Science in Christian Perspective




Communication And Ideas

From: JASA 18 (December 1966): 108-111.

The process of human communication exhibits the generalized structure of Speaker - Symbol System - Interpreter. If academic programs in the study of communication should disproportionately dwell on the technical details associated with the physical symbol system of the process, then, by misplacing the emphasis, an imbalance is created in regard to an understanding of the primary objective of communication ' namely, the elicitation of intended meaning. Because meaning is a function of ideas, an understanding of their nature is prerequisite to an understanding of communication. This paper presents an hypothesis regarding the nature of ideas. Consideration is given to the implications which the hypothesis has for the nature of consciousness per se and for Christian theology.


There are many kinds of technical details which are currently studied in the field of communication. Academic programs in communication are generally well-integrated with courses ranging from graphic arts, design, advertising, journalism, speech, psychology, statistics and media. These programs are more or less reflected in the business community, depending on the professional demands made upon the various businesses in this industry.

It is possible, however, that the quest for technical details - important as they are - should come to overshadow or perhaps replace a serious study of the primary objective of human communication, namely, the elicitation of intended meaning. If it is accepted that any communicative act exhibits the generalized structure of Speaker-- Symbol System - Interpreter (1), then it can be seen that many, if not most, of these technical studies are primarily oriented toward the various symbol systems employed in the communication process. This situation represents a paradox, and, at the very least, suggests an imbalance in the study of human communication when considered in its entirety.

If the meaning of discourse is something which exists in the minds of those individuals involved in the communication process, then any study regarding the process ought to include at least some analysis regarding the disposition of those minds. After all, it is in the minds of the speaker and interpreter where the meaning of the symbols exist - not in the graphic marks or physical wave lengths per se (2).

But if the meaning of discourse exists in the mind, then it is necessarily a function of what the mi d consists, namely, ideas. Therefore, if the primary objective of human communication is the elicitation of intended meaning, then it is not possible to talk coherently about such meaning in the absence of meaning's designated - ideas. Experimental designs constructed to measure the effects of human communication would seem to be irrelevant unless related to these psychological phenomena. A lack of research on the nature of ideas has created an imbalance in the study of human communication.

Thus, there are many theoretical and methodological problems involved in the study of communication. The point is, however, that all of these problems, sooner or later, reduce to an investigation regarding the nature of that of which communication is fundamentally concerned, namely, the nature of ideas.

Therefore, in communication research, if we seek knowledge on how to measure the elicitation of intended meaning, then our experimental designs con

Dr. Stewart received his degree from Michigan State University in 1959, and is a former member of its faculty. Now with the Campbell-Ewald Company in Detroit, he is responsible for research in the sciences and arts pertaining to communication.

structed for this purpose must be of such a nature as to yield information on those entities which provide for meaning, namely, ideas. Experimental designs can only yield information on what they logically entail. But if they are constructed so as their scope of intention covers only contingencies to the communication process, then they can only yield information on such contingencies.

All scientific explanation, beyond the level of laws, resides ultimately in some theory. And at the theoretical level, hypothesizing the existence of unseen ideas is merely the logical equivalent of hypothesizing the existence of unseen genes or atoms.

An Hypothesis Regarding the Nature of Ideas

Whatever else the nature of an idea turns out to be, it is something which is not physical. Therefore, any definition of the term "idea" must employ a differentia which separates the phenomena pertaining to this part of reality from those phenomena which are material. Any description of an idea which lacks this distinction equivocates its nature at the outset.

Now there are several terms employed to describe that part of reality of which ideas consist, and they are all the logical equivalents of one another. For example, one such term is "consciousness". But we note that what is meant by "consciousness" is the same thing as what is meant by the term "mind", and, therefore, these two terms would mutually imply each other.

These two terms, however, are awkward to employ when defining an idea. If the nature of that reality of which ideas participate is exclusive of physical substance, then it must be of spiritual substance. And, of course, this is precisely the nature of mind or consciousness. Any definition of "mind" or "consciousness" exclusive of this aspect of reality either ignores the mental faculties of man or equivocates these faculties to physical phenomena.

Accordingly, the most straightforward definition of an "idea" is that it is reality consisting of "definitive" spirit. The term "definitive" is employed to signify that while two ideas share a common nature, nonetheless, their respective differential qualities constitute their unique being. in the absence of such differential qualities, the idea of this chair could not exist independent of the idea of that chair. In such a case consciousness would be undifferentiated, and any assertion implying the existence of any idea would be meaningless.

Thus, a given idea is a "portion" of the one substance - consciousness. An immediate problem is concerned with how a given idea is separated out, or contemplated discrete from the whole consciousness? And the answer is that it isn't, actually. it is only the tyranny of language which suggests that it is. But language, in regard to psychological phenomena, is merely the analogical symbolization of the mind's reality. What is happening psychologically is that the mind is attending "portions" of its differential qualities. These attended "portions" are labeled "ideas."

