I p e r c u l t u r a

Crocevia di arti e scienze.


by Ignazio Burgio

The "theory of communication" by Claude Shannon - a mathematical formula that scientifically establishes the conditions and dynamics of each communication, physical, biological and human - can also confirm philosophically what is suggested by our times, that everything shows itselfs as "communication": indeed, it could not exist without communicate, i.e. without affecting in any way what is around, even unintentionally. All that can be deduced from this ontological premise - that Being = Communication - can throw full light both over individual and group human behavior, and about other traditional philosophical problems, e. g. Ethics, Aesthetics, etc.. Even the Philosophy of History, then, can be considered from a different perspective, as suggested e. g. by Pier Luigi Fagan and the recent discovery in Turkey of one of the oldest man-made monument, dating from 10,000 B. C.

The man is a talking animal, an animal that communicates, who need to communicate to grow. Even in the more radical isolation he continue to communicate, talking to himself, developing a dull, constant struggle between the ego superior and the ego inferior ...  (By: Franco Ferrarotti, La Televisione, Newton & Compton, p. 90).

Radiotelescopi On the basis of "Theory of communication" formulated by Claude Shannon in 1948 ("Mathematical Theory of Communication"), contemporary science in the second half of the twentieth century has more and more interpreted the physical world and the universe as a dynamic model of interrelations between microscopic or macroscopic being and systems, linked by flows of "energy" variously "processed". For example, the energy poured from the Sun to the Earth is used from plants through photosynthesis to produce carbohydrates, which feed herbivores, which on their turn are food for carnivores.
Every state of matter and energy – from those more "chaotic" and disorganized as the sun's thermonuclear energy, to the types more "organized" in structures and systems, physical, chemical and biological, such as flora and fauna - can therefore be considered as "communication", "information" and "message" into systems and subsystems, in constant transformation, concatenation, aggregation and disaggregation.
The life, for example, in its forms of plants and animals, is the state of organization more complex and systematic oriented to the communication and relationship with the external environment for the purpose of a more effective adaptation. According to the biologists in fact the characteristic property that defines the life and make different it from any other kind of matter is not its ability to reproduce (even the mineral crystals in a certain sense "replicate" themselves) but precisely its constant communication-response-adaptation with its environment for the survival. From the simplest organisms until to higher animals (including humans) communication and adapting with own external environment through the sensations, memory and processing of behavioral responses, shows aspects more and more complex, sophisticated and effective as we go up the evolutionary ladder.
The communication therefore is carried out both among the subsystems (e.g. cardiovascular, digestive, nervous, etc...) that make up a system (in our example, an animal organism), and between the individual animal system and the environment. But also spreads among individuals, eg. in a herd, a flock, etc.. In this case then, the group maintains united itself with a continuous exchange of messages, non-verbal in the case of animals, even verbal in the case of the human kindness, that assure cohesion. From this point of view then the communication (i.e., any type of relationship between a source-output and a receiver-input) takes the form of a constant and continuous relationship among elements, subsystems and systems or groups, by interchange of countless ways and types of messages (physico-chemical forces within mineral systems; proteins, enzymes, hormones, etc.. among subsystems within a biological organism; olfactory, gestural, or by cries within an animal group, etc..).

