PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, January 17, 2014

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: Symbolic recording of meaning

Dear friends,

Symbols are a very powerful means to convey information about our ideas
and intentions. And meaning is the price we pay so that we can convey
our ideas to others. And although we need symbols of one shape or other
to convey our ideas they are not necessarily our best of friends. For
example: What would happen if we lost the intended meaning that the
symbols contain?

This Sunday's topic, Symbolic recording of meaning, could be a
provocative topic in philosophy.

In the meantime Ceit, Ruel and I have written essays for this Sunday's

Hi Lawrence,
Below is the link to the essay I wrote for Sunday´s PhiloMadrid topic:
See you on Sunday,

--- essay from Ceit---
Hi Lawrence, I'm going to try to lay out some (very) basic ideas for the
The reasons we have written systems of communication seem obvious: one,
to transmit information across time and space when the human voice can't
make that journey; two, to accurately preserve the message. The first
reason is fairly simple, but the second poses some questions.
How can writing really transmit an entire human message? Many
complaints about modern communications technology are based on this
problem. In face-to-face communication, we hear words, we hear
intonation, and we see body language and the environmental context of
the message. Writing preserves the words alone. Even tactics such as
different fonts or graphic symbols to signal emphasis or change of tone
are not terribly useful. Writing and deciphering them is often clumsy
and more confusing than illuminating. Writing alone loses some of the
"humanity" of the message.
There is also the question of which form of writing is the most
accurate. Pictographic or ideographic systems have the advantage of
showing the concept that they are trying to communicate, at least in
theory, and when the concept is concrete. They also have shown a
certain universality, e.g. Chinese characters being used and only
slightly adapted to other Asian languages, preserving meaning in a
written code recognizable to people who would not be able to communicate
in speech. Leonard Shlain argues in his book The Alphabet Versus the
Goddess that writing with images encourages the whole brain to interpret
the message and, therefore, a more holistic view of the world, while
alphabetic writing limits us to simple, linear thinking.

Alphabets, on the other hand, are supposed to represent the sounds of
the language, recording the way we hear speech. Although the idea
sounds easy enough, the problems in execution are many. Languages have
their own set of phonemes, which are not necessarily shared by other
languages, even related ones. Languages sharing alphabets do not always
put the same sound values on the characters. The natural evolution in
language makes a representation of its sounds limited in time, difficult
and finally incomprehensible to future readers. Even within a single
language at a particular time, differing accents and dialects create a
disconnect between the sounds of speech and their standard written
representations. The advantages of alphabetic writing lie mostly in the
ease of learning only a few dozen characters compared with the thousands
necessary to be literate in, for example, Chinese, as well as the
comparative simplicity of writing letters.
So does writing a message really preserve it? Can thoughts and ideas be
presented precisely enough through symbols that we should accept them
with no doubts at all? When can we start wondering if our written code
is losing touch with our human language?

Symbolic recording of meaning

There is a very good chance that when we think of language we think of a
process that involves one person (for the sake of argument) expressing
their idea and us (for the sake of argument) receiving this expression.
Of course, the expression can be either written or spoken.

To give you an analogy of what I am thinking, I would suggest for
example a bottle of water, being poured into a glass. The person doing
the expressing is active whilst we are passive receiving this
expression. The fact that in polite and civilised society we do pay
attention to those speaking to us does not help in establishing this
feeling of active/passive exchange.

But of course, being passive is the last thing a language exchange is
all about. Just because we process language in our brain and, in normal
cases, subconsciously it does not mean that this is a passive activity.

To begin with the purpose of language, as a tool, it to exchange
information and that information can be about many things such as our
ideas, our experience, our knowledge, beliefs and so on. And whether
intended or as a consequence, information changes us by increasing our
sum total of knowledge. In many cases we go on to perform some act: buy
a product, make plans to travel, make friends, change our beliefs etc.

But the meaning aspect of language must out of necessity be a meaning of
someone's ideas and intentions: meaningful sentences are not conceived
and born on trees. Secondly, any symbols we use, whether it's the
alphabet, graphics, hand gestures, numerals or whatever, must themselves
be familiar to those who are meant to understand the ideas we are trying
to convey through these symbols.

Forget telepathy; as far as we are concerned information has to take a
physical form in order to transfer it from one brain to another. This,
of course, does not exclude the possibility of employing some form of
physical means to transfer information between us that does not involve
light or sound waves. But that is not telepathy.

And of course, any symbol that is intended to convey an idea, and thus
meaningful meaning, must convey it in a certain way that the information
affects us. A coded message without having access to the key is useless.
Having said that, additional information does attach itself in an
underhand way to everything even though it was never intended by the
author. For example, if I receive a letter in a language I don't know
from someone I am not familiar with, I would be curious about it even
though I have no access to the contents of the letter.

It seems evident that for ideas to have meaning they must be accessible,
although they don't have to be broadcasted. It is also necessary that
if we want to exchange our ideas with others we have to make sure that
our audience are "qualified" to receive our ideas. There is no point
trying to explain the intricacies of quantum mechanics to a class of
eight year olds even though they might think it is a fab thing to do; or

But the symbols are just the physical tools that are required, out of
necessity, to convey the physical state of the information. The symbols
themselves do not mean anything other than the information we attach to
them; and of course any information that gets attached to them
indirectly. Thus symbols are the equivalent of the bottle of water in
the example I gave above.

The pity would be, of course, when the bottle takes the central role
away from the water it once contained.

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813
PhiloMadrid Meeting
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Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
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from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: Symbolic recording of meaning

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