04: Klobucar

"The Man Who Mistook His Phone for a Map”: Aesthetics, Knowledge and Information Management

Andrew Klobucar

Cite this article (APA): Klobucar, A. (2011). "The Man Who Mistook His Phone for a Map”: Aesthetics, Knowledge and Information Management. Media : Culture : Pedagogy, 15(1). Retrieved from http://mcp.educ.ubc.ca/v15n01BornDigital_Article04_Klobucar



This article examines social interactions enacted via mobile network technology such as GPS as exemplary of Kant's notion of transcendental subjectivity: that is, "to walk among digital coordinates is to navigate a constantly changing array of potential events and locations." In this way, the signifiers used to indicate a subject's position within a mobile network connect their "physical surroundings to a a rationalised framework of those surroundings, the formal, 'transcendental' reality of each potential path to be taken." The article then elaborates on a Kantian interpretation of human subjectivity vis-à-vis contemporary mobile computing devices (such as the iPhone), and discusses the epistemological implications of the information management systems that govern such technology--in particular, how mobile computing devices alter our view of the process of human reasoning. This account of information "as a cultural model of knowledge in and of itself" is then situated in within late medieval/early renaissance scholarship on aesthetics, objectivity, and knowledge.


It is common to associate the rapid changes and advances in social media technologies evident in both mobile computing and electronic publishing with much broader social transformations concerning the role of information in everyday life. Without contributing to the increasing number of critical observations made over the last year concerning attention deficit disorders among children and the growing preference among us all for screen time over face-to-face interaction, it seems nevertheless relevant to explore further our evolving relationship to information in terms of various cognitive deficiencies classified collectively by the field of psycho-neurology under the term agnosia—the inability to recognise or determine objects and patterns from physical stimuli despite having fully functioning sense capability. Such symptoms, in other words, convey a distinct cognitive condition best described as an extreme preference for “integrative” thinking over that of a more holistic nature. Epistemologically speaking, the distinction seems quite profound. In fact, it may not be inaccurate to contrast the two modes of thought just as one might discern night from day. Under the integrative approach, identity is arrived at via a kind of ongoing, real-time assemblage of various independent acts of perception; holistic interpretations by contrast prefer to summon identities from prior memories, filtering out the details of experience to conjure a more personal, socially sensible understanding of whatever objects are at hand.

One of the more historically popular examples of this malady remains Oliver Sack’s curious case history of Dr. P, the infamous “man,” who, in one of the neurologist’s best known studies, “mistook his wife for a hat.”[1] In the narrative, the unusual condition provides, for Sacks, an especially valuable opportunity to study the neurological complexity of object recognition, revealing it to derive as much from human memory and imagination as one might expect it to be a function of vision-related functions. Dr. P, Sack’s patient, exhibits a sudden incapacity to understand or identify objects, but Sacks informs us, this condition had nothing to do with the patient’s ocular health. In fact, when Sacks asks his patient to identify a glove held before his eyes, Dr. P readily confirms visual recognition. Yet, asked to describe the glove, the patient observes, “a continuous surface infolded on itself with five outpocketings,” further imagining its use or function to be a kind of change purse—one specifically constructed to hold five different sizes of coins. As absurd as Dr. P’s observations obviously seem to our own cognitive perceptions, Sacks emphasizes the profound abstract logic exhibited by P, noting the similarity of his symptoms to those experienced by patients suffering from damaged right hemispheres of the brain, the anatomical area responsible for various emotional, more identity-related processes of recognition. Sacks is quick to compare Dr. P to a computer when qualifying how he responds to visual phenomena, both being, in Sacks’s opinion, devoid of any capacity to imagine or emotionally construct identity and concept beyond basic quantifiable attributes. Today’s mobile computers and their relationship to our lives seem different.

Who can forget the first time he or she experienced the disconcerting, yet simultaneously awe-inspiring configuration of one’s location as mediated by the Global Positioning System. The moment may have arrived via the comforting guidance of an onboard navigational device, plugged into our dashboards, leading us through a tangled web of forced merges and ramp exits in some unfamiliar exurban Interstate sprawl, or it may have manifested as the familiar blue, pulsating dot on a Google map, blithely reaffirming our chosen geography of the moment. Regardless of its mode of expression, GPS remains notable in these particular contexts for its increasingly sophisticated capability to render symbolically the best account yet of Kant’s notion of transcendental subjectivity. Where else but on mobile networks can our social interactions emphasize as acutely the simultaneous experience of the material world and a corresponding projection of some kind of virtual self within a distinct ontological space of shared discourse.