From a philosophical point of view, so the Being seems turn out as "communication", both in physical and chemical states of matter, and in the biological world. In most evolved animal species the being/communication expresses itself by body language, non-verbal. In the human species - and perhaps in a few other animals, including cetaceans - also takes the way of verbal and symbolic language.
This observation, that may seem a "discovery of the hot water", apparently has not yet been taken into account by any contemporary philosopher, included many that have worked in the philosophy of language (as well as in the analysis of philosophical language), from Wittgenstein to the more contemporary Gadamer and Derrida, to mention a few. This was also the consequence of the devaluation of the metaphysical problem (and every totalizing thought) from the great change occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the fragmentation of the disciplines of anthropology (and the birth e.g. of sociology, psychology, cultural anthropology), with the increasing success of the Anglo-Saxon positivism and pragmatism, and with the advent of the skeptical-nihilist criticism of Nietzsche. It 's right to mention, however, that in the last century many philosophers have studied in details the close relationship between language and metaphysics, not only the previously mentioned Hans Georg Gadamer (1900 - 2002) and Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2004), but also for example Karl Otto Apel (1922) and Jurgen Habermas (1929).
However, even limiting the field to the human sphere, intuitively as well as scientifically, it shows undeniably the allegation made by Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson, author of the classic book Pragmatic of human communication (W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York; Italian edition: Astrolabio) that any human being can not avoid to communicate, because of his mere presence, even in those moments when he decides to stand aside: "... The man who looks straight in front of him while having breakfast in a crowded snack bar, or the airplane passenger who sits with closed eyes, both are communicating that they do not want to talk to anyone and want that no one speak to them, and neighbors usually 'grasp the message' and respond appropriately and leave them alone. This, of course, is just an exchange of communications in the same way than a lively discussion ..." (P. 42).
The need of the group life inherited by biological evolution, has enhanced in the homo sapiens species all the capacities and capabilities oriented at communicating with others fellows, by body signals (laughter, tears, all the many facial expressions and gestures) and the real verbal, symbolic and formal language. Even the simplest and most primitive human groups rely, therefore, on a code of languages, conventions, customs and traditions not only to communicate, but also and above all to keep together their own group, whose cohesion often, as in the case of extreme environmental conditions, becomes guarantee of survival for each member.
Alone or in a social group, every human being feels the need to communicate - physically or ideally - both spatially with others their fellows, and in temporal sense with the other generations, present and future. That need for every human being "to trace" highlighted by Derrida, ultimately responds to the need of everyone to be recognized as a "source" of communication by other potential recipients: in other words, to be heard by the other his fellows - recipients of the most varied messages, and ways of communication - both present and neighbors, as well as distant in space and time. Both the Pharaonic monuments of ancient civilizations, and the masterpieces of art, music, literature, then play the role both of communicative messages, in their own language, and symbolic and psychological resources that meet the needs of their author to communicate - in their own mind - with their potential admirers or readers: after all every writer, composer or artist has always his mind turned to his audience.
However, if it is true that the need to communicate is universal also from the metaphysical point of view, the contents and the ways are extremely different in space and time. What differentiates them is the communication code, or specific language, function of a cultural level more or less rich and complex, both collective and individual. If the sophisticated languages of art, music, literature, etc.. are understood and cultivated only by a minority even in the our modern age so full of information, vice versa a large majority continue to prefer a type of communication much less refined, based on languages simpler and more immediate - therefore more understandable for the less educated people - more corporeal and aesthetic and less verbal, but all united by the continuous research of attention by many listeners, or human "sources of communication". The charisma, the luxury, the money, etc.. are all tools that attract attention, consideration, consent, and thus ultimately the communication by others. So we receive by them self-esteem, self-awareness of our value, guarantee of being accepted and protected within our social group, small as a village or large as a nation. Thus, for example, the cash is not just a simple means to purchase goods and services more or less essential, but also the preferred means for establishing even occasionally any relationship with any other person, like a baker, a barber, or a psychologist who offers an hour of listening and treatment to a depressed patient.