On this viewpoint, the mind would exist as a community of conscious being. Discrete ideas exist by virtue of their participation in this community. Human communication, therefore, becomes a process whose end necessitates that both the speaker and interpreter possess an adequate analogical symbolization of such ideas within this community, and that there should result from the process a sharing of ideas, an ideational Allgemeinheit, between the participants in the communicative act.

Now to leave the story at this point is to leave unresolved a very important ambiguity. The ambiguity arises from the term "symbolization", and the fact that in any given act of human communication the term refers at once to two different parts of reality, and, therefore, it is quite necessary to keep both of these parts in mind. Thus, a brief description of them would seem to be in order.


Generally speaking, symbol complexes appear physically in the form of words or sound waves, and, when presented as a part of the communication process, within the structure of completed or (usually) uncompleted discourse. However, the physical explication of symbols are preceded, obviously by their psychological analogues. In other words, physical configurations in the form of words and sound waves don't really exist in the mind - only the ideas of words and sound waves. This is but another manifestation of the mind-body problem. To suggest that there might be "parallel" action between "mind" and "body", or any kind of correspondence between mind and body appears most premature in the almost total absence of information on those entities which constitute the very basis of the mind side of the mind-body relation, namely, ideas.

Thus, unless we are prepared to assert that physical symbol complexes, as such, literally exist in the mind, then it is quite necessary to consider that antecedent condition of mind of which symbolization is the psychic reality upon which physical symbol complexes (words, e.g.) gain their analogical significance. In such a case, the psychological act of symbolization of ideas is pertinent to their ontological disposition.

Psychological Symbolization

Now what has been said so far consists of the following points. An idea is that part of reality consisting of "definitive" spirit. Ideas are in the mind, and the mind exists as a community of conscious being. Discrete ideas exist by virtue of their participation in this community, and their (psychological) symbolization by the mind is the identification of this participation. Therefore, if the attributes of an idea are delineated by its participation in conscious being, it follows that an analysis of the process of psychological symbolization would be explicative of these attributes.

Psychological symbolization has to do with what Vygotsky calls "inner speech". Thus, at this point of the inquiry, we are at what he calls the "threshold of a wider and deeper subject - the general problem of consciousness" (3). And by giving attention to this subject, we acknowledge Cyril Burt's "plea for resuming the systematic study of consciousness as a part of the task of psychology" (4).

The process of psychological symbolization of a given idea appears to be characterized by the following properties or qualities.

First, a given idea is experienced as a participant in a psychological community of being (consciousness, mind). In other words, whatever an idea may be, it is known as a part of consciousness. Now the analogical symbolization of a given idea by a word constitutes a fundamental act of its identification. It is this act, in fact, which signifies it elicitation or discrimination by the mind as a definitive unit within a plurality or community of such units. It is this psychological experience of participation that constitutes the distinguishable essence of its being.

Thus, the term "psychological symbolization" is but a synonym for the term "ideation" -a discriminatory act of mind of its differential qualities. Such differentiated qualities are the ideational units of the one substance - consciousness. This state of affairs would prescribe, therefore, a consubstantialityof consciousness with its objects.

Secondly, psychological symbolization exists as an experience of freely selecting certain ideas amongst a plurality of ideas. This property prescribes a differential frequency of ideation for given minds. "Memory", "intelligence", "interest" are some of the terms sometimes employed to describe this property.

Thirdly, psychological symbolization of the participants in the community of being entails the experience of making the unknown order of consciousness intelligible through the selective juxtapositioning of its discriminated participants. In the absence of this property, meaning, and, therefore, knowledge of anything would be impossible.

Now these are three properties that we know by experience to be characteristic of consciousness and its process of psychological symbolization. The act of ideation, therefore, becomes descriptive of its produdt - ideas. Such ideas are identified as the differential qualities participating within the community of being (consciousness, mind). Their participation determines their existence. And their existence determines the nature of consciousness, i.e., a given state of mind.

Some Implications for Christian Theology

The activities of the mind which have been delineated above are all denoted by possessing the common property of motion. The mind's ability to differentiate, select, and juxtapose its ideas all require a mind in motion. The implication is, therefore, that motion is a fundamental property of the mind.

However, from both an ontological and epistemological point of view it is noted that "motion" does not have a referent. Like the terms "space" and "time", the term "motion" is employed to talk about physical and psychological reality, but, per se, is without a referent. And, therefore, is without being.

Now it would follow from this that the mind is discrete in kind from its objects, ideas, which do possess being. And this leads to a paradox.