It is tempting to argue at this point that such technology emphasizes overall a more relational, Habermasian interpretation of Kantian objective “truth” as a mode of communication; it’s not difficult to see, in fact, that much of the social drive to augment technologically our “real life” experiences and engagements within the physical world invokes less a vision of communal interaction than Kant’s original conception of human nature as an autonomous, self-determined faculty of rational being.[2] The capacity to frame our experience in real time within multiple sets of pre-constructed databases provides, in turn, a very effective means to interpret even our subtlest gestures as ends or objectives both in and of themselves and within the context of some larger understanding of the world around us. The simultaneity of act and its depiction, of signal and its interpretation, it seems, assures this autonomy. 

Unlike a printed map, an animated, GPS-enabled set of coordinates does not signify pre-ordained narratives as journeys to be perpetually followed in the two-dimensional, linear fashion accordingly allocated to them. Instead, to walk among digital coordinates is to navigate a constantly changing array of potential events and locations. Whatever route we choose to enact, the blue dot signifies, by virtue of its synchronized connection to both a subject’s physical surroundings and a rationalised framework of those surroundings, the formal, “transcendental” reality of each potential path to be taken—much like Kant envisioned rational being as the universal capacity for self-understanding and thus self-rule.

The unique ability of the human subject to imagine general or “categorical” modes of conduct constituted for Kant the very source of that subject’s sovereign will as a rational being. Importantly, this rationality is not pre-determined in Kant’s view, but can nevertheless invoke universal ends with respect to human experience, for it represents simultaneously an individual and broader social need to formulate unconditional measures of sense and understanding in the world. Such reasoning may no longer inform scientific methods or even much of modern knowledge in general; the very idea of linking objective principles or laws to something as hard to quantify as individual will doesn’t inspire the same amount of confidence in science as it may have two centuries ago. Yet it is exactly this rationale that continues to inform most models of human mobile computing interfaces currently in development. In fact, in many ways, the professional field of mobile computing seems duly committed to maintaining a particularly active relationship between the subjective processes of human experience/awareness and knowledge construction. 

From a Kantian perspective, our traditional associations of social media technologies with modes of interpersonal communication rapidly begin to shift in favour of an emphasis on epistemology. Technical advances in mobile software applications constitute wholesale investments in more than the telecommunication industry; they contribute most significantly to what might be called the social character of modern knowledge itself. Thus we see in the GPS echo, however visually rendered, not just a systematic abstraction of human location—the global, satellite-run surveillance, if you will, of individual telephony—but also a set of distinct rationalised relationships concerning human interaction within a coordinated space. 

To attribute to mobile computing a certain grounding of subjectivity is to acknowledge at the same time the intrinsic capacity of subjectness itself to rupture or suspend any permanent sense of ideologico-historical continuity derived from such technologies. At an experiential level, that is, as a mode of sensual experience, subjectivity remains exclusive of either form or category, a dialectical relationship that is central to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). It is here, in fact, relatively early in the work that Kant introduces the significant, if ambiguous, role imagination plays in the conscious act of abstracting the empirical from the sensuous, followed by the categorical from the empirical. 

This three-step process begins specifically with an act of “synthesis,” which Kant defines first as “the process of joining different representations to each other, and of comprehending their diversity in one cognition,” and then qualifies as “the mere operation of the imagination—a blind but indispensable function of the soul, without which we should have no cognition whatever, but of the working of which we are seldom even conscious.”[3] The imagination thus plays what might be called a crucial middle step in the construction of cognitive sense, after which a necessary “reduction” to form must occur before the proper level of understanding occurs. Taking a closer look at this reductive component in the process, to abstract some level of meaning from experience, that is, to reason categorically, automatically suggests a moment of “imaginative” synthesis before cognizance condenses one’s perspectives into categories of understanding or knowledge. Hence, Kant’s transcendental subject is inherently mercurial, a creature of the imagination—perhaps even ghostly. The self is “seldom even conscious” of its active engagement.

Few characteristics could describe better the complex set of identities one regularly engages when employing mobile communication interfaces. It seems hardly debatable that a minimum level of disbelief is to be officially suspended if we are to follow through with the GPS representation of our surface to satellite co-ordinations: to see, in other words, ourselves in the blue dot. For Kant, however ambiguously, this concept of the imagination and its power to interpret, to synthesize (while the self apprehends) the world helps constitute a subjectivity perpetually capable of alternatives and options. In fact, the transcendental subjectivity emerges without pause as a necessarily indistinct interplay between the synthesizing and categorising functions of the human mind. Each function is firmly dependent on the other; at this level of thought, though purposeful in any and all categorical aims, subjectivity is unavoidably indefinite. It has to be; its very core is process-based, a constantly shifting set of interactions between sensation and its apprehension. Indeterminacy is its best defined quality. 