The metaphysics of communication based on information theory can also explain the "reverse side" related to everything we have said until now. Any successful communication must be based on languages and messages as clear as possible. The informations sent in a defective way or with ambiguous meaning (if not clearly false, contradictory and inconsistent), that in technical terms assume the attribute of "noise", they disturb the contact between sender and recipient, leading even to the end of the communication. Seen in this light then even philosophical problems of ethics and aesthetics are revealed fully characterized by the logic of communication, overturning e.g. the conclusions of Kant that precluded any practical purpose in both. Even with all the countless variations of local customs and traditions, the universal quality that characterizes ethics - again by analogy with the communication theory - then is the recognition of every human being (or even, if we want, of any living being) as privileged “source” and “recipient” of communication, and for that reason, worthy of utmost respect and help, regardless of the specific content of the interchanged messages (which can be the most varied). More the communication between the subject and his fellows is respectful, true, sincere and understandable (on the basis of principles formulated by Apel and Habermas in their "Ethics of discourse"), more the human being finds self-fulfilment and satisfaction, because is the realization of the same Being as communication, of which the human being is - scientifically speaking - the most complex form of evolution. And more these conditions are present, more we can speak of freedom given to human being to leave the solitude of his own personal dimension, and to open himself to collaboration, solidarity, participation (as understood by the great Giorgio Gaber in his famous song), all attributes of communication.
Both the presence, the level and quality of communication (more or less understandable, more or less coherent, more or less sincere) are therefore essential elements of any human group, more or less great. Psychologists and social workers on this basis explain the underlying motivations of every family or marital crisis, while many historians and policy experts, national and international, see in an absent or unclear communication the origin of the conflicts of the past and present. Any revolt or uprising of the past and the present, in hindsight, finds its reason in a crisis of dialogue between governors and governed, that, at the end, feel unheard or deceived.
What can disturb a good communication however it is also an overlap of multiple sources of information that end up canceling each other out and make it difficult and impossible a clear reception for the recipients. This is not only the case of a noisy, disorderly and chaotic environment that could bring also to the general panic, but even the mere presence of strangers (whose meeting is not granted that it is absolutely peaceful as in the case e. g. of a religious or cultural meeting) that unintentionally "communicate" to others little informations about themselves and little willingness to them, just by avoiding to communicate. Subjects immersed in an anonymous crowd, where we do all possible to remain indifferent and detached, like in our alienating contemporary megalopolis - but also e. g. like in the ancient Rome with one million of inhabitants - may suffer anxiety and restlessness, at least in the absence of non-verbal "relaxing signals" which may be a smiling and friendly attitude or a dignified and elegant dress, and so on.
The "classism", a typical phenomenon especially of the larger urban centers, has precisely the aim to remedy this problem, with the creation of relatively small and exclusive groups, that permit to establish stable relationships between people who adopt attitudes, codes of values, in other words common and shared "languages", by which to maintain a bond of trust and also solidarity: in other words, a permanent "communication structure".
The groups, however, have a tendency to behave like individuals, to be suspicious of other groups and often to come into competition among them, feeling strong because of the number of their members, for the control of territory and resources. In other words, even among groups are established relationships and exchanging messages more or less frequent and more or less clear, where the violence - as well as in the behavior of individuals - is a form of communication and "language", even if extreme and destructive, caused by the not recognition of "equal dignity" to one of the parts (the mind of course runs to the classic examples of the outbreak of two world wars in the twentieth century: to the Austria that insisted to attack Serbia in 1914 regardless of good will of this country to arrest the murderers of Sarajevo; and to the desire for revenge of Nazi Germany, economically and politically humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919).
The demographic variable, therefore, affects the dynamics of any society, because whenever a human being is born, simultaneously is added to the collective communication an other source/target (even if he grows deaf-mute) which interacts more or less closely with the other hundreds, or thousands or millions of individuals, in the case of well-organized societies from the point of view of transport and communications (or tele-communications, as in our world). So it is likely that any time in history there is a strong population growth, due to a better climate and a greater availability of food, individuals are therefore encouraged to find - through communication and language - legal, political, economic, technological, etc.. cultural solutions that respond to the practical problems of living and production/management of the resources. More is great the population density, more the solutions have to prove sophisticated and comprehensive.
This theoretical proposal was recently advanced by Pier Luigi Fagan thinking about one of the most startling archaeological discoveries of recent years, the circles of standing stones artistically decorated with human and animals figures, in the site of Gobekli Tepe, in turkish Kurdistan. The uniqueness of the monument is that according to the analysis of the archaeologists, it was built ten thousand years before Christ, before the invention of agriculture and breeding, which also took place in the same region. According to the scholars, Gobekli Tepe was a religious and ceremonial place, where converged the prehistoric tribes of hunter / gatherers from all over the surrounding territory. "So it is not true as we have till now believed that discovering the new technology of subsistence, the intentional care of the sowing - care – harvest cycle that we call agriculture, we created the Neolithic Revolution and the birth of the first complex, sedentary, urban, social societies, with productions of the elite, the division of labour and the rest of our well established, previous narrative. It is not from agriculture that are born complex societies but it is from complex societies that agriculture derive [...] At some point, human density in a given area reaches critical thresholds which give rise to new phenomena, new ways of organizing human adaptation or, seen by human eyes, of "self-organizing". One of the main drivers of human history, is not the genius or invention, is not technology or discovery, is not the struggle between classes to the organization of the subsistence, but all these things are set in motion when we become suddenly so many in an area where before we were few. Our adaptive request changes and we respond to this request by inventing new systems, migrating, being agitated, inventing what we need to respond to this request. This request comes from a problematic relationship man - nature and man reacts innovating society which is the adaptive vehicle by which man governs his adaptive relations with the nature."(Pier Luigi Fagan, Siamo alla fine di quale tempo?, in: www.MegaChip.info – tr. by Ignazio Burgio).
