Archive for Communication

Behavioristic communication

Last week ("Joos jokes", 8/14/2018) I linked to the "Proceedings of the Speech Communication Conference at M.I.T.", published in 1950 in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America,  and I promised to revisit "this window into a bygone age" in a later post. So today I present to you the following passage from "Introduction: A Definition of Communication" by S. S. Stevens:

Although no phenomenon is more familiar to us than communication, the fact of the matter is that this magic word means many things to many people. A definition broad enough to encompass all these meanings may risk finding itself dissipated in generalities, but for the purposes of this conference a broad operational definition of communication is, I believe, both appropriate and possible. I should like, therefore, to venture the following: Communication is the discriminatory response  of an organism to a stimulus.

He goes on to confirm that this perspective is indeed as weird as it seems:

This definition says that communication occurs when some environmental disturbance {the stimulus) impinges on an organism — and the organism does something about it (makes a discriminatory response). If the stimulus is ignored by the organism, there has been no communication. The test is differential reaction of some sort. The message that gets no response is not a communication.

This definition is broad, operational, and behavioristic. It includes the anxious clucking of the mother hen, which brings the chicks scurrying to shelter. At a different extreme it includes the modem treatise on information theory, which some people seem to read and respond to with a glow of understanding. By appealing to behavioral operations as the test for the presence or absence of communication, we explicitly forsake all concern with abstracted meanings, significations, and the like, unless, of course, these words are in turn defined in terms of discriminatory responses. In short, we stick to observable phenomena.

Are we really supposed to believe that some people's "glow of understanding" on reading about information theory is an "observable phenomenon", sufficient to characterize what has been communicated? This strikes me as a reductio ad absurdum of Stevens' behavioristic prejudices — as effective an argument as Noam Chomsky's 1959 Review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior.

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