How else could the Iranian state invoke something very near a second popular revolution through social media technologies? Only the possibility of an unstable, thus changeable, political subject, can inspire the levels of social action that took place in the summer of 2009. Such representations of agency as conveyed or communicated through social media technology suggest an array of mobile networks, organisations and, perhaps, quasi-communities that are significant, not because they reveal the existence a priori of actual functioning collectives, but because they support levels of interpersonal engagement and interpretation beyond one’s immediate material circumstances. Accordingly, the capacity of these communication technologies to help re-position or “re-coordinate” the sovereign self depends to a large extent on their inherent faculty to prohibit its coordination overall. Kant’s transcendental subject, as theorised in his Critique, enjoys a distinct prominence in the augmented reality of GPS-enhanced mobile computing, its uniquely ephemeral relationship to both the world and its empirical classification emerging strangely intact in the interface models that continue to evolve.

Mobile computing, on one level, constitutes the most effective (and potentially complete) mode of social administration since the invention of the watch provoked a universal representation of time. And, true to the emergence of this earlier social tool, the manner in which these ever-expanding communication networks accomplish their ideologico-historical authority over the subject follows a similar tactic: strategies for managing and controlling mobile social engagement usually aim perpetually to distract the individual with a deluge of pre-constructed discursive choices in navigation as quickly and efficiently as transmission speed will allow. Again, the Iranian crisis reveals just how necessary a constantly “coordinated” engagement with this networked self actually is. To leave this state of subjectivity in process risks any number of potential symbolic engagements occurring. 

The data phone, as both a commodity and a community, remains at the moment administered almost solely by telecommunication conglomerates like Verizon and AT&T, and, yet, given the range of data interfaces and different levels of access to electronic information networks now distributed over cell frequencies, the symbolic identification of the device with verbal communication seems less and less accurate. In fact, few experiences seem more annoying these days than receiving an actual telephone call on our telephones, especially when they are in the process of being used to coordinate other media applications. Of all possible media interfaces available in the world of mobile computing, none, it seems, is less appreciated than the conventional telephone. 

Over the course of the last decade, driven by a specific anxiety concerning its possible obsolescence as a mode of verbal communication, the telephone’s development suggests nothing less than a complete metamorphosis from its technological origins in telephony to its current state as a collection of myriad programmable symbolic functions. However, as Stanford University Professor and software developer Ge Wang notes, even the recent tendency among technologists and cultural theorists alike to consider the latest generation of mobile phones to be nothing less than a form of portable computer, is ironically restrictive; “it’s not just a small computer anymore,” he argues, “it’s actually a personal intimate device.”[4]

The efficacy of these “electronic companions” as a form of navigational aid cannot be clearer, speaking as it does to the ongoing, millennia-long evolution of the mechanics of navigation from the celestial guidance of stars to the comforting security of the folded subway map. Yet such pragmatic concerns do not fully convey some of the more complex, intricately symbolic transferences of meaning encountered within new social media technologies, given their increasingly sophisticated epistemological capacity to interpret the material world rather than merely represent it. 

There is another irony in play here; while these technological enhancements within the fields of navigation and cartography appear, on one level, to demonstrate continuous improvement in the precision and speed of modern information access, on another level, if we give in to the distractions, one can’t help but see the somewhat cyclical return to a Hellenic view of the heavens as both technological mechanism and cosmological narrative. A dual function—a double vision, if you will—of our surrounding technologically augmented environs as a database to be interpreted and analyzed, and as preset ideologico-historical coordinates to be somehow assimilated into our lives, which bestows upon mobile computing a poignant capacity to “render” social being in ways most deities of classical mythology would certainly envy.

Contemporary social critiques of such processes tend to remain ideologically over-determined thanks to traditional liberal humanist perspectives emphasizing the social and psychological loss of individual privacy and self-determination. But Kant’s more intricate concept of subjectivity (summed up later by Husserl as "the paradox of . . . being a subject for the world and at the same time being an object in the world"[5]) reveals a strikingly complex set of issues. If we overlook the various ontological questions informing these newer, more elaborate interactions with social networking technology, we risk a utilitarian-inspired simplification of an obviously multifaceted, cognitively expressive relationship informing the organisation of information and its subsequent use in the construction of knowledge. It is subsequent to these technologies that an ever impressive array of ontological contradictions seem increasingly basic to our day-to-day, physical experiences. 