According to this logic - that somehow subverts the traditional beliefs of the philosophy of history - thinking, communication, new cultural patterns that may arise as a result of population growth (but certainly even in the absence of it) are then able to transform and revolutionize the same economic and political structures.
So for example even the economic and cultural Italian miracle in the Middle Age and in the Renaissance was certainly the son of the population explosion that occurred in Europe between the ninth and thirteenth centuries that forced the intellectuals of the time (i. e. the ecclesiastical philosophers and theologians) to find new and original political solutions to foster the coexistence and the management of poor resources. And the solution (said in an essential way) was completely different from what accepted a thousand years before in the ancient world, where hundreds of thousands of legionaries conquered and submitted the Mediterranean and Europe to procure grain and slaves not only for themselves but especially for the wealthy patricians and the plebeians of Rome, with a tax burden that suppressed (until bringing it down) the ancient political-economic system.
In the Middle Ages, the powerful men of the Church favoured the division of society into three famous European orders - warriors, clergymen, workers - preventing feudal lords, kings and emperors from acquiring too much power, both politically and economically. In an era when diseases and famines were regarded a divine punishment, but especially when the weapon, even political, of the excommunication was dissolving the subjects from their obligations towards the secular power, monarchs and emperors found themselves regularly losing against the Church. The result was that the population boom did not go to thicken the ranks of the armies of the kings (who were properly routed to the Holy Land), but rather poured to the new rural villages that arose in the forests converted to farmland, and to the old and new cities needing workmen for the thriving textile industry. Following the evangelical culture and the Augustinian vision of the Divine peaceful city, the ecclesiastical authorities addressed the growing resources of medieval Europe to agriculture, industry and commerce, promoting the birth of the bourgeoisie and the capitalism.
Pillar of the medieval dynamics, as of any historical dynamics, was the control of culture and information. Monks, abbots and bishops were almost the only ones who knew how to read and write in the barbaric Europe, and their cultural, and thus political, supremacy was also guaranteed by the scarcity and the easy control of materials writers, the parchment and much more rarely also the Egyptian papyrus. When in the twelfth century the much cheaper paper came on, it favored the development of the universities. And the gradual secularization of literacy and culture eroded the cultural monopoly of the Church, also put in critical position by the direct consequences of the invention of the Press, i. e. the Humanism and Protestantism. The harmful solutions used by the Papacy in the Renaissance to regain the cultural control of the latin countries - i. e. the burning of books and of dissident intellectuals, and the subordination to the new Spanish power - meant from the end of the sixteenth century also the decline of commercial and industrial growth of Italy that could not respond in any way to the marine and industrial fierce competition of the Holland and England. In Catholic and "Baroque" countries, in fact, a motionless and crystallized society ended to divert their resources from trade and industry to finance the wars of the Habsburgs. On the contrary the Northern Europe enjoyed a freer intellectual climate where the press nourished in the commercial and entrepreneurial classes, represented in Parliaments, the need for a more important political role in the direction of the society and the economy. The result was that not so many British and Dutch wealths were wasted on the battlefields, and many more were invested in merchant ships, factories and steam engines.
In a more and more globalized and overcrowded world, like the our inhabited by 7 billion of people, rather than technological or economic, we must find first at all new cultural solution, that can improve the coexistence and the management of resources. The new mass-media provided from the new technologies, with their enormous potential of contacts that allow to each user, shows themselves since now excellent tools capable of changing attitudes, worldview and philosophy of life. Thanks to their continued presence and activity, probably also the traditional existential conceptions, like conflict, antagonism and natural selection, will be designed to convert themselves to concepts more appropriate to modern times: cooperation, solidarity, sharing of resources, and so on.


Franco Ferrarotti, La televisione, Newton & Compton.

P. Watzlawick, J. H. Beavin, D. D. Jackson, Pragmatica della comunicazione umana, Ed. Astrolabio.

Maurizio Ferraris, Derrida e la decostruzione, Ed. L'Espresso/la Repubblica.

Mario Morcellini, Michele Sorice, Dizionario della Comunicazione, Editori Riuniti.

Jurgen Habermas, Karl Otto Apel, Etica del discorso, in: www.filosofico.net

Pier Luigi Fagan, Siamo alla fine di quale tempo?, in: www.MegaChip.info

Official web site of Prof. Karl-Otto Apel

Habermas Forum

This article was added on 18/4/2012.