Pierre Lévy : Collective Intelligence – Chapter 8 –Anthropological Space

eJournal: uffmm.org, ISSN 2567-6458,
6.April 2022 – 15.May 2022, 09:30h
Email: info@uffmm.org
Author: Gerd Doeben-Henisch
Email: gerd@doeben-henisch.de


In the uffmm review section the different papers and books are discussed from the point of view of the oksimo paradigm. [1] In the following text the author discusses chapter 8 of the book “Collective Intelligence. mankind’s emerging world in cyberspace” by Pierre Lévy (translated by Robert Bonono),1997 (French: 1994)[2]


In a proceeding post the chapter 7 of Lévy’s book has been discussed. Here follows chapter 8.

Chapter 8: Anthropological Space


In this chapter Lévy characterizes the ‘Anthropological Space’ following some heading ideas like ‘Signification’, ‘Structuring effects’, followed by ‘Planes’ and ‘Velocities’.

The Multiple Spaces of Signification

Lévy starts his considerations with the statement, that “A simple conversation could be seen as the shared construction of a virtual space of signification, which each speaker attempts to shape according to his mood and intentions.” (p.143) And in another step he is looking from the outside of messages onto the messages as objects being part of a complex situation where messages are examples of interactions between individual speakers/ hearers, which are part of an overall situation, and where the messages are “evoking representations” in the individuals. The situation is not an ‘untouched something’ but the individuals are part of it, reacting to the situation by actions and thereby they are changing the situation. Thus, Lévy can state “Our interactions produce, transform, and continuously develop heterogeneous and interlinked spaces.” (p.143)

The general schema seems therefore to be ‘interactions produce spaces’ in a somehow general meaning, and ‘messages’ are a special kind of ‘interactions’ and these special interactions as messages produce special spaces characterized as ‘spaces of signification’.

The general concept of ‘(anthropological) space’ assumes that these spaces are “living” and “relativistic” with regard to the “objects” they contain and which “organize them”. (cf.143)

Another aspect is the occurrence in time: Lévy distinguishes spaces which are more “evanescent” compared to others, which are more “durable”. (cf. p.143f)

“Being larger” is also an aspect of an anthropological space. This kind of ‘largeness’ depends an the number of participating interacting individuals and objects, tools and other artifacts.(cf. p.144)

“The importance” of an “event” in its “sphere” can be “recognized” by its ability to “reorganize the proximities and distances in a given space”, and to create “new space time(s)”…” (cf. p.144)

Different kinds of spaces are mentioned as “physical”, “geometric”, “emotional, aesthetic, social and historical”, spaces of “signification in general”. (cf. p.144) This view summarizes this in the statement “we live in thousands of different spaces, each with its own system of proximity (temporal, emotional, linguistic, etc.) such that a given entity can be near us in one space, yet quite distant in another. Each space has its own axiology, its own system of values or measurements.”(p.144)

A good part of our “cognitive activity” and of “time” is used to navigate through these spaces, to operate on these in different ways. (cf. p.145)

Structuring, Living, Autonomous, Irreversible
In the age of an increasing digitization of everything the basic reading of a normal text with the associated processing of interpretation seems to ‘fade out’ slowly and in silence. But — as Lévy circumscribes in a wonderful way — all ‘outer effects’ of humankind are rooted in the inner dynamics of individual people enabling a collective intelligence, a collective understanding, by using symbolic expressions as the main signals between different brains. ‘As such’ these signals have ‘no meaning’, but interwoven with all the other experiences they can become ‘loaded with meaning’ which can be encoded and decoded by these symbolic expressions and thereby can become a ‘trigger’ for other brains to organize some ‘triggered meaning’ as a mean for understanding. But this ‘encoding and decoding’ is not an isolated process but as such already interwoven in a network of interactions called ‘learning process’; it is culturally embedded. What you can see in the figure above are additional marks in the text produced by the reader of this text to underline those parts of the expressions which appear for the reader as strongly related to his understanding of the text and thereby pointing to ‘building blocks’ of the rising understanding inside of the reader what he presupposes to be the ‘intention’ of the writer of this text. As everybody can control in the light of the own interpretation experience such a ‘re-construction’ is always in danger to reconstruct something which is not the intention of the author. Without further clues the interpreting reader is ‘lost in an approaching understanding’.

