Medium, Message, AND Code?

Noel Rude nrude at
Tue Mar 7 22:51:30 UTC 2000

Friends and neighbors,

        To add to all the wonderful insight (with me it's likely to be
contributing to the confusion), let me mumble a moment on our
formalist-functionalist divide.  Let me suggest that--besides
temperament--our schism is rooted in Aristotle vs. Plato (as someone we
know has already suggested).  Let me also suggest that both philosophies
miss one side or the other in what is really a tripartite beast--its
three sides being the Medium and the Message AND the Code.  And let me
illustrate with those old physics and biology metaphors you've heard

        Platonic dualism lived on in physics where mathematics was immutable
and eternal and the laws (as they began to be uncovered) were believed
to derive directly from that heavenly realm.  There was no need for
empiricism (this attitude has persisted among a number of theoretical
physicists--even Einstein).  Nevertheless it seems to be pretty
universally accepted today that the laws and constants are not necessary
but rather contingent.  It is often said that the laws and constants are
written in the language of mathematics.

        And so our physics metaphor becomes complete when matter-energy is the
medium, the laws and constants are the message, and mathematics is the

        Biology, on the other hand, has long been Aristotelian, and accordingly
it has emphasized the two sides of the picture which--in our
analogy--are the medium and the message (form being the medium and
function the message).  It was not always fully appreciated that
biological information cannot be transferred from parent to child
without a language.  But this Mendel and later Watson and Crick have
done much to remedy, and so now biologists also study a code.

        So how about us?  Well, maybe the analogy isn't perfect, but the
formalists are more the Platonic dualists with their fixation on the
medium (phonology) and the code (syntax).  They tend to ignore the
message--in fact I think I've even heard them argue that language
evolved BEFORE it found a function.  But then sometimes I think some of
us tend to be narrow Aristotelians who see only the medium and the
message and forget the code.  Maybe that explains why some of us keep
saying that there is no grammar.

        From the larger philosophical perspective, I think, it has to be agreed
that any real information system must be more than just form and
function.  Maybe the formalists aren't on the right track, etc., etc.,
but maybe we should not forget that Language requires a code or grammar
with its own hierarchies and categories.  At least that's what I'm

        What do you think?


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