On Doubt – Vilém Flusser

“This structure is given to us through the language within which we think, just as irrevocably as it is given to the spider through the web. To wish to escape from the structure of the reality of subject, object, and predicate, is to wish to fall into a metaphysical suicide, into the weaves of our web. A reality that consists only of subjects (Parmenidean madness), or objects (Platonic madness), or predicates (Heralitean madness), is an example of this type of suicidal escape. As uncomfortable as it may be, we must accept the triple ontology as a given, imposed by language. The rest is metaphysics, therefore, silence” (40 Flusser On Doubt).

Thoughts are a process of possible formations and organizations of words. Both words and thoughts are removed from things. There are words for which there is no corresponding thing. However, there are no words for which there is not a corresponding concept. Concepts and words can be considered synonomous. A thought is an organization of words, also known as a phrase. Thought and phrase can be considered synonmous. The intellect is the field in which phrases occur.

The basic standard phrase consists of Subject, Object, Predicate. The phrase has two horizons, Subject and Object.

In Vilém Flusser’s book On Doubt, the image of the spider’s web is used to represent all possible thoughts and language formations. The silk threads of the web are imagined to represent available forms of discourse, held together by their relations. The web is what we must look through in order to see reality. The world is reduced to what happens only on the threads of the web.

“Happenings that take place in the intervals between the threads of the web do not participate in the spider’s effective (real) world, but are potentialities; the spider’s becoming. They are unarticulated, chaotic and “metaphysical” backdrops of a philosophizing spider. The philosopher-spider affirms, negates or doubts the meta-web happenings, the poet-spider intuits them, the creator-spider endeavors to precipitate everything upon the web’s threads in order to comprehend and devour everything, and the mystic-spider precipitates itself into the web’s intervals in order to fuse itself with the whole and become free from the limitations of the web through a mystical union” (37 Flusser).

Flusser explores the imagined world of the spider and formulates creative and far-reaching possibilites of what occurs on the web. Limited to only what happens on the threads of the web, he imagines flies, other spiders, and catasphrophes that can tear the threads of the web. At the center of the web is the spider itself, owner of the web. He limits himself to these modalities: fly, other spider, destructive catastrophe, and spider itself. Flusser goes through a series of analysis from different angles of thought on the way these modalities can be understood to interact, it’s worth quoting at length here:

“The civilized spider, in the Western sense of the term, will tend to disregard the difference between fly and other spider, considering the other spider as a kind of fly, it will tend to explain the destructive catastrophes of the web as super-flies that the web cannot bear (provisionally, since the web grows and becomes stronger, and will eventually be able to bear flies of any size); and it will tend to consider the meta-web world as a reservoir; a becoming of flies. The materialist spider will teach that the fly is the thesis and the spider itself the antithesis of the dialectic process that occurs upon the web’s threads, which will have reached the last synthesis once the spider has eaten all the flies. The Hegelian fly will affirm that the spider presupposes the fly, and that the dialectic process is a progressive arachnation of the fly-world (therefore phenomenal), and that consequently, the eating of the fly is equivalent to the realization of the fly. The eaten fly, as a realized fly, is thus the last synthesis, the total realization of the flies through the arachnation. The Hegelian fly will consider the fly to be eaten as a condition of the spider-situation, and the cadaver of the already eaten fly as a witness of the spider’s passage through the fly-world” (38 Flusser).

What is consistent, is the concept of the web as the foundation of reality. What can be intuited to exist beyond reality can only be approached through the organization of words according to the rules of the web. In order to be real, everything must assume the form of Subject, Object, Predicate. The world of real things, the web of our phrases, is a cosmos, a sphere of reality. Each particular language has a slightly different cosmos. What exists in the space between the threads is metaphysics, a plane of beyond, a space of becoming – an all-different, unknowable, inarticulable space that must be passed over in silence.


Flusser, Vilém. On Doubt. Trans. Rodrigo Maltez Novaes. Ed. Siegfried Zielinski. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2014. Print.

About Michael Johnson

michaeljohnson.studio thewindandthestones.com viewfromaburrow.com

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