Is your thesis on memes?

If you're working on a meme studies related thesis, post about it here!

  • What is your thesis topic?
  • What kind of methodology or theoretical framework are you using?
  • What's the most interesting part of the work for you?
1 Like

I wrote two of my theses so far on memes. You can read the latest one here, on the forum: The Memeticist's Challenge Remains Open (2018) (I crossposted it from my blog to see how it works).

My topic is the philosophy and history of meme studies, from memetics to Internet memes.

I use the philosophy of biology to argue for an anti-Dawkinsian (and hence anti-Shifmanian) meme studies that treats Internet memes as paradigm cases of memes.

The most interesting part of the work for me is the richness of the interconnections between different schools of thought within meme studies. I love examining the diversity of thought in the various approaches that are being used and tested within meme studies, from anthropological approaches to big data. In particular, the philosophical foundations that different researchers adopt and deploy within their work based on how they conceive of memes is mesmerising to me.

1 Like

i am presently writing my thesis on the ontology & epistemology of memes. i would actually be interested in sharing drafts here & receiving feedback. this excerpt describes the structure as presently envisioned:

At this point, I shall take stock. I began (1.1) by first introducing memes by giving an overview of their cultural impact. I then turned (1.2) to examining the various senses of the word «meme». I specified (1.22) the focus of my thesis– image macro-type memes. Afterward, I gave basic motivations for analysing memes as art (1.31) & as speech (1.32).

The objective of this thesis is to carry out an ontological & epistemological analysis of memes. Despite their cultural & even political significance, memes have not been the subject of philosophical attention. Yet, as shown by Frankfurt’s study of bullshit (1986) and Anderson and Lepore’s examination of slurs (2013), the philosophical analysis of mundane concepts– those that we often take for granted– can be illuminating & transformative.

The upshot of this thesis is twofold. First, I hope to motivate further philosophical study of memes. Second, I hope to develop a point of juncture between disparate philosophical subdisciplines (epistemology, philosophy of art). I will pursue these aims in the next 2 chapters by developing the analysis of memes first, as art, & then, as speech.

In chapter 2, I begin with an investigation into the ontology of memes qua works of art. I draw upon Wollheim’s type/token framework (1968) from the philosophy of art in order to explicate the dual meanings present in the colloquial usage of the word «meme» & to build on preceding ontological accounts of memes (Evnine 2018, Vulliamy 2022). By contrasting memes with interpretive works of art, which exemplify a type/token ontology, I draw out significant differences between the mediums. These differences, which arise from the peculiar features of meme communities, strain the type/token distinction. I conclude that the ontology of memes requires a dedicated approach.

In chapter 3, I draw on the notion of testimony in order to make sense of epistemic interactions involving memes. The resulting concept, memetic testimony, speaks to a largely unrecognised positive epistemic dimension of memes– how memes might be epistemically edifying.

Finally, in chapter 4, I conclude by outlining future research directions.

–jay was here!


That looks excellent. I've also been working on an article that discusses Wollheim's (Peircian) type-token framework too! I'll post it once it's done and tag you in a reply.

I've found that Wollheim's particular use of the type-token distinction is worth paying very close attention to if you're going to apply it to memes as such. Namely, Wollheim emphasises that types are neither:

  • classes, which have members, not tokens; nor
  • universals, which have instances, not tokens.

Instead, types have tokens.

This is uncannily similar to debates within the philosophy of biology that formed a foundation of classical meme theory during the 70s. Namely, David Hull's ontology of species. Hull claims that species are neither universals nor classes (such as the class "planets") but "spatiotemporally localized cohesive and continuous entities" (such as "Mars").

That's quite different from Wollheim's Peircian framework, which supposes that while objects of art are historical entities, the work of art is something quite similar to classes or universals (but not exactly). But it would seem that the entities from which they derived their different conclusions are similar in many ways (and hence classical memetics!).

The concomitant debates around the issue of defining art, meme, gene, species, organism, and so on overlap in terms of ontological challenges. Maybe you will find it useful to consider Wollheim's critics and how they dealt with his theories. I'd love to discuss these since I'm really interested in reading more art critical theories in this school of thought.

(Note, however, that "type" in biology refers to a particular specimen which is used as the canonical example for descriptions of defining features for the taxon to which it belongs.)

i made this table to highlight medium-specific quirks on the type/token distinction.

columns = examples of kinds of works of arts which seem to follow a type/token distinction

rows =

  • formulaic representation: does it have something like sheet music, a script, a choreography, some recipe or notation?

