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Wolfgang Welsch



1. Hyperbolic expectations and one-sided assessments in praise of electronic media

Much fuss is being made these days (and has been made for years) about the electronic virtual. Prophets say that we have entered the new millennium ahead of time and that it will be electronic heaven. To quote Pierre Lévy, one of the most prominenet harbingers of such a perspective: "Virtual worlds will be instruments of self-knowledge and self-definition for humanity [...] They are home to the `angelic bodies' (or virtual images) of the members of collective intellects."(1) - Many questions come to mind. To raise just one: Who will have such an `angelic body'? Will, for example, people in the poor regions of this world be part of these collective intellects, once they no longer lack electronic equipment? Will the Pentecostal miracle - already dreamt of by Marshall McLuhan(2) - include everybody? I'm afraid "the light of virtual worlds" which Pierre Lévy believes will "illuminate and enrich human intelligence"(3) will be a partial light only - partial in shining for only a minority of humankind, and partial in being light in one aspect alone and close to darkness in another.

Other diagnoses oppose the angelic prospect. They present instead an apocalyptic assessment of our electronic future. To quote Jean Baudrillard: "Virtuality aims only for prostitution, for the extinction of the real by its double."(4)

I am not going to comment on this understanding of prostitution. Rather I will limit myself to stressing that angelic and apocalyptic assessments aren't that different from each other. They certainly sound different, but the underlying diagnosis is quite similar: we are said to be facing a total change, everything will be electronically transformed, nothing will remain as it was.(5) This totalizing feature can then be spelt out apocalyptically when seen from the viewpoint of good old reality, and angelically when regarded from that of a glorious future.

A third group of people tries to take up a sort of middle position between the extremes by saying that today reality and virtuality are simply becoming equivalent so that in each case the term `virtuality' can be replaced by the term `reality' and vice versa - and that doing so is the hallmark of progressive thinking. But this alleged middle position, I'm afraid, is just as one-sided as are the angelic and the apocalyptic ones. The diagnosis given is - in all three cases - uniformist: it is assumed that virtuality is the one and only determinant of our future. What these assessments lack is differentiation and, to begin with, a closer look at the phenomena as well as the concepts used (or, in my view, misused) when advocating totalizing views of this kind.

My intention is not to deny at all the relevance of the processes labelled as `virtualization'. I love and enjoy many of them. I merely object to the totalizing cultural, philosophical or sociological assessments made.

2. Intent of the essay

What I will try to do is first to provide a historical and critical survey of the usage and meaning of the term `virtual'. This may help us to distinguish between misleading traditional ballast and appropriate options in the contemporary usage of the term. Secondly, I will address tendencies complementary to current virtualization, thematizing in particular the contemporary revalidation of non-media forms of experience. Thirdly, I will address an epistemological question: to what extent has so-called `reality' always implied virtual constituents? My hunch is that reality has always been virtual anyway.


A. Current usage of the term `virtual'

Let me start out by analyzing the current usage of the term `virtual'.(6)

In everyday usage (apart from specifically technological usages) `virtual' is largely equivalent to `practically', `as good as', `to all intents'. This is the standard meaning in English - and also in French where `virtuellement' has adopted from English the meaning `presque', `à peu près'. The same holds for today's usage of the term in many other languages.

In computer jargon a specific meaning of `virtual' was first introduced with reference to simulations of a process or device. The paradigm case was `virtual memory', a hard disk simulating the behavior of RAM; `virtual' here designates something not actually real but functionally as good as real.

So one sees: there is an obvious congruence between the everyday and the technical usage of the term. In both cases `virtual' is equivalent to `as good as'; the virtual approximates to the real.(7) This feature is then radicalized in the aforementioned cultural discourse about electronic media when the virtual is said to be the fuller version of the real and the traditional relationship being turned upside down: the virtual is claimed to represent the primary future meaning of the real, outdoing the traditional meaning of the term. In earlier times, `potentiality' had been the concept corresponding to `reality', that which gave the latter its shape and distinction. Today, `virtuality' is the new paradigm term, which, however, tends to do away with `reality' altogether.

B. Historical usages

In order to understand the novelty of this situation better I'd like to look back in history and offer a survey of the historical rise of the term `virtual'. This, I hope, will help us discover some of the term's historical implications, as well as burdens, and also to find out which current usages make good sense and which are untenable.

1. Aristotle's ontological account: actual being as actualization of potentialities

`Virtuality' was originally a term belonging to ontology; it referred to the structure of being. From Aristotle (384-322 BC) onwards `virtual' was equivalent to `potential'. According to Aristotle every entity can be described in terms of actuality (enérgeia) and potentiality (dynamis).(8) Already with respect to their existence, a tree, a statue, a woman or a man can be understood as actualizations of potentialities. The same applies to the tree's being burnt, the statue's transfer from a temple to a museum, the woman's becoming a dancer and the man's getting old.

In this ontological framework reality corresponds to actuality. And actuality on the one hand is superior to potentiality, but on the other hand is also dependent on potentiality. You cannot actualize what wasn't a potentiality beforehand. So in one sense, there is a one-to-one relationship between actuality and potentiality: actuality cannot contain more than potentiality did - the difference is just a modal one. In another sense, however, the realm of potentiality is broader than that of actuality can ever be. There always remains a wealth of potentialities awaiting realization; potentiality is the inexhaustible ocean of all actual being.

So, traditionally, actuality and potentiality do not belong to different orders, but to the one order of being. There is no separate realm of potentiality - a potentiality of this kind would be merely empty. Potentiality - or, as it was to be called soon after, virtuality - is not a counter-concept to reality, but an inner element of reality, preceding every actual state of the real.

2. Middle Ages: `virtual' designating the potential as striving for actualization

While Aristotle spoke of `dynamis', which was literally translated as `potentiality', Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), when renewing Aristotelian ontology in the high middle ages, introduced the term `virtual' as a synonym for `potential'.(9) From then on it became a familiar substitute for `potential' in philosophical language. However, there was also a slight difference between the old and the new term. `Virtual' accentuated the potential's driving force to become actual, it was equivalent to `emanating from the force of a thing', designating an active, not just a passive potentiality.(10)

3. Michelangelo: fully fledged virtuality

Now I want to step outside philosophy for a moment and consider an application of the Aristotelian-Thomist concept of the virtual to the arts and in particular to sculpture. Let's move on from Athens and Paris to Carrara in order to join Michelangelo (1475-1564) selecting some marble blocks. How does he view them and what is his understanding of the sculptor's activity like?

Michelangelo repeatedly emphasized that he did not actually mean to create his sculptures but only to free the figures already virtually inherent in the marble.(11) According to him, the sculptor's work consists only in taking off the surrounding husk and thus allowing the dormant figure actually to appear, to be revealed.(12) The sculptor does not produce the shape of his statue, he only brings the virtual figure to the fore.

This, I think, is a telling example of the virtual's progression towards the real. In Michelangelo's view (which is typical for the Renaissance) the virtual is completely defined and already semi-actual, it is not mere, but a fully fledged potentiality - only so far a hidden one.