The unease, if not actual dread, with which we often regard these issues remains, as we’ve seen, general to much modern epistemology. It is exactly this dilemma, in fact, that inspires Hegel’s impressive description centuries ago of the modern self’s orientation to knowledge as a kind of permanent darkness or “night” where human rationality, while key to understanding the material world, achieves such aims by suspending any and all subjective relationships to it. In his manuscripts of “Jenaer Realphilosophie,” Hegel writes, “[t]he human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity—an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him—or which are not present.”[6]

Thus we have in Hegel a most remarkable paradigm of human subjectivity where the possibility of cognitive freedom cannot be sustained without a corresponding sense of self-detachment from the actual process of cognition. In other words, the capacity to conceive freely beyond sensual experience must by definition imply the simultaneous phenomenological loss of that same experience. As Hegel further points out, this dilemma permeates much of Kant’s earlier epistemology, but remains subordinated to the earlier philosopher’s overarching emphasis on the self’s subsequent capacity to integrate one’s perceptions and interpretations within broader intellectual frameworks. Hegel, of course, is not opposed to this integrative faculty within both the human mind and the ensuing social order it designates; without it, we would have no formal system of learning or culture, and all socio-historical relations would inevitably succumb to individual states of madness. At the same time, Hegel, unlike Kant, cannot simply bypass the crucial epistemological value inherent in these more disruptive and unruly attributes of the human imagination. In his Preface to the Phenomenology, he writes,

The activity of dissolution is the power and work of the Understanding, the most astonishing and mightiest of powers, or rather the absolute power. The circle that remains self-enclosed and, like substance, holds its moments to-gether is an immediate relationship, one therefore which has nothing astonishing about it. But that an accident as such, detached from what circumscribes it, what is bound and is actual only in its context with others, should attain an existence of its own and a separate freedom—this is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of the pure “I”.[7]

Clearly, the key competence signified by human cognizance is not the ability to unify or systematize, but rather its contrary penchant for selection and particularity. Knowledge, Hegel seems to say, originates in negation—or more specifically, the capacity of contemplation and analysis to negate or dismantle structure, not follow it. The physical sciences, despite any pedagogical or professional incentives to rationalize evidence for the sake of discursive continuity, offer a similar epistemological stance. In fact, the term “science” itself, deriving from the Latin word scientia for “knowledge,” can be traced ultimately to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root verb “skei,” meaning to cut, separate, or discern.[8] Interestingly, the same root can be seen in the Greek verb skhizein, meaning to split apart or to rend, from which the term “schizophrenia” evolves. Needless to say, the fact that the words “science” and “schizophrenia” share a common root would have been hardly ironic to either Hegel or Kant. If knowledge is associated specifically with factual discernment, then doesn’t any pretence to objectivity demand, to some extent, an attitude of subjective dislocation—perhaps even disorientation?

Consistent with this logic, laws or theories yielded by such an attitude will also remain in conflict with any broader, universal narrative or framework of pre-determined sense, much like the repulsive force that occurs between two magnetic points of the same polarity. Thus we find ourselves as modern, scientific observers and practitioners contemplating, post Hegel, the promises of epistemological dislodgment as a necessary precondition for rational objectivity, which is at the same time completely consistent with a state of madness. Yet it would be inaccurate to suppose that these two overlapping conditions signify some kind of psychological choice for the self qua self to make.

As we saw earlier, for Hegel, the process of empirical reasoning is symptomatic of both conditions operating as complementary qualities of a single state of being: by engaging in factual discernment, the human subject simultaneously invokes his or her own epistemological disruption, bringing on, so to speak, a kind of ontological “night”—what Hegel qualifies rather elegantly as an “empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity.” As cognizant selves constantly negating our subjectivity for the sake of knowledge, we find ourselves in a position remarkably similar to Ridley Scott’s Nexus-class “replicants” in his film Blade Runner (1983), learning for the first time just how profound our ontological disaffection from our own experiential reality remains. When one such Replicant, Rachel, learns that her pretence to human existence has been just that—a pretence—that her memories of her life as a young girl, of her parents and even her most private experiences are, fictions, false narratives inserted via implants into a maze of cerebral circuitry, she can only turn and run, panic-stricken, abandoning to the floor a photograph she had once believed to be her own mother. Is this not the same reaction that properly and understandably accompanies each scientific discovery or hypothesis stumbled upon by the modern individual? As the various historical and geo-spatial contexts we inhabit continue to evolve in ever increasing detail and complexity, thanks to ongoing technological advancements in our capacity to render and reproduce information, any collective consideration of our existence begins indeed to resemble Hegel’s unsettling description.

Our intellectual capacity to reason abstractly is not subsequent to any predefined ontology of the self as a rational being. Far from it. The origins of objective knowledge lie instead in a much more chaotic swirl of cognitive engagements with the external world—a “spirit” or state of being, for Hegel, that is better compared to non-sense or even madness. Hegel writes, “[t]he life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself.[9] Much like the figure of Osiris, the Egyptian God of the afterlife responsible for all organic processes in the world (including both birth and decay) the modern “spirit” achieves its unique power and identity only upon its dismemberment. It must necessarily remove or detach itself from the material world violently, piece by piece, building new understandings only by parsing every observation, every object into smaller and increasingly elementary components. 