  • token: if the work is a type (i.e., an abstract structure), what are the actual tokens?

  • ontological priority: the overly complicated term used in the literature to mean chronological precedence. which comes first– the book as abstract type or as concrete token? in most cases, i suspect that the type either precedes the token, or else both are simultaneous. it is only in exceptional cases that i can think of that the token comes before the type– as in the case of memes. in the case of folk tales i'll have to think more about that, since at inception they may be more like novels or poetry in that both the type & the token come into being simultaneously...

  • regulation: does the type just govern the form &/or content of the tokens, or is the relation between type & token more complicated than this unidirectional picture? the abstract structure that is the symphony strictly regulates what counts as a performance. this regulation is mediated by the score (a formulaic representation). it is not the case in music that a given performance can recursively alter the symphony itself. even very influential cases can at most be said to alter the public image of the work– not the work itself (without further argument).

things i highlighted in yellow are things i found interesting.

  1. novels don't have formulaic representations. or rather, the sort of thing (the text) which in other cases we would call the formulaic representation is in this case the token.

  2. depending on the art form, poetry can take on two different ontological "configurations". in the first sense, it's more similar to a novel. in the second sense, the text itself plays the role of formulaic representation, & the actual tokens become readings (e.g., at an open mic).

  3. memes & folk tales are both participatory mediums. neither involves well-defined "creator" roles. concerning regulation, the direction of fit might be to some extent bidirectional (though obviously not equally). token tellings & token memes can recursively influence the overarching type. also, the tokens arguably predate the type coming into existence.

finally, i'm still not very clear on how exactly type/token differs from universal/particular & classes (sets?)/members. it's not obvious to me that historicity plays an important role in this regard. i know that goodman has his own dualist ontology of works of art which separates into autographic vs. allographic works, which iirc has something to do with historicity.

–jay was here!

I like this argument, but is it true?

It seems neither plausible nor factual to me, since everybody drafts their works and it's often painfully clear that they are drafting their work to all but the most gifted of creators whose works seem to appear fully fledged out of the blue. Wollheim's own examples are things like statues and manuscripts, and it's peculiar to consider that the work of a statue really is prior to the marble after the carving; and it's unclear why the difference between non-interpretive, interpretive, and participatory works in this regard (if I am reading the table correctly). I'm not sure whether it really matters.

Insofar as an artist doesn't already know the entirety of his work before setting out to create the token, the arrangement is much the same as though he were "interpreting" an existing work from partial recollection, or collaborating with another individual. And drafting any sort of artwork seems inherently "regulatory" to me, but that might not be the point you are making.

This might be an annoyingly pragmatist thing to say, but I think you'll benefit massively in your research by giving a go at creating art in each of the media you're discussing.

See Wollheim's Art and Its Objects Section 35:

I wrote my Master's dissertation and my doctoral thesis on memes--the one more or less led into the other!

I come from a linguistics background, so my approach is predominantly situated in linguistics approaches and theories, though I did end up borrowing elements from other disciplines as well. My primary focus was trying to situate memes within broader linguistic theory, to reconcile their characteristics with how we understand communication and language. I don't suggest that memes are a language unto themselves, but that they can be better understood and categorized by using linguistic methods.

So my main theoretical themes were iconicity, metaphor, and ostension for the cognitive side and meaning construction, along with elements of community of practice and some other approaches for the social side of things. I did a case study review of 30 prominent memes, along with an online survey (on reddit) and some focus groups of university students.

There was lots of really really cool things that came out of my data collection, but I think one of the best bits is just how much information memes can convey. They can pack a lot of information into a relative small unit, as well as being more visceral, emotive, or metatextual than other types of communication, especially in a digital environment.

It's been great doing this research and I'm looking forward to doing more and using my thesis as a jumping off point for further work!

1 Like

I would love to see your theses and hear more about your methodology in particular. I'm especially intrigued by the ostension and meaning construction aspects. I completely agree about taking and using methodologies from lingustics (or any other field for that matter) without worrying about whether memes count as the right subject matter for that purpose and so on. I think I heard that this is a growing trend too.