4. Leibniz: a new, epistemological account of `virtuality'

The next step was made by Leibniz (1646-1716). He claims that our prime ideas (like unity, causality, opposition, and the like) are innate in our intellect from the beginning. This he explains by comparing the intellect to a block of marble whose veins already mark out a specific shape, say that of Hercules.(13) As the sculptor then only has to expose these veins and to polish them into clarity, so the innate ideas of the intellect are in need only of being made explicit - as opposed to being received or acquired. Leibniz here obviously applies Michelangelo's model to the intellect. "Ideas and truths", he says, "are innate in us - as inclinations, dispositions, habits, or natural virtualities (virtualités naturelles)".(14)

What's new here is not so much the dynamic view of the virtual - with cognition being understood as actualization of an inner virtual content of the intellect rather than as obtaining information from the outside,(15) for this dynamic tendency has been familiar to us ever since Thomas and Michelangelo. The specific step made by Leibniz consists rather in that the term `virtual' no longer refers primarily to ontology but to epistemology.(16),(17)

Both elements - the active understanding of the virtual and the shift to epistemology(18) - are important factors for the revaluation of the virtual in modern thinking, which in general turns from a static to a dynamic and from an ontological to an epistemological perspective.(19)

5. `Virtual' pointing to a plurality of orders

Thus far, despite all developments, one feature remained unchanged: the virtual and the actual belong to the same order (be it ontological or epistemological), not to different orders.(20) Let me now turn to exceptions to this pattern: sometimes the term `virtual' points to a plurality and difference of orders.

a. Kant: the merely virtual presence of the non-corporal in the corporal world

Kant provides a first example. Whenever he used the term `virtual', he did so with reference to the question of how an object of one order can appear in a different order. His paradigm case was the presence of the soul - which by definition is non-corporal - in the corporal world. Kant's answer was: the soul has a virtual not an actual (or local) presence in the corporal world: "its presence in the world is not spatial, but virtual".(21) Here the virtual is obviously not understood as an antecedent version of the real (as in the tradition from Aristotle onwards) but as a counterpart to it.

b. Bergson: a more complex view of the relationship between the virtual and the real - criticism of the traditional pattern

It was Bergson who established a new and more complex understanding of the virtual - keeping it autonomous as well as connecting it with the real.

According to Bergson, firstly, the virtual constitutes a domain of its own with its own dignity. The realm of our virtual images and imaginations cannot be reduced to our relations with the real. But, secondly, the virtual is also important for our activities within reality. Our perceptions, for example, have virtual images at their origin which then, via a series of intermediary steps, achieve actualization by giving rise to concrete sensomotoric actions. Thirdly, however, these actualizations do not bring about a simple copy of the virtual image, rather the actualization of the virtual always differs from its original form. The actualization of recollection, for example, as it occurs in sensation and perception, does not consist of an identical reproduction of the virtual image, rather the latter is transformed into a specific perceptive or sensational image, just as it could have been transformed into a slightly different one.

Based on this complex view of the relationship between the virtual and the real, Bergson develops harsh criticism of the way in which traditional ontology and epistemology conceived of this relationship when understanding the potential merely as the antecedent double of the actual without possessing any property of its own.(22) Bergson sets an end to the one-to-one relationship between the potential and the actual and highlights the autonomy of the virtual.

So according to Bergson the virtual and the real constitute different orders which are nevertheless connected with each other: our every action requires contributions from the virtual side (images, recollections, etc.); but neither does the virtual's actualization simply replicate the virtual, nor can the virtual be exhausted by its actualizations.(23) In stating that the virtual is not simply replaced by its actualizations, Bergson's conception differs from the traditional model; and in emphasizing that the virtual cannot absorb the real, Bergson's conception also differs from current hyper-claims about virtualization.

6. Intermediate summary

To provide an intermediate summary: For a long time there was only one type of usage: the virtual was understood as the potential and thus belonged to the same order as the actual. This feature goes back to Aristotle's ontology and stretches, via the Middle Ages, through to Leibniz's extension of the pattern to epistemology. But the limits of this feature are obvious. Understood as the potential, the virtual has no dignity of its own; its only destiny is to become actualized and thus to vanish as virtual. This is an imperative inherent in traditional ontology and epistemology: being and cognition are to be perfectly realized, potentiality is to be transferred as completely as possible into actuality.(24)

Only later did a different understanding arise which advocates the virtual's having a status of its own, one distinct from the order of the real. Prepared by Kant, this understanding was strongly developed by Bergson.(25) But in this Bergson did not turn from simple monism to simple dualism. He also addressed interconnections between the virtual and the real. The real is indeed impregnated by the virtual, yet the virtual and the real also remain distinct.


From this historical survey we may draw the following advice: the relationship between the virtual and the real is a complex one and is to be reduced neither to a traditional, realistic, nor to a postmodern, virtual monism. Differentiation - taking into account intertwinement as well as distinction - ought to prevail.

C. `Virtual' in the discourse about electronic communication

Does the current usage of the term `virtual' with respect to electronic communication live up to this demand?

1. Terminological clarifications

Let me first observe that there are three different usages: a technical, an Internet-related, and an environmental one.

The technical usage - with `virtual' designating simulations of a process or device in computing - was already mentioned above with particular reference to virtual memory. A second usage is related to the Internet with `virtual' referring to the electronic generation of things occurring there - think, for example, of virtual communities.(26) A third usage refers to `virtual reality' (VR) in the narrow sense where, equipped with gloves and goggles, you experience computer-generated environments and events in a reality-like manner.(27)

2. How does the `virtual' affect our understanding of the `real'?

These three versions have a different relationship to, and impact on our understanding of the real.

With respect to the technical usage we will welcome the idea that there is not much difference between the virtual and the real - virtual memory functions in just the same way as real memory would (at most it is a bit slower).(28) The Internet-related usage may make people inclined to consider the virtual as just one more version of the real - and a very useful one at that. It is only the third version, the talk of virtual reality in the narrow sense, which engenders controversial claims, because with reference to this usage it is often suggested that the virtual might completely take over in the future, that for everything real in the old sense it might substitute a better virtual version - with traditional reality simply becoming more and more shallow and shabby.

3. Historical, terminological and logical criticism of the wholesale virtualization thesis

But the latter claim obviously represents a strange combination of advanced technology and old thinking. It maintains that reality has to be of one single order, as was assumed in the metaphysical age, only that the traditional hierarchy is now turned upside down - with the virtual being on top and the real being degraded to the lower level. The historical survey provided above, however, suggests that precisely such thinking in terms of a single feature is far too traditional to grasp the more complex modern conditions of reality. Already Bergson's conception - developed almost a hundred years ago - implied a strong warning against unilinear thinking in matters of virtuality and reality and advised us to turn to a more complex view. And modern thinking in general recommends us to consider not just one but several types of reality, to face a plurality of different versions of `reality' (such as everyday, realistic, artificial, virtual realities etc.). - So, firstly, the wholesale virtualization thesis is to be criticized in the light of historical and modern differentiation.(29)

Secondly, this thesis is lacking in terminological distinction because it fails to distinguish the three different meanings of `virtual' within the current electronic discourse itself listed above. It simply takes the third one, that relating to VR-environments, as an indistinct catch-all notion and extends it over the whole field of electronic communication. In this respect, the uniformization thesis is an effect of non-distinction at the terminological level. Something similar, incidentally, is often to be observed with uniformization diagnoses of various kinds: the uniformity proclaimed results in the first place from one's own strategy of levelling conceptual differentiation. It is by using `virtual' as an indistinct catch-all term that the gloriously simplistic prophecies of the current or future total virtualization come about.

Thirdly, logical criticism is called for. The electronic virtual undoubtedly affects our experience and understanding of reality today. But such influence is not automatically to be equated with absorption or throughgoing determination. The fact that probably everything is influenced and altered by experience of the electronic virtual does not mean that everything straightforwardly becomes virtual. What we are in fact witnessing amidst the increase in the electronic virtual is not virtual uniformization, but rather a reconfiguration of our concept of the `real', a reshuffling of the cards and versions of `reality' is taking place.(30)

So altogether, instead of heralding a monism or overall claim, which is in fact old-fashioned and merely seems novel - because it is `virtual' - we would be better off investigating with scrutiny the reshaping of the several versions of `reality' which is currently to be observed. - In order to substantiate this perspective, I will now turn to the second section of my essay and discuss a contrast which clearly cannot be reduced to a single pattern but requires acknowledgement of different kinds of experience and reality.


