I am learning in class of the influence new media have on old-aged dichotomies such as matter-mind, subject-object and their like. Our new-media teacher asked us to read the paper "The condition of Virtuality" by N. Katherine Hayles - I read it and reread it but could not pick out the reasoning of the author - why does she associate information with matter? And then, virtuality (which is defined differently than virtual) with matter? Intuitively I think of virtuality as associated with mind not with body, and information likewise - with mind not with body. Can anyone please help me understand her thesis in regards to questions she raises such as those of analogy between mind-body and spirit-matter dualism among others?

Boiled down, what is her rationale in establishing a relation between matter and virtuality?

  • '... and why ?' Why what ? – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 25 '19 at 18:36
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    @GeoffreyThomas, I meant to ask what is her rationale in establishing a relation between matter and virtuality but maybe it is included in the prefix of my question; this way or another, I got lost in the paper and it is why asked for help in understanding her argument... – Luna Dec 25 '19 at 19:06
  • Thanks for clarification. – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 25 '19 at 19:08
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    @Luna Sorry for the heavy editing, but questions are often closed when they violate contributors' intuitions about what philosophy is, which is often arrayed against concepts that are thoroughly philosophical but outside the realm of common material. I've answered briefly below because it's Christmas for me, but if you have additional needs for clarification, comment on my response, and I'll clarify. – J D Dec 25 '19 at 19:50
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    Also, read her Hayles' biography on WP! – J D Dec 25 '19 at 20:05

What a wonderful contribution in the philosophy of technology. Let's see if we can't provide some clarification of this philosophical topic.


From the article you cited:

Virtuality is the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns.

So the first thing to be understood about her "virtuality" is that it views technological objects as examples of cultural artifacts which is in line with a broader notion of technology. According to Arnold Pacey in his The Culture of Technology, technology can be understood by three aspects; the phenomenon is cultural, organizational, and technical. This is important because many people who do not study technology tend to perceive technology only through a technical lens what Pacey calls the restricted sense, that is of or pertaining to the ancient Greek concept of τέχνη (techne).

A conceptual analysis of her definition immediately suggests that virtuality is defined in terms of psychologism, materialism and idealism. Indeed, on page 73 the author explicitly raises property dualism:

...the information/matter dichotomy maps onto the older and more traditional dichotomy of spirit/matter.

These are metaphysical matters, clearly, and instantly bring to mind questions of universals and particulars.


Simply put virtuality says that information communication technology (ICT) is a historical and industrial practice which creates cultural artifacts that attack the strict dichotomy between mental and matter, such as the mind-body duality. This is a metaphysical thesis supported by other philosophers, famously by Gilbert Ryle in his The Concept of Mind. The thesis that Cartesian duality, the dichotomy of mind and body, or perhaps of information and material in a modern incarnation, is a category mistake, and has been influential and championed by others such as Jaegwon Kim and Daniel Dennett. The author argues that ICT has both abstract and concrete properties.

On page 93 the author states:

...it is a historical construction to believe that computer media are disembodying technologies, not an obvious truth.

In fact, the most exciting part of her work is the confession:

... I can feel the language exerting an inertial pull on my argument, for only through the dichotomies constructed to describe it can I gesture toward the unity that the world is. Even as I point to the historical contingency of the terms, the very history that exposes this contingency reinscribes the information/materiality dichotomy I want to contest.

What This Means

The author is attacking the foundations of what an ontologist would call an ontological pluralism in one's ontological commitment. The author argues that in the world of media, the dichotomy is expressed as message and medium, and many very intelligent people have lost sight of the notion that a message can only exist by its instantiation in a medium. On page 75:

... it can be a shock to remember that for information to exist, it must always be instantiated in a medium...

What the author is trying to accomplish in this text to argue that this is an inescapable fact about existence. This is actually a controversial thesis for many philosophers who in the tradition of Plato and Rene Descartes roughly argue there are more than one realm of existence, and those realms can exist without cause and effect between them. This is in contradistinction to monist philosophy that claims there's only one sort of universe and all distinctions are artificial.


How does the author argue her thesis? By showing some historical facts about the social construction of a reality that purports that the disembodied nature of information are true.

One of her fundamental rationales is the work of Claude Shannon and the fields of information theory and control theory. On page 74:

Not everyone agreed that [divorcing information message from medium] was a good idea, despite its theoretical power. Malcontents grumbled that divorcing information from context, and thus from meaning, had made the theory so narrowly formalized that it was not useful as a general theory of communication. Shannon himself frequently cautioned that the theory was meant to apply only to certain technical situations, not to communication in general.

She later in page 77 goes to the heart by claiming that the dichotomies inherent in the matter are not realities, but provincial conveniences:

... such distinction as information/noise and signal/not-signal, the dualities are not dichotomies but dialects. In Derrida's phrase, they are engaged in an economy of supplementarity. Each of the privileged terms.... relies for its construction on a supplement.

Hence, these dichotomies are actually just linguistic conveniences whose foundational ideas are inescapably defined in prelinguistic and linguistic terms of dualities. Where one draws the distinctions or which distinctions one prefers is a matter of personal preference, not objective reality. In philosophy, this is called normativity which contrasts with it's dual, positivity.

She then goes on to give other such examples.

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    Thanks for taking the time to answer and merry Christmas to you! It will take me some time to grasp all the terms involved but your answer definitely helps. – Luna Dec 25 '19 at 21:24
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    I am wondering: in the light of all the work done in fields like neuroscience and cognitive science, how exactly can one continue defend holding onto a simple "Cartesian dual" of mind and matter these days anyway? – The_Sympathizer Jan 22 '20 at 4:13
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    @The_Sympathizer Whereas mathematics theory irrefutably marches forward because of a rather clear and accepted method and a highly uniform albeit diverse ontology, philosophical theory begins with metaphysical theory which itself is the argument over what objects are and how to conduct discourse. One can select virually any first principles that feel right without regard to apparent absurdity; I suspect a defense of classic Cartesian dualism is rare. I believe the problem defines the essential starting point for learning, a hic sunt dracones for going down the rabbit hole. – J D Jan 22 '20 at 16:33
  • @J D So what is the more common thing which gets asserted, which these arguments are then given in response to? – The_Sympathizer Jan 22 '20 at 16:36
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    @The_Sympathizer In The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle, teacher to Daniel Dennett, it is a category mistake. Philosophers recognize some claims are essentially bad language use. Dennett calls it the Cartesian Theater in his Consciousness Explained. Also, a metaontology like mereological nihilism recognizes that that one can have dual ontologies, but one is essentially an illusion. There are a variety of metaontologies: Quine, Carnap, and Meinong have theirs. – J D Jan 22 '20 at 16:46

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