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Kant on Aesthetics (3): Nature versus Art

Van_Gogh.Sunflowers Thus far it seems as if there is no place for art in Kant’s conception of beauty – free beauty in Kant’s terms seems to be inherently restricted to being a property of nature. However, Kant in no way denies the possibility or existence of beautiful art (by which is meant art with a free beauty, since obviously any art could have the purely subjective attractiveness implied by Kant’s dependent beauty). That art has not made a significant appearance in Kant’s account indicates not the impossibility of beautiful art, but the necessity of a relationship between art and nature in order for the subjectively universal experience of beauty to apply to it.

Beauty, however, is not the only “subjective universality” that Kant explores; he also considers the concept of the Sublime, noting that this has in one thing in common with the Beautiful: “both please in themselves”. However, what Kant considers Sublime are those things which are boundless or absolutely great – so much so, in fact, that it can be a source of terror, albeit not a fear seriously experienced since “it is impossible to find satisfaction in a terror that is seriously felt.” Thus he writes:

Bold, overhanging, and as it were threatening, rocks; clouds piled up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river, and such like; these [make us feel] insignificantly small in comparison with their might. But the sight of them is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we are in security; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.

Once again, the sublime (as apparently with the beautiful) seems to be constrained such that it is found solely in nature. Kant writes: “Nature is therefore sublime in those of its phenomena, whose intuition brings with it the Idea of their infinity,” which reinforces this impression. However, this digression in respect of the Sublime serves to emphasise what is for Kant a key point in regard of aesthetics, namely that – just as with the Beautiful – there is a necessity ascribed to the judgement of the Sublime:

For just as we charge with want of taste the man who is indifferent when passing judgement upon an object of nature that we regard as beautiful; so we say of him who remains unmoved in the presence of that which we judge to be sublime, he has no feeling.

It may seem as if Kant has overstepped his mark by requiring that people ought to experience beauty or sublimity in the presence of certain things, but he is not oblivious of the strange situation he proposes:

This problem then may be thus represented: how is a judgement possible, in which merely from our own feeling of pleasure in an object, independently of its concept, we judge that this pleasure attaches to the representation of the same Object in every other subject, and that a priori without waiting for the accordance of others?

Kant’s claim is that when we assess something to be beautiful or sublime these judgements imply the “required assent of everyone” and that this is either a priori (independent of experience) or at the very least there is a “desire to be regarded as such”. This dovetails with the general problem that Kant is pursuing in his transcendental idealism: how is it possible for us to make a priori judgements in cases where those judgements don’t proceed logically from the terms being considered?

In the case of aesthetics, Kant appeals to nature as the architect of the universal satisfaction to be found in free beauty.

This thought then must accompany our intuition and reflection on beauty, viz. that nature has produced it; and on this alone is based the immediate interest that we take in it… It must be Nature or be regarded as Nature, if we are to take an immediate interest in the Beautiful as such; and still more is this the case if we can require that others should take an interest in it too.

So does Kant’s conception of aesthetics have nothing to offer about art, then? Is all art to Kant merely dependent beauty? No, Kant finally links the two ideas together:

Nature is beautiful because it looks like Art; and Art can only be called beautiful if we are conscious of it as Art while yet it looks like Nature. For whether we are dealing with natural or with artificial beauty we can say generally: That is beautiful which pleases in the mere act of judging it (not in the sensation of it, or by means of a concept).

He furthermore claims that just as taste is required for judging beautiful objects, so genius is required for the production of beautiful things –that an artist who creates a thing of beauty is necessarily a genius of some kind. For Kant, who usually seems to take pleasure only in his abstract intellectualism, this is a considerable concession! Even more astonishing is Kant’s brief digression into the joys of games (specifically games of chance), which he views as a form of the play of sensations and thus related to both music and the art of colour:

How much gratification games must afford, without any necessity of placing at their basis an interested design, all our evening parties show; for hardly any of them can be carried on without a game. But the affections of hope, fear, joy, wrath, scorn, are put in play by them, alternating every moment; and they are so vivid that by them, as by a kind of internal motion, all the vital processes of the body seem to be promoted, as is shown by the mental vivacity excited by them, although nothing is gained or learnt thereby.