An idea is reality consisting of "definitive" spirit. Whereas this definition does not necessarily exclude the mind as being of a different nature than its objects (we have argued for a consubstantiality), it does imply this possibility. But if this implication is true, if the nature of mind is discrete from the nature of ideas, then the difficult question arises of how something known particularly, if not only, by its motion can possess being?

The position presented here entails the mind or consciousness as being of a spiritual nature, but the problem is to explain how consciousness as a whole exhibits motion while its objects (ideas) do not? I would like to share an hypothesis in this regard.

The hypothesis is suggested by the fact that much of the language of Western Civilization is permeated by such discourse as "the Spirit of God is quick within him" (implying motion, incidently) and "the Light of God" (also implying motion), and so on. Could it be that man's mind (your mind, my mind, anyone's mind) is a function of God's Spirit? Specifically, could it be that man's mind, i.e., its nature, is that part of man which is given by the grace of God? We note that our language is filled with discourse commensurate with this hypothesis, viz., "He is filled with the grace of God," "He is fallen in grace", "He is surely in God's grace", and the "light of grace".

But the hypothesis is not without its epistemological difficulties. For example, since the language of Western Civilization is steeped within a theological frame of reference, the implication would exist that the hypothesis of man's mind being identified as that part of God's nature in individual men would be begging the question (as being implicitly based on this very hypothesis). In other words, the hypothesis may be nothing more than a restatement of our language heritage.

Even so, the hypothesis has interesting analogies. We do not know the complete nature of mind even as we do not know the complete nature of God. Also, the property of motion seems to be a way of describing God's Spirit as well as the mind. And, also, God's Spirit, like the mind, could be a whole, or unity, and still be differentiated in each of His children - even as our ideas are our mind's "children". And, finally, God's Spirit, like ideas, could be described in Its Absolute Being and still be described in some of Its respects by the property of motion.

In any case, these are very interesting and suggestive similarities regarding the nature of mind and what we know about God. Furthermore, I would make the suggestion that the fallacious nature of the hypothesis is more apparent than real. After all, the language of Western Civilization with its theological permeations could be reflective of the truth, of God's Truth. And, if so, the hypothesis, rather than begging the question, would actually be logically entailed. God's Nature could still be Absolute (unchanging, possess Being) and motion be one of Its properties. It is said that the peace of God (His Spirit, to be precise) passeth all understanding, and this may well be a case in point. With God, all things are possible.

Thus, the hypothesis that man's mind is that part of himself which is given by God's grace has interesting theological implications for Christians. One of the most important of these is the idea of Redemption and God's judgment of each one of us. It enlarges' our understanding of why each of us shall be held accountable in God's eyes for our behavior here on earth. We have the continuous choice of accepting God's grace, or refusing it. We can refuse to allow His Spirit, even as mere motion, to operate within us. Doing so would inhibit each of the actions of the mind discussed in this paper. A denial of the mind's motion would, in fact, result in an inhibition of ideational differentiation, selection, and juxtapositioning.

In brief, to the extent we deny God's grace, here in the form of His Spirit, His Motion, to that degree we lose His Understanding as It might otherwise be within us. On this view, the movement of the human mind is the movement of God within that mind. If this motion is not present, the activities (properties) of mind are not present and, therefore, mind (or consciousness) is not present. At this point, the Central Nervous System becomes, by the non-presence of consciousness, the surviving adaptive mechanism of the individual.

In conclusion, the study of human communication is necessarily a study of the various components of the involved process. This process exhibits the generalized structure of Speaker - Symbol System - Interpreter. Accordingly, knowledge regarding the various symbol systems - graphic arts, design, speech, etc. - are important to an understanding of the communication process. But, also, it is noted that the speaker employs these various symbol systems for the very purpose of eliciting a certain set of ideas he has, in his mind in the mind of some interpreter. Therefore, since this is the very objective for which communicative acts exist, it would seem not unreasonable that some study be given to the nature of ideas. This paper has presented an hypothesis regarding the psychological disposition of these entities.

But while the hypothesis regarding the nature of ideas can be analyzed in its own right, it leads to interesting implications regarding the nature of consciousness itself. The differential ordering of ideas exhibited by individual minds is seen to be a function of God's Spirit operative within those minds. If this hypothesis is true, then the nature of the human mind acquires its epistemological validation in theology.


1. Stewart, D. K. "Communication and Logic: II. An Explanation Sketch of Meaning." Psychol. Rep., 1963, 591597.
2. Stewart, D. K. "Signs, Symbols, and Meaning." J. Communication, 1966, 16 (1), 4-9.

Vygotsky, L. S. Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: The M. 1. T. Press & John Wiley, 1962. (Cf. pp. 44, 149, 153).
Burt, C. "Consciousness and Space Perception." Brit. J. Stat. Psychol., 1964, 17(l), 77-85.