Clearly, while Kant thought he had solved empiricism’s problematic relationship to ontology and a priori paradigms of knowledge, his transcendental housing of subjectivity seems instead to have initiated a much more sophisticated set of philosophical debates concerning the inherently contrarian nature of rational objectivity. A more in-depth analysis of these dilemmas, along with their particular relevance to modern knowledge, however, would do well to consider an even wider historical lineage extending back to late scholastic and early humanist thought, where, parallel to the formal philosophical re-emergence of the concept of “information,” a revisionary approach to the function of material evidence in epistemology can be seen to arise. 

The term information itself enjoys currently a ubiquitous presence in practically all cultural discourses, denoting an almost unquestioned source of intellectual, aesthetic and economic value. The development of information’s importance to knowledge, however, bears witness to an even broader series of ideologico-political transitions, some of which can be seen in process today within discourses and areas of study previously less affected by the demands of abstract reasoning. The work of literary theorists like Frank Moretti, for example, provides an exemplary 21st-century approach to narratology and literary criticism using epistemological concepts more commonly associated with the fields of information management and knowledge representation to reconfigure how the novel might be usefully interpreted and assessed with respect to electronic modes of presentation, as opposed to print or analogue formats. For Moretti, visually and spatially oriented paradigms like maps, charts, graphs, etc., have become important critical tools within literary criticism, now that contemporary electronic information networks have expanded to include an increasing variety of different forms of cultural production. The fact that Google Maps software currently allows literary and visual art concepts to be seamlessly incorporated into geographical frameworks invites a reconceptualisation of space and location as literary terms and a corresponding spatialisation of aesthetic concepts.

It is Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), however, who is most readily associated with the origins of these concepts in their modern context, given his early exploration of the term “information” as a specific mode of cognitive interaction between what he terms the intellect (intellectus) and physical perception (sensus) in the service of knowledge.[10] In Thomastic philosophy, modern western thought acquires some of its fundamental preliminary discursive precepts. For many epistemologists, Aquinas and his work in practical philosophy bring to western thought something akin to a representative figure for what is a much broader, patrimonial collection of ideas and traditions, stretching across an array of humanist/proto-humanist disciplines emerging in 13th-century northern Europe.

Many similar concerns regarding objectivity and knowledge, for example, can be located in the numerous challenges in European culture and ideology that seem to qualify innovations in architecture, sculpture, literature, the fine arts and even law of this period. A fuller, more in-depth study of these rising parallel interests within late mediaeval/early renaissance culture in a tacit, objectively meaningful sense of nature (not to mention, a subsequent appreciation for the seemingly unique human capacity to cognize it) may ultimately provide a useful context for a history of information as a cultural model of knowledge in and of itself. Historians of science like Lorraine Daston, Robert Richards, and Peter Galison[11] provide important introductions to this type of historical project, analyzing specific periods in European modernity with respect to the concept of objectivity as a distinct relationship to knowledge that, like any other epistemological stance, owes its social legitimacy as much to particular ideologico-political frameworks as to intellectual ones. For Daston, for example, the very term “objectivity,” as it comes to delineate both a category and an application of knowledge within modernity, signifies a distinct, yet protracted “epistemic shift” in western thought that develops steadily over 600 years between the 13th and 19th centuries. 

The earliest indications of this shift appear in a variety of contemporaneous writings by different philosophers in the scholastic tradition, including Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, and William of Occam, among others. Daston qualifies this particular movement within scholastic epistemology further by emphasizing the growing philosophical interest it signifies in modelling or mimicking knowledge as an independent rational human activity over representing it directly. In the latter epistemological framework, the process of learning or acquiring knowledge is not to be distinguished from employing preconceived principles of reason, whereas the scholastic shift signifies a much more indirect and aesthetically implicated relationship to epistemology. 

When one considers a rational framework for learning as an object in and of itself—that is, as a construct that interprets or reflects (as opposed to embodies) formal epistemological principles, one radically reconfigures the fundamental relationship between human cognition and universality, in effect, initiating a host of newly significant conflicts between the two approaches to knowledge and reason. As noted before, such concepts were not confined to late mediaeval writing, but can be equally identified in the experimental grammar of gothic architecture as it came to dominate the structure and design of some North Europe’s most significant cathedrals, including those constructed at Paris, Chartres and, of course, Amiens. In Medieval Architecture, Medieval Learning: Builders and Masters in the Age of Romanesque and Gothic, Charles Radding and William Clark discuss what they call the similar “mental processes” that Gothic builders and scholastic philosophers shared, producing, in turn, a remarkable set of integrated systems in response to mutual aesthetic and intellectual concerns.[12] To see Gothic architecture in and of itself as a “mental process” is, as Radding and Clark suggest, an important precept to recognising how the very discipline of architecture began to mature as both an art form and a kind of rational framework, allowing it subsequently to invoke more abstract epistemological issues. 

