One philosophical idea is essential in Eastern as well as in Western philosophy: the idea of All-Unity. The ambition to grasp the world “as a whole” through a phenomenon so powerful that it is able to unify all diversity within it, is linked to one of the most primordial philosophical impulses or instincts. In India, truth is thought of in relation to “the unity of things,” and such ideas of the whole universe being manifest in each atom are recurrent. Classical and modern Indian philosophy (Advaita Vedanta) sees Brahman (the Absolute) as a single reality, and systems like the one of the Yogâcâra conceive reality as undifferentiated.
In the West, Parmenides’ “One Being” and Heraclitus’ logos represent the starting points of philosophy. These ancient ideas of All-Unity, although indirectly and by first passing through Plato’s dialectics, are present in Western “rationalist” philosophy as well. But the most explicit use of the idea of All-Unity has been made by Russian philosophers of the 19th century. Here it became a major philosophical concept, culminating in Vladimir Soloviev’s vseyedinstvo (All-Unity) in the form of a cosmic process claiming to be the “soul of the world.”
While “All-Unity” can be found at the beginning of many philosophical reflections, it can also be found at many a reflection’s end. What can be added, aspired or examined, once this All-Unity has been spelled out and officially given the status of an ultimate philosophical truth? Well, in principle, still two more things can be done: (1) All-Unity can be transformed into a more sophisticated dialectical, cosmological, monadological system; and (2) All-Unity can be defended against diverse attempts to formulate the world as nothing more than a random accumulation of single elements. In Western philosophy both things have been done in various, often highly sophisticated ways. Spinoza, Bruno, Eckhart, and finally Hegel are the best known examples. However, the overall impression in these philosophies is that All-Unity is conceived of as simultaneously attractive and repulsive. In other words: it is not seen as an end in itself. Spinoza, for example, held that even though there is only one substance, this substance has infinite attributes. A large part of Western philosophy is indeed nourished by a stimulating tension between descriptions of the world composed of clearly definable singularities on the one hand, and a unifying All-Unity on the other. In this sense, All-Unity as the expression of an ontological or existential self-contradictoriness, or even of an aporia simultaneously affirming the existence of single elements and their unity (an idea widely reflected by Idealism) has been philosophically fruitful. If, however, the philosophy of All-Unity does nothing more than negate any difference it becomes, in contradicting “reality,” mysticism. As “mystic” must be understood the attempt to think “All-Unity” as a self-sufficient intellectual phenomenon, carrying with it the “end of philosophy,” meaning the dull repetition of identical intellectual models.
The last time the idea of All-Unity was put forth straightforwardly occurred during Romanticism with its nostalgia for the unity of God, nature and man. In some respects, this discredited, for our age of science, further attempts to grasp any All-Unity. On the other hand, Hegel’s Absolute Spirit announcing the “End of History,” remains attractive even today. Yet, the fact to consider a uniform unity as “real” and as the culmination point of philosophical thought still represents nothing more than pure mysticism.
One of the questions to be asked in the present article is if the current spreading of Virtual Reality and of “cyberspace” cannot be linked to visions of an all-unifying end of history. Margareth Wertheim is convinced that “in a quite literal sense, cyberspace is outside the physical complex of matter-space-time that since the late seventeenth century has increasingly been held as not just the basis of reality, but as the totality of the real.” The question is thus: does Virtual Reality represent the idea of a non-physical space enabling man to grasp the world as a whole?
It is interesting to examine a phenomenon whose connection with problems of All-Unity as much as with Cyberspace has generally gone unnoticed: perspective. Modern science discovered and elaborated the definition of subjects, elements, substances, and the structures between them. Of course, all this was only possible on the firm ground of a fixed perspective from which subjects, elements, and so forth, could be perceived. This does not only concern natural sciences but an entire Weltanschauung, including art, society, and religion.
In art and architecture, the invention of “perspective” has become most famous. The use of perspective in Renaissance painting was certainly more than an artistic device creating the illusion of naturalist spatial depth. “Perspectivism” presents itself more like a dogmatic subjectivism attempting to reconstruct the world within a geometric system by relying on one single point of view. “Perspectivist rationalism” confines imagination to relatively narrow limits. It therefore runs the risk of failing to grasp reality since reality is neither geometrical, nor can its “whole” experience be covered by what is visible from one single point of view. In opposition to this, it is obvious that non-perspectival approaches strive towards All-Unity. In pre-17th century Byzantine paintings for example, which were not yet influenced by linear perspective, the point of view from which an object is seen appears as moving and changing. Still, the aim of an art which ignores perspective is not simply to address, by moving around and constantly changing the perspective, a possibly high number of different mosaic glances, but rather to grasp the essence of reality itself.