The present day, it seems to me, is characterized by a double figure: predominantly, of course, by the fascination with electronic worlds, but, on the other hand, and complementarily, also through a renewed turn to non-electronic forms of experience. This double structure has received too little attention in the discussions of recent years. - I would like to bring it to the fore.(31)

1. Some characteristics of the fascination with electronic worlds

Let me start out by listing some functional, aesthetic, and ontological reasons for our fascination with electronic worlds.

a. Functional

Internet communication is functionally distinguished by marvellous speed, extent and ease. As a competent user you have quick access to all kinds of information you are personally looking for, and surfing the web can be much more adventurous and pleasurable than finding information in traditional ways by checking books or catalogues. E-mail communication is not only amazingly fast but also highly considerate towards your partners - they are spared the terror of the phone which demands interrupting whatever one is doing and being available on the spot. Moreover, virtual communities offer contact with just the people you want to communicate with - whereas such people may be hard to find or hardly exist in your everyday environment.

Virtual reality enables us to travel at ease through real world environments (say the Loire castles) or through virtual environments (say imaginary sites in outer space). In doing this, we are freed from the nasty bodily laboriousness connected with such travels in real life. A great deal of the electronic world's appeal results from this. Platonists - who always wanted to free man from his body - will certainly love virtual worlds. Whoever claims that VR (virtual reality) can supplant and replace RL (real life), is probably a Platonist - a novel, high-tech Platonist.(32)

b. Aesthetic

Aesthetically, lightness and mutability prevail in electronic worlds. Bodies in the synthetic picture space have lost their inertia, they float and carry out motions and mutations at will. Electronic picture space has something of the weightlessness of a spaceship. If there is a "lightness of being" anywhere, then it's in the electronic realm. Not to forget that in this space everything seems possible and feasible.

c. Ontological

Furthermore, with electronic worlds we enter an ontology very different from the accustomed one. First of all, the distinction between appearance and essence (which is so crucial for the everyday world) does not apply here at all. Appearances don't lack anything, they are identical with their `essence'. Hence traditional ontology - with its deep reflections on appearance and essence - does not apply here either. Electronically, we indeed move in a different type of world. Its main axis is not vertical but horizontal and it is characterized by an unforeseeable multitude of lateral connections, extensions and hybridizations.

2. Contrasting experiences

But does all this justify the assessment that in the future good old reality will be straightforwardly replaced by virtuality?

Obviously not. Just think of Marshall McLuhan's thesis that the medium is the message. If this is true, then electronic media must, for systematic reasons, lack the forms of experience peculiar to other media. They may well be able to take hold of all objects, but - just as every other medium too - only in their own, medium-specific way. When they present objects also known through other - say everyday - modes of experience, they cannot identically reproduce those other modes of experience, they only can offer their own mode of presentation and experience of these objects instead. In other words, electronic media too are specific; they can present many kinds of familiar or new objects, but they cannot replicate the non-media forms of experiencing these objects.

This, I think, is one of the reasons why today not only the wonderful possibilities of electronic media are pursued, but, in contrast to them, also some of the forms of experience which they constitutively lack and which are specific to other forms of experience. The highly developed electronic world doesn't simply overcome or absorb traditional experience (as many media enthusiasts would have us believe),(33) rather, in a complementary move, a revalidation of ordinary experience is to be observed in which particular emphasis is put on those traits neither imitable nor replaceable by media-experience.

3. Counter-options

Thus we are today learning once again to esteem inertia in contrast to hyperspeed, resistibility and unchangeability as opposed to universal moveability and changeability, persistence in contrast to free play, constancy and reliability as opposed to ongoing mutability. Touch-of-a-key instantaneity revalues in contrast slow, autonomous development; arbitrary repeatability awakens the desire for uniqueness; electronic omnipresence leads to the yearning for another presence: for the unrepeatable presence of hic et nunc, for the singular event.

The counter-options can be assembled under headings such as `matter', `singularity', `uniqueness'. What claims its own space and time, what is not exchangeable, but rather unrepeatable is becoming important to us again.

Similarly the body - our lively body which, according to Merleau-Ponty, is the element of all our being and activity - is becoming a big issue again. Telematic and ordinary bodily experience stand in contrast. Distances are today vanishing telematically, but this doesn't mean that our bodies are shrinking too. Processors are becoming ever faster, but not our sensors and our motor and psychic abilities (at least not to a comparable extent). The processing capacity of computers is growing ever more gigantic, but not our lifetimes, our reaction times, our comprehension times. To be sure, the body is not simply invariant. But the bodily changes taking place today under the influence of electronic media are at best slow speed changes compared to the hyperspeed change in technology.

Hence, in contrast to today's virtualization of the world, a cultural turn to the body is to be observed too. We are accepting and appreciating anew the sovereignty and the proper constitution of our bodies, which imply wonderful capacities as well as deficiencies, vulnerability and aging. Nadolny's recognition of slowness and Handke's praise of weariness are indications of this turn.(34),(35)

4. Complementarity

But let me, in order not to be misunderstood, clarify that I understand the counter-tendencies named not as a straightforward counter-program to the artificial paradises of electronic worlds, but rather as an initiative complementary to them. The counter-options do not deny the fascination of electronic worlds; nor is it simply a matter of returning to sensuous experience, such as this might have been in pre-electronic times. The revalidations are also tinted by the experience of electronic media; the values of matter, uniqueness, and the body are being rediscovered in contrast to virtual experience and as a counter-weight to the increasing derealization of ordinary reality which today is occuring in the duct of medias' impact on reality.

So there is polarity but not blunt opposition or exclusion between the two realms of experience described.(36) There is also interchange and transition between them. Sometimes ordinary experience is just the thing lovers of virtuality are after too. My favorite example are the electronics enthusiasts of Silicon Valley who in the evening drive to the coast to watch those truly incomparable Californian sunsets before returning to their home computers and diving into the artificial paradises of the Internet.(37) They complement their virtual experience with outstanding non-virtual experience and quite naturally switch between the two types, enjoying their complementarity.

5. Unsubstitutability

Once again: electronic and non-electronic modes of experience are mutually unsubstitutable. One side of this - that ordinary experience cannot simply replace electronic experience - is familiar to us; the fascination of electronic worlds is obviously nourished by this fact. That, however, electronic experience cannot replace ordinary experience either, and does not simply overcome it, seems in need of emphasis and clarification - at least with respect to some propositions raised within the electronic enthusiasts' club.

But let me ask: isn't it evident that there is a blatant difference in walking through a building - say St Peter's cathedral - really or virtually? Or in seeing a statue of Buddah in front of you on the monitor, or approaching it in real life and experiencing such a 25-metre-high colossus with your entire body? Or in experiencing a sunset sitting on a clifftop in Big Sur or watching a video of it at home?

But unsubstitutability - I insist - exists in both directions. This is why for some people `virtual reality' may very well be altogether more real and relevant than everyday reality. It offers these people more interesting communications, fulfils their interests better, enables them to find, think, and act more precisely than in the banal hotchpotch everyday world. A cosmopolitically oriented person will, say, be able to pursue her wishes for transcultural communication far more easily, quickly, directly and reliably through media than in the everyday world - even if she should spend every day sitting in a jet. To be sure such an Internetizen also has and needs an everyday life - for the purposes of nutrition for instance. But it will not be very exciting for her: "Real Life is just one more window [...] and it's not usually my best one".(38)

6. Plurality of modes of experience - contemporary cultural nomadism

So in general, it seems to me, the current transformation of our experience is of a tandem nature. On the one side, and predominantly, there is an obvious turn to virtual experience. But, on the other side, this is accompanied and complemented by a revalidation of ordinary experience.(39) The unilinear perspective of media enthusiasts, according to which only electronic forms of experience are advanced today, with all others being merely antiquated and rightly condemned to extinction, is neither factually true nor desirable. It overlooks the fact that our experience is becoming twofold, pursuing both media-fascination and non-media experience.

And there is nothing wrong with this duality. By taking several tracks our life becomes more contemporary and more invigorating. I think generally that people today are becoming something which traditional spirits never thought highly of and always rejected: we are becoming nomads - and I have in mind here less a geographical than a mental, psychic, so to speak everyday nomadism. We are starting to move to and fro between different forms of experience as if it were natural to do so. A person today should, I think, use and enjoy electronic worlds, yet not only these, but also other kinds of experience - and should be able to wander between these different types.