This epistemic review of knowledge as a kind of cognitive event, whereby meaning derives not from a static, universal system, but rather from an individual capacity to summon and interpret patterns, abstractions, objectivities, etc., from the physical world, logically invokes a much more complex relationship between the human intellect and any broader, metaphysical paradigm of reason, for it emphasizes the paradoxical importance of artifice in the contemplation of truth. To understand objectivity as epistemologically meaningful, in the sense that the physical world can somehow manifest a broader, perhaps even universal, significance, places equally important limits on human interpretation as an ongoing attempt to rationalise sensibility and perception—and it is within the context of this particular dilemma that the term “information” as a form of potential knowledge seems to gain increasing cultural value beginning in the 13th century. The writings of Aquinas are especially useful here, demonstrating some of the clearer, more exemplary expressions of reasoning behind this gradual reconsideration of human cognition as a distinct epistemological function. 

Aquinas, as was common with scholastic thinking, derives his philosophical reflections on knowledge primarily from Aristotelian metaphysics, where cognition appears as a kind of associative mode of reasoning, dominated by provisional, often applied interests or aims, and thus considered secondary to higher truths derived from moral principles and belief systems. True knowledge understood reason to be driven by purpose, and thus focused on not just the material particulars of the world, but rather the distinct dignity concerning humanity’s place in it. Aristotelian epistemology, in other words, distinguished firmly between knowing an object as an element of consciousness and merely apprehending its material attributes. The latter mode of identification was, of course, available to any number of creatures in existence, while the former could be considered the unique privilege of a wilful subjectivity endowed with the ability to comprehend his or her circumstances holistically, imbibing them with purposefulness and higher meaning. 

What Thomastic thinking brought to this model of knowledge was an increased focus on the role of the knowing subject as an active interpreter of “reality,” building epistemological similitude via the combination of sensual perception with intellectual abstraction. In his well known Summa Theologica (1225-1274), Aquinas specifically compares animal instinct, by which creatures are able to distinguish aspects of their environment as either harmful or favourable (predatory beasts inspire instant flight among potential prey; a bee discovers pollen and immediately collects it for the return flight back to the hive), to reason, guiding human reflection when it “juxtaposes things in order to compare them.”[13] Hence, the cognitive capacity to “abstract” (a term deriving from the Latin “trahere ab”—to select or draw from), for Aquinas, shared with instinct a reflective relationship to the external world, in that both processes comprised a kind of active engagement with physical objects and situations. Rather than trigger automatic reflexes, however, the intellectual modes of reflection unique to the human self represent a far more powerful and advanced relationship to the material world—one that invokes levels of insight distinct from the actual objects being observed and any imagined formal purpose or value they may subsequently summon. In this way, the Thomastic paradigm of abstract knowledge presents an intriguing departure from a more traditional Aristotelian metaphysics, offering a framework of reasoning neither sensual nor pre-determined, but instead markedly removed from both realms of existence. For Aquinas, the capacity to comprehend one’s world compared best to an act of translation—a reconstruction or “conversion” of sensation via the imagination, or what Aquinas termed “conversio ad phantasmata.” This combined movement of abstraction (“abstractio”) and conversion (“conversio”) quite effectively recognized the human self’s ability to rationalise his or experience, while at the same endorsing such efforts as important (if not necessary) applications of broader, universal concepts and forms. 

The Thomastic emphasis on humanity’s rational faculties was, even 700 years ago, hardly new to western metaphysics. Deriving formal theories and concepts from physical experience had long provoked within western culture ample consideration of the human imagination’s potentially extensive role in the construction of knowledge. As mentioned previously, before Aquinas and 13th century scholasticism, however, most philosophical discussions remained anchored to what they considered to be the larger significance of a pre-determined logic or system constantly influencing all everyday engagements with the material world, lending them purpose and principle. Aquinas’s contrary stress on the obligation of imaginative faculties to rationalise the world indicates an increasing intellectual pressure on mediaeval epistemology to recognise the importance of technical knowledge and its capacity to generate both ideas and terminology (terminus technicus) of considerable socio-historical worth, and it is in this context that the term “information” begins to acquire both the intellectual and cultural value it has since come to possess in the modern period. 