Far from being a Chess-head or strategy buff, as might be expected, Kant seems to find far more satisfaction in the diverse human emotions stirred up by Calliois’ alea than in the single-minded pursuit of victory involved in Caillois’ agon. Modern game designers, as intellectually divorced from everyday life as Kant himself sometimes seems, could learn much from Kant’s recognition of the merits of games of fortune, but as Kant says: “as the beautiful does not enter into games of chance, we will here set them aside.”

Beautiful art, then, is the parallel of the artistry of nature. When we see beauty in Nature, we find it thus precisely because it strikes us in the same way that we experience great art. And conversely, great art can achieve beauty only in so much as it has within it a sense of nature. This need not mean that only art that depicts nature can be beautiful, however, as for Kant the essence of this beauty is purposiveness without purpose, and this quality (he claims) is transcendental, it is the inescapable ground of all beauty which is not merely conditioned or dependent. What art cannot attain to, Kant seems to claim, is the Sublime, as this we can only experience in the unbounded power of nature.

Next week, Final part of the First Division: Taste

Someone's Doing My Brain Research (ihobo)

More "this is your brain on games" stuff on ihobo today, as some researchers conduct one of the experiments I have been waiting for. Here are the highlights:

  • Players with a larger pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens) did better in the early stages of the study i.e. began learning more quickly. This suggests that a large pleasure centre increases motivation to perform (an expected result).
  • Players with a larger caudate nucleus and putamen, two key features of the striatum (the limbic system-end of the decision centre) performed better at variable priority training i.e. practising and learning different skills dynamically, within the framework of the overall goal. (This is also an expected result, but is less well studied).

Click here to read the full piece.

Insomnia as Withdrawal

Insomnia-eye1 Can we consider some kinds of insomnia as forms of withdrawal, relating to the mental activities the insomniac has engaged in?

I have struggled with insomnia on and off throughout my life, and over the years (and with the assistance of my wife) have taken steps to improve my chances of getting a good night's sleep. The most effective protection against insomnia in general has been to get up at the same time every day; routine is a strong defence against all manner of mental troubles. Also important has been stopping playing videogames, working on philosophy or composing prose text within the two hours or so before going to bed. It is in the context of this that I believe insomnia might be intelligible as withdrawal.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain is the site of most executive function, and where decisions are made. The cruchiest of decisions – those with a strong mathematical, or logically calculable element – are made in the orbito-frontal cortex (which I have dubbed the decision centre, although in fact other neighbouring parts of the prefrontal cortex are used in some kinds of deciding). This part of the brain is directly linked to the pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens) – we are wired to find making good decisions rewarding. The chemical messenger in this reward process is dopamine, and this is associated with habit formation and all addictive behaviours.

My suggestion in respect of insomnia (or at least, the kind of insomnia I suffer from) is that it results from the decision centre's relationship with the pleasure centre. When we are working on a puzzle, problem or decision, the pleasure centre will provide dopamine in two general cases: when we find a solution, and when we anticipate reaching a solution. I previously discussed this in the context of videogames as Grip – that which keeps you going back for “one more go”. A really deep problem is compelling to those of us who have well- (or over-) exercised decision centres e.g. lovers of hobby games and strategy games, analytic philosophers, programmers etc. The fixation on a problem may be tied to Grip – the anticipation of future reward, which in itself delivers dopamine.

Thus insomnia as withdrawal postulates that when we go to bed with an active decision centre, we fail to get to sleep because our decision centre craves more of the dopamine, which compels it to keep chewing over the issues in question (in pursuit of its reward). In some cases – such as philosophical problems – there may be no final solution to pay off the big reward (fiero), and the anticipation of reward may be all that can be expected. This may have contributed to Wittgenstein's tortured nights, during which his mentor Bertrand Russell tried to lend support as best he could.

This would also explain why, when possessed of a particular problem, I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep: my brain completes a sleep cycle (approximately three hours, including REM state dreaming), then the decision centre – hungry for a hit from the reward centre – demands attention. It is in withdrawal. Similarly, a friend of mind asked that we might ease down on the crunchy, calculable hobby games such as Power Grid because he found himself waking in the middle of the night thinking about problems of the kind the game presents, and this seems to tally with my account here.