In this section Lévy brings forward the question, what the “specific characteristics” of the four anthropological spaces are, which he had described so far.(p.145) And in front of a puzzle of disturbing aspects he points to the heart of everything: all these aspects “are engendered by the practical and imaginative activity of millions of beings, by anthropological machines that work within the recesses of their subjects …”.(p.145)

Although these distinguished four anthropological spaces are in a certain sense “structuring” by their objective and interactive materiality, they should not be misunderstood as purely “abstract” properties within some understanding. In the contrary, they are “living worlds continuously engendered by the processes and interactions that unfold within them.”(p.146) And this grounding insight in the nature of the anthropological spaces is reverberating in every of these spaces.

Thus, “the knowledge space” isn’t simply “the subject of cognitive science”. It isn’t some kind of an “abstract container for all possible knowledge”. (cf. p.146) It is an “ongoing anthropological creation, it is a living plane, qualitatively differentiated by … the collective intellects that pass through it.”(cf. p.146)

Similarly, the commodity space is not “the subject of a specific social science”, but it is “a world that has grown and developed autonomously , … self-organized, creative, destructive.” (cf. p.146)

Despite is manifest character it is not “unthinkable” that these different spaces would again disappear in the future. When this would happen then this would be a “terrifying catastrophe, a deadly chaos”. The close connection between earth and humanity point to a kind of “irreversibility” which motivates the qualification of these spaces as “anthropological spaces”. (cf. p.147)

Planes of Existence, Contingent and Eternal Velocities

As an introductory phrase one could here perhaps select the following: “Anthropological spaces in themselves are neither infrastructures nor superstructures but planes of existence, frequencies, velocities, determined within the social spectrum.”(p.147) And fundamentally “the appearance of anthropological spaces is in no way governed by necessity.”(p.148) This motivates the statement, that anthropological spaces are ‘contingent’.(cf. p.148) Otherwise, this statement contrasts in some sense with the statement, that anthropological spaces, “once they have shaped … they become timeless, as if they had always already have been there.”(p.148) And Lévy infers from this ‘irreversibility of anthropological spaces’ that “these effect the past as well.”(cf. p.148) A hint for this flexibility, for this astonishing dynamics of anthropological spaces is given in the statement, that anthropological spaces “are worlds of signification and not rarefied categories sharing physical objects…” (p.149) An anthropological cartography using categories which “serves only to separate, classify, or isolate, we should abandon it at once.”(p.150) The main challenge is “to clear the way … which traces the lines to the future.”(p.149)

Somehow hidden, as an accompanying framework, within which the anthropological spaces are emerging, Lévy uses continuously the concepts of ‘earth’, ‘territory’, ‘capital’, and ‘virtual space of knowledge’ (cf. p.150) like a ‘coordinate space’, which outlines an undefined space-like something.


Here some comments on the position of Lévy.

The Multiple Spaces of Signification

This chapter is a bit challenging on account of the different usages of the term ‘space’. In one sense ‘space’ is associated with ‘interaction in general’ where the production of ‘messages’ (mediated by statements/ utterances) is only one special kind of interaction.

A space in general is characterized by its ‘ingredients’ realized by individual actors, used objects, artifacts, kinds of interactions, usage in time (evanescent or more durable), etc.

A ‘message-born space’ is not a ‘real space’ like those interaction-based spaces with real objects, real effects, but a purely ‘cognitive space of meanings’ associated with the used language expressions and the associated ‘meaning function’ rooted in the ‘individual speaker’ which is ‘member’ of a cultural space with specific meanings induced by social learning.

Because all ‘real spaces’ have automatically a cognitive counterpart in the acting individual which to some extend is encoded as meaning of the used language, there exists a subtle relationship between ‘spaces in general’ and ‘spaces of meaning (significance)’: both spaces are — by meaning — close together, but they are — nevertheless — different! Spaces of meaning can ‘reflect’ the ‘dynamics of real spaces’ ‘sufficiently well’, and if this is the case then they are ‘helpful’ and can be classified as being ’empirically sound’ (true); if the ‘dynamics of real spaces’ is ‘not sufficiently well’ reflected, then they are ‘less helpful’ and can be classified as being ‘not empirically sound’ (false).

For the survival of biological populations on the planet earth it seems to be of vital importance that the ’empirical soundness’ of the space of meaning’ is ‘good enough’.