1 Like

thanks for your thoughtful comments! my replies may be sporadic since i'm working on different parts of my thesis right now for submission in 10 days. you know how it is. but your feedback is without a doubt helpful.

this idea of ontological priority isn't mine (might have gotten it from greg currie?). i think that there could be something to it, though, even if works of art incrementally come into existence (rather than all at once). even if the novel, for instance, exists first as scattered partial drafts, one might still ask whether the drafts are partial tokens, & in what relation do they stand to the premature type (if there is such a thing.). surely it is also the case with memes, that the type does not come into being with the first image macro but is emergent after successive tokens are made (whether by the same individual who's forcing it or naturally by others).

Insofar as an artist doesn't already know the entirety of his work before setting out to create the token, the arrangement is much the same as though he were "interpreting" an existing work from partial recollection, or collaborating with another individual.

this is true. but at the very least, the medium does seem to make a difference in what is considered a type & a token. this is why the case of the poem is very interesting. the type in the case of a written poem is a non-spatiotemporal (i.e., abstract) string of words. its tokens are physical texts. but suppose i were to go on tour & give readings of my poems. now the tokens are individual performances. in this case, it seems like there is a hierarchy of types, where the abstract string of words is a "meta-type". in the first case, the medium was just poetry (& the tokens were physical texts), in the second case, some genre of spoken word performance (& the tokens were performances). but in both cases, the overarching type was the meta-type– the abstract string of words.

i think this difference is marked by the boundary between interpretive & non-interpretive works. compare now a novel & a song. the tokens are respectively, physical texts & performances. but in the case of the song, we do have a formulaic representation– sheet music. in the case of the novel, there is no such thing– or rather, the closest thing we have to that, which is a copy of a book, is actually the token of the novel.

And drafting any sort of artwork seems inherently "regulatory" to me, but that might not be the point you are making.

there are significant differences between the regulatory relationships across all of these cases. what i find unique, in the case of memes, is their participatory nature. but it is not the process of making a meme token that is participatory– rather, it is the authoring & maintenance of a meme type. hence, meme warfare (e.g., the battle for the soul of Pepe, provincialism against normies).

we might say, loosely, that there is a more or less unidirectional "one to many" regulatory relationship in the case of a symphony, since one/few composers participate in its creation, & there is an authoritative/definitive guide for how to instantiate it in a performance. by contrast, the regulatory relationship in the case of a meme [type] is less unidirectional (but nowhere near equally bidirectional) "many to one" regulatory relationship. many people participate in its creation, & there is no formulaic guide for how to make a token instance of the meme.

–jay was here!


Right, I see. So the debate about ontological priority is actually more metaphysical than ontological. I don't think I can offer much further useful commentary about that for now!

This is a terrific way to formulate your position, because it clarifies it in a way that can be cross-referenced against the positions given by the other thinkers you're discussing. For example, it seems to me that it makes more sense to understand Wollheim as suggesting that art too forms a "one-to-many" relation between the type and tokens, since the artist must "identify" the correct expression of his work of art in order to (say) stop editing and call it a day, and the audience too identifies works of art based on picking out certain objects as being (the "same") works of art.

That actually really helps me understand why you are interested in talking about the "ontological priority" stuff, since now the discussion about the directionality of regulation gets looped right back into the discussions about epistemology (namely interpretation or "interpretive works of art") and the type-token distinction. That sounds like really hard work and I'm not sure how I'd approach it, but does look like a brilliant way to tie everything together.

1 Like

Thanks! So given that there hasn't been an authoritative linguistic treatment of memes, I had to assemble my own framework and approach, which required borrowing pieces from lots of different places.

The ostensive aspects were primary drawn from the work of Scott-Phillips and his approach of ostensive-inferential communication. I found his model of making a deliberate sign implying meaning, relying on context and shared knowledge, to be very pertinent to memes. A meme itself serves as an ostensive unit, which, drawing on shared understanding, can allow a viewer to infer meaning beyond the unit itself.

This process, paired with elements of iconicity and metaphor, allows memes to encode and transmit meaning, according to my work. The whole idea of meaning construction within memes is what drew me to the topic in the first place!

Happy to share more about my methods!


Yes, I want to hear more about this, and the methodology you are using as well. The extent of my knowledge about Scott-Phillips is mostly to do with a meme I made using a diagram from his 2017 paper:

I'd love to see a diagram of how meaning is created in memes this way. I really wanna know what you mean by "ostensive unit" and "meaning beyond the unit itself". So much of analysis around memes is "formalistic" in that they focus strictly on the image itself.