1. Recognizing the constructivist character of every kind of reality - an enlightening epistemological effect of the electronic virtual

Experiencing and discussing virtual electronic worlds has, in my view, a very useful and even enlightening impact on our understanding of reality. Thanks to the influence of the electronic virtual we are becoming increasingly aware of the constructivist character of all types of reality.(40)

Once we experience that the same objects are accessible through different modes of experience - say a standard everyday and an electronic-virtual one - then we become aware of the specifities as well as the limits of each of these modes. And if some things turn out to be accessible only through one mode or another - as one's tiredness in the morning can be recognized only through direct, personal experience, the existence of quarks, however, only through the theory and experiments of physics, and the angelic potential of the human mind only through electronic technology - then one may start comprehending that no kind of reality is ever an immediate given, but is bound to a specific framework of access, conceptual means, and pragmatic features. Reality of whatever kind arises only within a related set of conditions.

2. Nietzsche's message is becoming evident

The epistemological impact of media experience on our understanding of reality can perhaps best be rendered by saying that the electronic virtual finally makes Nietzsche's message evident to us.(41)

In his essay On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense from 1873 Nietzsche showed, firstly, that reality altogether is made: facts are fact-itious. Secondly, he pointed out that this production of reality occurs through fictional means: through forms of intuition, basic images, guiding metaphors, phantasms, and so on. Thirdly, he breached the threshold of a single and common world: if reality is the result of production, then the emergence of varying worlds is to be reckoned with.

So, according to Nietzsche, we bring forth reality with fictional means and by way of metaphorical activity. `Reality' is originally the offspring of fiction, and socially established reality is the result of sharing such fictions. Such is Nietzsche's thesis of the birth of reality from fiction.

To quote Nietzsche himself: "What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymics, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after a long period of usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors, that are worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, like coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered to be metal and no longer coins."(42)

Two statements are implied here: that at first reality is a product of invention; and that our later forgetting of this invented character leads to our ordinary understanding of reality. Man "forgets that the original perceptual metaphors are metaphors and takes them to be the things themselves".(43) This is Nietzsche's thesis about the origin of our concept of reality. Whereas reality is born from fiction, our concept of reality is born from oblivion.

3. From virtual, through fictional, to real

(a Bergsonean account of Nietzsche's insight)

Nietzsche puts metaphors at the beginning. But perhaps his insight could be rendered even more appropriately by using the term `virtual' - in a sort of Bergsonean design of the term. Nietzsche's conception would then read as follows: at first our images are virtual; they are mere imagination. But when used as fictions and put to work in the constitution of reality they become real. Afterwards they will for some time still be recognizable as fictions. But in the long run - when the type of reality they shaped proves successful and is shared by a community - they will, through a process of sedimentation, come to be forgotten as images and fictions and be taken as utterly real. If anyone then called them fictions they would be considered mad. It will require specific attention - for example through historical study - to rediscover their fictional character. - From virtuality, through fictionality, to reality: this is the sequence of the constitution of what we call `real'.

4. Examples of the fictional constitution of the real

Historical study can teach us the extent to which perceptions and assessments of reality which today appear simply natural and self-evident in fact originated through new fictions, many of them brought forward by art or literature. Take the pioneering role of romantic art and literature for the perception of mountains as an example: today we perceive of mountains as being beautiful - which is why they are being trampled over by masses of tourists. But they used to be perceived of as being terrible. Only in the late 18th century was a new aesthetic quality discovered in mountains: that of the sublime; painting of the early 19th century then presented the mountain world as beautiful. Thus romantic art and literature had a key role for the perception of mountains which to us today seems completely natural. Fiction became reality.(44)

Equally, our amorous behavior and rhetoric is shaped by generations of artistic and literary examples. George Steiner has pointed out that in our acts and expressions of love we adhere to a rhetoric established by Petrarch's phrase book.(45) To be sure, today's examples may come from elsewhere: from certain sectors of the video industry. But even then the thesis holds that our experience is never unschematized or immediate, that it always occurs in the duct of models.

Some theorists, however, want to make us consider things the other way round. They say that fiction in general and media experience in particular strictly presuppose everyday experience, that they are founded in everyday experience. Well, I admit, you wouldn't recognize a sunset as such on TV if you hadn't experienced sunsets before `in real life'. However, this argument - which aims at marginalizing media experience and at declaring it in principle to be parasitic with respect to everyday experience - doesn't hold water in all cases. Would anyone seriously claim that we are only able to recognize an explosion in a film after and because we had at some time experienced one in real life? Most of us will have seen far more explosions in the media than in ordinary reality and will even draw our primary experience of the phenomenon from the media.

Even in relation to natural phenomena I would like to oppose the claim that we must first know these from reality and are only for this reason able to recognize them when represented in the media. It may often be this way round, but it doesn't have to be. Think of rain. At the end of 1994 in South California it rained for the first time in five years. This means that five year old children hadn't known rain before. Yet rain wasn't unknown to them. They had often seen rainy scenes in films or videos - rainy scenes of quite variant kinds: the driving rain of the Rocky Mountains, from which one seeks protection, or the mild Californian rain, which is a boon. Hence this rain, when it then actually fell, was immediately recognizable for these children as rain, thanks to their media acquaintance with the phenomenon. And even their reaction to this rain probably followed the models of behavior (seeking shelter, enjoyment, etc.) which they had earlier witnessed on TV.

What is true for perception also applies to representation. Just as a bundle of historical and cultural conditions (previous lifeworld experience, sensory patterns, conceptual assessments, iconic models, emotional expectations) forms our perceptions, so too do these conditions play a role in our representations of what we perceive - we neither perceive nor represent things as they `naturally' are, but as they are culturally constituted and formed. Let me refer to sunsets one more time. (Perhaps I mention this example so readily because sunsets are - as the German poet Durs Gruenbein put it - "the last ritual of Western culture".) Teachers today complain about pupils painting sunsets not according to their everyday experience, but by making use of representational patterns known through the media or advertisements. These teachers' disappointment is understandable, but untenable. It is based on the belief in an originary, direct experience of nature, one not schematized by cultural standards. But this belief is mistaken on principle. In the rendering of sunsets one previously used Claude Lorrain's representations as a model (he was the first in occidental painting to make the peculiar atmosphere of sunsets his subject); today one reaches to other, more easily available patterns. That is all.(46)

5. Reality's complex architecture

a. Different layers - different perspectives

One further point is in need of clarification. Does emphasizing the constructivist character of reality mean that whatever we consider real is a construction (a human creation) in all aspects? Yes and no. It is necessary to distinguish different levels. What for one perspective appears real can be revealed by another, a more elementary one, to be a construction. Nevertheless it is important for the first perspective that its objects or points of reference in fact appear as real. To call them a construction would not make sense at this perspective's level - it does, however, from the more elementary perspective. Hence the double answer given above.

What appears real at one level does so rightly, because it is not constructed on this level. Here it is rather given. If it nevertheless is a construction in some sense, this is due to its constitution by one or more deeper levels. And this antecedent constructedness of the matter is also the reason why it appears real at the surface level.

The relationship between reality and construction altogether is a complex one. At first they seem to be contradictory. But in fact `reality' is connected with `construction' in a twofold manner: it arises on a socle of constructions (and insofar as it is also distinguishable from this socle it appears as real); but at the same time its reality-character is due to its being based on previous constructions, because these guarantee the reliability of what appears real as well as the fact that at the surface level indeed no further construction is needed. - Following this structure, in fact ultimately everything can be revealed to be a construction or to rest on constructions.

A crucial demand in this, however, is to distinguish the various levels. What at one level appears real is indeed real at this level, and can only be revealed to be a construction from a deeper level. Therefore it would be wrong to turn to a simple overall assessment of construction. Constructivism without distinction of levels falls short of truth. Any advocacy of a total shift from realism to constructivism would be as one-sided as the suggestion of a total shift to virtualism which I criticized above. It would fail to account for the complex architecture of reality.

