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Pre-publication of a paper given at the "13th Annual Computers and Philosophy Conference 1998", in cooperation with the 20th World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, 13.-14. August 1998.

Mike Sandbothe

Pragmatic Media Philosophy and the Internet

Philosophical attention to the intertwinements existing between our technical media of dissemination (print, radio, TV, Internet), our symbolic media of communication (images, language, writing, music) and our media of sensuous perception (space, time) has increasingly intensified at the close of the 19th and in first decades of the 20th century. Media philosophical issues have established themselves in close connection with a new orientation in modern philosophy, which, following Richard Rorty, I would like to call the 'pragmatic turn'. What is meant by this is the transition to philosophical activity for which the representationalist question of our theories' reference to reality, with a view to their cognitive or truth value, is no longer central, but instead of this the antirepresentationalist question of the usefulness of our thinking within the framework of concrete, historically contingent, politically and socially determined situations of action.

Rorty's opposition of representationalism with antirepresentationalism (Rorty, 1991a, pp. 1-17, 151-161), which I have just made use of, is to be clearly delineated from the distinction between realism and antirealism stemming from Michael Dummett (Dummett, 1978). In Rorty's usage the distinction between realistic copy theories and antirealistic construction theories of cognition does not serve as a synonym for the opposition of representationalism and antirepresentationalism, but as an internal difference whose differentiational work is performed within the realm of representationalist positions. This is emphasized by Rorty when he writes: "I claim that the representationalism-vs.-antirepresentationalism issue is distinct from the realism-vs.-antirealism one, because the latter issue arises only for representationalists" (Rorty, 1991, p. 2).

In Rorty's view the correspondence-theoretical idea that human cognition aims primarily at providing an adequate account of reality determines both copy-theoretical and constructivist epistemologies. Although copy theory and constructivism apply different criteria of adequation and presuppose different concepts of reality, both remain within the paradigm of a representation aiming at correspondence. Whereas the adequation of a representation in copy-theoretical terms is determined by its reference to an object transcending representation, the constructivist correspondence criterion is defined immanently with respect to representation itself. The decisive question here is whether the constructivistically interpreted representation of a matter formally corresponds with the rules for the construction of something as something, which are grasped as being conditions of possibility of representation altogether. Rorty contrasts the representationalist cognitive model with the antirepresentationalist view that knowledge should be described not in terms of its correspondence-theoretical reference to reality, but as an element of action bound within concrete situations of usage.

The transition from representationalism to antirepresentationalism, according to Rorty, was effected in America by the famous advocates of classical pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, and in Europe by pragmatically thinking philosophers like Nietzsche, the early Heidegger and the late Wittgenstein (Rorty, 1989). Peirce's famous essay 'How to Make Our Ideas Clear' of 1878 is considered to be the foundational document of American pragmatism. The basic feature of the pragmatic turn taking place in modern philosophy was anticipated in this text by Peirce in the shape of what is called the "pragmatic maxim" (Peirce, 1960, §394, p. 252). It reads: "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object" (Peirce, 1960, §402, p. 258). If one applies Peirce's pragmatic maxim to the media concept, then two different ways come to mind in which a word can be apprehended or used as a medium. On the one hand, from a representationalist perspective we can apprehend words as being, so to speak, magical cognitive media and mediating authorities, by and through which the truth of being or the truth of appearances is revealed to us. On the other hand, we can understand words from a pragmatic perspective as being media in an artisanal sense by using them as - to quote James - a "program for more work" (James, 1975, p. 32) and "as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed" (James, 1975, p. 32). From this elementary inner differentiation of the media concept four guiding maxims of pragmatic media philosophy can be drawn, which I will develop now in the framework of an analysis of Nietzsche's and Wittgenstein's implicit media philosophies (cf. Sandbothe, 1998b).

