The Philosophy of the Internet By M. M. Brandl

The Philosophy of the Internet ??By M. M. Brandl

The Philosophy of the Internet Lecture by Hubert Dreyfus, Professor of Philosophy at UCLA at Berkeley, given in the Stanley Burbury Theatre at the University of Tasmania on 22 March 2000, 6.15pm

Hubert Dreyfus looked the epitome of a philosophy professor – small, bent in his late 60s. His blonde hair however gave him a startling resemblance to Andy Warhol. Somehow that hair gave me confidence in his speaking on topic of the Internet.

He was introduced as one of the most eminent of contemporary American philosophers, author of two well-known books, entitled “What Computers Cant Do” and “What Computers Still Can’t Do”.

He began quite directly by asking, “What is the promise and the danger of the Internet?”

His take-off point was the urgency now felt in the US since two major studies have shown that even though the internet has put more people into contact with one another than ever before, the more time one spends on the net, the more depressed and more isolated one feels.

He suggested that an older philosopher might be able to shed light on the topic and from this point stayed with Kierkegaards views on the public sphere and the press written about 1850.

K warned against these two institutions which he considered dangerous in his present age.

What worried him was that they both levelled all distinctions, encouraged detachment. [A later philosopher Nietzsche was to coin the term nihilism for this.]

A century before a German philosopher Jrgen Habermas had talked about the public sphere, a term which has become our public. This was invented in the middle of 18c in coffee-houses and public discussions.

The modern public sphere regards itself as outside political power and this extra-political status is not only negative – since it has no political power – but also positive – rational, disinterested, reflective.

The press of 19c extended the political debate wider. Edmund Burke said of it “Every man feels he has an opinion”. Habemann welcome the democracy of this. But K deplored that no one in this arena needed any experience to talk about things. Because it was outside politics, people could criticise and reflect endlessly, and never ACT.

The press speaks for the public, but no one stands behind it. In the public no single person belongs to the public or is in it.

The Internet, says Dreyfus, with groups everywhere and no qualifications needed to join, where everyone and anyone can have an opinion on anything and everything is also anonymous and ubiquitous. Any local stand is irrelevant. It undermines expertise. In all of this it is like our post-modern age too.

K felt that no one grows as a human being except by taking risky commitment, and taking to heart ones successes and failures. Unless the outcome matters, learning becomes stale, learning does not occur.

Commentators who have views which lack passionate commitment will never make serious errors and therefore will never improve.

Ks solution to this was to plunge into activity, into action. Enter deep water and don’t play in the shallows, he said.

He speaks of the 3 stages in this leap: 1. Aesthetic sphere, 2. Ethical sphere, 3. Religious sphere.

1. The aesthetic sphere is the enjoyment of the endless possibilities of the press or of the Internet if we apply it thus. This stage is typified by the inveterate net surfer who is curious about everything, about what is hot and what is cool.

The meaning of the activity comes from what is interesting versus what is boring. What makes this surfing so thrilling? What motivates a passionate commitment to curiosity? Anonymity – a virtual commitment but not a real one.

The Internet can change our notions of identity. In chat rooms, we can think of ourselves as fluid, or endlessly constructing. Again like post-modern life. The Internet encourages experimentation, because it has no consequences. But this will break down and become boring. As a result of knowing everything possible we enter a contradiction. The self requires balance, stability, steadiness. We need to distinguish the trivial from the important.

Everyone who lives aesthetically is in despair, but knowing this, you are ready for stage 2.

2. The Ethical sphere

Here one has a stable identity and a commitment to purpose. The net can become a valuable resource. Goals are set, committed action is possible. There are many committed interest groups who use the net for their purposes. Over 1 billion sites this week!

However this very multiplicity may eventually break down the ethical sphere – just too many to take seriously and paralysis follows. The ethnical enthusiast narrows his/her choice. The ethical enthusiast is an autonomous human being who chooses what is important and what is not. But, if everything is up to choice then it becomes arbitrary, changing, subjective. Nothing makes a serious difference. This choice can lead to despair. The way out is by making ONE serious or special commitment.

3. Religious Sphere

K speaks of unconditional commitment, or infinite passion. A strong identity can be based on unconditional commitment, and nihilism can be blocked. Such commitments are risky for they can falter – the lover can leave, the church disappoint and so on, but one needs a reason to die for.

What role can the Internet play in encouraging such unconditional commitment, he asked?

One needs to be able to transfer what one learns from the net to the REAL world. The commitment must also operate in the real world. The press and the Internet may be the ultimate enemies of commitment for only a life committed can give us meaning.

Only a life of commitment can save us from the life of detachment and despair started by the Enlightenment, expanded by the public sphere, the press and the Internet.


I found his exposition rivetting. But I wanted to ask about all sorts of other attributes of the Internet – cyberspace and how that has changed our view of space, the non-material aspects of the net and in what ways they might resemble the spiritual sphere of say, the medieval world. Has it altered our written language? Has it made us into more interior beings by communicating so much with unspoken thought? I know there are many more aspects too – But I had to run. It was a great lecture. – MMB

*J??rgen Habermas (born 1929) is a German philosopher born in D??sseldorf. From 1971 to 1980 he was director of the Max Planck Institute. The central theme of his work is the possibility of a rational political commitment to socialism in societies in which science and technology are dominant.

Related Web Pages: The Hubert Dreyfus Berkeley Bio

Hubert Dreyfus on Artificial Intelligence:

Hubert Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can’t Do, MIT 1992, first published as What Computers Can’t Do, in 1972 at:


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