Aquinas’s reference to the concept of “information” in his writing is sparing, though quite crucial, as we shall see, to his epistemology, deriving most likely from the Latin “informatio” as used by Cicero to identify the mental images a person may generate of his or her physical surroundings and the objects composing it. If human rationality constituted to some extent a selective drawing, i.e., abstraction, of general qualities from material experience, such images would indeed demonstrate an important epistemological tool. Picturing the world, conjuring shapes and forms from sense perception, translating phenomenal experience into general concepts, may not reveal any ultimate cosmological principles behind such observations, but Thomastic thinking remained doubtful that this level of insight was even possible. Instead, any drawing of purpose beyond one’s physical sense of being seemed more logically (and accurately) discussed in terms of the self’s own motivation to determine ideas and principles objectively, in other words, a kind of rational projection of objects existing in and of themselves—a process Aquinas, following Cicero, describes specifically as the "in-forming" of matter with meaning via intellectual reflection. Thus does the term information begin to acquire the increasingly poignant correlation to knowledge it holds today, recognising principles of meaning not as any pre-ordained purposefulness, but rather as a distinct, if latent, potentiality for ever extensive understandings of the world as an object of interpretation. 

The scholastic investment in information as epistemological tool was slow to develop. Aside from Aquinas, the term has little political or intellectual purchase, appearing only sporadically throughout the Renaissance and Reformation periods in English writing. Shakespeare, for example, includes it in his works only twice, the most Thomastic use materializing in Coriolanus Act IV sc. vi. In this scene, the two tribunes Brutus and Sicinius confront specific rumours that Coriolanus, previously vanquished from Rome, has returned to seek revenge on the city by invading it with new enemy military forces. Doubting such gossip, yet wary of its historical precedent, the senator Menenius exclaims:

Cannot be! We have record that very well it can, And three examples of the like have been Within my age. But reason with the fellow, Before you punish him, where he heard this Lest you shall chance to whip your information And vent the messenger who bids beware Of what is to be dreaded.

The term’s appearance continues fairly haphazardly until Samuel Johnson’s relatively high interest in it, using it 28 times in his writings, including, of course, his Dictionary project of 1755. There, he details three major definitions of the word, even presenting Shakespeare’s Coriolanus as exemplary of its most common lexicographic context: that where information refers specifically to the manifestation of “intelligence given or the practice of instruction.” The play’s use of the term emphasizes, for Johnson’s purpose (and our own), various related concepts: for example, the slave’s information provokes an invitation to “reason with” him, to listen to what he has to say; information comes via a messenger. While the senators at first exhibit a state of ignorance and expectation, they have access to a common knowledge, the value of which derives specifically from its capacity to disrupt or break apart conventional expectations with “what is to be dreaded” (Cannot be!). 

That Johnson would find the term’s usage to be particularly valuable is hardly surprising given the nature of this project. “Information” fits in well with his attempt to complete the first formal standardisation of English lexicological usage. And he, more than any author at this time, likely understands the powerfully disruptive nature of language as an inherently polysemous framework of reference. Johnson’s formal definition of “information,” in tandem with the term’s increased rate of appearance within western intellectual culture helps initiate what Michel Foucault designated as the “modern episteme,” where, according to the theorist, the very role of language in knowledge construction ceases its “representational” relationship to ideas and embraces a newly dispersed quality.[14] Foucault writes:

Once detached from representation, language has existed, right up to our own day, only in a dispersed way: for philologists, words are like so many objects formed and deposited by history; for those who wish to achieve formalisation, language must strip itself of its concrete content and leave nothing visible but those forms of discourse that are universally valid; if one’s intent is to interpret, then words become a text to be broken down, so as to allow that other hidden meaning in them to emerge and become clearly visible; lastly, language may sometimes arise for its own sake in an act of writing that designates nothing other than itself.[15]

It’s not difficult to see Foucault’s relegation of language to a state of dispersal as distinctly symptomatic of Hegel’s original comments on the faculties of cognizance and understanding as literal forces of negativity and dismemberment in and of themselves. Information remains consistent, it seems, in its power to disrupt and dislocate one’s sense of one’s world—leaving us in the process within a constant state of cognitive disorientation. 

Of course, it is tempting, upon reflection, to seek to avoid the epistemological consequences of information—to turn and run, as it were, in order to preserve a more coherent, subjectively integrated perspective. To do so, however, is tantamount to joining the doomed ranks of Menenius’s nervous tribunes, poised as they are to “whip” the messenger for the implications of the message. As well, it is within this same context that we must inevitably face the subsequent difficulty of objectively locating just where (or even if) such a perspective may actually exist. Much as Blade Runner’s Rachel, the Replicant who thought she was human, soon learns the truth of her wholly constructed, “replicated” nature, we, too, eventually come to realise that every information database derives its credibility and epistemological value in part from the same negation of subjectivity or “self-ness” informing our original state of cognitive disorientation. Not only does rational objectivity, it seems, not ensure our freedom as cognizant agents, it foregrounds a much more intricate and elaborate notion of the self as automaton loyally in service to the demands of objective understanding.