Pragmatism and Media Philosophy with Nietzsche and Wittgenstein

I shall begin with the first guiding maxim of pragmatic media philosophy. It articulates the advice that pragmatic media philosophy should avoid building up the words 'medium' and 'media' as magic cult words which allow the eternal puzzles of philosophical tradition finally to be resolved, and should instead of this pay attention to the concrete use we make, or don't make, of media in certain situations of action. Within the framework of the implicit media philosophies of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein explicit remarks can be found to the effect that they are concerned not with creating new philosophical cult words, but rather with establishing the concrete practice of decidedly pragmatic criticism of language and media.

Philosophical confusions, such is the basic idea of Wittgenstein's late philosophy, can be unmasked by bringing into view the concrete use we make of certain words and propositions within the framework of different "language-games" (Wittgenstein, 1968, p. 5 [§7]). What Wittgenstein means by language-games are more or less ritualized situations of action which contain both linguistic and extra-linguistic elements and which are embedded in inclusive forms of life (for examples, see the list Wittgenstein provides in Wittgenstein, 1968, p. 11 f. [§23]). The pragmatic turn, expressed in his attentiveness to the entwinements existing between language games and forms of life, is conceptualized by Wittgenstein when in the same context he demands: "the axis of reference of our examination must be rotated, but about the fixed point of our real need" (Wittgenstein, 1968, p. 46 [§108]).

In place of the traditional view that appoints mind and meaning as agents of thought and conceives of language as the medium of expression for meanings Wittgenstein draws attention to our factual use of signs in concrete situations of action. The philosophical question then no longer reads "what does this sign mean?" but "how is this sign used? What does it do?" Wittgenstein suggests understanding signs no longer as media in the sense of pure intermediary mental authorities or ideal spheres of knowledge. Instead, according to Wittgenstein, they should be viewed pragmatically as means, in the sense of instruments, which serve certain ends. The simple advice, which Wittgenstein provides in the eleventh section of the Philosophical Investigations, reads: "Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws. - The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities.)" (Wittgenstein, 1968, p. 6 [§11]).

Once again in section 11 Wittgenstein informs us about the origin of philosophical illness, which he seeks to combat therapeutically in his later work. In doing this he formulates, at the same time, the second guiding maxim of pragmatic media philosophy. Wittgenstein's media philosophical answer to the question of the aetiology of philosophical illness reads: "Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script and print. For their application is not presented to us so clearly. Especially when we are doing philosophy!" (Wittgenstein, 1968, p. 6 [§11]). A quite similar aetiology for a quite similar diagnosis is provided by Nietzsche, when in a fragment from the period between autumn 1885 and early 1886 he writes: "Words remain: People believe that the concepts thus denoted do so too!" (Nietzsche, 1980, vol. 12, §1[98], p. 34). Before looking more closely at the question of aetiology I would like to append Nietzsche's version of the diagnosis, that is, his formulation of pragmatic media philosophy's first guiding maxim.

Like Wittgenstein, Nietzsche breaks with the 'theoretical' view of language, truth and knowledge in a pragmatic recourse to determinations of usefulness and conditions of interest. Thus in the Gay Science he emphasizes with regard to truth and knowledge: "We simply lack any organ for knowledge, for 'truth': we 'know' (or believe or imagine) just as much as may be useful in the interests of the human herd, the species (...)" (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 300 [§354]). The associated degradation of language, which traditionally functioned as a distinguished cognitive organ and medium of truth, to being a pragmatic instrument in the service of power interests becomes explicit when Nietzsche, in Towards a Genealogy of Morals, makes the following suggestion in answer to the question of the origin of language: "The lordly right of giving names extends so far that one should allow oneself to conceive the origin of language itself as a expression of power on the part of rulers: they say 'this is this and this,' they seal every thing and event with a sound and, as it were, take possession of it" (Nietzsche, 1989, p. 26 [First Essay, §2]).

