Rafael Capurro - Makoto Nakada


Published in Rafael Capurro & John Holgate (eds.): Messages and Messengers Angeletics as an Approach to the Phenomenology of Communication. Munich: Fink Verlag 2011, pp. 67-84.


See the programme of the symposium Von Boten und Botschaften that took place at ZKM Karlsruhe on March 26-27, 2009. Further readings on Angeletics see here.



On the Phatic Function

On Phatic Overload, Being-in-the-World, and

On Western Angeletic Conceptions

On Messengers and Messages

On Learning From Each Other




Some Japanese schools are thinking about prohibiting the use of mobile phones because they are being misused for bullying but also for prostitution, particularly of young girls, as well as for other kinds of wrongdoings.

MN This is a very important and serious problem for us. I don’t know about prostitution, but it is true that young Japanese girls as well as young boys in high school, in junior-high school or even in elementary school, are under great influence from mobile phones and the internet in various ways. It is easy to talk about the ‘bad influence’ of this new sort of CMC or communication, but what is important in these cases is to see why younger generations (and also older generations) are so much interested in communication using these new tools. I think that one of the attractive characteristics of mobile phones for boys and girls is that they provide them with means with which they can communicate among themselves without being disturbed by their parents or family members. Another aspect of the attractiveness of mobile phones seems to be the “phatic function” (Jakobson 1960).

According to Kiyokazu Nishimura, a Japanese scholar dealing with media, aesthetics and dramatic expression such as Kabuki (classical Japanese dance-drama), mobile phones give to young and old generations a sense of connection with friends, peer groups, etc. The participants want to get connected all the time or they want to feel the potential connection with others by sending e-mails or by just keeping their mobile phones on (Nishimura 1999). In my view, we need to create some sort of shared field among the participants in which various aspects of communication such as persuasion, transmission of information, greeting and so on can take place. In direct or face-to-face communication, we use various sorts of facial expressions such as eye contact or gestures while on the phone we use verbal expressions such as  ‘can you hear me?,’ ‘isn’t it?,’ ‘right?,’ and so on. These utterances and facial expressions have nothing to do with the content or essence of the communication, but at the same time they are indispensable when communication itself occurs.

In my view, in order for communication to take place, we need a shared field or Ba (= place). In order to keep or create this Ba, we need such utterances and facial expressions that can be seen as meta-communication. They determine or characterize the nature of communication taking place in accordance with or under the influence of this ‘meta-communication.’ In my view, using mobile phones or being engaged in communication via SMS provides the participants with a certain sort of phatic function or meta-communication. We need a certain sort of meta-communication when we talk with each other or are engaged in interactive actions. We always say such things, ‘this is just a joke,’ ‘honestly speaking,’ ‘are you teasing me?’ These utterances are something that determines the situations within which a variety of deeds, interactive actions, or talks can occur.

The concept of Ba as used by Kitaro Nishida or Bin Kimura means a place where the subject and the object or mono (things, objects) and koto (events, human interpretation of objects and experiences) encounter. Take for instance the following poem (haiku) by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto

An ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the splash of water

With this poetic expression, we experience some sort of oneness (Ichinyo) of the poet, frog, old pond, sound of jumping frog, Basho’s ears, our own ears. In this case, Ba is the place where these mono, koto, kotoba (words, expressions) come together. In the case of communication by mobile phone or the internet, Ba might be considered as the place where meta-communication and communication come together (Nakamura 1998; Kimura 1994).

According to Ervin Goffman, otters’ play is dependent upon some kind of phatic function or meta-communication: ‘this is just playing, so never bite me seriously’ (Goffman 1974). Of course, the phatic function is not dependent on speech in this case. According to Nishimura, and I think so too, we are now facing serious confusions at the level of meta-communication. For example, we can't live alone, but we have to live by sacrificing others to live a better life, or as Fromm pointed out, we need freedom and on the other hand we fear freedom and escape from freedom (Fromm 1941). In the case of younger generations in Japan, we are half Westerners but remain dwellers in the ‘Far East.’ This is perhaps the case with older generations too. We dislike too close friendships. We like individualism imported from Western cultures, on the one hand, but we always feel that we are hurt by loneliness, on the other. We are facing a kind of confusion or collapse of meta-communication. Japanese youth often hurt each other or sometimes even ‘kill’ others by teasing (death as the result of bullying) and excuse this by saying: ‘hey, this is just a game!’

It is true that we need a sense of connection or of sharing the situations in a various ways, so that people don’t have much difficulty in understanding a kind of phatic function, and in some cases they seem to seek new sorts of phatic function or meta-communication to keep their communication active all the time. In my own view, Japanese web-sites are full of information or utterances that remind us of the younger generations’ need for a simple form of meta-communication. Japanese web-sites are full of blogs whose titles are: ‘You see, I’m here’ (Boku ha koko ni iruyo). Mobile phones are a token of a need for easy meta-communication. In this sense, we Japanese face the situation which might be called phatic overload. In the cases of the prostitution of young girls, some people prefer to use terms such as enjyo-kousai, which means ‘aid-receiving friendship.’ But who gives aid for what and who receives what? This might be referred to as distorted phatic overload which is motivated by simple greed, in one way, and by a sense of poverty of communication or human relations, in another.

Lovely puppets attached to mobile phones of school girls symbolize this complicated situation in Japan. They mean ‘we are not bad girls, we are just girls worthy of someone’s aid.’