Things would be too simple if the criterion of ’empirical soundness’ would be sufficient. As one can learn from the ‘evolution of life’ the available ‘knowledge’ of the empirical environment at a certain point of time is only of limited help, as long as the upcoming ‘future’ is widely ‘unknown’. This ‘unknown character’ of the future results from the real dynamics and complexity of the overall process of empirical reality, which principally can not be predicted. Therefore that part of knowledge which influences the real behavior must contain a ‘minimum of unclassified knowledge’ which — at least in the past of life on this planet — was the reason, why life survived.

Comments on Structuring, Living, Autonomous, Irreversible

The text of Lévy continuous to be very dense, compact, partially nearly poetic, but nevertheless the text is revealing a strong analytic power keeping the ‘balls in the air’ and thereby ‘keeping all tensions alive’.

For me as a reader with a special background most amazing is his handling of the relationship between the richness of the ‘outer appearance’ of humankind in many dimensions (earth, territory, commodity, knowledge) and the grounding of all these in the inner dynamics of the acting individuals, not as isolated entities, but interwoven by interactions, which not only have their objective impact in the outer world of bodies, but simultaneously also in the inner world of subjectivity with a very special internal dynamic structure.

Neither the ‘inner dynamics as such’ nor the ‘outer effects as such’ taken apart can tell the story about humankind. The main ‘secret’ is given in this special way how the ‘outer world’ and the ‘inner world’ continuously, permanently, always are ‘vibrating together’: the outer world is brought to the inner world through a mediating body which ‘feeds’ a part of the body called ‘brain’, and the brain again ‘transforms’ these modified outer world events in new structures of a radical different reality, the ‘inner reality’, a ‘virtual reality’ compared to the ‘outer reality’ which is not known ‘as such’, but only known in the mode of ‘already transformed signals’ which are ‘further processed by the inner dynamics’ of the brain.

Humankind, a collection of interacting individual brains, appears in this view as a special environment with special laws ruling this environment, in which the outer world is ‘received’ as something ‘different’, but given as ‘clouds of single signals’ which are ‘caught’ by ‘filtering’ these clouds as ‘sequences of events’ partitioned by many different ‘patterns’ indicating ‘possible structures’ for further ‘processing’. And while this is happening all the time the outer world is a ‘hybrid’ world consisting of non-human parts and humankind together where this hybrid ‘outer-inner-being’ is continuously modified by the human as well as outer activities. Thus, human actors perceiving the outer world do not perceive the outer world ‘independent of humans’, but always ‘entangled with humans’, with ‘humankind’. This entanglement is not really new because since the rising of life on this planet earth we can observe this entanglement of life-free earth and life as the new live-earth where the earth is ‘cocooned with the biosphere’ which from the early beginnings started to modify the earth. But somehow new is this special ability of humankind — thereby surpassing all the other life forms — to ‘cognitively see itself as part of the outer world’ and ‘understand itself as a really moving something’ which can and does ‘change the earth-life being’. There is less and less no more only one ‘earth’ and only some biological ‘life’, no, there is since the advent of humankind now only an ‘earth-life being’ (ELB) which is ‘irreversible’ and whose ‘fate’ is somewhere in a future state of a ‘knowing earth-life being’ which ‘knows about itself’, which is an ’emotional something’ of new dimensions.

The today widespread vision of ‘intelligent machines’ will be remembered as the dream of ‘children’ which didn’t yet understand that not the machine in front of them (built by them) is the real wonder, but they as the ‘children’ are the original wonder, which can built such machines and which can built much more, an ‘earth-life being’ of nearly infinite order.

In the light of these ideas the manner of speaking of ‘anthropological spaces’ appears slowly ‘questionable’. A human being as the ‘prototype’ of an ‘outer-inner transformer’ is never something ‘completely different’ to the outer body world, and the body world is never isolated from the ‘inner world’ of bodies. And the synergies between outer-inner-transformers resulting in a new kind of ‘collective intelligence’ is again not separated from the outer body world, but manifests a new morphological earth-life-being where the so-called ‘anthropological spaces’ are only different manifestations of this unique earth-life-being. The idea of ‘human kind’ as something special is only important for a ‘taxonomy’ between the different species of biological manifestations, but the biosphere as a whole is finally not a ‘foreign something’ to the earth, not to the solar system, not to the milky way galaxy [3], even not to the whole universe. The biosphere is an ‘outcome’ of the earth system because the so-called ‘material world’ is — as we can know today — not something ‘dead substance’ but the most dynamic something we can know. And biological life as we know it is nothing else than one of the outcomes of the radical ‘freedom’ rooted in these maximal dynamics of the ‘matter-energy something’ partially revealed by quantum mechanics, partially by evolutionary biology.