Furthermore, there is not only the one relationship between reality and construction which I have mentioned so far, but also another one where construction is not the basis of, but follows reality. The first feature - the standard architecture of different levels or layers - reads: what appears real is based on a variety of sediments of construction, some of them quite old and habitual and providing safe ground for the givenness of the real. But then, once these constructivist storeys of reality are guaranteed, further constructivist operations are possible: the production of new arrangements, interpretations or creations of things (say through art, technology, science etc.), each of them clearly exhibiting a constructed character. So construction, on the one hand, precedes and, on the other hand, follows reality. - We had better expect a complex instead of a simplistic architecture of things.

b. Is reality constructed altogether?

A constructivist view of this kind meets with a lot of resistance. It seems highly implausible that not only obvious surface constructions but even the deep layers of reality are constructions. Constructivism seems to establish an overall machinery of human world-construction, denying any contribution from reality's side by translating whatever appears to be such into constructivist terms. This contradicts our everyday impression that there is a reality which is not simply dependent on us but is hard and compelling and urges us to cope with it. I think, however, that my conception is able to provide - as is necessary - a sufficient account of this impression.

Let me try to explain this in more detail and in particular to demonstrate the constructivist character of the deep layers which according to the common view are unaffected by construction and, because of this, are considered capable of guaranteeing reality - whereas in my view it is the other way round: these deep layers too are constructivist, and it is the naturalness of those constructions which guarantees `reality'.

Let me take mountains as example again. Admitting the previously mentioned shift in their perception - from being considered terrible and repulsive to being perceived as beautiful and an area of adventure and excitement - one might say that this shift concerns only the semantic aspects of mountains, whereas it leaves the physical ones unaltered. The same mountains were once perceived in one way and are now perceived in another. Doesn't this show that the constructed trait concerns only relatively superficial but not the deep layers of reality?

A closer look at those physical facts, however, which seem to remain unchanged and to be underlying any perception of those mountains may teach us that things are a bit different. The altitude of mountains, for example, would be an element of those physical aspects. Now, is the altitude really invariant compared to semantic changes? Mount Everest, one might say, has always been 8848 (or, according to the most recent survey taken in 1992, 8846) meters in altitude, and Mount McKinley 6193, and Mont Blanc 4807 meters - there is no change in altitude when changes of perception occur.(47) However, in earlier times nobody would have made an assessment of this calculative sort. These mountains were considered `terrifyingly high' or `the highest'. In other words: the semantics of altitude was different. Likewise people didn't need to know that Mount Everest is higher than Nanga Parbat - both were the seats of Gods; neither was it relevant that Mont Blanc is higher than Monte Rosa - both were inaccessible, both were beyond the reach of humans. The modern measurement of altitude in meters introduces a new perspective: that of making comparisons and establishing a competitive ranking - from now on there will be an urge to climb the highest one. Put briefly, in earlier times outstanding altitude meant: it is beyond reach; in modern times, where it is measured in meters, any altitude means: it is within reach and should be reached. - This demonstrates how cultural and semantic differences reach even into what seems to be just physical and unaffected by culture.

Nevertheless, with respect to other aspects like the mountains' physical mass, shape and presence it seems indisputable that these are objective physical facts which precede and are independent of any cultural perception. However, is the physical mass (the givenness of which nobody would deny) really totally independent of perspectives of any kind?

Consider, for example, that sophisticated scientific instruments would register something quite different instead of mountains: atoms and molecules instead of a dense mass. This, it seems to me, is a revealing example. Modern physics in general has provided training in relativity: it has demonstrated the boundness of our common view of the world to our natural condition. From the Copernican Revolution to Einstein's relativity physics, and from the optical microscope to the electron microscope, we have learnt that our natural view is just one among a variety of other views - certainly one particularly relevant to us, yet just one possible view. So, in the case mentioned, investigation with an electron microscope or an assessment using tensor physics would refer to things completely different from what we perceive as mountains.

But on the other hand: would anybody advocate making the microphysical view of mountains the most elucidating or the primary one about mountains? Certainly not. But why is this? Because mountains, by their very meaning, are objects related - originally and, with good reason, permanently - to the human lifeworld perspective and not to a microphysical perspective. This, however, means that even the seemingly purely physical aspect of mountains' massivity is - in its givenness as well as its relevance - bound to the framework of our lifeworld and to our corporal, sensory and mental constitution. What we call `mountains' is physically as well as semantically dependent on the human constitution, with this providing the framework within which such things as mountains occur the way we know them. So even the most elementary physical aspects of `mountains' are relative to the human lifeworld.

This may finally become evident by considering the following question: Do you think that mountains as we know them also exist for other living creatures like bees or birds? Of course not - even though recognizing this may, at first glance, seem surprising to us. Nietzsche noted this when saying that it is "a difficult thing" for man "to admit to himself that the insect or the bird perceives an entirely different world from the one that man does".(48) But once one addresses this question it becomes evident that things are this way (and scientific inquiry has provided much evidence of this).

Now let's finally consider one more thing. The difference between these world-views cannot be settled and the question of their appropriateness to the `world as such' cannot be answered, because this would require access to a purported `world as such'. But neither is such access possible nor - and this is the more decisive point - is the idea of such a `world as such' sound, rather it is self-contradictory and meaningless. It is not due to our limited capacities or for contingent reasons of whatever kind that we cannot refer to a `world as such' but rather because all such reference would have to take place within our framework and would therefore grasp our version of the `world as such' instead of the `world as such' itself. Ultimately even the idea of such a world is an idea already developed on the basis of our framework and therefore by its very constitution contradicts its own claim to being the idea of a world beyond this framework; hence the whole idea of the `world as such' is conceptually self-contradictory and just an empty play on words.(49)


So even what seems most unaffected by construction in fact is constructed corresponding to ever more elementary frameworks. The constructivist thesis - when observing the different layers of reality - holds. And it can explain the surface impression of reality from the support by deeper constructivist layers.

c. Theoretical and pragmatic perspectives

In a theoretical perspective then it is possible to regress to ever more elementary levels where the constructivist character of everything that counts as `real' can be demonstrated. This applies not only to things like mountains but to every worldly fact - `world' always being a construction relative to human activities natural and cultural.(50)

But practically viewed, things look different. For a photographer, a climber, a tourist or the rescue service the mountains are simply real, and it would not make sense for their tasks and purposes to point out the constructivist layers in what we call `mountains'. Rather the latter are a reality they rely upon. And the fact that one can do just this (for the purposes of a certain perspective and with respect to a specific layer of the world) comprises the ordinary definition of `reality'. Reality is what we refer to without constructivist assessments.

Only in a different perspective can the constructivist character of what simply counted as real for one perspective, become an issue. We can reveal the constructivist character through historical study, or profit from this insight in order to initiate a different view (for example following the Marxist doctrine that to recognize that things have become how they are enables us to change them), or just to develop such a different view (as artists do).

However, in all procedures of this kind we will rely on other things taken to be real or as bedrock. There is no movement without a stable point of reference (stable for this purpose, perspective, or event) - it is just that this too can become the object of change in a subsequent move, one taking another hinge as its point of reference. This is the law which Wittgenstein formulated as the relationship between hinge and door: "the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn".(51) "If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put."(52) He also said: "Nothing we do can be defended absolutely and finally. But only by reference to something else that is not questioned."(53)

So we certainly usually have the impression that dealing with reality is a two-component activity: there is our attempt to cope with reality on the one side, and there is reality's answer to this attempt - validating or falsifying, lending itself to, or opposing this attempt - on the other side. This is a quite reasonable way of putting things. However, it only holds as long as one restricts one's considerations to a certain level, refers to a certain dimension of reality without trying to go below it. Once, however, an attempt of this kind is made, the constructivist, rather than realistic, character of the presumed reality may very well come to the fore - but with an even deeper layer now being taken for granted, that is, for real. In short: `Realistic' and `constructivist' are reflexive (perspectival not objective) terms - therefore what in one perspective appears real can quite naturally count as constructivist in a different perspective.

d. The vast range of historical fictions and sedimentations

Some additional clarification concerning the natural and cultural frameworks constituting the complex architecture of reality may be required. Let me start out with a remark about Nietzsche. When he says that man "forgets that the original perceptual metaphors are metaphors and takes them to be the things themselves",(54) `man' is to be understood primarily in a social, not an individualistic sense. Indeed, the metaphorical (or virtual or fictional) contributions stem from the broad range of human natural and cultural history.(55) Also the reference to natural history here is to be taken literally. Contributions from the long history of humankind are to be reckoned with, including the history of our biological evolution and of the formation of our body. Our sensory system implies age old virtual views and fictional assessments. Certainly not all of them can be attributed to acts of purposive, intentional, or conscious invention or projection; there is a great deal of unconscious activity to be taken into account. This is also the case for cultural history. In its course many features of perception, action and understanding have been developed. Once they proved useful, however, they sedimented and became a seemingly `natural' component of human experience and behavior. Some of them persisted over time, others were improved or changed, others were disregarded (but nevertheless remained part of humankind's memory with the chance of being reactivated in one way or another).

