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INTRODUCTION

Mapping the philosophy of information

Information is the Cinderella in the history of philosophy. Think of it for a moment.


Understanding information is a necessary input for any philosophy of knowledge, no matter
whether ordinary (epistemology) or scientific (philosophy of science). There is no ethics
without choices, responsibilities, and moral evaluations, yet all these need a lot of relevant
and reliable information and quite a good management of it. Logic was a matter of dialectics
first, and then mathematical proofs, but today it is also if not mainly a question of information
extraction, transmission, and dynamics. Ontology without informational patterns real, virtual,
possible, necessary, or even impossible would be meaningless, and modal logic is a branch of
information theory. The philosophy of mind needs informational states, and the philosophy
of language without communication of information is pointless. Any philosophy of the logos
is a philosophy of information and Christian philosophy of religion is inconceivable without
the informational concept of revelation. The list could be extended and refined to aesthetics,
hermeneutics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of physics, and so on. but the point is clear. To
paraphrase Molire, Western philosophy has been speaking informationally without knowing it
for twenty-five centuries. To use the initial analogy, we have always relied on Cinderella working
hard in the house of philosophy. It is time to acknowledge her great and pervasive services.
It has taken the development of digital technologies, the information revolution, and the
emergence of information societies to invite our Cinderella out of the kitchen and allow her
to join the party with the other philosophical subjects. Today, the philosophy of information
(Floridi 2010, 2011, 2013) is a growing area of research, and this Handbook clearly shows
the many areas in which new, interesting, and vitally relevant ideas are being explored
informationally. As with all good philosophy, the philosophy of information is not applied, yet
it is highly applicable. Our Cinderella may be a princess, but she knows very well how to do
the dishes, if necessary.
Of course, information can be said in many ways, just as being can (Aristotle, Metaphysics
G.2), and the correlation is not accidental. Information, with its cognate concepts like
computation, data, communication, and so on, plays an increasingly essential role in how we
conceptualise ourselves, socialise among ourselves, understand our world, and interact with it.
Turing is replacing Newton as the source of our deep metaphysics, that is, an informational
rather than a mechanistic narrative has begun permeating everything we do and how we think
about it on a daily basis.
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Introduction

Quite naturally, information has adapted to some of realitys complex contours. And so,
because information is inevitably a multifaceted and polyvalent concept, the question what
is information? is misleadingly simple. As an instance of the Socratic question ti esti ...?, it
poses a fundamental problem, intrinsically fascinating and no less challenging than what is
truth?, what is right and wrong?, what is knowledge?, what is meaning?, and so forth. We
know that these are not requests for dictionary consultations, but ideal roundabouts, points of
intersection of philosophical investigations, which may diverge and take different directions
from them also because of the approaches adopted. Such approaches to a Socratic question can
usually be divided into three broad groups: reductionist, antireductionist, and non-reductionist.
Philosophical theories of information are no exception.
Reductionist approaches to the philosophy of information support the feasibility of a
unified theory of information (UTI). This is supposed to be general enough to capture all
major concepts of information that you will find playing a role in the following chapters from
Shannons to Kolmogorovs, from Wieners to Baudrillards, from genetic to neural but also
sufficiently specific to discriminate between their nuances. The goal of reductionist analyses
is to show that all kinds of information are ultimately reducible conceptually, genetically or
genealogically to some Ur-concept, the mother of all instances. The ultimate UTI will be
hierarchical, linear (even if probably branching), inclusive, and inevitably incompatible with
any alternative model.
Reductionist strategies seem unlikely to succeed. Decades of research have shown no
consensus or even convergence on a single, unified definition of information. This is
hardly surprising. Information is such a powerful and flexible concept, and such a complex
phenomenon that, as an explicandum, it can be associated with several explanations, depending
on the level of abstraction adopted and the cluster of requirements and desiderata orientating
a theory. Claude Shannon, for one, was very cautious: It is hardly to be expected that a single
concept of information would satisfactorily account for the numerous possible applications of
this general field [information theory] (Shannon 1993, p. 180). He was probably right. For all
these reasons, this Handbook does not endorse a reductionist approach or the possibility of a
unified theory of information.
At the other extreme, we find antireductionist approaches to the philosophy of information.
They stress the multifarious nature of the concept of information itself and of the corresponding
phenomena. They defend the radical irreducibility of the different species to a single stem,
objecting especially to reductionist attempts to identify Shannons quantitative concept of
information as the required Ur-concept, and to ground a UTI on a mathematical theory of
information. Antireductionist strategies are essentially negative, and they can soon become
an impasse rather than a solution. Admittedly, they allow specialised analyses of the various
concepts of information to develop independently, thus avoiding the vague generalisations
and mistaken confusions that may burden UTI strategies. But their fragmented nominalism
remains unsatisfactory, insofar as it fails to account for the ostensible connections permeating
and influencing the various ways in which information qua information can be said.
Non-reductionists like myself seek to escape the previous dichotomy between reductionism
and antireductionism by replacing the reductionist hierarchical model with a distributed
network of connected concepts, linked by mutual and dynamic influences that are conceptual in
nature, and not necessarily genetic or genealogical. This networked analysis can be centralised
in various ways or completely decentralised and perhaps multi-centred.
According to decentralised or multi-centred approaches, there is no key concept of
information. More than one concept is equally important, and the periphery plays a
counterbalancing role. Depending on the orientation, information is seen as interpretation,
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Introduction

