Metaphysics Lite
Essay which first appeared in 'Writing Sociology', North Carolina State University


How do you write theory in a video-centered, post-bookish world? You could, of course, forget the bookish world and aim your "books" at Oprah, Donahue, or Montel. Or you could stick to obscure journals that no one reads. But what if you want to emulate the in-depth literary production of our ancestors and at the same time write real books that get read?

My answer to this question is metaphysics lite: Find a style that nourishes but is easy to digest. Intellectual nourishment on the lite side need not be shallow. It must, however, strike a chord in the reader that sounds clear and friendly and even welcoming. Imagine metaphysics with a sense of humor, made bearable by the lightness of being (small B). You don't find metaphysics lite in the long sentences of Kant or the ponderous paragraphs of Heidegger. (I translated Heidegger's The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic with never a smile.) Write clear sentences that present a human face, and maybe metaphysics will find its way into Crown Books or the Book-of-the-Month Club.

That was my goal, and here are some steps I found necessary.

From Grad School to the Global Village

The first step is to shed the aura of graduate school. Graduate school teaches us many things, but one thing it does not teach is how to write. On the contrary. When we enter graduate school, we bring from home some very confused, half-baked personal notions about the subject we are about to study, whether philosophy or sociology. However half-baked, those personal notions speak to us with our own inner voices, and they speak in our mother tongue. As we continue in school, those inner voices grow weaker. Instead of our home-brew hunches, we drink elaborate ideas based on complex methodology and techniques of rational analysis. We get wise to every possible objection to a theory and we learn to counter every naive assumption with an argument. Stripped of our impulses, we become free to observe and examine our prejudices and those of others.

Once sophisticated (in the ancient sense of the word), we seek support from fellow students. We develop an inner circle where people write papers for members of their own group. In this way, graduate school breeds intensity and focus, which is good. At the same time, however, the inner circle develops its own jargon. While the group's activities hold off the feeling of individual isolation, they also isolate the group from the culture at large.

Unfortunately, the same school that clears up our prejudices also rips out those personal impulses that are the wellsprings of good writing. Good writing comes from listening to ourselves talk inside. If we cannot hear our own inner voices, we cannot take ourselves seriously. If we cannot take ourselves seriously, we cannot write with passion or a desire to communicate. True, good writers must filter their inner talk and shape it into something for the page. But the inner talk must exist before the filters go on. Writing that does not come from within falls flat because it lacks direction, drive, and intention. Without an undercurrent of subvocal speech, our written words are dead.

Academics have for too long held theory captive to bad writing. After all, Socrates hung out in the market place. Maybe written philosophy should live there too, hanging out in the neighborhood Super Crown. How else should metaphysics have a bearing on contemporary life? Philosophy should belong to the world in which I grew up, which became the world of Crown Books, computers, and word processors. To shed light on life, theory must go lite.

Liberation by Computer

For me, the break from graduate school came when I began writing on a word processor - a Radio Shack Model 100 notebook back in 1983. Though out of school and teaching for nearly a decade, my writing carried the scent of bad translations and the convoluted obscurity of Deconstruction.

The speed of working with computer texts began to outrun my inhibitions. The ease of writing on computers made inroads into my rigidity and fear of communication. I began listening again to my inner voices. My first book was a paean to the word processor. Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing described the fluidity of digital text and showed how it was changing the way we write and think. The felt shift led me to worry about the eventual impact on our culture - a culture drifting away from print literacy.

But Electric Language still spoke the graduate school dialect. I wanted my book to be the first treatise on word processing - which it was - but it was still a "treatise." Since graduate school, I felt myself dissertating, and only secondarily communicating. Academic manners lingered even though I had renounced the jargon of imported theories. Yet my schooling led me to ape the treatises of a century ago. Why? Because I had been taught to respect those outer voices rather than the voices within. The sound of the treatise echoed in my scholar's inner ear.