Nietzsche understands images, language, writing and music as mediatic instruments of power, which are not only to be sought out in their working contexts, to be genealogically reconstructed and - as material instruments of the will to power - to be analysed, but which are simultaneously to be instrumentalized for one's own purposes. This is also expressed in the manner in which the second guiding maxim of pragmatic media philosophy shapes up with Nietzsche. The second maxim establishes the connection between the philosophical confusions brought about by a representationalist misunderstanding of media and modern print culture. It is the aspect of theoreticization and decontextualization of language through its fixation in the supposedly neutral medium of writing which Nietzsche foregrounds in his criticism of the 19th century's book culture. In a note dating from summer 1883 he speaks of the 19th century as being a "scribbled age" (Nietzsche, 1980, vol. 10, 8[20], p. 341), in which theoretical culture was spreading through mass media to all levels of the population. In the second of his Unfashionable Observations Nietzsche describes the self-paralysis and lethargy of action of a world determined by print, science, and journalism in the following manner: "At no point does the work give rise to an effect, but always only to a 'critique', and the critique likewise produces no effect, but instead is subjected to a further critique. (...) The historical cultivation of our critics does not even permit them to produce an effect in the true sense of that word, namely, an effect on life and action (...)" (Nietzsche, 1995, vol. 2, p. 121). And in a note dating from 1882 Nietzsche concludes from this: "Another century of newspapers and all words will stink" (Nietzsche, 1980, vol. 10, 3[1] 168, p. 73).

In contrast to James and Dewey, who had developed an exoteric and democratic pragmatism, Nietzsche spells out his Will-to-Power pragmatism in an elitist and anti-democratic manner. Nietzsche understands the "sentiment of distance" (Nietzsche, 1989, p. 201 [§257]), which he practices through to and in his style of writing, as being a pragmatic method of awakening the book medium from its lethargy and making books useful as instruments aiming at actions. The price Nietzsche is prepared to pay for his attempted pragmaticization of the book medium consists of the restriction to a selected and consciously limited circle of readers. In the 1872 preface for a collection of lectures 'On the Future of our Educational Establishments', Nietzsche writes: "The book is meant for calm readers, for people who are not yet caught up in the dizzying haste of our rolling age and who do not yet sense idolatrous pleasure in being crushed by its wheels - that is, for few people!" (Nietzsche, 1980, vol. 1, p. 649). And Nietzsche demands of the chosen few to whom his writing is directed: "Be (...) readers of this book so as, afterwards, to destroy it and to consign it to oblivion by your deed!" (Nietzsche, 1980, vol. 1, p. 650).

The third maxim of pragmatic media philosophy states that it is only when we move within a medium which structurally permits the pragmatic character of our sign usage to become clear that both philosophy and common sense will be freed from the representationalist confusions which held it captive in the media conditions of book culture. We have already seen how Nietzsche's writing in a certain sense pursues an implosive structure. Within the medium of the book Nietzsche attempts to overcome the bookish writing style. Against the "scholarly manner of bookmaking" (Nietzsche, 1980, vol. 8, 23 [122], p. 446) which he castigates Nietzsche sets his aphoristic writing style, which, in Twilight of the Idols, he praises in the following way: "The aphorism, the apophthegm, in which I am the first master among Germans, are the forms of 'eternity'; my ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book - what everyone else does not say in a book" (Nietzsche, 1990, p. 114 [§51]).

Less polemical, visionary and exaggerated, but amounting to a similar strategy, are Wittgensteins remarks in the preface to the Philosophical Investigations, written in 1945. With regard to the patchwork of material forming the basis of the Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously in 1953, consisting of single elements from typescripts which he repeatedly cut up and recombined in various ways, Wittgenstein wrote: "It was my intention at first to bring this all together in a book (...). After several unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. (...) And this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction" (Wittgenstein, 1968, Preface, p. V).

