Thinking the Grey Areas

An interview with Luciano Floridi.

Award-winning philosopher of the information age, Luciano Floridi, is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford. In this interview, Floridi comments on the peculiar human obsession with oppositions.

Some philosophy has questioned the reality of all direct oppositions. How far would you agree that all oppositions are constructed?

Oppositions are not constructed – as if it were up to us to decide about them entirely – but they are not discovered either – as if we only needed to acknowledge them by registering their presence in the world from some God’s eye perspective. They are designed, and this means that they are a mixture of objective data and subjective manipulation.

We can see the world in black or white, appreciate it as big or small, evaluate it in terms of right or wrong, or think that it must be discrete or continuous. But the truth is that any opposition is the outcome of a specific abstraction – that is, a specific way of processing the constraining affordances, the ingredients, provided by the world – and an abstraction is adopted for a specific purpose. If the purpose is to see continuity and not mere polarisation, then the grey, the medium-sized, the ambiguous and so forth may be privileged. This is not relativism, because there is a clear sense in which one may assess the appropriateness of one abstraction with respect to the fulfilment of a particular purpose.

Do you think that binary distinctions can aid our understanding of the world in any circumstances?

They can be. Often they are only starting points for more nuanced and subtler forms of understanding.

From politics to the natural sciences, we use binaries in our every day lives, even when they are of questionable value. What does our thirst for oppositions say about our culture?

The yes-no approach, the capacity to draw a line or adopt a threshold that can divide things as being on one side or the other is a wonderful way to process information quickly and efficiently. And of course our digital culture seems to invite us to indulge in such exercises. But we are constantly reminded that fuzzy borders, shadowy transitions, melange contexts and so forth are just as real and as important. Sometimes the best answer to an either/or questions is: both.

What role do you think language plays in creating opposition?

I do not know much about other languages, but certainly our own Indo-European roots seem to privilege simple and basic oppositions, to the extent that even some philosophy is regularly infected: substance vs form, mind vs body, internalism vs externalism, representationalism vs non-representationalism… endless debates have lost any touch with reality by being driven by similar oppositions. Such artefacts have little to do with the world.

Where is our obsession with dichotomy most damaging, and what improvements might result from looking differently at things?

When it represents an implicit box which constraints our way of thinking without us even realising it. It is a good exercise to wonder whether the problems we are dealing with are irresolvable because we have been misled by some fundamental opposition that is silently driving our ways of thinking.

The proverbial “thinking outside the box" sometimes means simply dropping the most deeply entrenched oppositions to either look for connections or for better oppositions.

What are the implications of your views on binaries to your study of the philosophy of information?

I try to keep in mind that the digital-analogue opposition is an abstraction, and that thinking that the world in itself must be either continuous or discrete means not having grasped that the very question is misplaced. Imagine someone asking whether “being married” is continuous or discrete. Relations are not the sort of things that are properly described as continuous or discrete. Kant has taught us that overstepping the limits of our models of the world is a pointless enterprise. Unfortunately, it is also very tempting and enjoyable, so many philosophers cannot resist. But it is mere metaphysics in the worst sense of the word.

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Ronald Higgins 13 February 2014

I entirely agree about the dangers of the simplistic binary bind....sometimes necessary, even useful and often a gross distortion.
But what is this digital-analogue opposition? I'm afraid its 60 years since I read philosophy and \I'm not sure is was invented then!
Thanks, Ronald Higgins