Phatic overload can be ontically understood as arising from individual loneliness. But if we interpret moods not just as subjective states of mind but, following Heidegger, as ways of experiencing our being-in-the-world or Ba, loneliness reveals what is stated by the utterance: ‘You see, I’m here,’ that is to say, the very fact of the ‘here’ of Being or the Ba of existence.

The intention of sending a message to a receiver is mostly represented as being the sender and the receiver originally separated from each other and connected by a medium. This is clearly portrayed in Claude Shannon’s communication scheme (Shannon 1948). It is interesting to remark that Shannon does not define the concept of message used in this scheme. His concept of information as possible selections from a repertoire of physical symbols is the opposite to the ordinary meaning of information as communication of something new. Warren Weaver remarked:

The word information, in this theory, is used in a special sense that must not be confused with its ordinary usage. In particular, information must not be confused with meaning. In fact, two messages, one of which is heavily loaded with meaning and the other of which is pure nonsense, can be exactly equivalent, from the present viewpoint, as regards information. It is this, undoubtedly, that Shannon means when he says, “the semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering aspects.” But this does not mean that the engineering aspects are necessarily irrelevant to the semantic aspects. (Shannon and Weaver 1949, p. 8)

Shannon’s mechanism of communication – dealing with the engineering problem of getting a message of encoded symbols from a sender to a receiver through an electromagnetic medium so that it can be reliably reconstructed at the receiver’s end – can only work because there is something common to the sender and the receiver beyond or underlying their physical separation. In the case of humans, senders and receivers share a common world or Ba. Shannon’s scheme is a world-less or Ba-less representation of human communication. On the basis of this abstraction – ‘abstrahere’ means to ‘draw off’ – there is no structural difference between this technical model of communication of two technical systems, the metaphysical model of a divine sender communicating messages through angels to human receivers or the Cartesian model of an isolated mind seeking to communicate with the external world or with other separated and encapsulated minds. What is excluded is not only the shared world but also the moods in which human senders and receivers experience their common being-in-the-world itself. As Heidegger taught us, this emotional tonality is a pre-theoretical experience of embeddedness that precedes the separation between subject and object. This is the reason why I think it is important to develop an intercultural philosophical angeletics in order to be aware of this Western bias as well as to describe different ontic angeletic situations and forms of sharing the world.

MN Phatic overload is just what I wanted to stress. Nothing is being said, no clear content or reference, at least on the surface level, exchanging utterances such as ‘can you hear me,’ but just the fact of being in communication with another person. They always want to know whether they are in communication or not and they always feel constant anxiety about not keeping in contact with the outer world. The phatic function is closely related with the use of mobile phones, blogs or SMS that provide them (us) with moods (or illusions) enabling them (us) to have a feeling as if we were always in contact with the outer world. In the case of Boku ha koko ni iruyo, ha and yo mean ‘isn’t it?`’ Therefore, Boku ha koko ni iru-yo  means ‘I'm here, you see’ or ‘isn't it?’  ‘Here’ seems to be their position(s) immersed in some sort of ‘moods’ in the dimension of their being-in-the-world with others.

In my view, this ‘here’ = Ba = place reflects several aspects of Japanese cultural and existential situations:

(1) strong orientation toward a life in which meanings can be shared with others;

(2) emptiness of human existence sometimes leading to suicide or metal illness;

(3) explicitly and implicitly shared contexts in which various types of phatic function as well as communication can be realized;

(4) Ba interpreted as ‘in-between’ (Aida) combined with Mu (nothingness).

I want to add an explanation to Ba as the fourth aspect. As I explained above, Ba as discussed by Kitaro Nishida or Bin Kimura means the place where the ‘subject’ and the ‘object’ or mono (things, objects) and koto (events, human interpretation of experiences) encounter each other. In my view, these remarks show typical cases of Japanese ways of understanding the world pre-ontologically and existentially. 

The following views reflect these ways of understanding the world, i.e., Ba. According to Toshihiko Izutsu, Dougen, a famous Zen-Buddhist priest (1200-1253) of the Kamakura period, tried to bring Being – which is dried up by the process of articulation of beings or by grasping the essence based on the process of articulation of beings – into a state of ‘articulating beings without grasping the essence.’ He, Dougen, also tried to bring Being into its original fluency (Izutsu 1991). Izutsu interprets Basho’s haiku from the same perspective. Words, frog, pond, the sounds, the poet, and the readers of Basho’s haiku, are gathered in the situation of a changing process of articulation and inarticulation. Words, people, events, things and experiences are related to one another as a fluid or active process of interchange of articulation and non-articulation of things. Yujiro Nakamura, a Japanese philosopher who attempts to combine traditional Japanese thoughts with modern Western thought, suggests that Kitaro Nishida tried to regain the meanings of beings based on Mu (nothingness) or ‘predicative substrata’ (‘substratum’) which contrasts with subjective substrata. In this sense, Mu is understood not as mere emptiness but as the source of beings (Yu) on which articulations of beings are founded. According to Nakamura, the oneness of Mu and Yu, or the oneness of subjects and objects, the oneness of events (Koto) and words (Gen) needs Ba (or Bamen = place, field) where a ‘coming together’ of subjects and objects, events (Koto) and words (Gen) is possible. This Ba or Bamen includes, as Nakamura stresses, citing the work of Motoki Tokieda, a Japanese linguist (Tokieda 2008), things, scenes, subject’s attitudes, subject’s feelings, and subject’s emotions (Nakamura 2001).