Sedimentation is a crucial point. Nietzsche's reference to forgetfulness may appear negative, but is not to be taken this way.(56) Forgetting the constructivist character of fictions, transforming them via sedimentation into seemingly natural features is just the way in which they live on. It also is the way in which the impression of simply dealing with reality - of the alleged self-presentation of something real - arises. And there is nothing wrong with this. On the one hand because this is just the way things are. And on the other hand consider that for all practical purposes we must rely on something which is taken to be just real, which is not questioned, which we obliviously take for granted - remember Wittgenstein's remarks about the hinge and door. Finally: without the appearance of something as `real' none of the phenomena from the palette of doubt, invention, phantasy, fiction etc. could occur. They require a range of shared reality in order to allow some pieces of it to be questioned, attacked or changed.

e. Conclusion: intertwinement between the virtual and the real

What follows from all this? Whatever we consider real - be it ordinary or virtual reality - exhibits a complex architecture.

`Reality' - where traits like naturalness and reliability are prominent - proved to basically be a depth effect. A variety of layers is implied, and it is the inclusion of sedimentations of various kinds (bodily, emotional, semantic, conceptual, etc.) that creates the effect `real'.

But something similar also holds for virtual phenomena - where artificiality is the prominent trait. The perception of something virtual is not independent of our capacities to experience something real. It is not only by contrast that the horizon of the latter is co-present (with the traits of artificiality taking shape as opposed to comparatively more `natural' characteristics.) But also some of the features and schemes which make up the real are active part of experiencing the virtual - think of features of space or time or bodies.

So when dealing with things obviously virtual, where the amount of fictional input is evident, we yet should not fall victim to the error of speaking of virtuality alone. `Realistic' layers are, as I just said, constitutively implied.

Likewise when dealing with what is obviously real, we should (at a reflective level at least) be aware of the amount of virtuality implied through the various sedimentations on which this reality is based. We should recognize - and might even admire - that both age old as well as more recent cultural and perhaps even specifically personal fictions are, as it were, frozen in this reality, and that this is how this reality's apparent solidity comes about.

So there is intertwinement between the virtual and the real. They are largely coextensive. Reality is the result of the clotting of virtuality, is frozen virtuality. If we consider the various amounts of virtuality which are built in reality of every kind, then we may very well say - and this is how I answer the question raised in the heading of this essay - that reality has always been virtual anyway.




1. Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence. Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace (New York and London: Plenum, 1997), 98.

2. Cf. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London: Routledge, 1964), 80.

3. Lévy, Collective Intelligence, 100.

4. Jean Baudrillard, "Illusion, Desillusion, Ästhetik", in: Illusion und Simulation. Begegnung mit der Realität, eds. S. Iglhaut, F. Rötzer and E. Schweeger (Ostfildern: Cantz, 1995), 90-101, here 92.

5. Hence the widespread use of religious vocabulary in these matters. Cf., in a critical perspective, Hartmut Böhme, "Zur Theologie der Telepräsenz", in: Körperdenken (Berlin: Reimer, 1996), 237-247.

6. But let me note that the term `virtualism' was originally coined in a religious context: from 1883 on it designated the Calvinistic doctrine of Christ's virtual presence in the Eucharist. - Perhaps the current tendency toward prophetic or apocalyptic assessments in discourse on the virtual unknowingly acts out a historical legacy.

7. This feature, I suppose, has become prominent in everyday usage due to the influence of electronic media.

8. The most fundamental treatment of possibility and reality is found in Book IX () of the Aristotelian Metaphysics.

9. The term virtualis existed already in Low Latin; it derives from the older Latin adjective virtuosus (skilled) and designates `fit' or `apt'. The Low Latin virtualis was later adopted in French and English.

10. This possibility is due to the linguistic heritage of the term which is etymologically connected with virtus (force, capacity, ability) and vis (power).

11. "Non ha l'ottimo artista alcun concetto,

Ch'un marmo sol in sé non circoscriva

Col suo soverchio, e solo a quello arriva

La man che ubbidisce all'intelletto."

(Michelangelo Buonarroti, Rime, Mailand: Rizzoli, 1954, 77 [LXXXIII]) - "Not even the best artist has a single idea which the marble in itself does not already circumscribe to excess, and the artist's hand can produce nothing more when it follows the intellect."

12. Aristotle had already referred to the making of a statue. In his Metaphysics he did so four times with reference to a statue of Hermes (Met. III 5, 1002 a 22 f.; V 7, 1017 b 7; IX 6, 1048 a 32 f.; IX 8, 1050 a 19-21; cf. also Phys. I 7, 190 b 7). The common denominator of these passages reads: the Hermes statue is in the stone, but of course only in the sense of potentiality, not already as a real figure. - At the time of Thomas Aquinas, however, the virtual, it seems, tended to become real. In De mineralibus Albertus Magnus, Thomas's teacher, reports having witnessed in Venice that, when a block of marble was cut, a splendid king's head, complete with beard and crown, appeared (chap. "De imaginis et sigillis lapidum", l. 2, tr. 3, c. 1).

13. Cf. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement humain, in: Die philosophischen Schriften von Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, ed. C. I. Gerhardt, vol. 5 (Berlin, 1882, reprint Hildesheim: Olms, 1965), 45 (Preface). Leibniz used the marble and veins example several times in the Nouveaux essais (72, 77, 79 etc.) as well as elsewhere (for example Meditationes de Cognitione, Veritate et Ideis, in: Die philosophischen Schriften von Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, ed. C. I. Gerhardt, vol. 4, Berlin, 1880, reprint Hildesheim: Olms, 1965, 422-26, here 426).

14. Ibid. - Leibniz here specifically rejects Locke's idea of the intellect as a tabula rasa - comparable with a totally homogeneous piece of marble - which wouldn't be able to bare these ideas in itself but would have to receive them from the outside.

15. According to Leibniz every actual cognition emerges through a sort of self-activation of the intellect occasioned by encountering the corresponding objects, not through literal experience of, or information by, these objects.

16. Incidentally, Leibniz's move was preceded by Duns Scotus (1266-1308) and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64). Duns Scotus stated: "dico quod primum objectum intellectus nostri est ens, quia in ipso concurrit duplex primitas, scilicet communitatis et virtualitatis" ("I say that `being' is the first object of the intellect because in it a twofold primacy concurs, namely, a primacy of commonness and of virtuality", Duns Scotus, "Concerning Metaphysics", in: Philosophical Writings, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993, 1-12, here 4 [no. 3]). Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64) declared: "Nos in anima nostra rationem et scientiam scibilium virtualiter possidemus" ("In our soul we possess virtually the concept and cognition of the recognizable", Nicholas of Cusa, De ludo, II, p. I, fol. 166, 166r, l. 29 f.).

