How We Transmit Symbolically Encoded Meanings

A famous Chinese Writer called Lu Xun once wrote a short story called <Hometown>. In the end of the story, Lu Xun wrote a classical celebrated dictum,

“It’s(hope) like a path across the land—it’s not there to begin with, but when lots of people go the same way, it comes into being.”

I really appreciate this celebrated dictum and when I read this week’s reading about symbolic cognition as the core human operating system, I thought of this dictum at once. Similarly, the process of meaning-making can not only depend on individual strengths or become private. On the contrary, this kind of process depends on social strengths. This dependence reflects on the two sides. First, culture originates in social environment. Similarly, the origin of sign systems, symbolic cognition and semiotics is closely related to social environment. Second, meaning-making functions are fundamentally inter-individual, intersubjective, shared, public and collective. The process of meaning-making and knowledge is a kind of cognitive-social event. In this kind of event, individuals use symbolic cognition as the core human operating system. Individuals take advantage of relevant cognitive symbolic resources and then add the value of meaning on these.

Meaning-making cannot be considered as the natural properties of things, or the material properties of sign vehicles of what we can observed. However, it is the internalized codes and conventions of our language and culture,generate new signs to express our understood meanings to others. At the same time, what we receive from them is the same. Consequently, signs and symbols in the society act like common sense for all the social members to conceive each other’s meaning and point of view, rather than just connect individual thoughts. Their role as a kind of interface is a continuum. This interface allows individuals to think collectively and share cognition. Based on the transmission of symbolically encoded meanings, the culture has formed.

This is like Peirce’s triadic model. For Peirce this knowledge-communication process involves a relationship of progressive adequation between two fundamentally opposed elements (Parmentier, 1994). The meaning of the signs and symbols are not “things” or “contents” located in anyone’s head on media representation but are what results from the processes of interpretation initiated by members of meaning communities. Peirce considers the process of meaning-making, reasoning and knowledge as a kind of product generated based on human sign systems and symbolic representation and interpretation. And this kind of generalizable theory of the process of meaning-making depends on signs and symbols as used in human cognition, communication and knowledge.

Computer science can also generate an insight about our ability to build systematic links between material signals and abstract meaning. The irreducible ground of human thoughts and communication is always reflected in the form of thoughts and interaction, but it is usually unobservable and individuals are always using symbolic faculties. Since computer science is another kind of artefact of human cognition. Consequently, they can be used to model many aspects of thought and perception that are not observable. I came up with an example to prove it, namely Polygraph.

A polygraph, popularly referred to as a lie detector, measures and records several physiological indices such as blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity while the subject is asked and answers a series of questions. Whether true or false is unobservable and they exist in human mind and depend on human thought. However, they can be reflected by the measurement of physiological indices. With this kind of technology, those unobservable human thought and communication can be observed and modeled by magnifying their symbolic faculties. Therefore, technology extends and visualizes individuals’ meaning systems to some extent.


  1. Irvine, ed., Signs, Symbols, Cognition, Artefacts: A Reader of Key Texts.
  2. Introduction to Meaning Making, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics.
  3. Parmentier, R. J. (1994). Signs in society: Studies in semiotic anthropology. Indiana University Press.
  4. Rosenfeld, J. P. (1995). Alternative views of Bashore and Rapp’s (1993) alternatives to traditional polygraphy: A critique.