Basic Operations in Human Communication: An Introduction
For the purposes of understanding the nature of scholarship that I am dependent upon, I should explain that I studied linguistics with Ken Pike and produced a dissertation linking his linguistic theory, tagmemics, with the phenomenology and philosophical hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. My understanding of linguistics has, additionally, been informed by the integrationist perspective of R. Harris and his students, postmodern linguists, and H. Fraser. My understanding of philosophy has likewise been nurtured by the continental philosophers, particularly Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Habermas. Readers unfamiliar with linguistics would do well to begin with Pike’s small book,Linguistic Concepts, while those unfamiliar with continental philosophy should consult Stewart and Mickunas’ excellent Introduction to Phenomenology.
Language is often conceived as a tool for communication. When we communicate, we say we ‘use language’ to do so. Typical diagrams of communication use ‘talking heads’ with lines from brain to mouth through the air to ears and finally, to the receiver’s brain. The process itself is often characterised as the transfer of information from one intellect to another. Ideas are conceived as stable abstract objects that are ‘encoded’ in the speech stream, which is structured by ‘language’.
For simplicity’s sake, we will call the traditional model of communication the code-conduit model. Scholars who accept that ideas are distinct from expression—mark the dichotomy here—tend to agree that communication is best conceived as a conduit for the transfer of information and language as a code that enables conduit operations. The fundamental commitment of this approach is inescapably dualism. Although dualism is a possible philosophy, communication does not need to be understood in such a way.
Current communication theory has exploded the code-conduit model as an unacceptable metaphor, at least as a ruling metaphor in the discipline. Beginning with Harris, Hopper, and Reddy in the early 1980s, scholars pointed out various shortcomings with understanding communication in this way. For one thing, such a theory predicted total success in transfer unless some fault could be found in context or recipient. Such things as ambiguity of expression were also difficult to explain. The segregation of language and language use, linguistics versus pragmatics, as well as that of locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary functions of utterances, became increasingly harder to systematically categorize. Of more profound import is the ontological question: What tool exists only during its use?
It is my contention that a proper theory of communication that accounts for the phenomenon within social lived experience is vital for our understanding of human behaviour and identity, as well as the understanding of communication itself. For example, the code-conduit metaphor presumes that clear ideas exist apart from their expression and that expression consists of speakers ‘putting their ideas into words, phrases, sentences, and so on’. In fact, this is not what happens as we speak or write. Rather, the exercise of expression is thinking. The person does not use language to communicate, but rather language is the ability to think itself. There is no idea that is pre-linguistic in its nature or essence.
In building a framework for human interaction today, I will consider the emergent properties that give rise to our humanity as social beings, then proceed to discuss some crucial operations within which the properties themselves emerge. First, we will consider the properties themselves.
A proper theory of human interaction crucially depends upon notions of community, communication, and communion as co-emergent properties in societies as they form and function. We might think that one of these properties must be present for the other two to come about. So, for example, communication happens when people in the same community act in such a way that some of them become aware of conditions in the world that they were not previously aware of.
It is of crucial importance that we consider the case of two people who are encountering each other for the first time, be it in a forest or a bus station. They have no idea of any communicative possibilities that exist, other than what might be thought of as ‘common to humanity’. What is crucial to the development of a theory of communication is where the fundamental impulse to communicate comes from. In fact, the concept of what is ‘common to humanity’ is quite a fruitful starting point; we will return to elements of this later.
In such a context, an impulse to interact must necessarily contain a presumption of communion and community, however broadly conceived. But these, communion and community cannot be verified, or even experienced, apart from some event of communication. We might think of this as a ‘chicken-and-egg’ problem, except that there is no particular need to see the three human realities as distinct in the same way that chickens are distinct from eggs. Community, communion, and communication can be co-emergent human realities, and as such, interdependent for existence.
If this is accepted as a starting point, we need to clarify what community, communion, and communication are, as a background to understanding their fundamental contribution to humanity. These turn out to be the most basic elements of what is considered ‘common to humanity’. Community, communication, and communion jointly provide a framework for all human interaction, thought, and understanding.
By community, we need to understand the identities of significance, considered together as a ‘world of being’ for a group of people, its realities. Community is not limited merely to the people, but includes objects that those people would consider part of the community, a location, an ecology, and the essential elements of such. Community is the people, but it is also the area where the people are located, their resources, their possessions, and their reality.
In this connection, it is important to understand that human existence did not evolve into a social existence. Instead, it was humanity itself that arose out of community. One important implication of this is that human identity does not contribute to a sense of community; rather, it arises out of community. We derive our sense of identity as a fiction, a product, arising from our community.
This, then, is our understanding of community: the world where the community is. Within this world, always and already infused with meaning (or webs of significance, some have said), people take action. This brings us to our second co-emergent property, communication.
By communication, we should understand any behaviour of any part of the community that occurs, since all such behaviour affects the community. Where community was the world of being, communication is the ‘world of behaving’, the events in a community. People’s acts help or request help from others; they convince or are convinced by others; they provide for or are provided for by others. The actions may be verbal, but there is no sharp distinction between acts that are verbal and those that are not. Verbal actions may arise out of non-verbal behaviour, just as the reverse may be true. Thus, there can be no sharp division of linguistic behaviour from other sorts of communication.
In a way similar to our understanding of community, we need to understand that humanity arose out of our communicative behaviour, by which I mean all of our behaviour. Communication is not a property of humanity that preceded it. Instead, it is communication activity that defines our humanity in important and pervasive aspects. This is horrifyingly obvious when we consider the unfortunate cases of the most deprived of the documented ‘wolf-children’. Those who develop biologically while at the same time being deprived of human interaction have remarkable inability to learn the basic principles of human interaction. It is our social actions that define our humanity, rather than the other way around.
