfer is a significant part of memetics. But
    "transmission" does not suggest evolution. This and that. "Inheritance" is OK, no?

    2) "Culture" is not well defined. But it is defined well enough to fuzzily specify the domain of memes. Good enough.

    3) "Unit" means a single thing. It also suggests indivisibility. To say that a meme is a unit can be faulted on both counts.

    As a constituent of culture, a meme is a part of a network, connected to other constituents of culture. Sever these connections and you no longer have a meme. This is so even if you say that an artefact is a meme. For instance, there are pre-industrial tools that no one knows how they were used ("The Evolution of Useful Things", by Henry Petroski). They are no longer used nor replicated, and are, at best, fossils of memes. In a sense, cultures are indivisible, and none of its constituents are units.

    Years ago I went to talk by a visiting linguistics professor who said,
    "The utterance is the language." He was not talking literally, of course, but was referring to the indivisibility of language. There were several linguists and philosophers in the audience, but none faulted him for that statement.

    Nonetheless, linguists have their units: phonemes, morphemes, etc. The holistic nature of language, culture, and, indeed, the universe, does not prevent useful analysis into units, even if that analysis leaves loose threads in any given case.

    Such analysis may lead to units at different levels: organs, cells, chromosomes, genes, molecules, atoms, protons, electrons, for instance. Units at one level may be constituents of units at a higher level. Analytical units, then, need not be indivisible.

    There is a special problem with memes as analytical units, however, which Vincent alluded to: the level problem. Morphemes (such as "morph",
    "eme", "ad", "lude", "philo", "soph", and "er") and phonemes (such as
    "m", long "e", "d", and short "a") are both, arguably, memes. They are units and they are culturally inherited. But at the same time, phonemes may be considered as constituents of morphemes. For instance, long "e" and "m" make up "eme". If they are both memes then we have memes constituting other memes. What kind of units are those?

    In practice, this is not a problem as long as you are clear about which level you are talking about. For a long time I considered memes as units for different levels, and it was fine to have memes for one level composed of memes for a lower level. But there is an alternative that I find attractive.

    A linguistic unit, the lexeme, has the same problem of levels. Lexemes include words but can be larger or smaller:

    > A lexeme is the minimal unit of language which
    > has a semantic interpretation and
    > embodies a distinct cultural concept.

    In particular, catch-phrases, such as "Give me a break!" are lexemes that are composed of lexemes. Sydney Lamb ("Pathways of the Brain"), speaks to this problem of level for lexemes: "The process of lexicalization is typically a gradual one: The first time a new combination is formed by a speaker, it must be constructed as a combination of units previously learned. . . . But for subsequent uses it need not be constructed again if it is remembered as a unit. (p. 165)

    "Now, a lexeme can begin to have a life of its own from a semantic point of view as soon as it is treated as a unit. (p. 167)"

    Earlier he says, "Lexemes are the units *which are learned . . . as units.* (p. 31)"

    As the title of his book indicates, Lamb takes a neuro-cognitive perspective. For him a lexeme is a functional unit, which is remembered and learned *as a unit*.

    Similarly, we may consider memes to be those constituents of culture that are inherited *as units*. This functional definition does not commit us to a neuro-cognitive perspective, but it does avoid the level problem of analytical units. :-)



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