Communication: History of the Idea

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The word “communication” is descended from the Latin noun communicatio, which meant a sharing or imparting. From the root communis (common, public), it has no relation to terms such as union or unity, but rather is linked to the Latin munus (duty, gift), and thus has relatives in such terms as common, immune, mad, mean, meaning, municipal, mutual, and German terms such as Gemeinschaft (community) and Meinung (opinion). Its root senses have to do with change, exchange, and goods possessed by more than one person; the Latin verb communicare means to make common.

Antique Anticipations and Modern Meanings

Three lasting strands of meaning are already visible in the Latin root. The first is communication as a mutual exchange in language. The Roman philosopher-statesman Cicero used communicatio as a technical term in his treatise on rhetoric, De Oratore, to explain what occurs when an orator overtly includes the audience in the discussion by means of rhetorical questions or staged dialogue (thus “sharing” the floor with listeners). The notion that communication involves some kind of mutual exchange between speaker and hearer(s) will be one of the defining features of the idea from Cicero onward. Here Cicero is extending communicatio’s basic sense of imparting to the realm of speech.

A second strand is visible in the Vulgate, Saint Jerome’s fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible. Here communicatio means the imparting of things both tangible (bread) and intangible (spirit). Christianity expanded the idea of communication from material to metaphysical senses: communicatio could mean both a physical sharing of food or drink and a spiritual sharing of mind or soul. The Vulgate reinforced the notion of communication as a spiritual sharing.

A third sense is communication as pollution or contamination. As the common can be profane (vulgar or inferior), making common can be taken as defilement or degradation, a sense found in both the Greek New Testament and the Vulgate.

All three senses – rhetorical, spiritualist, and purist, respectively – persist into the modern world. Communicatio left descendants in the Romance languages (French communication, Spanish comunicacion, Italian comunicazione), and French bequeathed the term to English in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Though most languages have rich semantic clusters around “the common,” English launched the concept of communication into the modern world, and is thus the focus here. The King James Bible (1609), a foundational source for modern English, uses “communication” both to refer to speech (e.g., Matthew 5:37) and to sharing material goods with other people (1 Timothy 6:18). In Shakespeare as well, the verb “to communicate” could involve diverse substances (parts, strength, words), not exclusively symbolic matters. As late as the eighteenth century, the term had the predominant sense of sharing physical rather than metaphysical entities. Philosopher David Hume, for instance, used “communication” to refer both to billiard balls (communicating motion) and to feelings (communicating emotion). It could even be used to refer to sexual intercourse, just as the term intercourse once meant more or less what we mean by “communication” today (human relations).

Communication’s modern sense as a reciprocal sharing of minds through speech was perhaps born in John Locke’s enormously influential Essay concerning human understanding (1690). In Locke, “communication” was the practice by which two or more minds shared “ideas” via words. He saw language as a “conduit” (Reddy 1979) between private meaning and shared understanding: signs publish the private wealth locked inside inner experience. He wanted to cure people of the tyranny of meaningless words, but he also loosed the specter of communication breakdown. He left the door open for later thinkers to the labyrinth of solipsism and the doldrums of empty convention – two options quite remote from his own ideal of civil, empirically grounded language use. In Locke, the spiritualist edges out the rhetorical sense: communication meant ways of creating shared mental space, not practices of coordinating public actions. Locke interiorized, privatized, and de-rhetoricized communication.

The Conundrums of Communication

The next step was the twinned revolution of transportation and distant signaling that occurred in the long nineteenth century (Mattelart 1996;). What Adam Smith had casually called “free commerce and communication” in The wealth of nations (1776) soon took on special freight in the wake of political and industrial revolutions, the steamship and railroad, imperialism and the growth of a world market. By the time of Alfred Marshall’s epoch-making Principles of economics (1890), “communication” had become a regular term in economics, and an earlier economist with a very different outlook also gave “communication” (Verkehr) a central spot in his theory: Karl Marx. “Communication” retained a strong transportational sense into the early twentieth century and the term “lines of communication” still describes military networks for moving messages, troops, and supplies. By the early twentieth century, “communication” could refer to all the ways in which people interact symbolically.

The American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley announced the key rupture in 1894: “transportation is physical, communication is psychical.” This dematerialization of communication took its immediate inspiration from electricity – a potent medium and metaphor for human connection since the eighteenth century. By putting distant terminuses into instantaneous contact, the electrical telegraph revived the older spiritualist sense of “communication.” Indeed, the spiritualist movement was inspired by electrical telegraphy and later radio. “Wireless” intelligence was considered magical or uncanny. When telepathy was first named in 1882, it was defined as “the communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another, independently of the recognized channels of sense.” Visions of channel-free communication were endemic in pre- Einsteinian physics and early radio practices in the late nineteenth century (Hagen 2001). The sense that communication was uniquely “psychical” spoke for a sea change in human economic and symbolic relations over the long nineteenth century.

The long revolution also precipitated a first wave of critics. Conservative individualists such as Carlyle and Kierkegaard, self-critical liberals such as Tocqueville and Mill, and Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau all lamented the ways in which communication made prized things common (ordinary, vulgar). These complaints would only grow stronger in the twentieth century, especially in postwar criticisms of “mass culture” and “mass society.” Some saw real communication as a form of protest against a false world; others saw communication itself as the problem. Kierkegaard was one of the first to make communication (Meddelelse) a philosophical problem, specifically of how to disclose truth amid a din of inauthenticity. This theme was taken up influentially in the twentieth century by philosophers such as Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Martin Buber, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and Emmanuel Levinas (Pinchevski 2005). For these more or less existentialist thinkers, communication was both cure and disease, an ambiguity that goes back to communicatio as sharing and as pollution. A somewhat related sense of the impossibility of communication was manifested in the fractured dialogue that started to appear in several influential late-nineteenth-century playwrights such as Chekhov, Ibsen, and Strindberg, and which was to become a hallmark throughout twentieth-century drama and cinema.