Thus far, we have considered the world-of-being, our community, and the world-of-behaving, our communication as two of the three central emergent properties of humanity. As we consider this humanity, we are led to reflect upon what it means to be human. In this case, we must consider what it means to be members of a community; thus, we turn to a consideration of our communion, or common experience.
By communion, we understand the common experience that a community believes each member of the community possesses. It is what it means to belong to a community, its ‘world of belonging’. Communion expresses the relationships between members of a community. Communion expresses a common heritage, a common history, and common benefits, a common sense of pride or shame.
In parallel with community and communication, we did not evolve communion as a development of human society. Rather, it was our experience of communion that allowed us to become human. As our communion deepened, so our sense of belonging became more able to reflect upon such things as separation, isolation, and alienation.
So as a beginning point to understand communication, we first assert that humanity arises or emerges from the organizing principles of community, communication, and communion, rather than the other way around. Our next task is to speculate upon how these three properties come into existence.
My theory of communication posits that three operations give rise to community, communication, and communion. These primary operations are hospitality, charity, and compassion. The remainder of this presentation will concern itself with these three operations as they establish a people, their behaviour, and their common experience as a group.
The notions of hospitality, charity, and compassion are themselves quite simple, but they function powerfully to establish common identity, practice, and belonging within a group of people. In our explorations, we begin with hospitality.
Although hospitality can be observed when a community accepts adult newcomers into their midst, its simplest expression is when new members are born within communities. Hospitality may be thought of as the creation of a place for the newest member of a community, but it is far more than a mere physical preparedness. Hospitality does not merely deal with expectation, but with anticipation and welcoming. The space that is provided the new member is not merely neutral and ambivalent, but a vacuum, and the absence of the member is felt with a sense of longing, rather than a mere awareness. Present members of a community have an attention-toward the place of the newest member. This is what is meant by hospitality as a ‘welcoming’.
Another aspect of this hospitality involves preparedness and provision for the new member. Communities understand that more than mere space is involved as membership grows; new members must be provided for until they can provide for themselves. In addition, the provision must anticipate the presence and not merely respond to it.
A final aspect of hospitality involves protection for the new member. Communities understand themselves to be composed of positive and negative aspects. Thus, community members undertake to provide the positive aspects of community to their newest members, while at the same time protecting them from negative aspects, risks, and dangers.
The 'place' that is made for each new member affords that new member with the opportunity to begin to interact and to belong to the community. However, new members act in flawed ways. New members do not know the ‘rules’ for successful interaction; this is expected by more experienced community members. The rules for behaviour do not constitute a code—in the sense of Morse Code—but rather, a guide for performance. More experienced members of a community are not judges, but rather mentors, to the new member.
As the new member begins to interact with the community, the behaviour practiced is inevitably inept; pronunciations are vague at best, and actions uncoordinated, when compared with more established veterans in the community. If the conventions of communities were to be understood as a code, then the only possible interpretations of flawed performance would be confusion. As with all human experience, there must be a sense in which behaviour is ‘taken-as’ as opposed to ‘realising’ a model. The baby (in our example) is not trying to produce the word mother or even mama (as if pre-existent in its cognition), but a murmuring will be taken-as an instance of that word by the community. This taking-as is what is meant by the operation called ‘charity’. This is the second operation giving rise to community, communication, and communion.
Vocal murmurings will be taken as utterances, stretching toward will be taken as ‘reaching for’ or ‘pointing at’, and seeing will be taken as ‘looking at’. Facial gestures will be taken to reflect emotions or their expression, and sounds will be taken to reflect experience, whether pleasurable, curious, or painful.
Thus, the community as a whole practices charity toward new members (their actions taken in the best possible light), if they are to be accepted in the community and to grow in their abilities.
The role of compassion in communion is not immediately apparent. However, it must be noted that communication operates quite poorly as a means whereby experience is transmitted to a group. Husserl likened expression of basic human experience in utterances to ‘swatting at flies with a hammer’. Nevertheless, it is what we have, however poorly suited.
There is an inevitable gap between expression and experience that is felt by every communicator, no matter what the situation. Of all the types of intercourse, verbal intercourse is perhaps the most frustrating in human experience, limited as it is in its task. This is more deeply felt, the more distanced and thus restricted the communication. With all its restrictions, however, humans are remarkably able to communicate across radical separation of gender, race, age, culture, and other barriers. This is the third human operation that establishes community, communication, and communion, compassion.
Compassion is the operation between individuals that permits a sense of commonality that overcomes radical segregation and isolation of people. I am not now, nor can I ever be, inside your mind to see what you see or think your thoughts. However, compassion is the sense of longing in me when another speaks of loneliness, hunger, pain, or frustration; it is the sense of satisfaction in me when another writes of romance, adventure, attainment, or pleasure.
Hospitality, charity, and compassion, then, are crucial operations within healthy societies, serving to establish the community, its communication, and its communion, by which it, and each individual within, derive identity, values, and a sense of belonging.
There may be those who object to the optimism inherent in the model I propose. For example, how does lying fit into communication? What about people who use communication for power-moves, manipulation, and other self-benefits? It is important to understand that there is more to being human than community, communication and communion. There is self-aggrandisement, selfishness, narcissism, and similar operations. However, these may be seen as contrasting with ‘normal’ human social behaviour, in which the focus tends to be on collective benefits. For my part, I will consider such things as lying to be departures from normal communication rather than trying to develop a theory that is neutral with respect to lying and ‘telling the truth’. Another way of saying this would be that I consider such things as lying to be aberrant communication.
What has been proposed here is only the most basic understanding of human social interaction, an introduction, if you will, to a more developed theory within which each act, each experience, and each member can be seen in terms of its contribution and its significance. There is, of course, much more work to be done.