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Augmented Ontologies or How to Philosophize with a Digital Hammer

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Could a person ever transcend what it is like to be in the world as a human being? Could we ever know what it is like to be other creatures? Questions about the overcoming of a human perspective are not uncommon in the history of philosophy. In the last century, those very interrogatives were notably raised by American philosopher Thomas Nagel in the context of philosophy of mind. In his 1974 essay What is it Like to Be a Bat?, Nagel offered reflections on human subjectivity and its constraints. Nagel’s insights were elaborated before the social diffusion of computers and could not anticipate the cultural impact of technological artefacts capable of materializing interactive simulated worlds as well as disclosing virtual alternatives to the “self.” In this sense, this article proposes an understanding of computers as epistemological and ontological instruments. The embracing of a phenomenological standpoint entails that philosophical issues are engaged and understood from a fundamentally practical perspective. In terms of philosophical praxis, or “applied philosophy,” I explored the relationship between human phenomenologies and digital mediation through the design and the development of experimental video games. For instance, I have conceptualized the first-person action-adventure video game Haerfest (Technically Finished 2009) as a digital re-formulation of the questions posed in Nagel’s famous essay. Experiencing a bat’s perceptual equipment in Haerfest practically corroborates Nagel’s conclusions: there is no way for humans to map, reproduce, or even experience the consciousness of an actual bat. Although unverifiable in its correspondence to that of bats, Haerfest still grants access to experiences and perceptions that, albeit still inescapably within the boundaries of human kinds of phenomenologies, were inaccessible to humans prior to the advent of computers. Phenomenological alterations and virtual experiences disclosed by interactive digital media cannot take place without a shift in human kinds of ontologies, a shift which this study recognizes as the fundamental ground for the development of a new humanism (I deem it necessary to specify that I am not utilizing the term “humanism” in its common connotation, that is to say the one that emerged from the encounter between the Roman civilization and the late Hellenistic culture. According to this conventional acceptation, humanism indicates the realization of the human essence through “scholarship and training in good conduct” (Heidegger 1998, p. 244). However, Heidegger observed that this understanding of humanism does not truly cater to the original essence of human beings, but rather “is determined with regard to an already established interpretation of nature, history, world, and […] beings as a whole.” (Heidegger 1998, p. 245) The German thinker found this way of embracing humanism reductive: a by-product of Western metaphysics. As Heidegger himself specified in his 1949 essay Letter on Humanism, his opposition to the traditional acceptation of the term humanism does not advocate for the “inhuman” or a return to the “barbaric” but stems instead from the belief that the humanism can only be properly understood and restored in culture as more original way of meditating and caring for humanity and understanding its relationship with Being.). Additionally, this study explicitly proposes and exemplifies the use of interactive digital technology as a medium for testing, developing and disseminating philosophical notions, problems and hypotheses in ways which are alternative to the traditional textual one. Presented as virtual experiences, philosophical concepts can be accessed without the filter of subjective imagination. In a persistent, interactive, simulated environment, I claim that the crafting and the mediation of thought takes a novel, projective (In Martin Heidegger’s 1927 Being and Time, the term “projectivity” indicates the way a Being opens to the world in terms of its possibilities of being (Heidegger 1962, pp. 184–185, BT 145). Inspired by Heidegger’s and Vilem Flusser’s work in the field of philosophy of technology as well as Helmuth Plessner’s anthropological position presented in his 1928 book Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch. Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie, this study understands the concept of projectivity as the innate openness of human beings to construct themselves and their world by means of technical artefacts. In this sense, this study proposes a fundamental understanding of technology as the materialization of mankind’s tendency to overcome its physical, perceptual and communicative limitations.) dimension which I propose to call “augmented ontology.”

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  1. The qualifier “virtual” is presented by French media scholar Pierre Lévy as not in opposition to actual in the sense of current (presently existing), but to “actual” in the specific meaning of “pertinent to the world humans are native to” (Lévy 2000, p. 161). This aspect of the definition of ‘virtual’ cannot be understood in the restricted context of a single, self enclosed world, but requires the concurrent existence of more than one worlds, at least one of which needs to be indexed as the ‘actual’ one. Proposing an analogous interpretation, Michael Heim defined something as being “virtual” when it is real “not in fact, but in effect” (Heim 1993, pp. 109–110).

