Re: (Reply to Benzon) Re: transmission

From: William Benzon (
Date: Sat 17 May 2003 - 15:29:24 GMT

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    on 5/15/03 4:47 AM, Gudmundur Ingi Markusson at wrote:

    >> Benzon:<<Let's continue with "dog." Sometime relatively early in life the
    >> infant sees dogs while mommy or daddy or big sis or big bro says "dog." When
    >> this goes on long enough the infant learns that there is an association
    >> between the sound /dog/ and the animal. But that association is constructed
    >> in theinfant's brain BY THE INFANT HERSELF. No one's doing it for her.
    >> Nomeaning is ever TRANSMITTED from anyone else to the infant. All that !
    >> EVER happens is that words are uttered in contexts from which the infant
    >> makes
    >> inferences. And so it goes for word upon word upon word.>>
    > As such I have no disagreement. Of course this is the situation and it is
    > clear that replication is not happening (and, by the way, that is also one of
    > the great points of Aunger’s (2002) critique on “traditional” memetics). That
    > which is transmitted fairly faithfully is the process which the receiving
    > person then repeats. In this account, memes would be Peircian sign-vehicles,
    > as Terrence Deacon (1999) has suggested.

    Not quite. That which is "transmitted" is the signifier. It is up to the listener (or reader) to supply the signified. That is to say, the listener treats the signifier as a prompt to supply meaning. The meaning supplied is created entirely within the mind of the listener.

    (Note: I haven't read Peirce in years so I forget whether or not
    "sign-vehicle" is a locution that he uses. Whether it is or not, it's misleading to the extent that it implies that the signifier (in Saussure's terminology) is somehow "carrying" or "transporting" the meaning. It is not.)

    Note that I'm certainly not denying that humans communicate through language
    (and other sign systems). We obviously do. What I am denying is that we can explain that communication by talking about transmitting memes/information/meaning from one person to another. As far as I can tell, we don't have a fully adequate account of how communication happens.

    > But, is it necessarily the case that an evolutionary process must be excluded
    > on the level of cognitive-mental activity. Even though there clearly is no
    > replication of ideas between minds, is it not still possible that there is
    > *heredity* of minimal, significant cognitive-mental elements between minds, as
    > they make their inferences? Enough to sustain an evolutionary lineage,
    > however fragile, between minds?
    > I do not know what those significant elements might be. Maybe one could
    > suggest that they involve combinations of what Lakoff and Johnson have called
    > image-schemas (1999) which are linked to certain domains of experience, and
    > that the significant aspects that must be repeated between minds (as they make
    > inferences) are force-dynamical aspects of such schemas, in the sense of Talmy
    > (2000).

    This doesn't make sense. It seems to me that you're saying something like
    (to use a crude analogy): "OK, so we can't ship a thousand ton payload from the earth to the moon overnight using a souped up 747. But maybe we could get a one ton payload there in a week" But the problem is that the 747 is powered by jet engines and jet engines will not work on the vacuum that exists between the earth and the moon. Lightening the load and increasing the delivery time doesn't deal with that basic problem.

    Those image schemas and force dynamics are, presumably, constructed by each of us in our own brains. Since our brains are constructed along the same general lines, there are going to be similarities. Language would be impossible without those similarities; but language doesn't create them.

    > We might then have two lines of repetitive processes that sustain cultural
    > evolution: an external one, as you and Deacon seem to be suggesting, where
    > processes are repeated with a high level of accuracy, and a cognitive-mental
    > one, that shows heredity (not replication) of significant aspects of “semantic
    > primitives” (not ideas).
    > These thoughts aside, my basic point is whether the exclusion of transmission
    > and replication (which to my mind is an obvious impossibility) does
    > necessarily make a cognitive-mental evolutionary process impossible. And
    > whether scientific and theoretical work could not be carried out if one finds
    > a better alternative to the defunct replication concept.

    I think we need to distinguish between language, on the one hand, and music, drawing, painting, sculpture, and dance on the other. In language there is a gap between the publicly sharable signifier and the signified. We can certainly talk about the evolution of signifiers; much of historical linguistics is devoted to that.

    The other arts are rather different. There the publicly sharable signifier is often the all there is.

    William L. Benzon
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    Mind-Culture Coevolution:
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