Perspectival and non-perspectival paradigms are also present in approaches to society and religion. Russian philosophers of the 19th century insisted that Western-European philosophy had “invented” the idea of the “isolated individual” able to exist independently of a communitarian “Whole.” This critique of “secular” society is closely linked to theological conceptions. Certainly, God is “all in all” (Cor. XV 28). However, from an Eastern-Orthodox point of view, in Western Christianity, God became a concept. It no longer incorporated the inner drama of life and became, in the words of Nicolai Berdiaev, “equivalent to an unstirring stone.” Through the loss of the “tragic aspect within god” (Berdiaev) the inner drama and dynamic stirring related to religious experience, were replaced by a single, static, idolizing gaze dependent only on one single perspective.
For Berdiaev, this Western-Christian God is more “scientific” than his Eastern-Orthodox one. Of course, as so often in philosophical discussions about “Unity,” the Western approach can rightfully insist that it has not lost the idea of All-Unity entirely. While Berdiaev claims that his God is able to embrace All-unity only because He embraces the “whole life” of human beings, Western Christianity can claim that it is just the more abstract approach to theology that is helpful in grasping the “whole world” within one concept.
In general, in modern Western civilization, the perspective vision of the world is supposed to signify a “progress.” The “unperspectival” way of seeing the world that was current before the Renaissance is equated with a kind of weakened state of consciousness. Lack of perspective means to be unconscious of the space that one lives in and of one’s own position within that space. On a social level it can be associated with an ancient, clan-like existence in which “the individual” as a social entity has not yet been discovered.
According to this model, perspective had to be installed as a means to show the way out of an All-Unity in which all cats are gray and that comes close to a kind of drunken mysticism. Once perspective leads us out of this “All-Unity,” the whole is not necessarily lost because it can always be retrieved in the form of an abstract whole. What is lost, however, is a certain dynamic of (social, visual, theological) positions that is usually sparked off through the confrontation of one perspective with both other perspectives as well as with the phenomenon of the whole on the other.
In 1949, the German philosopher Jean Gebser published a book called Ursprung und Gegenwart that was translated into English only in 1985 under the title The Ever-Present Origin. Gebser understands the antithesis of perspectival and unperspectival seeing as logocentric and believes that it will soon be overcome because at the end of the 20th century man’s concept of reality will undergo radical changes. Gebser’s idea is that in Renaissance, “although man’s horizon expanded, his world became increasingly narrow as his vision was sectorized by the blinders of the perspectival world view. The gradual movement toward clearer vision was accompanied by a proportionate narrowing of his visual sector. The deeper and farther we extend our view into space, the narrower is the sector of our visual pyramid.” (p. 23) However, the imprisonment of vision and consciousness though perspective will soon come to an end, as evidenced by Picasso’s aperspectival way of painting. Gebser finds that in a drawing from Picasso from 1926…
…space and body have become transparent. In this sense the drawing is neither unperspectival, i.e., a two-dimensional rendering of a surface in which the body is imprisoned, nor is it perspectival, i.e., a three-dimensional visual sector cut out of reality that surrounds the figure with breathing space. The drawing is “aperspectival” in our sense of the term; time is no longer spatialized but integrated and concretized as a forth dimension. By this means it renders the whole visible to insight, a whole which becomes visible only because the previously missing component, time, is expressed in an intensified and valid form as the present. It is no longer the moment… (p. 24)
In this drawing, as in Picasso’s Guernica, spatiality is almost abolished (p. 28), leaving only a “pure present, the quintessence of time.” Some of Picasso’s works “are almost devoid of any depth and any central point of illumination,” and express the “eternal present” and not just a temporal moment.
Essentially, Gebser anticipates a “new reality” that will be more “intensive” as it is no longer egocentric but determined by an “aperspectival” structure of consciousness that has overcome the perspective dichotomy of negation and affirmation. This consciousness is “a consciousness of the whole” in which “intensity and action, the effective and the effect co-exist.” (p. 7) It is an “integral reality” as an “intensive awareness of the world’s transparency, a perceiving of the world as truth.”
Gebser’s prediction appears to be amazingly correct, except for the fact that the “new reality” has not been painted by Picasso or by some other artist experimenting with perspective; the new aperspectival consciousness of the whole is provided by Virtual Reality. Here perspective (which still existed in simulation) is not simply negated but moreover overcome in the way imagined by Gebser, since all exterior points of view have been replaced with an absolutely “inner” one. Through this new, integral form of reality, man’s desire to return to social and spatial unity, a desire that has been so severely negated since Renaissance, seems to have been fulfilled.
While it is relatively easy to agree with the correspondence of Virtual Reality with Gebser’s model, the consequences remain debatable. Liberals have much reason to remain relaxed, since, given the intellectual stimulation that Virtual Reality provides in general, it seems to be unlikely that its creation will provoke a slump into an unperspectival night. Aperspectival reality could function in the service of social, intellectual, and spiritual dynamism in the way Russian philosophers of the 19th century, Berdiaev, or Gebser strove after.