To sum up it can be said that both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein experiment with writing strategies pointing beyond the order of the classical book. But at the same time their publishing remains bound to the technical medium of book printing. From this results, as the fourth guiding maxim of pragmatic media philosophy, the task of cooperating in the shaping of a media environment which permits the binds of representationalist book culture to be overcome. The four guiding maxims of pragmatic media philosophy I have expounded are shaped by the experience of the media transformations currently taking place. Moreover they are intended to steer towards the question of whether and to what extent a pragmatization of our use of media is taking place in the digital sign-worlds of the Internet. In the final part of my considerations I would like to outline briefly what I have in mind with this.

The Pragmatization of our Use of Media in the Internet

I will begin with the linear textual services made available by the Net and will concentrate on the synchronous communications services of IRC, MUDs and MOOs. The linking of writing back to synchronous conversational situations in the one-to-one or many-to-many communication in MUDs and MOOs leads to a pragmatic recontextualization of the use of written signs (cf. Sandbothe 1998a). Using written signs, speech acts between people take place in computer mediated communication that would be very difficult to carry out in a book or a newspaper: people fall in love with each other, make promises to one another, argue with one another and reconcile themselves, laugh, cry, flirt with each other and do all the things that we are able to do in direct reciprocity with face-to-face communication or on the telephone. In the situation of synchronous interpersonal communication, which is characteristic of MUDs and MOOs, writing serves not primarily, or even exclusively, to make statements about something. Rather it is purposefully employed as an instrument for the coordination and conducting of shared social actions. This also applies for scientific communication. When I talk to someone in MIT's Media MOO about media philosophy we don't simply lecture each other about our ideas. Rather we also get to know each other as people straight away, that is, we carry out social speech acts, begin, for example, to argue or to amuse ourselves together about this matter or that. Through this our knowledge becomes socially situated, is related to our convictions, wishes, aims and hopes and is in this way disrobed of its supposedly purely theoretical signature, that is, it is pragmatically bound within and concretized with regard to our individual aims in action and life.

In IRC, MUDs and MOOs even those actions which are not speech acts in the classical sense, but actions which in real life we would grasp as non-linguistic actions, are also carried out in the mode of writing. This is because in interactive writing, as a form of communication which is restricted to the medium of writing, only what takes place as a written act attains communicative reality. My smile only becomes present in a MUD or MOO when I write the sentence 'Mike smiles'. The same applies when I drink a beer in a virtual bar or sit on the desk in the virtual office of a colleague at MIT. In all these cases it is irrelevant whether a reality is copied or constructed by the letters I type in. It doesn't matter whether I'm really smiling, really drinking a beer, really sitting on the desk, or if I merely construct these actions. Rather what matters is that, by writing these sentences on-line, I carry out actions, that is, modify the conversational situation in the respective MUD or MOO through my actions. The pragmatization of our sign usage which is taking place in the Internet becomes even clearer when we turn to the hypertextual constitution of the World Wide Web (cf. Sandbothe, 1996).

Characteristic of hypertexts is the fact that they point to intertextual references not merely in the mode of footnotes, but rather that by using active links they make these references constituent parts of themselves. The idea of a closed meaningful content, already suggested at the material level by the closed unit of a manuscript bound between two book covers, is made problematic by the hypertextual constitution of textual elements presented and interconnected with one another in the Internet. The positive side of this change consists of the explicit and technically manifest opening of sign usage, linked with hypertextuality, to other signs and virtual as well as real actions. So, for example, in the digital bookstore Amazon.com a click on the button with the inscription "Buy 1 Now With 1 Click" suffices and - assuming that I am registered with address and credit card number as a customer on the server - I immediately receive the following answer: "Thank you for your 1-Click order! (Yes, it was that easy.) One copy of the book you ordered will be sent to you as soon as possible." Of course the fact that we can order books through the exchange of letters is not a distinguished characteristic of the World Wide Web. We can also carry out such an ordering process by post or fax. The particular feature lies in that through the Web the pragmatic dimension of our use of writing is made explicit and noticeable by the immediate answer which our order experiences in an interactive system. This brings me to an important point, which I might not have highlighted clearly enough until now: for almost all of the properties distinguishing our sign usage in the Internet as something special in relation to our everyday, non-digital sign usage it can be said that these properties are in no way things radically new, but that they simply make explicit and make us aware of things which happen implicitly and unconsciously in everyday sign usage. This also applies to the way in which we use hypertexts.