If this idea holds, the most effective defence against insomnia of this kind may be to engage in more passive pleasures before sleep e.g. undemanding fiction, mindless television, a pleasing hot drink. (However, note that fiction can be an involving, rewarding process – our minds are often highly active implying fictional truths from what little is actually stated in a work of quality fiction in any medium, and even trashy novels can be addictive – perhaps especially so). Meditation, with its focus on “quieting the mind” (and in this, silencing the demands of the decision centre) would also be effective.

Of course, gamers may often escape insomnia as withdrawal by simply continuing to play the games they were playing deep into the night – this is insomnia as addiction, which I certainly had when I was playing Pokémon Red many years hence, and have also had with certain books that simply demanded continued attention. The fact that there is an equivalent case of addiction that parallels my description above suggests to me that this concept of insomnia as withdrawal has some merit.

The opening image is by Richard Hess, which I found here at HessDesignWorks. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended by the display of this image, and I will take it down if asked.

Kant on Aesthetics (2): The Beautiful

BeautifulFlower Kant begins by analysing the concept of the beautiful, and attempts to resolve the apparent paradox that subjective experience might include anything universal. He gives the example of “the green colour of the meadows” and states that this is an objective sensation – i.e. everyone will see it as green – but recognises that the pleasantness induced by this is a subjective sensation. Kant makes the claim that when we call something beautiful, it is because our faculty of Taste produces an “entirely disinterested satisfaction”, and because of this disinterest it “must claim validity for everyone… that is, there must be bound up with it a title to subjective universality”.

The claim for ‘disinterest’ here may need some explanation. If we see a delicious doughnut in front of us, we may desire to eat the doughnut. We would not in this situation (under usual circumstances at least!) call the doughnut beautiful. We desire to posses and consume the doughnut. But when we see a pastoral meadow scene and find pleasure in it, there is in this no explicit desire to possess the field. We take pleasure in its beauty without needing to make it ours. It is this “entirely disinterested satisfaction” which Kant ascribes to beautiful things, and notes that it occurs without any specific concept.

Why should the issue of concepts matter in aesthetics? Kant’s view is that some beauty is dependent upon a concept of what something is, because our assessment of such beauty requires us to know the kind of thing it is. For instance:

…human beauty (i.e. of a man, a woman, or a child), the beauty of a horse, or a building (be it church, palace, arsenal, or summer-house) presupposes a concept of the purpose which determines what the thing is to be, and consequently a concept of its perfection; it is therefore [dependent] beauty.

Kant therefore claims that while we may say that such-and-such a person is beautiful, such a judgement is conditioned by our previous experiences of people and need not be universal. People in one nation may judge different people beautiful to those of another nation, because of the different conditions of prior experience that apply. But crucial to Kant’s claims in respect of aesthetics is the claim that there are some “free beauties”, for which we don’t need to know anything conceptually in order to experience pleasure in apprehending them:

Flowers are free beauties of nature. Hardly anyone but a botanist knows the true nature of a flower, and even he, while recognizing in the flower the reproductive organ of the plant, pays no attention to this natural end when using his taste to judge of its beauty.

This allows Kant to claim that certain disputes about taste can be resolved by showing that some such claims refer to free beauty while others are concerned with dependent beauty, and acknowledges the subjective element of taste by saying “there can be no objective rule of taste which shall determine by means of concepts what is beautiful.” Note that he is not saying that there can be no objective beauty – only that such a thing cannot come about by means of a concept. Our judgement that Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie are ‘beautiful’, for instance, depends upon our concepts either of Hollywood stars or of people in general – neither person can be considered beautiful in any universal sense.

Because our assessment of dependent beauty appears to be linked to an assessment of purpose – a beautiful Hollywood star is expected to look a particular way, a beautiful cathedral has certain expected traits – Kant concludes that “Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, so far as this is perceived in it without any representation of a purpose.” Thus, free beauty – universal beauty – is to find pleasure in an appearance of purpose without any conception of what that purpose might be. This is perhaps the most controversial claim in Kant’s aesthetic account, since it is far from intuitive that our experiences of natural beauty involve any appeal to purpose.