The traditional Japanese self-understanding is based on a place of secret inner minds which seem to be sustained by traditional emotional sensitivity (mono-no-ahare). People can share the meanings of this traditional emotional sensitivity, but the sadness coming from it is confined to each person. This is a kind of fragile relationship between persons with fragile minds that underlies the desire to share the same meanings of existence in this world whilst at the same time keeping apart from each other. Most of my graduate students from China say that they don’t have the expression Iba-sho-ga-nai which means ‘I don’t have a place for myself.’ This seems to show a difference between Japanese and Chinese culture with regard to understanding Ba, although the Chinese don’t use this term. This is an interesting topic for intercultural angeletics.

Japanese Ba seems to reflect the plurality of the Japanese life-world, culture and society. To put this another way, we might say that Japanese people live in mental situations leading them to constant pursuit of the meaning of life and human relations as well as to meta-communication or shared cultural, existential contexts determining their life, human relations and ways of communication. Tsuji’s research provides us with interesting data on these problems (Tsuji 1999). This research, done in 1999, is based on samples of Japanese university students. His interpretation of these data can lead to misunderstandings in some ways. I try to interpret the data as follows:

1. Students with an orientation toward strong and constant friendship and with an orientation toward moderate, not strong but also not weak, i.e. constant, friendship in good balance are characterized by less use of certain sorts of phatic expressions such as te-yuka. (= what I would say). For example: ‘Are you ill? Do you have a cold? ‘Well, what I would rather say (te-yuka), is that I’m a bit tired’ (toka-iu-kanji). Or: ‘Did you enjoy that movie?’ ‘Well, I’d say, that movie is kind of (toka-iu-kanji) not so good or not so bad.’

2. Students who seem to want to know ‘what is a good friendship’ or who want to keep a sense of a related situation via mobile phones or face-to face contact tend to use more frequently such phatic expressions, te-yuka and toka-iu-kanji.

3. Students who have contradictory attitudes toward communication by mobile phone, that is to say, students with views such as ‘phones can make the distance of human relations or friendship shorter compared to face-to-face communication’ have at the same time these views: ‘When I use phones, I feel it easier to talk with friends about a lot of things with which I have difficulty in face-to-face situations.’ and ‘I feel talking with friends over the phone a comfort because I can cut the communication whenever I don’t want to continue it.’

In my view, these findings about phatic communication in Japan suggest the fact that we should take into account the Japanese Ba or Japan’s cultural and existential situation when we move on to the interpretation of concrete problems related with intercultural angeletics.

In order to understand some problems related with Japanese phatic communication and with intercultural angeletics, we should take into consideration, using this as an example, the Japanese orientation toward or the pursuit of the meaning of good communication, good human relations and good human living. The expression Boku ha koko ni iru yo which we see in Japanese society today as a theme of private blogs, words of popular songs and so on, seems to reflect this orientation toward or pursuit of meaning. It seems that mobile phone use symbolizes people’s wondering, ‘what are good human relations and good communication for?’ Under such circumstances, Japanese people are likely to be motivated to use mobile phones or communication via blogs which are characterized by ambiguous meanings, that is to say, indirect and mediated communication on the one hand, and communication rendering human relations direct and lacking in distance on the other. The devices which make human communication meaningless and at the same time meaningful through a variety of occasions for phatic communication without concrete message-exchange – for example, te-yuka and toka-iu-kanji – mean a lot of  things and also nothing at all. I discussed the meanings of Japanese blogs, Japanese popular songs, the Japanese sense of privacy (as subject matter for communication via SMS or blogs) in my papers (Nakada 2009, 2008; Nakada and Capurro 2009).

I think that our thinking in the ‘Far East’ throws light on Western views about angeletics itself. What is exactly meant, from the point of view of angeletics, by the original connection between a sender and a receiver? Merleau-Ponty suggested that we human beings have ‘the original connection’ among ourselves in the dimension of our bodily existence. And as you know, his studies on aphasia and agnosia are strongly associated with Jakobson's studies on language and aphasia (Merleau-Ponty 1945). The phatic function might be considered to be the only function that birds have in common with human beings. This is very interesting too. Then we human beings and other creatures would have 'the original connection' in the dimension of the phatic function! But each function, understood as a basic mood, makes the world openness or ontological dimension, manifest in different ways, at least in the case of Dasein. In your contributions to angeletics you refer several times to Niklas Luhmann’s distinction between message (Mitteilung) or meaning-offer (Sinnangebot), information (Information) or the process of meaning selection, and finally understanding (Verstehen) or integrating the selected meaning into the system (Luhmann 1987). According to Luhmann, these three dimensions constitute the concept of communication. In this model there is an original and recursive relation between sender and receiver. This means, if I understand you correctly, that the phatic function is an essential element of communication because it enables a distinction to be made within the process of communication itself each time when a selection of a meaning takes place. This implies also that ‘to communicate is to communicate is to communicate’ or that communication is a self-referential process that is at best expressed by the phatic function. Or at least we might be able to see the phatic function from Luhmann’s viewpoint. Is my understanding correct?