Less liberal persons would still remain skeptical because nothing really indicates with certitude that the invention of Virtual Reality overlaps with the inauguration of an era in which “community,” “social experience,” or perhaps even “God,” will be rediscovered in a new, aperspectival, light. All these items could also be covered under that kind of mystical All-Unity that in the past has more than once brought thought to a standstill.
Still liberals can remain relaxed because they will understand the aforesaid rather as a proof for the fact that, in principle, nothing is new. All-Unity has once more reemerged with just as many reasons to be optimistic as there are reasons to be pessimistic. Everything depends on whether the All-Unity develops along the lines of a Hegelian monism or of a rather pluralistic empiricism in the sense of Bergson and William James; and, with the help of some minor regulations, why should the struggle between monism and pluralism not lead to positive conclusions?
There is still another point of opposition to this liberal position. Virtual reality represents an unprecedented squaring of the circle since it is All-Unity seen from one single perspective. In the worst case the virtual fusion of perspectivism and unperspectivism will create a form of aperspectivism so peaceful that it can bring all personal reflection to a standstill. The main danger is indeed that “All-Unity with integrated perspective” will be retrieved by an “eat your cake and have it” attitude that is so common in late capitalism. Would we not all like to live in an abstract world and still make concrete experiences? This Aufgehen (transcending) of the abstract in the concrete would truly signify the end of philosophy and the end of history because: when a single perspective is “All-unity,” then no dialectic is possible.
We should therefore conclude that Gebser was mistaken, and that his idea is to be seen as a typical product of 20th century “eat your cake and have it” modernism. In the end, perspective thinking will not be overcome with the creation of an aperspectival world because this world is too close to abstraction. We need instead a courageous return to unperspectivism enabling the experience of tragic shifts from one perspective to the other. Gebser refused such a return because to him this represented (like icons and pre-Renaissance paintings) a concession to social primitivism and pre-civilizational paradigms of culture. However, being unduly afraid of the unperspectival night, did he not go too far by offering us a world entirely new and beaming with aperspectival light? More modest approaches, like that of Bergson, seem to be more useful. Bergson provided contently a “felt” view of the world perceived through (still perspectival) intuition, instead of a really new world in which perspective has been abolished. Gebser’s aperspectival world remains an utopia. It is seemingly impossible to change the fact that in reality the world is perspectival as much as it is unperspectival. Human experiences will always have to be made within a field of tension stretching between empiricism and intuition. Yet, looking at most recent technical developments, it seems indeed to be possible to create a world in which all “unsafe” and tragic experiences have been abolished.
According to Stephen Perrela, Virtual Reality is the “concrete realization of Hegel’s Absolute Spirit,” (my italics) and Michael Heim’s characterizes Virtual Reality as a theological manifestation of Leibniz’s monad in which we experience no temporal unfolding, no dramatic shifts or delays, but only a kind of aperspectival presence. In principle, this returns to the “God as a concept” theory that avoids the “tragedy of life” in order to replace it with a stagnant form of reality as abstract as a concept. In this reality, changes of perspective are not permitted. Already once the Western European mind decided to avoid these changes by successfully gluing vision to one single point of view.
It goes without saying that such a “safe” attitude that counts on absolute abstraction on the one hand, but still enables concrete experience on the other, is particularly attractive in contemporary civilization. Through it, a phenomenon like Virtual Reality comes even closer to dream because also in dream excitement and fun are imbedded in such a realm of absolute peace that the experience itself adopts the character of a special form of reality. In this context, it cannot be a coincidence that the creation of Virtual Reality goes widely in parallel with the development of a new cosmology available to laypersons through the media and popular books on science.
Pierre Levy, in his optimistic evaluation of Virtual Reality, likens Virtual reality to a “collective subjectivity in a cosmos.” Paul Virilio is convinced that “virtual space” means to substitute the “real space” of the cosmos, and Margareth Wertheim writes that “cyberspace creates a parallel world that in the very real sense is a new cosmos of the psyche [which is] not made up of atoms or particles, but is ontologically rooted in the ephemera of bits and bytes, not subject to the laws of physics and […] not bound by the limitations of those laws.”