Another objection that might be raised is that the kind of things that Kant claims are universally beautiful – such as flowers – might not seem beautiful to everyone. Kant’s reply to this would be firstly that someone who did not share in this experience of beauty would need to have been conditioned away from their native response (imagine someone who had received shock therapy while being shown flowers as per A Clockwork Orange, for instance) and secondly that the shared sense by which we make an appeal to universal beauty “aims at justifying judgements which contain an ought. It does not say that everyone will agree with my judgement, but that he ought.” Thus even if you don’t find flowers beautiful you ought to find them beautiful, according to Kant, because there is an objective beauty to them in their concept-free purposefulness.

This does not mean that Kant denies subjective pleasures – he simply considers them in different terms:

…we must represent men as differing in respect of the pleasantness or unpleasantness involved in the sensation from the same object of sense; and it is absolutely not to be required that every man should take pleasure in the same objects. Pleasure of this kind, because it comes into the mind through the sense, in respect of which therefore we are passive, we may call the pleasure of enjoyment.

So different people enjoy different things, and they find dependent beauty in different ways, but there remains (Kant claims) some things which afford a universal subjective experience of Beauty, and the pleasure bound up in such an experience is such that we expect and require other people to share that pleasure if we are not to consider them as being in some way deficient. Free beauty is universal, and if it is not, then at the very least our experience of such beauty commits us to feeling that it should be universal and that everyone should be able to share in the satisfaction we feel in experiencing a flower, a meadow, or a sunset.

Next week: Nature versus Art

Gold, Platinum and Diamond Games (ihobo)

Over on ihobo today, another sales-oriented piece exploring blockbuster videogame sales from the perspective of an imaginary certification system. Here's an extract:

What if there were a system for certifying game sales like the ones used in the record industry – Gold, Platinum and Diamond games?

Let's suppose there is such a system, and unlike record sales it is based on global aggregate sales, not just regional sales. Let's define the boundaries of these sales as follows:

  • Gold Games sell 5,000,000 units globally

  • Platinum Games sell 10,000,000 units globally

  • Diamond Games sell 20,000,000 units globally

Which titles have enjoyed these degrees of success, and can we begin to venture why?

You can read the entire piece over on the ihobo site.

...Continué Tout Droit

To give more time for discussion of last week's Virtual, Fictional and Real, there is no new Focus post this week. The serial continues on Thursday as usual.

Some live points of discussion:

  • The definition of "real" could be tightened to talk about that which is 'measurable independent of a measurer'. Does this keep out everything expressly defined as virtual?
  • The definition of "virtual" may need adjusting; what is it that is gestured at with the examples of money, nations  and persons, and how could this best be expressed?
  • Must things which we admit are not fiction (i.e. have no prescription to imagine, are not props in a game of make-believe etc.) be either virtual, real or supersensible, or might there be things which fall between these gaps?
  • If that which is "fictional" has effects upon us outside of the prescription to imagine - e.g. reading a book affects how we look at the world afterwords - is fiction also virtual? Always, or only sometimes?
  • To what extent does this previous point extend e.g. if I write a micro-story ("Once upon a time there was a squirrel. The end.")  does this have any virtual effect? If we say yes, does this mean the virtual definition is too loose?

Please use the comments of the original post to continue the discussions. Many thanks!

Kant on Aesthetics (1): Introduction

Kant When we have an aesthetic response to, say, a work of art, is that experience wholly subjective, or can there be an objective element in aesthetics? This question is the focus of the first part of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement, first published in 1790, in which he explores the aesthetical judgement in terms of his labyrinthine system of transcendental idealism.

Dealing with Kant’s approach to any given topic requires either that one learns his near-incomprehensible framework of terms, or that one translates those terms into more readily understandable language. Since my goal here is to elucidate Kant’s meaning, I have chosen the latter approach – in the full knowledge that by moving away from Kantian terminology I open myself up to radical disputes about my conclusions. Nonetheless, since my hope is to present Kant’s ideas for an audience who are not necessarily philosophers, the only viable choice is a simplification of Kant’s system.