As you know, Jakobson’s “communication model” distinguishes between the phatic function, the message, the context and the code. These distinctions go back to Karl Bühler’s “organon model” in which the triadic relation between sender, reference and receiver can be of a different nature depending upon whether the signs represent something (“Darstellung”), or express something about the sender (“Ausdruck”) or make an impact on the receiver (“Apell”) (Bühler 1978/1934). Since Niklas Luhmann we know that the message (“Mitteilung”) is a meaning-offer and has no definite content until the receiver makes his/her choices. Cybernetics has taught us that every receiver can turn into a sender. Lacanian psychoanalysis underlines the indefinite and indefinable nature of “the object” addressed in the long run by human desire. No less important is the role of the psychoanalyst as “the other” that enables the analysand to take a detour to himself/herself. This relationship, called the transference phenomenon, takes place from both sides. In other words, I am suggesting that the psychoanalytic experience is not only centred on the indefinite object of desire, as Lacan stressed, but also on the angeletic experience of the analyst as a messenger who passes on the message coming from the analysand or, more precisely, from his/her already understood (i.e. pre-conceived) being-in-the-world that Freud called ‘the unconscious.’ The original messenger or medium is not something (!) in-between a sender and a receiver, but it is Ba or being-in-the-world itself, although seen or experienced differently in Japan and the West, if I may simplify this complex intercultural issue. We can distinguish roughly the following conceptions:

1) metaphysical (theocentric) angeletics: God as sender - angels/poets as messengers - humans as receivers;

2) anthropocentric and technocentric angeletics: humans as senders - technical media as messengers - humans as receivers technical (artificial) and/or human senders - technical (digital) media as messengers - technical (artificial) and/or human receivers;

3) ontological angeletics: Being as sender - ‘here’ of Being as ontic-ontological messenger, sender and/or receiver - Being as receiver.

The ontological conception is the only one that thinks the original relation or encounter (“Ereignis”) between Being and “being here” or Ba. To speak about Being as ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’ could be misunderstood as a kind of ontic phenomenon separated from the “here” or Ba. I shall try to explain this issue later.

As you know, in Being and Time (Heidegger 1976), Heidegger called the original relation between understanding and pre-understanding of the “here” of Being the “hermeneutic circle” (Heidegger 1976). But given the fact that existential understanding is not primarily a theoretical, but a practical activity concerning all kinds of relations happening in the shared world-openness, it would be better to speak of an ‘angeletic circle’ or a relation between message and messenger, as Heidegger proposed in one of his late writings (Heidegger 1975). Each interpretation is based on a process of message transmission. Which means that hermeneutics presupposes angeletics. Hermes is first and foremost a messenger, no less than an interpreter and translator. Of course, a philosophical angeletics is no less ambitious than twentieth century hermeneutic philosophy. We should also make a distinction between an ontic or empirical science of messages and messengers, and a philosophical angeletics. As an empirical science, angeletics is not necessarily reduced to the phenomenon of human communication but can include also all kinds of messages and messengers in the natural sciences.

Let me further explain what I understand by angeletic philosophy and, correspondingly, by a philosophical angeletics, using other Heideggerian themes, without going into a detailed textual analysis or exegesis of Heidegger. But perhaps I should use the term ‘angeletic thinking’ instead of ‘angeletic philosophy’ insofar as thinking is a possible historical response to the call of Being (Heidegger 1971), whereas philosophy in the Greek tradition is a doctrine or teaching about the forms (idea, eidos) of beings qua beings. From this perspective, thinking is originally angeletic, whereas philosophy is ‘in-formational’ (Capurro 1978). Heidegger explains this inversion and transformation of the relationship between subject and object into Being and Dasein by saying that, while modern subjectivity has a “representation” (“Vorstellung”, ‘idea’, ‘image’) of a tree, thinking exposes itself to the “call” (“Ruf”) of a tree itself that, so to speak, “introduces itself” (“der Baum stellt sich uns vor”) (Heidegger 1971, 16-17). This second experience is possible because we and the tree have a common ground, namely the earth (“die Erde”) which is not in our heads but in the world (ibid.). As Jean-Luc Nancy, following Heidegger, remarks, philosophy and particularly hermeneutics can be understood as the presentation of a message. The task of thinking is of the kind of being a messenger (Nancy 2001, 94-95; Capurro 2002).

As you know, Heidegger’s so-called ‘turn’ (“Kehre”) has to do with the view that (human) existence (Dasein) is addressed by Being instead of conceiving Dasein as ‘projecting’ or casting his/her being. Of course, both perspectives are closely related and already addressed in Being and Time (Heidegger 1976). But for Heidegger, human existence or, to put it in more neutral terms, the structure he calls Dasein or the Here of “Being” that seems to be characteristic only of a particular kind of beings, namely ourselves, is derivative not only with regard to knowledge but also in its very possibility of being. This can be expressed in simple terms by saying that we human beings are finite beings and are aware of our givenness as well. We know that we were born and that we will die, as well as of the “in-between” (“Zwischen”) of our lives (Heidegger 1976, 374).

Heidegger uses the term “Es gibt” (‘there is,’ ‘it gives’) in order to express what we can call the ontological angeletic phenomenon (Heidegger 1976a). Being is the original sender and receiver whose encounter (Ereignis) with Da-sein or ‘Ba’ as messenger enables a world, that is to say, an ethos or cast of living to emerge. But the expression ‘there is’ or ‘it gives’ makes it clear that Being is not any kind of subject, especially not a divine one, sending and receiving messages. (Sheehan 2001) It is in original unity and difference with its Here. And vice versa: the messenger that receives the message of/from Being is in itself – or as him/herself in the case of human Dasein, the only one we know about – a ‘disclosure’ (aletheia = truth) or messenger of Being. The message is the world.