  2. In a general sense, and in line with the phenomenological tradition, in this text I understand the term reality as a primary and non-sensorily attainable level of existence. The distinction that I will utilize between the terms real and actual is a derivation of the understanding of reality outlined above, where ‘actuality’ is understood as “reality as disclosed by human beings” (Verbeek 2005, p. 108). In this sense, what is labeled as actual is commonly understood as something that is not merely potential or possible, but that is subject to property ascriptions and thus possible of being categorized in ontological structures. A very analogue interpretation is evident, for example, in the distinction that Heidegger posited between the ontological level of beings, which presupposes a world experienced and understood via a characteristically human mode of existence, and the ontic level of beings which is, instead, observer independent.

  3. For example, Maurice Merleau-Ponty analyzed such a relationship from a chiefly perceptual perspective, Edmund Husserl in terms of consciousness and Martin Heidegger through his original understanding of “being-in-the-world.”

  4. According to French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, the fundamental aim of poetry is to “compose an essential representation of human actions; its appropriate method is to speak the truth by means of fiction, fable and tragic muthos” (Ricoeur 2008, p. 13). In informative, rhetorical or didactic discourse, units of meaning take the functions of signs that either refer to, stand for or point to something. In poetry, the signs represent nothing, instead they affirm, assert. Poetry ignores the world that is present to our senses and fictionally evokes its own ones. Ricoeur’s understanding of poetry closely reminisces of the one offered by Paul Valéry’s 1939 essay Poésie et Pensée Abstraite, where poetic language is presented as a language of cognition. In its cognitive function, poetry is understood as “the effort which makes live in us that which does not exist” (Valéry 1939, p. 1333, translation by Herbert Marcuse in Marcuse 1991, p. 68). According to Valéry, poetry breaks the spell of our acceptance of how things are to us, it is the introduction to a different order of things into the established one, it is “the establishment of a new world” (Valéry, 1939, p. 1327—with reference to the poetic language of music, my translation). In a very literal sense, this acceptation of the goals and the methodologies of poetry adhere with the original Greek meaning of ποίησις (poiesis): “to create,” “to give shape.”

  5. Such central features stand out, for example, in the words of Romanian poet, essayist and founder of the European Dada Tristan Tzara, who concluded his famed Dada Manifesto 1918 as follows: “The abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create: Dada; […] every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities apparitions and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight: Dada; abolition of memory: Dada; abolition of archaeology: Dada; abolition of prophets: Dada; abolition of the future: Dada […]. Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring of tense colors and interlacing of opposites and all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE.”

  6. Susan Laxton’s 2003 essay The Guarantor of Chance: Surrealism’s Ludic Practices focuses on Surrealism’s resistant to object-production. Laxton designates those strategies as the Surrealist ludic “an early deployment of chance meant to militate against means/ends rationality” (Laxton 2003).

  7. In a very revelatory way, the verb “to describe” derives from the Latin scribere (to write) and indicates, in its original meaning, the act of providing a written account of something. What Wittgenstein recognized as the primary role of language, that of mapping and appropriating the world with an artificial logical system, is evident in this etymology.

  8. In this context, I will utilize the term ‘ontology’ in a way that was inspired by Heidegger’s 1927 book Being and Time, where it indicated the way the world is for a being. According to Heidegger, a Being (Dasein, German: da—“there” and sein—“being”) is always involved with a “there,” a world, and is consequentially always characterized by biological and historical dimensions. In general, from the postphenomenological stance adopted by this study, I will use the unspecific term ‘ontology’ to refer to human kinds of ontologies, which is to say the rationalization of the mutually constitutive relationship between a human being and a certain world. From this perspective, things and beings in the world make sense within an ontology precisely because, via the mediation of the senses, they become part of an interactive and persistent system of relationships with an individual human being.