Vital to Kant’s intellectual project in his critiques is the concept of synthetic a priori judgements, a phrase that enjoys the usual impenetrability associated with Kant’s work as a philosopher. The thrust of his ideas in this regard are easier to understand than the phrase itself is to explicate: how can we know anything? David Hume, in his classic 1739 polemic A Treatise of Human Nature, had delivered a scathing blow to various assumptions that had previously gone unchallenged, claiming that even basic principles such as causality were suspect and could not be derived from sense experience alone – that we experience one event regularly following another does not actually allow us to conclude that the earlier event caused the later event. Consider that on most TV channels we witness advertisements proceeding the programme we are about to watch – but we would be gravely in error to assume that advertisements caused TV programs. Confluence need not imply causality.

Kant was hugely inspired by Hume’s work, saying that it “woke him from his dogmatic slumber”, which is to say that Hume’s work was a slap in Kant’s philosophical face, and encouraged him to find a way to overcome the Scotsman’s sceptical challenges. Hume had rejected all metaphysics (i.e. untestable knowledge) as “sophistry”, and had been far from entirely convinced that even non-metaphysical knowledge could be trusted. This rejection of traditional metaphysics was tied up in part with Hume’s rejection of Christianity (although he was not an atheist so much as irreligious). Kant, on the other hand, was an ardent Christian and like Galileo before him, did not “feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” In pursuing philosophy, Kant seems to have felt he was doing God’s work, even (or indeed especially) when in so doing he overturned the dogma of the Church of his day, which he saw as a “counterfeit service to God”.

But overturning Hume’s conclusions was no easy matter. It could not be done in any manner that relied on empirical knowledge, because it was precisely this that Hume had brought into doubt. It required an attempt to find some solid foundation beyond the empirical. Kant rejected what is termed analytic reasoning since this could only deliver conclusions which were, in essence, already self-evident – the analytic proposition that a triangle has three sides, for instance, is entirely self-contained. Kant felt it was necessary to find a synthetic solution – one that reached beyond the neatness of analytic thinking – and this created a significant problem, for it is was far from clear that one can have synthetic knowledge without it being based on empirical observation. If I tell you that swans are white that is an example of synthetic knowledge, but I can only have acquired that knowledge from observing swans empirically. I cannot have synthetic a priori knowledge of swans. Is there anything outside of mathematics about which we can have such knowledge? This was the challenge Kant pursued in his first critique as he set off to try to uncover what he termed transcendental principles, by which he meant foundational conditions without which we could not form thoughts and opinions about anything.

The important foundation that the Critique of Judgement inherits from the first critique is simply this: how we understand things depends upon a cognitive faculty which Kant calls judgement (hence the title of the book), and the usual action of this faculty is in respect of specific concepts. Kant distinguishes between determinative and reflective judgement, and this can be understood (as Clive Cazeaux observes) as equivalent to the distinction between knowledge and art. Thus the determinative judgement interprets a particular intuition under a concept, determining that something is such-and-such a thing – that the round, red object we perceive is a tomato, for instance. All knowledge depends in some way upon this sort of ability to assign properties to objects. But the reflective judgement – which we use in appreciating art – does not use empirically determined concepts. Kant puts it as follows in his introduction to the Critique of Judgement:

…the subjective [element] in a representation… is the pleasure or pain which is bound up with it; …not only for the subject which apprehends this form, but for every judging being in general. The object is then called beautiful; and the faculty of judging by means of such a pleasure... is called Taste.

Kant’s “judgement of Taste”, therefore, does not work in respect of concepts (as does the determinative judgement i.e. judgements of knowledge) but depends instead upon sensations of pleasure or pain. And this is a strange thing to encounter, since:

…the judgement of taste also claims, as every other empirical judgement does, to be valid for everyone; and in spite of its inner contingency this is always possible. The strange and irregular thing is that it is not an empirical concept, but a feeling of pleasure... which by the judgement of taste is attributed to everyone...

The question to be explored, therefore, is how it can be possible for anyone to call something beautiful and trust that other people will accord with this conclusion. How can Kant’s “aesthetical Judgement” provide “a special faculty for judging of things according to a rule, but not according to concepts…”?