Dasein announces its facticity with the phatic dialogical (!) function: ‘You see, I’m here’ (Boku ha koko ni iruyo). In his late writings, on several occasions Heidegger uses a tautological style such as “language speaks” (“die Sprache spricht”) to underscore the self-referential phenomenon of Being that cuts off, so to speak, the monologue of the (human) subject, especially when such monologue is conceived entirely as an inter-subjective dialogue, leaving aside its ontological dimension. In the ‘Dialogue with a Japanese’ he makes a distinction between “speaking about” (“Sprechen über”) and “speaking from” (“Sprechen von”), that is to say, between language as a tool for conversation vs. language as the messenger of Being. In the last sentence of the Tractatus Wittgenstein uses this distinction but he seems not to be aware of it: “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence” (“7 Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.”) (Wittgenstein 1975, 85). Wittgenstein is phatically speaking “from” Being – the standard English translation says “about” instead of ‘from’ – by saying that it is not possible to speak “about” – literally “over” it – because Being is not an object (and of course it is not a subject), or it is an ‘object’ or “la Chose” (or “l’a-chose”) in the Lacanian sense (Lacan 1986). It ‘is’ or ‘it sends itself’ as the in-between of Da-sein letting messages pass through. In contrast to language as a tool, poetic language allows us to speak “from” Being in a kind of relation where the messenger hears what language ‘dictates’ (Latin dictare, German dichten) or sends to him/her. Humans as the Here of Being are messengers of Being, letting beings be what they are. Heidegger calls humans “messengers” (“Botengänger”) (Heidegger 1975, 155). He writes:

The messenger must already come from the message. But he must also already have gone toward it. (“Der Botengänger muß schon von der Botschaft herkommen. Er muß aber auch schon auf sie zugegangen sein.”). (Heidegger 1975, 150, my translation RC)

The usual German term for messenger being Bote, “Botengänger” seems to underline the pure dynamic fact of bringing the message. It is the opposite of the kind of messengers we call ambassadors (Botschafter). There is an original unity and difference between Being and Dasein beyond or prior to any ontic separation of sender, message, messenger and receiver. Unity and difference between Being and Dasein mean nothing more and nothing less than that we cannot not interpret or ‘cast’ the meaning of Being by casting or projecting – Heidegger calls it “Entwurf” – not only what beings are, but primordially and practically our own existence. I think that today this double-bind casting of Being is done from a perspective of the digital. I call it therefore digital ontology (Capurro 2010) following basic insights of the Australian philosopher, Michael Eldred (Eldred 2009/2011).

Humans as messengers are then not primarily, as we believe especially since modernity, senders and/or (digital) receivers of messages, but are originally messengers of Being, the message itself being the world as a casting of Being arising from the encounter between Being and Dasein. This inverted relationship with regard to anthropocentric modernity allows us a heteronomous relation to Being, becoming who we are, that is to say, in Lacanian terms, a divided or “crossed-out” (“barré”) subject (Lacan 1971, II, 168) or a subject characterized by the finitude of its being addressed by the Other (Lacan 1971, 108) that can annihilate him/her. Loneliness and anxiety are moods through which, as Heidegger taught us, we discover the truth, that is to say, the finitude of being-in-the-world-with-others. We receive and pass on – and sometimes try to bypass – the message of Being because we are originally the Here of its disclosure.

Although we mostly live immersed in the given openness of everyday existence, exchanging messages and maintaining communication through the phatic function, we have the potentiality to grasp a given (historical) disclosure of Being as a possible one, that is to say, to change its truth. For this it is necessary that the message of Being is perceived as such — as a gift of the ‘it gives’. An example of this at the level of an ontic region is the so-called paradigm change in science where the pre-ontological messages (facts) that are supposed to prove or falsify a theory are re-interpreted when the theory, with all its biases, pre-conceptions and pre-suppositions, its instruments, institutions, traditions, etc., is put into question (Kuhn 1970). The radical questioning of a given world-openness by a messenger of Being that makes explicit this ontological or structural relation between Being and messenger, can lead to strong opposition from the defenders of the status quo and – to condemnation of the messenger, as in the case of Socrates. This opens the debate as to which are the ethical criteria for making a distinction between a messenger of Being and its opposite (a charlatan), with all degrees in between. One important criterion for this difficult ethical task that is always endangered by manipulation and self-deception is whether the messenger maintains critically the openness of Being or proclaims an absolute truth. Another criterion is whether other messengers also remain critical with regard to the alternative casting of Being as passed on to them, or whether they develop from there, say, a political ideology, a mere worldview or a theoretical dogma (I thank Michael Eldred for an enlightening e-mail exchange on this issue).


If my understanding is correct, I think that your angeletics is something I've been thinking about for a long time since my years as a university student. I've struggled with the problem why a lot of people are influenced by fiction or the imaginative representation of the mass media, even though they know the difference between the reality (facts) and the fictions (copies of reality). This problem can't be solved if we think that facts (or messages of some facts) are the first (original) and the mediated portrayal (news, dramas) are the copies of the first-hand realities. This kind of ontic thinking, which is typical for most scientific authors and scholars, seems to cause difficulties for them if they try to understand the deep background of the bad/good influences of media as well as other forms of artistic expression such as poems, dramas, games and so on (these are all copies of reality in a way). At first, I tried to solve this problem by getting hints from Kant’s “Urteilskraft” (power of judgement) or “Einbildungskraft” (power of imagination), or from distinctions between reality and actuality in Bin Kimura, or the discussions of optical illusions and so on, but after some years' struggle, I understand that the presupposition that fact is first and expression is second, is the main problem itself. And now I know that we have to think about the presupposition that the message of Being is first and the (human) messenger is second.

Your remark about the inverted relationship between message and messenger is very interesting in this sense, but some Japanese poets such as Basho seem not to invert the relations message and messenger, facts and expressions, mono (the objects or beings) and koto (language, expressions, objects expressed by words). They rather try to see the not-divided situations that consist of ambiguous beings of objects and words, mono and koto, person (artist or audience) and objects. In this sense, they don’t ask where the separated things and phenomena come from, but how is the unity of objects and persons, mono to koto and so on? This is my personal understanding.

