Who we are


Susan Sontag opens her essay on photography with a reference to Plato’s  cave, in which ‘[H]umankind lingers unregenerately […] still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth”. In more modern parlance this sounds like a neurologist claiming that our entire experience of the world is infact merely an experience of representations, constructed ‘within our brains’ from information, i.e. signals, delivered and processed through the senses. So in a sense the cave has become our bodies, our central nervous systems producing or constructing what we call reality. It is of course not that simple, because we still know very little about how this comes about, and Kant’s claims of a priori categories underlying this process of apperception/construction has not yet been fully dethroned.

In the meantime this cave allegory or simile has taken on an entirely new meaning in a Virtual Reality installation, a thre-dimensional space that allows multiple visitors to simultaneoulsy have an experience of what it is like to move about in a completely new space created by computer assisted virtual reality. It seems striking that for this VR to work a concept developed in film criticism is applied: the suspension of disbelief. This means that people become immersed in the media experience to the extent that they forget about the medium itself.

This idea should guide us in the following reconsideration of the public sphere, that is exposed to political tensions that arise between liberal democracy and the rise of anti-liberal trends in politics, and its being distorted by new forms of media, that are not only new in their omnipresence, diversity (not necessarily the same as pluralistic), and above all their manipulation through artificial intelligence tools, such as bots, that filter, amplify information, opening all doors to the spread of fake news, be they manufactured by individual players trying to make money from clicks, or as a very efficient tool of political propaganda.

Be it due to similar anatomical structures, conventional consensus, or media experience (independent of being fake or real in itself) we refer to these experiences as ‘reality’ that we share with others and that we call our world. So we could say that what we call reality is a rather strange and flimsy construction of something we do know only very little about. But for our everyday purposes this seems to be good enough. We ‘know’ that we are in Klagenfurt right now, that we are attending a conference, that we’ll have lunch and dinner at such and such place, that there is a lake. So we are rather comfortable sharing our common experience of this cave situation on an everyday level. 

Helas, philosophy sprang from what we might call a fundamental dissatisfaction with socalled reality, and is hence one of the oldest disciplines to probe into this naive concept of reality. This probing lies at the heart of what philosophy has tried to do ever since man started to reflect upon, and question his ‘natural’ self, body, and surroundings. And this skeptical probing is also the point of departure for any question we might ask with regard to truth, fiction, illusion – and the related topics of world and experience, as summed up so aptly by the title of this conference.