Senders, Receivers, and Symbolic Artifacts


A “sender–receiver” framework based on models developed in several fields can provide a general treatment of communicative and symbolic phenomena, replacing traditional semiotic theories that have failed to live up to the hopes of their advocates. Sender–receiver models have mostly been applied to linguistic behavior, gestures, and other ephemeral interactions between individuals. I look at the application of this framework to enduring artifacts, including pictures, using indigenous rock art in Australia as a case study.

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Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    Saussure’s classic work is his Course in General Linguistics (1974). In the case of Peirce, who wrote about the topic in a more scattered way, the summary by Atkin (2013) is particularly useful.

  2. 2.

    For a range of examples, see the precursor to this article, Godfrey-Smith (2014a).

  3. 3.

    They might also be artifacts themselves, but in this article I’ll leave aside both artifactual and sub-personal “agents.” See my (2014b) paper for the sub-personal case.

  4. 4.

    For a note on the connection to Wittgenstein, see my (1988) review of Millikan’s book.

  5. 5.

    The Lewis model, especially as I have pictured it in Fig. 1, is reminiscent of Shannon’s mathematical theory of information (1948), and its famous diagram of a “general communication system.” Shannon has a “transmitter” on the left and a “receiver” on the right, where the transmitter is sensitive to an information “source” of some kind. Information is carried by a signal sent to the receiver whenever the signal reduces uncertainty about the source. The two models are complementary. Shannon took for granted the sender and receiver roles, and gave a theory of the channels that achieve coordination between them; Lewis took for granted the possibility of a channel, and gave a model of how agents could come to play the sender and receiver roles.

  6. 6.

    On the other side, the intrinsic properties of a sign can be important in “costly signaling” situations—see “Principle 2” below.

  7. 7.

    See, for example, Millikan (1984), Tomasello (2008), and Sterelny (2012).

  8. 8.

    See Godfrey-Smith and Martínez (2013), Martínez and Godfrey-Smith (2016).

  9. 9.

    See Planer (forthcoming) for further discussion of the relation between Gricean communication, the SR framework, and Scott-Philips’ arguments.

  10. 10.

    For a more filled-out version of these ideas, see Godfrey-Smith (forthcoming).

  11. 11.

    There are exceptions; above I noted that Leach (1976) set up a semiotic theory within a sender-receiver framework.

  12. 12.

    Here is Boardman’s formulation: “x is a work of art iff: (a) x is presented to a public audience for the purpose of their appreciation or contemplation of x and (b) a proper understanding of x requires recognition of (a)” (2016, Abstract). I am not sure about the importance of some minor differences with my version in the main text—for example, the role of “contemplation.” Note that this test is disjunctive.

  13. 13.

    Discussion at the City University of New York Graduate Center Science Studies seminar in 2016 helped with this treatment. For further discussion of the evolution of evaluative behaviors and art, see Wilson (2016).

  14. 14.

    I have in mind the fact that artistic traditions, especially recent Western traditions, embrace many deliberately disruptive moves.

  15. 15.

    See Maynard Smith and Harper (2003) and Godfrey-Smith (2013) for more detailed discussions of the relations between cues and signals in biological contexts.

  16. 16.

    Skyrms (2010) made essentially this point, not about Peirce but about Grice and “natural meaning.”

  17. 17.

    I am going to use “reference” very loosely in this passage, in comformity with the framework being discussed.

    Sterelny (personal communication 2016) notes a possible counterexample to my generalization: if a fine example of an artifact made for practical use, such as a handaxe or basket, was kept around as a template to guide other producers of that sort of artifact, then an iconic role of quite a sophisticated kind could arise without it being intended by the producer.

  18. 18.

    As well as the work on common interest cited earlier, see Huttegger et al. (2010) for a detailed exploration of conditions under which communication prevails in a Lewis model.

  19. 19.

    My attempt to do this distillation here is partly a response to challenges in Sterelny (forthcoming), who sees the SR framework as limited in its application.

  20. 20.

    See McDonald and Veth (2012a, b, 2013), Veth et al. (2011), and Hiscock (2008).

  21. 21.

    “Maynard’s model saw an evolution from a pan-continental stylistically-homogenous (i.e., non-figurative)... style assemblage of engravings/petroglyphs replaced by a set of regional Simple Figurative styles and regional Complex Figurative styles” (McDonald and Veth 2012a, p. 991).

  22. 22.

    “What is clear is that there is an older—predominantly geometric—art form present across Australia, which is replaced in some areas by one or more figurative art vocabularies; while in other areas this iconography appears to endure” (McDonald and Veth 2012a, p. 992).

  23. 23.

    Making cupules is hard work and takes time. The number of cupules at a site will at least be a cue (a natural indicator) of the number of people and/or hours involved in their production, and might also be a communicative signal of such facts.

  24. 24.

    Steven Kuhn (in discussion at the “Symbols II” workshop—see Acknowledgments) tells me that cupules in some American Indian cultures have a more culturally specific role in fertility rituals, featuring placement of the afterbirth.


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I am grateful to everyone who took part in the workshop “Symbols and Communicative Behaviour in Pleistocene Hominins (Symbols II)” at the University of Sydney in 2015. Special thanks to Peter Hiscock and Kim Sterelny for organizing this event, for valuable discussion of all these topics, and for comments on an earlier draft. Thanks also to Ron Planer and Manolo Martínez for many discussions bearing on the second section of this article.

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Godfrey-Smith, P. Senders, Receivers, and Symbolic Artifacts. Biol Theory 12, 275–286 (2017).

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  • Archaeology
  • Communication
  • Peirce
  • Rock art
  • Semiotics
  • Symbols