  9. In this sense, the adjective ‘virtual’, as used for example by Heim, connotes an aesthetical alternative to the world that can be actively interacted with through digital media, while the adjective “fictional,” encountered in Borgesian texts, indicates a traditionally mediated, and thus non-interactive, form of representation.

  10. The term “Overcoming” is not to be understood here in the dialectical meaning inherent in the German term Überwindung (surpassing) but must be embraced in the nuanced conjunction of two other terms: Andenken (rememoration) and Verwindung (distortion, twisting, incorporation). Combining the two characteristic aspects of Verwindung in the dyadic expression “acceptance-distortion,” Vattimo interpreted the Heideggerian “overcoming” of metaphysics as “a going-beyond that is both an acceptance (or ‘resignation’) and a ‘deepening’.” (Vattimo 1991, p. xxvi)

  11. The importance of transferring content with phenomenological immediacy, which is to say not in fictional and/or representational ways, was professed by nineteenth and twentieth century novelists, philosophers, playwrights and movie directors that aligned to the existentialist current. The existentialist method embraced by Jean Paul Sartre openly aimed at the transferring experiences to the reader as well as eliciting first-hand emotions in him/her. This purpose was pursued relying on the immersive and familiar quality of the situations and sensations represented (Sartre 2010). For the reasons explained in the second section of this paper, the textual medium (especially when utilized in a linear fashion) must be recognized as unsuitable for this purpose, due to the opacity and limitations of its code as well as its having to rely on the mind’s capability for abstracting and imagining, rather than on immediate sensations. It is perhaps for this reason that Sartre himself relied on theatre plays as well as books to spread his thought, or that existentialism had had a particular success with cinema. Much like Nagel, I consider new media a new and exciting medium to spread philosophical ideas and, inherently, to transcend the horizon of Western metaphysics and its traditional mediation.

  12. On the official Website for Miegakure, the author Marc ten Bosch explicitly notes that “[o]ur world is three-dimensional: width, depth, and height. But what if there was a fourth physical dimension that we cannot see, in addition to the other three? This game is about exploring the consequences of being able to move in four spatial dimensions + time. It plays like a regular three-dimensional platformer, but at the press of a button one of the dimensions is exchanged with the fourth dimension, allowing for four-dimensional movement” ( Accessed 12 April 2012).

  13. In the context of this study, the adjective “unworldly” is largely utilized in the common acceptation of “not pertaining to the world that humans experience and share as biological creature in their everyday life. Clearly, this connotation needs a further specification—or rather an extension—in virtual worlds, as any being, affordance, physical behaviors that are experienced in a computer simulated environment are, according to the definition above, trivially unworldly. More specifically, then, Augmented Ontologies will embrace the term unworldliness as “not identifiable or analogue with the qualities pertaining to the world that humans experience and share as biological creature in their everyday life.”

  14. Another video game which famously borrowed inhuman perceptual systems from the animal world as part of its gameplay is the 2006 Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, in which Link, the young and anthropomorphic main character, can enter a magical dimension in which he takes the form of a wolf. As a wolf, Link acquires the possibility to follow olfactory trails, which the players perceive spatially as paths of permanent, colored smoke (Nintendo 2006). X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) also famously feature protagonists whose beastly nature grants them (and their controlling ‘hyperstasis’: the player) abilities that transcend the physical and perceptual limitations of humans (including echolocation, visualization of smell trails, thermal vision, etc. (Raven Software 2009; Rocksteady Studios 2009).

  15. Every element that composes the computer from both a logical and mechanical perspective presents traits which are inescapably anthropomorphic (Cappuccio 2005, p. 99). Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein, who had been a colleague of Turing’s in the Cambridge years, expressed this awareness with great clarity, stating that: “Turing’s machines. These machines are humans who calculate” (Shanker 1987, p. 615).


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Correspondence to Stefano Gualeni.

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Gualeni, S. Augmented Ontologies or How to Philosophize with a Digital Hammer. Philos. Technol. 27, 177–199 (2014).

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