The primary root of the ‘irreversibility’ of the earth-life-being has then to be located in the primary nature of the earth-life-being itself: the matter-energy-something (MES) contains all these different transformations as its ‘inner potentials’ within its dynamics. Therefore the ’emergence’ of biological systems is an ‘outcome’ of these primary structures and as ‘outcome’ it sheds some light back on the ‘matter-energy-something’. In the beginning of the appearance of the matter-energy-something there was not too much to observe from the outside, but during the existence in time the matter-energy-something produced more and more complex structures which showed up as complete systems of self-reproduction, of self-knowing, of self-knowing even as populations. The self-knowing of the earth, the solar system … will be next. There is no natural ‘boarder’ to stop this … only the system itself can destroy itself. There is no need for destruction, but a real possibility rooted in the fundamental freedom of everything.

Planes of Existence, Contingent and Eternal Velocities

Thus, we have two meta-frames: (i) as common ground Lévy assumes a 4-dimensional coordinate system grounded in what he calls ‘earth’, ‘territory’, ‘capital’, and ‘virtual space of knowledge’, and (ii) then the individual human with his body and knowledge space which is embedded in a stream of infinite interactions between some environment (earth, territory, capital, knowledge space of others) and his own knowledge space. Thus, whatever is ‘real’, it is ‘mediated’ by his knowledge space which can have nearly infinite many ‘sub-spaces’. The ‘same real thing’ can appear in different knowledge spaces as a ‘differently known thing’. Between the knowledge spaces of different humans interactions (partially by symbolic communication) are occurring which can can shape the individual knowledge space with all its sub-spaces. In some sense one can interpret a knowledge sub-space as a ‘plane of events’ representing the ‘plane of existence’, which is basically ‘contingent’ because the knowledge space as such is ‘contingent’. Driven by a dynamic environment as well as by a dynamic knowledge space a dimension of ‘time’ is framing all events, inducing implicitly some order, is making things ‘slow’ or ‘fast’.

One can ask whether his assumed 4-dimensional coordinate system grounded in what he calls ‘earth’, ‘territory’, ‘capital’, and ‘virtual space of knowledge’ is indeed as ‘hard’ as he presupposes?

Thus, ‘territory’ is not a real given object but a ‘minded object’ which can be or not. ‘Capital’ is also a creation of some knowledge-space which is a ‘symbolic instrument’ associated with something different; it has no life on its own. In radical thinking there seem to exist only two dimension: (i) the ‘real world outside’ of the human mind (with the body as part of the real world) and (ii) the human mind (knowledge space) somewhere ‘inside’ the real world. In one sense the ‘real world’ is the primary source for everything, in another sense is the knowledge space the only ‘real space’ embracing everything else as ‘secondary’. From an ‘abstract outside’, from the perspective of some abstract ‘meta space’ is the ‘reality of the knowledge space’ a ‘virtual world’ reconstructing the real world as a virtual structure, which is used by the human body as a ‘guide’ in the real world of bodies.

Re-building the real world inside a virtual world and using the virtual models as guides for a behavior in the real world of bodies this enables the energy-matter of the universe to ‘recognize itself’ in the format of an ‘universal self-consciousness’. As long as the individual virtual knowledge space are more ‘separated’ than ‘unified’ the universal self-consciousness is very ‘dim’, very ‘weak’. To that extend that the individual knowledge spaces are becoming unified the universal self-consciousness can grow. But, this unification can only work in the ‘right way’ if the individual knowledge spaces are ‘as true as possible’ and are ‘communicating as free as possible’. The human history shows numeral examples of ‘crashes’ by ‘imperfectly unified knowledge spaces’.


[1] Gerd Doeben-Henisch,The general idea of the oksimo paradigm: https://www.uffmm.org/2022/01/24/newsletter/, January 2022

[2] Pierre Lévy in wkp-en: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_L%C3%A9vy

[3] Milky Way galaxy in wkp-en: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milky_Way