power, narrative, message or medium, conversation, construction, a commodity, and so on.


Thus, philosophers like Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, McLuhan, and Rorty are
united by what they dismiss, if not challenge: the predominance of the factual. For them
information is not in, from, or about reality. They downplay the aboutness of information
and bend its referential thrust into a self-referential circle of hermeneutical communication.
They focus only on the affordances, and miss the constraints. Their classic target is Cartesian
foundationalism, seen as the clearest expression of a hierarchical and authoritarian approach
to the genesis, justification, and flow of information. Disoriented, they mistake Cartesian
foundationalism and its ultimate realism as the only alternative to their fully decentralised view.
Centralised approaches, on the other hand, interpret the various meanings, uses, applications
and types of information as a system gravitating around a core notion that enjoys theoretical
priority, like a nation state made of an archipelago of islands, yet with a single capital. The
core notion works as a hermeneutical device that influences, interrelates, and helps to access
other notions. In metaphysics, Aristotle held a similar view about being, and argued in favour
of the primacy of the concept of substance. In the philosophy of information, this substantial
role has long been claimed by factual or epistemically-oriented semantic information. The basic
idea is simple. In order to understand what information is, the best thing to do is to start by
analysing it in terms of the knowledge it can yield about its reference. This epistemic approach
is not without competitors. Weaver, for example, supported a tripartite analysis of information
in terms of (1) technical problems concerning the quantification of information and dealt
with by Shannons theory; (2) semantic problems relating to meaning and truth, and (3) what
he called influential problems concerning the impact and effectiveness of information on
human behaviour, which he thought had to play an equally important role (Weaver 1949). One
of the tasks of the philosophy of information is to show how, in each case, the centrality of
epistemically-oriented semantic information is presupposed rather than replaced.
This Handbook has been designed following the non-reductionist, yet centralised approach
I just described. In order to avoid the excessive fragmentation of the philosophy of information
into a myriad of unrelated theories and concepts, the following chapters have been written and
edited on the basis of some short, accessible, and framing introductions to key ideas, presented
in section A. The following, longer chapters have then been grouped into three sections, one
on quantitative and formal aspects, one on natural and physical aspects, and one on human and
semantic aspects. This is not the only way of structuring the vast and growing number of topics
investigated by the philosophy of information, but it seems the best at this stage in the history
of this new discipline. I hope it may provide a useful map, to be revised according to future
needs. When exploring a new territory for the first time, a perfect map would be ideal and yet
it is impossible by definition, for if it we had it we would not be the first to explore it. At this
stage, the best we can hope for is an approximate map. The bright side is that this is still much
better than no map at all.

References
Floridi, Luciano. 2010. Information A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Floridi, Luciano. 2011. The Philosophy of Information. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Floridi, Luciano. 2013. The Ethics of Information. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shannon, Claude Elwood. 1993. Collected Papers, edited by N. J. A. Sloane and A. D. Wyner ed. New York:
IEEE Press.
Weaver, W. 1949. The Mathematics of Communication. Scientific American 181 (1):1115.

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