Our reading is changing, hermeneutic sensitivity is being intensified, our reception of texts is becoming more intertextual. We are increasingly switching to reading every sign as a potential link and are simultaneously beginning to differentiate intellectually the possible spectrum of links. In contrast to the printed book, with which linearities other than that preordained by the pagination must laboriously be inferred from tables of contents and indexes, the hypertext is structured such that already through its mediatic presentation it offers the reader a multitude of possible linearities for individual selection or independent construction. With this it approaches qualities reminiscent of Nietzsche's and Wittgenstein's aphoristic networks of ideas. In these a subject is not hierarchically structured and systematically worked out point for point, but is demonstrated in its pragmatic intertwinement with a multitude of other subjects and problem fields. Nietzsche and Wittgenstein were concerned to write several books in one book by employing intelligent interconnection of thought-scenes which are well composed and in themselves sound; that is, they were concerned to make the plural linearities, multiple paths and complex branches that advance our thinking realizable in writing too.

If one applies philosophical measures to the modern writing technology of hypertext, then the efficiency of digital writing space is to be measured not least according to the standards set by Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. It is obvious that in precisely this respect the HTML mark up language employed on the Net leaves much to be desired. If one compares the HTML-hypertexts of the World Wide Web with more refined possibilities for interconnection offered for stand-alone systems by hypertext programs such as Storyspace, HyperCard or Toolbook, then there remains much to be done here. The same applies for training of media competence in hypertextual writing, as well as for the urgently necessary development of a not only determining, but also reflective, faculty of judgement, which is an essential prerequisite on the users' side for skilled reception of hypertextual creations.

Translated by Andrew Inkpin

 

Literature

Dummett, Michael (1978): "Realism", in: Dummett, Truth and Other Enigmas (London:Duckworth) pp. 145-165.

James, William (1975): Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, in: The Works of William James, vol. 1, eds Fredson Bowers and Ignas K. Skrupskelis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press). (First published: New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907).

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1968), Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan, third edition).

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1989): Beyond Good and Evil (New York: Vintage).

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1974): The Gay Science (New York: Vintage).

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1980): Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe, eds Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Munich/Berlin: dtv and de Gruyter).

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1989): On the Genealogy of Morals (New York: Vintage 1989).

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1990): Twilight of the Idols (London: Penguin 1990).

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1995): "The Utility and Liability of History for Life", in: Unfashionable Observations, The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, vol. 2 (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1995) pp. 85-167.

Peirce, Charles Sanders (1960): "How To Make Our Ideas Clear", in: The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 5, eds Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press) pp. 248-271. (First published in: Popular Science Monthly, vol. 12, January 1878, pp. 286-302).

Rorty, Richard (1989): Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press).

Rorty, Richard (1991a): Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. Philosophical Papers, vol. 1 (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press 1991).

Rorty, Richard (1991b): Essays on Heidegger and Others, Philosophical Papers, vol. 2 (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press 1991).

Sandbothe, Mike (1996): "Interactivity, Hypertextuality, Transversality. A media-philosophical analysis of the Internet".

Sandbothe, Mike (1998a): "Media Temporalities in the Internet. Philosophy of Time and Media with Derrida and Rorty".

Sandbothe, Mike (1998b): Pragmatismus und philosophische Medientheorie, in: Repräsentation und Interpretation, ed. Evelyn Dölling, Reihe: Arbeitspapiere zur Linguistik, TU Berlin, 1998.

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