The logic behind this transformation, of course, remains general to all technological advancement, digital or analogue. It appears, most transparently perhaps, in the emergence of knowledge representation techniques in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with the first attempts to graph and chart visually measured information. If the modern concept of information can track its gestation period to Thomastic philosophy, its figural birth arrives with William Playfair’s significant attempts to map economic and ethnographic facts relevant to British population surveys. In 1786, the very first use of statistical graphs appeared in Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas. The book’s scope intended to provide an inclusive study of England’s economy in the late 18th century, and to this end Playfair discovered a series of new and useful presentation modes in bar charts and histograms. The capacity of such figures to demonstrate complex shifts and movements of data in an extremely condensed and efficient manner proved to be enormously beneficial to economic analyses.

Two centuries later, we stand even more cognitively dependent upon such resources, smartphones in hand, mind’s eyes following our blue dot alter egos to the latest dining recommendation. To live and function within our current state of epistemological agnosia, conversing over an increasingly dispersed, decentred, polysemous communication network is in many ways to embrace the ontological night Hegel assigned to modern subjectivity. Only our original psycho-neurological context, derived from one of Oliver Sack’s better known narratives, shares with Hegel some sense of the possible fear and unease accompanying this particular epistemological paradigm. There, to return briefly to the intriguing case of Dr. P, the term “integrative” remains suitably symptomatic, indicating a distinct incapacity of the self for holistic thought. Elsewhere throughout our information-centric culture, to be integrative evokes a mostly advanced, if not superior, approach to knowledge. In this context, the strange tendency exhibited by Dr. P to integrate his information, rather than identify it holistically, evokes a strangely alluring state of pure objectivity, allowing one consistently to see the most common items anew, time after time, freely stripped of all traditional associations. In this paradigm, no glove is ever really a glove, no phone, a phone; rather, all objects suggest ever shifting aggregates of parts and attributes, discontinuous, without purpose, yet still somehow coherent.



Aquinas, T. (2009). Summa Theologica. New York: BiblioBazaar.

Foucault, M. (1973).The order of things. New York: Vintage.

Habermas, J. (1990). Moral consciousness and communicative action. (C. Lenhardt & S. Nicholsen, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Haven, C. (2009, March 9). Stanford researcher uses cell phones to make music. 9 March 2009. Stanford University News. Retrieved October 23, 2009 from http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/march4/stanford-mobile-phone-orchestra-030409.html

Hegel, G. W. F. (1979 [1807]). Phenomenology of spirit. (A. V. Miller, Trans.). London: Oxford University Press.

Husserl, E. (1970). Crisis of european sciences and transcendental phenomenology. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Kant, I. (2008 [1781]). In M. Weigelt (Ed.), Critique of pure reason. (M. Muller, Trans.). New York: Penguin.

Radding, C. M., & Clark, W. W. (1992). Medieval architecture, medieval learning: Builders and masters in the age of romanesque and gothic. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sacks, O. (1998 [1970]). The man who mistook his wife for a hat: And other clinical tales. New York: Touchstone.

Science. (2001). In D. Harpe (Ed.), Online etymology dictionary. Retrieved October 23, 2009 from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=science

Verene, D. P. (1985). Hegel's recollection. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.


[1] Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, New York: Touchstone Press, 1998, 3.

[2] See Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. C. Lenhardt and S. Nicholsen, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990.

[3] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 78.

[4] Ge Wang quoted by Cynthia Haven in "Stanford researcher uses cell phones to make music." 9 March 2009. Stanford University News. 23 October 2009.

[5] Husserl, Crisis of European Sciences.

[6] G.W.F Hegel, “Jenaer Realphilosophie,” in Fuhe polutische Systeme, Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1974, 204; quoted in Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1985, 7-8.

[7] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller, 1807, London: Oxford UP, 1979, 18-19.

[8] “Science,” Online Etymology Dictionary. Ed. Douglas Harper, 2001.

[9] Hegel, 19.

[10] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia q.78 art. 4, New York: BiblioBazaar, 2009, 390.

[11] See for example, Daston and Galison’s Objectivity, Zone Books: 2007 and Robert Richard’s various critical histories of Darwinian Science.

[12] Charles M Radding and William W. Clark, Medieval Architecture, Medieval Learning: Builders and Masters in the Age of Romanesque and Gothic, New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1992, 3.

[13] Aquinas, 390.

[14] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, New York: Vintage, 1973, 304.

[15] Foucault, 304.