Now, I feel that we are close to the core questions of mediated and aesthetic expressions as well as of communication itself. Don’t you think so? There are no scholars around me who are interested in this kind of ontological/hermeneutical discussion/thinking but luckily some of my students seem to be fond of my talks related to phatic function or ontological explanation of CMC or computer mediated communication. The theme of the thesis of one of my undergraduate students is “ontological views on the use of the mobile phone.”

I wonder how we as messengers can send this kind of discussion to a broader range of possible receivers. I wonder also how we can relate this kind of discussion to the problems of information ethics and robo-ethics in an academic or theoretical as well as in a practical way in order to address difficult matters such as youth's wrong-doings as an expression of the loss of identity, or the loss of sense of fundamental relations between human beings, the poverty of meaning in our minds and so on.

I am also thinking about comparing the phatic function in different cultures. Some of my graduate students come from various countries. For example, I think it will be very interesting to ask the students from China: ‘Explain the role of Confucius as a messenger.’ According to Hideo Kobayashi (Kobayashi 1961), what we can learn from the Confucian tradition is the importance of active wisdom. I think that active wisdom is important because the meanings of some messages, as we discussed, are not determined merely by messages themselves or the literal contents of messages/utterances separated from the relations between messages and messengers or the phatic function (keeping-in-touch) of communication.

Hideo Kobayashi says that if we try to make good use of active wisdom, we have to get rid of selfishness. This means that the interpretation of some poems or novels can't be separated from the (imaginative) relations between authors and readers. In this sense, we can learn how to use active wisdom through active and/or imaginative human relations such as the relations between Confucius and his disciples. As some scholars suggest, even ‘fake’ interaction with robots might have some real influence upon human beings as their partners. According to an interesting experimental survey done by Mariko Narumi and Michita Imai, the artificial voices of robots with a friendly and sympathetic tone are found to influence subjects’ behaviour. The subjects influenced by the utterance of robots such as ‘Why don’t you have a piece of this cake?” tend to eat a piece of cake offered by robots. Narumi and Imai explain the results of this research thus: “We human beings tend to attribute the friendly voice of a machine to the imagined inner minds or emotions of the robot.” (Narumi and Imai 2003)

I remember having heard a story about nodding robots. Even nodding robots enable people to communicate more easily, for example, when speaking on the telephone, even if the nodding robots are just showing fake agreement. It is strange that some autistic patients can communicate with robots more easily than with human beings in some cases, according to studies on human-robot-interaction (Feil-Seifer and Mataric 2008). In my view, we can explain these phenomena in such a way. Human communication consists of different levels and in many cases patients with, for example, agnosia, autism or schizophrenia, have difficulty dealing with or understanding information or meanings at the meta-level of communication. I gained this insight from Bin Kimura (Kimura 1994) and Masakazu Yamazaki (Yamazaki 1988); fake communication with robots might enable patients to deal with the meanings at the meta-level more easily because this sort of communication has a simple structure. So in this sense, the distinction between fake and real is not so important. Hideo Kobayashi did not study Heidegger or Gadamer but he knew that these questions regarding the relations between texts and readers are important. If we don't forget this ‘truth,’ classical literatures or classic works will remain alive in our minds, said Kobayashi. I think that he learned this through his own dialogue with the classics of Japan and China.


I think that we in the West can and should learn a lot from your angeletic experiences with robots and particularly from the underlying ontological Japanese perspective that does not give to the human being such a predominance as in the West, separating from the world as an autonomous subject. A de-centred human subject that, strictly speaking is no longer (an underlying) subject, but understands him/herself as being-out-there-in-the-world as messenger for Being’s sendings in the sense I tried to explain, might be more flexible in his/her interchange with other non-human agents such as robots, being able to translate, if I may say so, the world-less phatic utterances of robots as something that mimic ontically the ontological experience of loneliness and finitude. By the way, in Plato's dialogues, Socrates’ interlocutors often answer with phatic utterances such as: ‘I see,’ ‘I follow you,’ ‘certainly,’ ‘of course’, etc. that allow the dialogue to continue or, better, that allow Socrates to pass on ‘his’ ideas that are supposed to lead to an existential self-questioning on the part of the partner and not to an indoctrination by Socrates’ message. From this perspective, Socrates is not a sender but a messenger of ideas that come to him from beyond. As soon as such ideas are considered as one’s own they turn into an opinion (doxa) and become the object of endless discussions. The Socratic dialogue is a place or Ba where language (logos) passes through (dia) the participants’ shared being-in-the-world. This is also Lacan’s interpretation of Plato’s Symposium in his seminar on transference, where he compares the psychoanalyst’s task with the Socratic erotic method of letting love messages to pass on (Lacan 1991).