Next week: The Beautiful

Virtual, Fictional and Real

Circle-of-life How do we determine what is real? More importantly, how are we to understand things which are not real? By this I do not mean false or impossible things, such as the first Australian-born President of the United States of America or the value of a number divided by zero, but things which do not form a part of what is claimed as objective reality but which are nonetheless important aspects of our lives.

I want to distinguish in this regard between real, virtual and fictional in a manner which preserves aspects of what is conventionally recognised in these concepts but which is nonetheless specifically defined (and thus suited to further philosophical investigations using those terms). What follows is the system in brief and in draft – the whole point of posting it here being to furnish future discussions appropriately.

Real denotes what corresponds to the imminent world of existence (the imminent frame, in Charles Taylor’s memorable term). Thus only what can be measured and tested qualifies as real in the terms of this system. Gold is a real commodity, gravity is a real phenomenon, Chris Bateman is a real person.

Virtual denotes that which has the influence of real entities while lacking the usual status in the imminent frame. Thus anything which is as influential as the real but which is not part of the imminent frame as it is usually conceived qualifies as virtual. Money is a virtual commodity, inflation is a virtual phenomenon, a videogame avatar is a virtual person.

Fictional denotes that which resembles the imminent world of existence to some degree, yet is known to be imaginary. Following Kendall Walton, I shall say that anything which serves to prescribe imaginings is fictional – a film, a book, a play, a song, a painting are all props used in a game of make-believe, and the imaginings that occur in such a game are fictional. (A detailed account of Walton’s system follows later this year). Mithril is a fictional commodity, warp speed is a fictional phenomenon, Hamlet is a fictional person.

(Beyond these terms, it may be prudent to recognise an additional definition for supersensible, which – following Kant - corresponds to that which is transcendent of imminent reality but putatively real. Anything of this kind cannot be tested, and is therefore metaphysical in nature. Thus, the theist places God in the supersensible while the atheist places God in the virtual. God cannot be purely fictional, as this misrepresents all forms of bhakti/devotional worship as if their practitioners knew their gods were imaginary – this is clearly a mistake even if you believe you know this with certainty.)

In this system, virtual denotes unconsciously or subconsciously pretending, while fictional denotes consciously or near-consciously pretending. The latter corresponds to Walton’s make-believe, the former to his imaginary in the wider sense. In fact, there is a case to be made that even real involves imagination, and thus that all these ontological questions are distinctions in the contents of minds. Consider Einstein’s general relativity: we may accept that space and time are not separate conditions, but constitute a single entity, space-time, but in point of fact since we experience space and time as separate conditions (or rather, by virtue of the fact we are in time, we experience space, and by virtue of our memories we deduce time) we must imagine space-time. Even things which we believe are real must still be imagined! However, what we claim in such cases is that they are not pretended, only imagined.

Virtual and fictional entities, conversely, are pretended and imagined, and differ principally in whether we are tempted (or culturally conditioned) to call them real. Those claimed as real but depending wholly on imagination are what I am calling virtual. Those universally known to be otherwise than real I am calling fictional. Can something be fictional and also virtual? I suspect this is so, otherwise how can we explain court cases over property in synthetic worlds (such as MMOs). The people involved surely know that this property is not real – it is obviously fictional – yet they still fight a (real) legal battle over it. Exploring the fringe between fictional and virtual is one of the key goals of this present philosophical investigation.

Another area of particular interest is those things which are virtual but not fictional – such as money, nations and our sense of self. Recall that the crucial distinction between the two terms is that something is fictional when the person dealing with it recognises it is not real, while something is virtual when it affects you as if it were real. What I am expressly claiming is some of the things we consider “real” – such as money, nations and selves – have no claim to real as it is defined above; they are not part of the imminent frame, except via a chain of inferences or implications. Such things are better understood as virtual.

There are big questions here, many of which will end up being addressed in comments if at all. For now, I shall just briefly address the question of how we know that something is real. If this is a question about how we know something, it is an epistemological issue and thus in the sidelines in respect of what I am gesturing at here. What we are interested in is the ontological issue of distinguishing between what is real and what is otherwise than real – and specifically, what sort of states we shall attribute to things which we can agree are not real without suggesting that not being real is a hindrance to something being meaningful or useful to us. The hope is to clarify “real”, not to muddy it, but some turbid opacity may be unavoidable.