17. Besides "virtualité", we also find the terms "virtuel", "virtuellement" and "virtualiter" in Leibniz. His paradigm expression is "connaissance virtuelle". - Furthermore, Leibniz used the term `virtual' in a second, logical sense. All predicates of a subject, he claims, virtually inhere this subject (cf. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Discours de metaphysique, in: ders., Die philosophischen Schriften, vol. 4, Berlin 1880, reprint Hildesheim: Olms, 1965, 433). His formula "praedicatum inest subjecto" is to be understood as "praedicatum virtualiter inest subjecto". This would, for example, mean that when recognizing the full concept of an individual substance (be it Bill Clinton, Madonna, Bill Gates or whoever) one would recognize every detail of his or her life, including all future events. - This logical claim had already been advocated by Duns Scotus (at least with respect to the most fundamental and comprehensive term, to `being', cf. the previous footnote). - Later Herder was to make a reversed and simultaneously heightened use of Leibniz's idea that all predicates are virtually implied within the subject. Herder considered it possible to conclude an entity's entirety and its relationship to the world from the perception of any - even the most insignificant - of its properties: "The smallest silver scale on the fish's back, just as the whole symmetry of its construction, everything about it and belonging to it, is expression of that which it could be by virtue of its element, living representation of its inner and outer elementary being in relationships, forces, structures" (Johann Gottfried Herder, Kalligone. Vom Angenehmen und Nützlichen [1800], in: Herder, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Bernhard Suphan, vol. 22, Hildesheim: Olms, 1967, 1-122, here 81). Although the expression `virtuality' is not yet found in this passage, a little later Herder uses it in exactly this perspective: in a bird "our eye sees a sum total of properties and perfections of its element, a representation of its virtuality as a creature of light, sound and air, with which its habitus agrees in each kind" (ibid., 83.). With Leibniz the whole virtually contains everything singular; according to Herder the singular virtually exhibits the whole. Herder, however, names Leibniz neither as a model nor partner of his view, preferring to point further afield: "An oriental book came into my hands, conversations of a person with the inhabitants of all elements, which hints at the same idea" (ibid.).

18. Leibniz's philosophy is altogether characterized by the fact that `vis' (power) becomes one of the most fundamental concepts (all beings, according to Leibniz, are constituted and driven by a specific set of powers). Generally the aspects of virtual inherence, cognition via self-activation and the relevance of vis are deeply connected with each other in Leibniz's conception. Therefore it is more than coincidental that with Leibniz `virtual' becomes a prominent notion through which the dynamic and active - instead of a merely potential - character of the virtual is emphasized.

19. Cf. the following survey of the development: "Jusqu'au XVIIe siècle, le virtuel désigne ce qui est en puissance, par opposition à ce qui est en acte. Puis une distinction apparaît entre ces notions, que l'étymologie permet en partie d' expliquer: tout comme la vertu (virtus) est une certaine perfection dans une puissance à l'égard de l'agir [...], le virtuel est une puissance qui possède un degré de perfection suffisant pour passer à l'acte" (Art. "Virtuel", in: Les Notions Philosophiques. Dictionnaire, vol. II, Paris: PUF 1990, 2745).

20. Hegel's usage of the term `virtual' remains within this traditional framework. He uses the term ontologically when saying that a tree's germ contains "in virtual possibility all determinations which first come into existence during the tree's development" (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse [1830], in: Hegel, Werke in 20 Bänden, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970, vol. 10, 260 [453]). This is still the Aristotelian perspective. And Hegel uses the term epistemologically in saying that when the spirit takes hold of the concept of the real, the real is on the one hand negated as something real, yet, on the other hand, is "simultaneously preserved, virtualiter contained" in the ideality of the concept (ibid., 122 [403]). In this Hegel follows on from Leibniz's usage of the term but also goes beyond Leibniz's position insofar as the term `virtual' no longer refers to a previous virtuality in the intellect but to a posterior virtuality in the spirit (corresponding to Hegel's key concept of `Aufhebung').

21. Immanuel Kant, De mundi sensibilis atque intelligibilis forma et principiis, Königsberg: Kanter 1770, A 25 19.

22. Already Peirce had advocated strictly distinguishing `virtual' from `potential'. According to him, "a virtual X (where X is a common noun) is something, not an X, which has the efficiency (virtus) of an X"; this "proper meaning of the word", Peirce complains, "has been seriously confounded with `potential,' which is almost its contrary". Whereas "the potential X is of the nature of X, but is without actual efficiency", the virtual X is not of the nature of X, but has an efficiency equivalent to that of X (Charles Sanders Peirce, article on "virtual", Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, ed. James Mark Baldwin (Gloucester, Mass., 1902), 763 f., here 763).

23. A similar use of the term `virtual' can be found in Adorno. He emphasizes that thinking has to remain within "the medium of virtuality" and to present an "anticipation that cannot be wholly fulfilled by any single piece of actuality" - otherwise it "becomes, in fact, untrue" (Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, London/New York: Verso, 1997, 127 [82]).

24. The only limit to this expectation and the only way in which a sort of autonomy of the potential was preserved was found in the insight that factually the ocean of potentiality can never be exhausted. On traditional grounds, however, this is a remark tinged with regret.

25. Cf. also Susanne K. Langer's specific application of the virtual to the arts. She considers pictorial space as paradigmatically virtual and virtual space "the primary illusion of all plastic art". Like Bergson, she points out that virtual space "is a creation, not a re-creation" (Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953, 72 resp. 77). She also extends the perspective of virtuality to music, dance, literature and film.

26. Cf. Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1993).

27. Note also that in optics and mechanics the term `virtual' has been in use since the eighteenth century. The talk was of a `virtual image' and `virtual focus', or of `virtual displacement' and `virtual work'.

28. To be sure: in this case `virtual' as well as `real' refer to the electronic realm (not to the electronic on the one hand and the real on the other), yet the opposition is similar to that between the realms of the electronic and the real - `real' in the electronic world in this case signifying something actually given as opposed to something only virtually existing, namely in a simulated manner.

29. Compare Leibniz's or Borges's view about the real and the virtual. According to them it may well be that what counts as real to one conscious state is the vision of another conscious state - yet this does not lead these authors to an overall virtualization thesis with reality just being dropped, but to sophisticated consideration of the real from a virtual angle and to enjoyment of this double perspective. Leibniz says: "[...] nor is there anything to prevent certain well-ordered dreams from being the objects of our mind, which we judge to be true and which, because of their accord with each other, are equivalent to truth so far as practice is concerned." "Indeed, even if this whole life were said to be only a dream, and the visible world only a phantasm, I should call this dream or this phantasm real enough if we were never deceived by it when we make good use of reason." (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, "On the Method of Distinguishing Real from Imaginary Phenomena", in: Leibniz, Philosophical Papers and Letters. A Selection, trans. and ed. Leroy E. Loemker, Dordrecht: Reidel 1969, pp. 363-365, here p. 364.) Borges's story "The Circular Ruins", in which a man dreams of a youth at another location so precisely that the youth becomes real - and there are unambiguous reports of the success (the youth is even able to walk through fire without being harmed) - ends with the man himself, when he too survives a test by fire unharmed, discovering to his surprise that he too was due only to the dream activity of another: "With relief, with humiliation, with terror he understood that he, too, was all appearance, that someone else was dreaming him." (Jorge Luis Borges, "The Circular Ruins", in: Jorge Luis Borges. A Personal Anthology, ed. Anthony Kerrigan, London: Jonathan Cape 1968, pp. 68-74, here p. 74.)

30. For this Hilary Putnam has provided a helpful piece of advice. We should, he said, avoid "the common philosophical error of supposing that the term `reality' must refer to a single super thing, instead of looking at the ways in which we endlessly renegotiate - and are forced to renegotiate - our notion of reality as our language and our life develops" (Hilary Putnam, "Sense, Nonsense, and the Senses: An Inquiry into the Powers of the Human Mind" [The Dewey Lectures, Columbia University, March 1994], The Journal of Philosophy, vol. XCI, 9/1994, 445-517, here 452).