Let us take an example from your tradition such as The Tale of Genji or Genji monogatari (Murasaki Shikibu 2010). In the middle of the tale we read about Princess Asagao, daughter of Prince Momozono, brother of the Emperor, who has been courted in vain by Prince Genji, her cousin, from his seventeenth year onward. Genji is now thirty-three years old. Lady Fujitsubo, the Emperor’s consort, loved by Genji, and Asagao’s father have both died. In Chapter 20 Murasaki Shikibu tells the story of the problematic relationship between Genji and Asagao. At the beginning of Chapter 21 she writes:

From Genji came a note in which he said: “Does it not give you a strange feeling to witness a Day of Cleansing in which you take no part?” And remembering that she was still in mourning for her father, he added the poem: “Little thought I that, like a wave in the swirl of the flood, you would come back so soon, a dark-robed mourner swept along time’s hurrying stream.” It was written on purple paper in a bold script, and a spray of wisteria was attached to it. Moved by all that was going on around her she replied: “It seems but yesterday that I first wore my somber dress; but now the pool of days has grown into a flood wherein I soon shall wash my grief away.” The poem was sent without explanation or comment and constituted, indeed, a meager reply; but, as usual, he found himself constantly holding it in front of him [self] and gazing at it as though it had been much more than a few poor lines of verse. When the end of the mourning actually came, the lady who acted as messenger and intermediary in general was overwhelmed by the number of packages from the Nijo-in [Genji’s palace] which now began to arrive. Lady Asagao expressed great displeasure at this lavishness and, if the presents had been accompanied by letters or poems of at all a familiar or impertinent kind, she would at once have put a stop to these attentions. But for a year past there had been nothing in his conduct to complain of. From time to time he came to the house and enquired after her, but always quite openly. His letters were frequent and affectionate, but he took no liberties, and what nowadays troubled her chiefly was the difficulty of inventing anything to say in reply. (Murasaki Shikibu 2010, 398-399)

Genji’s letter is written in prose and a direct style while the poem that usually accompanies a letter is full of indirect messages including the purple paper on which it is written, the bold script, a spray of wisteria and, of course, the poem itself. Cultures in the “Far East” as well as in the “Far West” – using the terminology of the French sinologist François Jullien (Jullien 2003) – differ on the issue of direct and indirect style (Capurro 2011).

Princess Asagao is in trouble. Should she answer or not? Should she continue a formal and, at least for her, meaningless phatic communication? She writes a “meager reply” that is brought to Genji by a messenger, a lady, without “any explanation or comment”. Genji “as usual” does not know what to think about it and holds  the message “constantly ... in front of him [self] and gazing at it as though it had been more than a few poor lines of verse.” Later on, Genji sends a lot of gifts including letters and poems but he must be careful of “taking no liberties”, otherwise she would stop the communication. Both Asagao and Genji express through messages and messengers different kinds of loneliness and other forms of emotional perception of the Ba of their time. But, of course, it is Murasaki Shikibu herself who gives such an answer by writing this story.

Of course, an in-depth interpretation of this and many other examples in this wonderful tale presupposes an analysis of the structure or Ba of Japanese society during the Heian period (794-1192), particularly of the mores and values governing communication with regard to gender roles, possibilities of transgressing such mores and roles, the role of messengers, the different kinds of messages, including their materiality and calligraphy. Some of the moral dilemmas arising from such mores and values are made explicit by Murasaki Shikibu, such as Asagao’s doubts about continuing the communication and Genji’s concern about not transgressing certain limits when sending her gifts and messages. The historian of the Heian period, George Sansom, calls such mores “rules of taste” (Sansom 1958).

This connection between ethics and aesthetics seems to be characteristic of Japanese culture to the present day. With regard to the The Tale of Genji Sansom writes:

The irresistible amorist is a pessimist at heart, weighed down by a sense of misfortune, by the weight of an unhappy karma. At the age of thirty we find him haunted by the impermanence of worldly things, and on the point of embracing a monastic life. […]. Throughout the story, even in its saddest episodes, there runs a thread of delight in beauty. All the love talk is interspersed with enjoyment of colour, shape, and perfume, and a continual exchange of poetic messages. Calligraphy plays almost as great a part as the tones of a lover’s voice in arousing tender emotion. […] In this world of the senses, the words for good and beautiful are almost interchangeable. (Sansom 1958, 186-191)

In other words, The Tale of Genji is an example of how messages coming from both humans and nature were passed on through messengers. And, more radically, how Japanese Ba during the Heian period was experienced as such a place where messages pass through. In this sense, we can say that the Here of Being or the structure of a culture is at best understood if it is conceived and lived as a place where messages pass through instead of being blocked. This is one of the lessons of Chinese Taoism. (Jullien 2005) As you know, Japanese society during the Heian period was profoundly influenced by China.

MN According to the anthropologist, Masao Yamaguchi, Genji lives on two levels in this world. One is the level of fixed moral rules and the other one is chaos, where such rules are invisible and can be violated (Yamaguchi 1983). In my view, as son of the emperor, Genji belongs to Ikai (i.e., a different world, different from Seken) or the level of chaos, where he, perhaps unconsciously, goes beyond fixed mores or Seken, that is to say, the traditional Japanese life-world (Nakada 2008, 2009). In his pursuit of love affairs, he violates, on the one hand, fixed mores and, on the other, through the connection between ethics and aesthetics, his life reproduces the cultural norms. I believe that this dualism between chaos (Ikai) and mores (Seken) reflects another dualism in Japanese cultural identity, namely, between an aspect influenced by ancient China, in particular, by Confucianism, and another aspect of the genuinely Japanese mind symbolized by The Tale of Genji. One important thing is that Murasaki Shikibu bears witness to this cultural Ba in reflecting on this dualism.

One of the difficult questions is, indeed, how to analyse this story from an angeletic perspective and how to relate this Ba or phatic communication to an angeletic perspective. We are very close to the core of problems from which our mutual understanding and some misunderstanding arose. I think that our dialogue itself is a realization of an angeletic relationship and shows the importance of intercultural angeletics.


We thank Michael Eldred (Cologne) and John Holgate (Sydney) for their criticisms as well as for polishing our English.


