Thursday, February 22, 2001


How Do We Communicate?, is an article by Dan Sperber first printed in How Things Are : A Science Tool-Kit for the Mind edited by John Brockman and Katinka Matson. In it, Sperber takes issue with the (now commonplace) model which holds that we can communicate with each other because we share a common language. Human communication, he says, involves more than simply encoding a message in a common language so that someone else may decode it to retrieve the message. Prior to, and necessary for, any human communication is the human ability to deal with "metarepresentations", which confer on us the basis for reasoning about what is in someone else's mind.

The common-language model tends to rely on a truth-functional semantics. The assumption is that literal truth is fundamental to human communication and that other forms (e.g. humor, poetry, irony, flirtation) derive their impacts from the ways in which they deviate from literalness. The recipient of such messages is assumed to evaluate them, first, for their literal correspondence to states of the world and then derive non-literal meanings from when literalness fails.

Relevance : Communication and Cognition, by Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, elaborates the view that human beings evaluate communication centrally in terms of relevance, rather than literal truth. This provides us with a much richer basis for communication.

In "Culture, Cognition, and Evolution", an overview article for a section of The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, edited by Robert A. Wilson and Frank C. Keil, Sperber and Lawrence Hirschfeld survey current thinking about these topics. There is an extensive bibliography at the end of the article.

Sperber expounds his own approach in the essays in Explaining Culture : A Naturalistic Approach. Here is Sperber's extended description of the book..

Sperber has edited a book about metarepresentation, Metarepresentations : A Multidisciplinary Perspective. In this essay from that book he discusses the evolutionary significance of the development of a capacity for metarepresentation.

Sperber's work in this area has led him to believe that the study of culture is best thought of as an "epidemiology of representations". Here he records his objections to memetic approaches to culture.

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