A similarly double-sided analysis of communication took place in American social thought around the turn of the twentieth century. Pragmatist thinkers such as Jane Addams, Charles Cooley, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Josiah Royce both feared the flattening effects of modern social life and celebrated the ethical and political potentials of communication. Communication they saw as ethical because it taught us to assume the position of the other; they saw it as political because it helped to build democratic community. These thinkers created a rich treasury of communitarian communication theory. One heir is the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, perhaps the most important thinker about communication in the later twentieth century.

In the wake of World War I’s horrific destruction and fearsome propaganda, many pondered communication and the power of symbols. Literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, poet T. S. Eliot, linguist Roman Jakobson, political scientist Harold Lasswell, political commentator Walter Lippmann, critics C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, anthropologist Edward Sapir, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and novelist Virginia Woolf were some of the figures who grappled with the failure of communication, its all too successful influence on people’s minds, or its centrality to the human condition. By the late 1920s the term “mass communication” came into use for the new reality of persuasion industries organized by the market and state (Peters & Simonson 2004). By the 1940s, the field of “communications research” was being organized by figures such as Paul Lazarsfeld, and its academic institutionalization continued in later decades, eventually yielding a prolific variety of theories of communication (Craig 1999; Communication as a Field and Discipline). By the end of the twentieth century, almost every serious intellectual had something to say about communication (Beniger 1990). It was an index of the age.

Therapeutic and Technical Trends

Two more strands round out the twentieth century. The therapeutic strand owes something to both the pragmatists and the existentialists, and sees communication as a criterion of mental health and a requirement for self-realization. That the notion was embraced by psychiatrists is evident in the book title, Communication: The social matrix of psychiatry (1952) by Jurgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson. Here they coined the pregnant term “metacommunication,” one that would prove fertile for Paul Watzlawick and “the Palo Alto School” in the 1960s, which viewed schizophrenia as essentially a problem of communication in families. Harry Stack Sullivan, Carl Rogers, and other psychological thinkers saw communication as a therapeutic norm useful not only for treating individual psychopathologies, but also for resolving global conflicts as well. By the 1970s, the notion that “communication” was a means of self-affirmation as well as a deep existential need had become an established and sometimes parodied part of American culture (Katriel & Philipsen 1981). Despite obvious contraindications, the notion that communication makes people better or happier does not seem to have lost its hold.

Finally, “communication” implies progress in techniques and technologies. A utopian and dystopian tradition stretching from the telegraph to the Internet, the technical strand hit one pinnacle in mid-century. The mathematical theory of communication (1948) by engineer Claude Shannon, and popularized by physicist Warren Weaver, not only institutionalized the telecommunications model of “sender, message, channel, and receiver,” but conceived information in terms of the old thermodynamic favorite, entropy. This intellectual tour de force quickly spread to a wildly diverse set of fields in the 1950s, including psychology, music theory, philosophy, political science, linguistics, and genetics. Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics (1948), in contrast, warned of the imminent displacement of the human brain in the second industrial revolution. These two texts, which emerged from commercial and military research, had international resonance. In the Soviet sphere, translations of Wiener in the 1950s led to a new term kommunikatsiya, which entered Russian to join older terms such as obshchestvo (society) and obshcheniye (communication). Indeed, derivatives of the Latinate term “communication” have flourished in many languages since World War II alongside native equivalents. In postwar France, philosopher Jean Hyppolite and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan wrote on information theory, and since then communication has been a lasting concern in French thought for such diverse thinkers as Michel Serres, Jacques Derrida, Regis Debray, Luce Irigaray, and Jean Baudrillard. Thanks to Harold Adams Innis and Marshall McLuhan, Canada was another center for communication theory from mid-century, as was Germany from the 1970s, thanks to thinkers such as Niklas Luhmann and Friedrich Kittler.

The history of the idea of communication reveals diverse semantic strands: rhetorical, spiritualist, purist, transportational, communitarian, therapeutic, and technical. These lines of meaning give the term power and resonance. Some might consider it ironic that “communication” as a term fails to live up to the ideal of communication that it is often expected to fulfill – indisputable transmission of meaning. Rather, we might learn something profound about communication itself from the fact that even its name is full of competing meanings and visions. Plurality and difference seem to be our lot in both the theory and the practice of communication.


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  3. Craig, R. T. (1999). Communication theory as a field. Communication Theory, 9, 119–161.
  4. Czitrom, D. J. (1982). Media and the American mind: From Morse to McLuhan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  5. Hagen, W. (2001). Radio Schreber: Der “moderne Spiritismus” und die Sprache der Medien [Radio Schreber: “Modern spiritualism” and the language of media]. Weimar: VDG.
  6. Katriel, T., & Philipsen, G. (1981). “What we need is communication”: “Communication” as a cultural category in some American speech. Communication Monographs, 48, 301–317.
  7. Mattelart, A. (1996). The invention of communication. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  8. Peters, J. D. (1999). Speaking into the air: A history of the idea of communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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  10. Pinchevski, A. (2005). By way of interruption: Levinas and the ethics of communication. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
  11. Reddy, M. (1979). The conduit metaphor. In A. Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 284–324.

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