Electric Language seldom broke from long academic sentences, passive constructions, and scholastic paraphenalia. A few passages came from direct experience rather than second-hand concepts, but the courage to break away was not strong enough. For instance, when describing what we today call "cyberspace," Electric Language says:

The human user, then, confronts the opacity of the system by building a set of metaphors for making operational guesses at the underlying structure. These are not, of course, explanations in any strict scientific sense. They provide the basis around which to organize responses for continued interaction with the system. To counter system opacity, the user comes to visualize, on a conscious or subconscious level of awareness, the system as a one or another kind of flow of information. When learning to write on a computer, for instance, you begin to imagine physical storage areas, such as disk drives, ram drives, and read-only memory. In order to save and organize files securely, you learn to conceive of them as physical locations, as imaginative places, however phantom-like they may seem. Otherwise, disaster is near. The most elementary case is the neophyte watching in astonishment as the text disappears when scrolled off the screen; some primitive model of storage begins to replace the first sense of irretrievable loss as the user learns to handle the vanishing writing. Users devise increasingly complex stages of building up a model, as the following example shows.1

Ouch! The pain of rereading these sentences from ten years ago! And this passage is one of the more readable ones. What the paragraph describes as a model in the user's imagination now goes by a familiar name, and the name is "cyberspace." A whole generation is taking up residence in that electronic space, and the new realists are giving cyberspace a reality status, adding a layer to our metaphysics. Cyberspace has gone from mental model to real estate.

Plunging Further into the Computer-Generated World

My acquaintance with cyberspace came with my migration from the academic world. Electric Language went largely ignored by academics, but people from the software and computer industry responded warmly. So I began hanging out more with computer people than with academics. I began using email and in 1989 lectured on-line at the virtual university of the New School for Social Research. The change in my associations also changed my vocabulary, freeing me up for what I had to say. Email fosters subvocal thinking.

I left a tenured position for a more creative environment. As I migrated from the academic world, my writing improved. Improvement comes from writing for people outside your specialty because you can make fewer assumptions. The best audience is not a group of specialists who cheer their own kind. The best audience is one that gives you radical feedback, because feedback stirs you to restate things, and restatement leads to fresh language.

In response to my articles in trade journals, my readers in the computer industry began sharing their own creative endeavors. At that time, the late 1980s, their breakthroughs lay in the area of Virtual Reality. So my writing could draw on new discoveries long before the general public caught wind of them.

My book, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, describes cyberspace in a style quite different from that of Electric Language:

Cyberspace is the broad electronic net in which virtual realities are spun. Virtual reality is only one type of phenomenon within electronic space. Cyberspace, as a general medium, invites participation. In the framework of the everyday world, cyberspace is the set of orientation points by which we find our way around a bewildering amount of data. Working on a mainframe computer, like the Cyber 960 or the VAX 6320, we must learn to sketch a mental map for navigating the system. Without a subconsciously familiar map, we soon lose our way in the information wilderness. Using a desktop or portable computer requires a similar internal depiction of how hardware, CRT, keyboard, and disk drives connect, even if the picture is mythical or anthropomorphic - just as long as it works. Magnetic storage offers no three-dimensional cues for physical bodies, so we must develop our own internally imaged sense of the data topology. This inner map we make for ourselves, plus the layout of the software, is cyberspace. The familiar mental map compares to the full-featured virtual reality like radio to television, or like television to three-dimensional bodily experience. In its simplest form, cyberspace activates the user's creative imagination. As it becomes more elaborate, cyberspace develops real-world simulations and then virtual realities. 2

Will these lines cause me pain someday? Probably. As we move along and transform ourselves, we feel discomfort because we live in a slightly different world - one which we have helped shape.

One reader recently emailed me and said that Electric Language pleases him more than The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality because Electric Language moves in a tight linear way, like books should. You can pick up Metaphysics and read any chapter. Also, he complained, Metaphysics shows the marks of the word processor. Lines reappear, and passages recur with slight recursive editing. Some reviewers liken Metaphysics to a hypertext. Others have emailed me to express preference for Metaphysics over Electric Language.

In protecting these brain siblings from each other, I can only plead deliberate intent: Yes, a book today must take into account the reader's short reading sessions in a high-stress, fast-paced lifestyle. The long-winded treatise is going the way of Victorian novels. In today's loud barrage of information, the author is a lout who makes no effort to knock considerately at the reader's door, and, yes, the reader should indeed expect a carefully packaged gift of ideas.

A book should also reflect the occasions in which the author originally put the ideas into words. Only later does the writer filter the vocalized speech into writing. The word processor shortens the path from vocalized to written word. Techno-theory, the way I write it, should show the smudge of the technological culture that sustains it.

Theory has for too long been the captive of bad writing. Socrates hung out in the market place. Plato was a poet before he wrote philosophy. The goal of serious theory must be to land some writings in the local Super Crown. One day in the future, doctoral candidates will take a course in "How to Get Over Graduate School and Become A Professional."


1. Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1987), p. 133.

2. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 134.


updated 1993