It is true that a reality that has been tested as a cosmological phenomenon is simply “safer.” The serenity provided by the awareness of being in harmony with a cosmos that is abstract though still real is dreamlike and, moreover, dispenses us from any responsibility towards concrete life (“it’s the cosmos, you know”) is indeed precious. In a recent special issue devoted to “The New Cosmology,” the Scientific American presents diverse results of astrophysical research that laypersons may hesitate to associate with scientific learning. In these speculations on the nature of the cosmos, “being” and “nothingness” become intertwined, “energy” is used metaphorically rather than as a measurable quantity, and the meaning of the word “exact” becomes relative par excellence because “nothing is exact, not even nothingness” (p. 31). A most remarkable hypothesis is also pronounced with regard to “empty space” that is supposed to be filled with elementary particles able to “spontaneously pop out of nothingness and disappear again, if they do so for a time so short that one cannot measure them directly.” Though the author admits that “such virtual particles, as they are called, may appear as far-fetched as angels sitting on the head of a pin,” his conclusion remains that “empty space is not empty at all” but that it must be filled with these “virtual particles.” Even more, the entire universe “must be composed largely of an even more ethereal form of energy that inhabits empty space, including that which is in front of our noses.” (p. 32)
The reference to “virtual particles” shows that while theoreticians of Virtual Reality borrow from astrophysics the technical metaphor of “cosmos”, cosmologists borrow the metaphor of “the virtual” from theoreticians of Virtual Reality in return. In fact, nothing could be more virtual. Space itself, because it begins embracing everything (from experiential life-space to space as a subject for astrophysical research), is defined as an ontological paradox: simultaneously empty and not empty, (perspectively) measurable and not measurable, living and dead, or most simply: virtual.
It is clear that in spaces as safe as this one, the most dangerous and potentially tragic experience of all human experiences had to be ruled out from the beginning: the possibility to meet another person. This does not mean that one would not meet other people in the virtual cosmos, but it is difficult to see how these people could still be recognized as “the other.” In 1967, the computer scientist Michael Polaner could still complain about “the scientific outlook that appeared to have produced a mechanical conception of man.” This statement perhaps best shows the extent technology has advanced since the 1960. The main problem today is not that the Other would be judged as too “mechanical,” but rather that a mechanically all-unified character of reality does not even permit the perception of the other as the Other.
Certainly, cyberspace allows a shared reality with another person to a point that his/her reality is mine in the sense that it permits me, as says Wertheim, “to experiment and play with others.” However, in reality this is not true sharing. “To share reality” essentially means to look at the same things, or the same symbols from different perspectives. Even more, it is the very constellation of two persons looking at the same object from two different perspectives that creates space. At the moment there is no tragic shift from one perspective to the other, the Other is lost along with the potential space that could have been created. If there is no perspective, I cannot adopt the perspective of the Other.
In Japanese Noh-plays the quality known as “detached viewing” describes a sophisticated self-other relationship through which experience is shared between the performer and each member of the audience. “Detached” viewing (the fact that the spectator is prepared to leave his/her own perspective of the event and to view it with the supra-perspectival eye of the others), is seen as an achievement of dramatic art, as a part of the dramatic experience of the Noh-play itself. The important point is that spatial consciousness is here created “tragically” through a loss of perspective which, for that reason first of all had to exist, and the adoption of another, all-uniting perspective.
The “detached viewing” is reminiscent of Gebser’s aperspectival seeing, but in reality it is different. It is not the attribute of a synthetically created reality but the result of real experience. All-Unity that has been obtained in this way, that is, through a tragic shift from one individual perspective to a larger one, represents real, mature understanding. Once this shift has been obtained, there is no return to naïve perspectivism because: once the cake is eaten you cannot have it. This, however, is probably a less popular thing to claim in the realm of virtual aesthetics.
1. Russian philosophers who were interested in the idea of All-Unity are in particular the pre-revolutionary, “organicist” thinkers Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), Lev Lopatin (1855-1922) and Semën L. Frank (1877-1950). Especially Frank’s and Soloviev idea of All-Unity (vseyedinstvo) represents a “unity in multiplicity”
2. A curious case is the Christian Church which understood any attempts to see the world as an All-Unity as Pantheism. The only All-Unity it would accept was God who created a world composed of singularities. In some way, the Church wanted to monopolize “all-unifying” mysticism and not permit its use outside definitions of God.
. Jean Gebser (1905-1973): The Ever-Present Origin (Athens, London: University of Ohio Press, 1985)
. Stephen Perella: “Hypersurfaces: Social Fluxus” in Beckmann, p. 237
. Pierre Levy: L’Intelligence collective: pour une anthropologie du cyberspace (Paris: La Découverte, 1994), p. 169.
. Virilio: La Bombe informatique (Paris: Galilée, 2000), p. 95
. Werthheim, p. 58.
. Lawrence M. Krauss: “Cosmological Gravity” in Scientific American (The Once and Future Cosmos) 12: 2, 2002, p. 33.
. Michael Polaner: The Tacit Dimension (1967) quoted from Joseph Weizenbaum: Computer Power and Human Reason (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976)
. Wertheim, p. 58.