31. I tried to do this for the first time in "Artificial Paradises? Considering the World of Electronic Media - and Other Worlds", Undoing Aesthetics (London: Sage, 1997), 168-190. Cf. also "Eine Doppelfigur der Gegenwart: Virtualisierung und Revalidierung", in: Medien - Welten - Wirklichkeiten, eds Gianni Vattimo and Wolfgang Welsch (Munich: Fink, 1998), 229-248.

32. To be sure, VR experiments still require - and burden - the body. Bear in mind that there is no electronic experience without the body. You notice this at the very latest when, after a three-hour trip into virtual reality, you return to everyday life and in so doing - at least to begin with - have great physical difficulties, for instance extended feelings of dizziness: the body has been taken along on this journey and feels the worse for wear. Furthermore, VR users are often disappointed with the bodily trouble connected with the technological equipment. Electronic hardliners like Marvin Minsky or Hans Moravec (Hyperplatonists according to the diagnosis given above) therefore dream of overcoming the bodily condition altogether.

33. "New media don't make old ones obsolete, they assign them a different place in the system" (Friedrich Kittler, "Geschichte der Kommunikationsmedien", in: Raum und Verfahren [Interventionen 2], eds Jörg Huber and Alois Martin Müller, Basel: Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, 1993, 169-188, here 178).

34. Sten Nadolny, Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit (Munich: Hanser, 1983); Peter Handke, Versuch über die Müdigkeit (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989).

35. Certainly, today's care for the body often takes place in league with sporting endeavours and technical arrangements - from jogging and bodybuilding through to cosmetic surgery. It is also influenced by the media's presentation of perfect and unaging bodies. But this influence from the virtual side is not to be registered as simple virtualization. Rather it indicates intertwinements between virtualization tendencies on the one side and those of revalidation on the other. One should also take into account that our bodies are and always were cultural, not simply natural, bodies. Feminist theory has demonstrated the extent to which this is so. Finally, the specifity of bodily performance persists even if a given body's ideal has been influenced by the media. A well-trained body displays capacities of its own, its performance will remain a bodily one, not become a mediatic one. Therefore the current cultural turn towards the body may be influenced in whatever manner - be it comforming or contrasting - by the media, yet it continues to enhance bodily experience in contrast to media experience. If anything, it is intensified by the contrast with media experience.

36. A simple dualism of real contra virtual would be too straightforward in any case, in fact downright wrong. I have the impression, however, that such a dualism is often advocated by supporters of both sides - by those who despise media, just as by electronics enthusiasts.

37. Cf. my essay "Information Superhighway or Highway One?", in: Undoing Aesthetics, 191-202. - Another example is the following: sometimes, after hours of vain attempts at the computer (having succeeded only in repeatedly crashing the system), you not only move towards the view that this world functions not - as you thought - by logic, but magic, rather you may also seek the reliability of accustomed reality and be pleased to return to its surefire manageability.

38. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen. Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 13.

39. In one respect the analysis of `revalidation' is in need of a supplement. One could rightly object that revalidations of the type mentioned can only occur with people who grew up non-electronically, who were non-electronically socialized. Since for them - the elder members of today's population - relatively natural modes of experience stood at the start, with them there can be a return to forms of experience such as those which seem, in the meantime, to have been overtaken electronically, but whose own value is now being esteemed anew. With cyberkids, however, things must be different. For them the turn to ordinary experience cannot mean a return to elementary experience at all, but an alternative mode of experience at best. What's more it is highly questionable whether, for someone electronically socialized, `natural' experience can ever attain particular significance or ever be anything other than a weak and less interesting modification of electronic-media experience. - It is obvious, however, that young people today possess an astonishingly high awareness for the alterity of forms of experience - even when only differences within the electronic world between one form of experience and another are concerned, say between television, video games, on-line chat, Web-surfing and virtual reality. Young people are far more aware than their elders of the specifity of such different media and modes of experience, and they know how to use them ably and in a calculated manner. As a result of their early media training (their electronic socialization) they produce rather counter-validations instead of revalidations: they value the alterity and specifity of different media and utilize their contrasts.

40. The electronic virtual is putting more pressure on our standard understanding of reality than did previous contrasting experiences like religious experience or fictional experience. Whereas these were reserved for a specific realm of reality, or were seen just as decorative additions to reality, the electronic virtual extends to every sphere of experience. But this pressure is not correctly assessed by saying that the virtual attacks the real or makes the real obsolete. What is in fact threatened - and for good reasons - is our naively `realistic' understanding of the real. Thanks to experience of the electronic virtual we are starting to comprehend that reality always was a construction - that previously one just didn't like to admit this to oneself.

41. I have set out Nietzsche's position and its relevance for the development of contemporary thinking about the aesthetic constiuents of truth and reality in more detail in "Basic Aesthetic Features in Contemporary Thinking", Undoing Aesthetics (London: Sage, 1997, 33-59), 41 f.

42. Friedrich Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense", in: Philosophy and Truth. Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the early 1870's, trans. and ed. Daniel Breazeale (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1979), 79-91, here 84.

43. Ibid., 86.

44. Cf. Nietzsche's general statement: "Men progressively see worth and meaning into nature it does not have in itself. [...] Our eye looks with all our morality and culture and habits on the landscape" (Friedrich Nietzsche, Nachgelassene Fragmente. Anfang 1880 bis Sommer 1882, in: Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bänden, eds Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, Munich 1980, vol. 9, 261 [fall 1880]).

45. Cf. George Steiner, Real Presences: Is There Anything in What We Say? (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), 194: "The words, phrases, tropes, gestures of spirit and body with which we seek to communicate the birth, ripening, withering of love in our being, with which we seek to convey these elemental experiences both to our own perception and to `the other', whose otherness is, at this very point, most critical to us, are taken very largely, whether consciously or not, from the repertoire of the great sayers, painters, music-makers before us. [...] According to the levels of our verbal and literate holdings, we experience and signify love as did Jack and Jill, as did Romeo and Juliet or Tolstoy's Natasha before us. Our jealousies ape Othello's. [...] The broken syllables which generations whispered or panted in the rhetoric of seduction and of intercourse were out of Petrarch's phrase book." Cf. also Steiner's following statement: "We Sunday-walkers come in the wake of Rousseau. There are nymphets at our street-corners since Nabokov's Lolita" (ibid., 195).

46. And, to be sure, perceiving sunsets in the duct of the models mentioned, these pupils do in fact represent the sunsets as they see them.

47. Slight changes which may have occured through varying meteorological conditions can indeed be neglected here. Just as before, with respect to the romantic and modern perception of those mountains, the erosive physical consequences of the mass tourism caused by this new perception were overlooked.

48. Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense", 86.

49. This is one of the most important findings of analytical philosophy in the duct of the linguistic turn. I have developed the argument in more detail in "Richard Rorty: Philosophy beyond Argument and Truth?" (published on the Internet [http://www.uni-magdeburg.de/~iphi/ww/papers/Rorty.html]). - Nietzsche had made the point in the following way: "the question of which of these perceptions of the world is the more correct one is quite meaningless, for this would have to have been decided previously in accordance with the criterion of the correct perception, which means, in accordance with a criterion which is not available" (Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense", 86).

50. Cf. more on the latter point under the following heading.

51. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Über Gewissheit - On Certainty, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe & G.H. von Wright (New York: Harper, 1972), 44e [341].

52. Ibid. [343].

53. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 16.

54. Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense", 86.

55. Cf. also Wittgenstein's remarks on this: "Commanding, questioning, recounting, chatting, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing" (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, New York: Macmillan, 1968, p. 12e, no. 25). "I mean, that is the way we do it. That is the custom for us, or a fact of our natural history" (Wittgenstein, "Bemerkungen über die Grundlagen der Mathematik", in: Wittgenstein, Werkausgabe in 8 Bänden, vol. 6, 61 [63]).

56. And Nietzsche himself, in another essay from the same period (published in 1874), gave a positive account of forgetting: "All acting requires forgetting, as not only light but also darkness is required for life by all organisms. [...] without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all" (Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980, 10).


Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Welsch
Institut für Philosophie
Zwätzengasse 9
D-07740 Jena
E-mail: Wolfgang.Welsch@uni-jena.de

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