Why do I claim money is virtual? This is a good example of what I mean by virtual. Money is not a real commodity like gold or sand or water – although bank notes and coins are real objects, made of real commodities like paper, ink and metal alloys. They are objects intended to hold a value, a value which we treat as if it were real. We go to work in order to earn money to exchange for goods and services. But the money we earn and spend is not real – it is not part of the imminent frame – and this is especially true of our bank accounts! Unavoidably, if there were no people to believe in the value of the money, coins and bank notes would no longer hold value. The value of money is virtual – it influences us as if it were real, but it is not part of the imminent frame (at least, not directly).

You might want to claim that money is fictional – we know a bank note doesn’t have value – but this is surely the same category error as claiming that God is purely fictional, and for the same reason – the users of a currency by definition do not dismiss it as purely imaginary, even if they recognise the role of imagination in supporting its value. In fact, the value of money is genuine precisely because people recognise and uphold its value, but this value is not real (in the terms I am using) because it is not part of the imminent frame. (No instrument will measure the value of a bank note, while conversely, mass and distance are real values – they can be measured).

Similarly, nations are virtual and not real – Benedict Anderson calls them “imagined communities”, since there is no way every member of a nation can actually be in a personal relationship with every other member of a nation, at least in the case of the larger countries. We treat a nation as if it were real, just as we treat a banknote as if its value were real. Again, we would not claim France or Germany are fictional, although there are of course fictional nations, such as Ruritania, Gondor or Melniboné. Even someone who recognises that their notion of countries is imagined must still attest to the influence those nations may have on them – I may not believe in the United States of America as a real entity, but this does not prevent its representatives from detaining me, say.

My third example of the virtual is more controversial – our notion of self is virtual. Why is personal identity not real? Derek Parfit provides excellent reasons for doubting that there is an objective way of securing a notion of personal identity, and ends up with a philosophy which allows persons but is sceptical of personal identity. To my mind, his philosophy is based so clearly on a variant of Buddhist metaphysics that even though he wishes it to be considered “non-religious ethics” it nonetheless seems to me to be more like “Robot Buddhism!” (As with Walton, a detailed account of Partfit’s system follows later this year). A short cut to his conclusion is as follows: if I scan and disintegrate you with a Star Trek-style transporter and then use the data pattern to make two absolutely perfect copies, which one is you? Either? Neither? Both? If this question is indeterminate, our notion of personal identity cannot be real, and since it is not fictional it must be virtual.

Yet I said that Chris Bateman is a real person – if personal identity will not hold as real, am I truly a real person? Should I not be a virtual person instead? This is in fact my conclusion, so perhaps it would be fairer to say that I inhabit a real human – there is a human body I can measure wherever I happen to be. Despite the fact that the virtual person is dependent upon and coexistent with that real human, Chris Bateman is not real – there is no instrument which can measure my name or identity – and this is because language, which furnishes us with nouns, is as virtual as nations, money and persons. As Wittgenstein illuminated, it is an institution that occurs between people, and although it is grounded on the imminent this is not enough for us to consider it real. It is only functionally real, and that is the essence of what I am terming the virtual.

Do you have ideas concerning further virtual things? Any thoughts about the boundaries between the real, the virtual and the fictional? Please share your views in the comments.

The opening image is Circle of Life by Vitor, which I found here on his blog, The Fractal Forest. It is used with permission, and is copyright (c) Vitor Bosshard 2009.

Prolegomenon to Forthcoming Philosophical Musings

The post that follows, “Virtual, Fictional and Real”, is intended to serve as an introduction to the main philosophical topics I expect to be discussing over the year ahead. As such, I hope that we can get some discussion out of this post, which in turn will feed into the philosophical investigations that lie ahead. It also foreshadows the serials to come this year, namely Kendall Walton’s “Mimesis as Make-Believe” and Derek Parfit’s “Reasons and Persons”.

Beginning this Thursday, a new serial on Kant’s “Critique of Judgement” (as suspected, this didn’t fit neatly into two posts), which I expect to run for about two months. It will, in true Kantian style, be subdivided into two “Divisions”: Kant on Aesthetics and Kant on Intelligent Design.

Have fun!