Boss, Medard: Grundriss der Medizin und der Psychologie. Bern 1974.

Bühler, Karl: Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Frankfurt am Main 1978 (Orig.: Ausdruckstheorie. Das System an der Geschichte aufgezeigt. Jena 1934).

Capurro, Rafael: The Dao of the Information Society in China and the Task of Intercultural Information Ethics. Beijing 2011.l

Digital Hermeneutics. An Outline. In AI & Society, 35 (1), 2010, pp. 35-42. 

Operari sequitur esse. Zur existential-ontologischen Begründung der Netzethik. In Thomas Hausmanninger, Rafael Capurro (Eds.): Netzethik. Grundlegungsfragen der Internetethik. Munich 2002, pp. 61-77.

Information. Ein Beitrag zur etymologischen und ideengeschichtlichen Begründung des Informationsbegriffs. Munich 1978.

Eldred, Michael: The Digital Cast of Being. Frankfurt am Main 2009. Extended online edition 2011: http://www.arte-fact.org/dgtlon_e.html

Feil-Seifert, David and Mataric, Maja: Robot-associated therapy for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Refereed Workshop Conference on Interaction Design for Children: Children with Special Needs, Chicago, Il, June 2008, pp. 49-52.

Fromm, Erich:  Escape from Freedom. New York 1941.

Goffman, Ervin: Frame Analysis. Cambridge MA 1974.

Heidegger, Martin: Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache. In ibid.: Unterwegs zur Sprache. Pfullingen 1975, pp. 83-155.

Sein und Zeit. Tübingen 1976.

Zur Sache des Denkens. Tübingen 1976a.

Was heisst Denken? Tübingen 1971.

Izutsu, Toshihiko: Ishiki to honshitsu [Consiousness and Essence]. Tokyo 2001.

Jakobson, Roman: Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics. In Thomas A. Sebeok (Ed.): Style in Language. Cambridge MA 1960, pp. 350-377.

Jullien, François: La valeur allusive. Paris 2003.

Nourrir sa vie. À l’écart du bonheur. Paris 2005.

Kimura, Bin: Hito to hito to no aida. Tokyo 1972. (German translation by E. Weinmayr: Zwischen Mensch und Mensch. Strukturen japanischer Subjektivität. Darmstadt 1995).

Kokoro no byouri wo kanngaeru [About Pathology of Human Minds]. Tokyo 1994.

Kobayasi, Hideo: Motsuaruto-Mujyo to iu koto [Mozart and senses of Mu]. Tokyo 1961.

Jyoushiki ni tsuite (About common sense). Tokyo 1968.

Kuhn, Thomas S.: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago 1970.

Lacan, Jacques: Le transfert. Livre VIII. Paris 1991.

L’éthique de la psychanalyse. Livre VII, Paris 1986.

Écrits, Vol. I-II. Paris 1966/1971.

Luhmann, Niklas: Soziale Systeme. Frankfurt am Main 1987.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice: Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris 1945.

Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji (Transl. A. Waley). Tokyo 2010.

Nancy, Jean-Luc: Das Vergessen der Philosophie. Wien 2001.

Nakada, Makoto: Blogs and privacy in Seken as a Japanese life-world including indigenous norms. In Maria Botis (Ed.): 8th International Conference. Computer Ethics: Philosophical Enquiry. Athens 2009, pp. 518-542.

Privacy and Seken in China, Inner Mongolia and Japan: Interrelations between Privacy and other dominant views in China, Inner Mongolia (China) and Japan. In F. Sudweeks, H. Hrachovec, and C. Ess (Eds.), Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication 2008, Perth, pp. 684-697.

Nakada, Makoto and Capurro, Rafael: The Public/ Private Debate: A contribution to Intercultural Information Ethics. In Rocci Luppicini and Rebecca Adell (Eds.), Handbook of Research in Technoethics, Hershey PA 2009, pp. 339-353.

Nakamura, Yujifo: Nihon-bunnka ni okeru aku to tsumi. Tokyo 1998, pp. 207-230.

Nishida Kitaro. Tokyo 2001.

Narumi, Mariko and Imai, Michita: Human-Robot Interaction with Directed Dialogue.  IPSJ SIG Notes. ICS (100), 2003, pp. 67-74.

Nishimura, Kiyokazu: Dennnou yuugi no shyonen syojyo tati [Youth’s playing as meta-communication in the information era]. Tokyo 1999.

Sansom, George : A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford 1958.

Shannon, Claude E.: A Mathematical Theory of Communication. In Bell System Technical Journal 27, 1948, pp. 379-423 and pp. 623-656. 

Shannon, Claude E. and Weaver, Warren: The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana, IL. 1949/1972.

Sheehan, Thomas: A Paradigm Shift in Heidegger Research. In Continental Philosophy Review, 2001, XXXII, 2, pp. 1-20.

Tokieda, Motoki: Kokugogaku genron. Tokyo 2008.

Tsuji, Daisuku: Toka’Teyuka’ no komiyunikeishon toyujin-kankei’ [Human relations and communication reflecting use of ‘toka’ and ‘teyuka’] 1999. Online: 

Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Tractatus logico-philosophicus. Frankfurt am Main 1984.

Yamaguchi, Masao: Bunka no shi-gaku I  [Poetics of culture I]. Tokyo 1983.

Yamazaki, Masakazu: Engi suru  seishin [Drama-playing and human mind]. Tokyo 1988.

Last update: April  14, 2024


Copyright © 2010 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.

Back to Digital Library 
Homepage Research Activities
Publications Teaching Interviews