Commentary: Globalization:


Individuality in a Global Community


By Professor Dr. Bernhard J. Mitterauer

Institute of Forensic Neuropsychiatry, University of Salzburg

Salzburg, Austria


My thesis is this: if we intend to generate a global community and attempt to cope with its inherent problems, we can only be successful if we understand what an individual is and according to which principles inter-individual communication works. The argumentation is based on a system-theoretical model called polyontological self-observation that I have developed over the past years (Mitterauer, 2003). After presenting this model of individuality, principles of inter-subjective communication are deduced providing a theoretical background for constructive global communication.



Model of the polyontological self-observation


Living systems are self-referential systems (von Foerster, 1993). The principle of self-reference guarantees the maintenance of the circular organization of a living system and its identity or individuality. From a psychological point of view, self-reference connotes narcissism (Pritz, Mitterauer, 1977). The German-American philosopher Gotthard Guenther contributed a great formal model to a comprehensive theory of subjectivity (individuality) which I have further elaborated for an application in interdisciplinary research (brain research, psychopathology, robotics, philosophy). According to Guenther, a universe is composed of countless distinct loci of existence embodying a polyontological structure (ontological is derived from Greek ‘on’=being, ‘logos’=science and ‘polys’=many). Therefore, living systems like humans embody preferred loci capable of self-observation. Before I describe the polyontological model of self-observation, an outline of its formal basis is necessary.


In his study “time, timeless logic and self-referential systems”, Guenther (1967) presented a polyontological system by introducing novel ontological loci that transcend the classical ontological dichotomy between object and subject in general. “What do these new ontological loci signify? The shortest possible answer is: Being, its reflection in Thought and Time represents the whole range of objective existence as reflected in three-valued ontology. Yet there must be a subject of cognizance conscious of an objective world. This subject must be capable of distinguishing between the world as outlined in its ontology, its thought-image of this world, and itself as being the producer of the image. Since the first three loci refer to the world, the fourth locus must accommodate the image making and the fifth its producer. The classic tradition of formal logic neglects this ambiguity. And thus it does not understand the Janus-face of subjective self-reference. Subjectivity (individuality) is both the still image of the world as well as the life process of making an image; and what we call a personal ego constitutes itself in the triadic relation between environment, image and image-making.”

Here, Guenther describes five ontological loci constituting a subjective system that can also be interpreted as standpoints of self-observation (Mitterauer, 2003). These loci may embody the elementary capabilities of a human brain to generate and to maintain its identity or individuality. Figure 1 shows these standpoints of self-observation as a closed (self-referential) system. With regard to the brain Being is comparable to objective self-observation accomplished by the apparative equipment of a dynamic genome. Reflection of being in thought is interpretable as subjective self-observation in the sense of self-representation. This ontological realm comprises our cognitive capabilities to think, to reflect, to plan, etc. Both objective and subjective self-observation occur in time. However, in what time? This important issue will be discussed further below.


Figure 1. Model of the poly-ontological self-observation

Self-observation is also embodied in the brain as self-instrumentalization. Here we deal with our capabilities to act and generate technical devices. In other words: underlying highly complex genetic mechanisms enable the brain to produce “organs” for the realization of its intentional programs in the inner and outer world. Most importantly, self-observation as an act of self-reference permanently constitutes the individual self with the existential capability of inner-systemic integration of the ontological loci and of boundary-setting between its subjectivity and the systems of the environment.


In addition, we are faced with the problem which time conception sets the basis for self-observation as an act of self-reference. From a biological point of view, living systems operate both in ontogenetic and evolutionary time. Despite the fact that our biological life span is limited, our brain is still capable of generating new cognitive and technical products independent of its ontogenetic decay in the sense of evolution. In contrast, if we describe the act of self-reference as a permanently rotating cycle, a third time conception must be introduced which I call permanence (Mitterauer, 1989). This argument may explain the fact that human individuals in all cultures are determined by a conscious or unconscious longing for immortality, which is why religions play such an important role.


Intersubjective communication


Considering the five ontological loci outlined in Figure 1, these represent abstractions of countless ontological structures embodied in the microdomain of the brain. These ontological structures are called compartments, each of which operates in a specific quality of information processing (see Mitterauer and Kopp, 2003). Therefore, I speak of a polyontological brain (Mitterauer, 1998; 2007). It follows that the various operation domains in the brain do not in all aspects operate in a logical context, but there are also logical “breaks”, characterized by Guenther (1973) as discontexturalities. As already mentioned, these ontological discontexturalities are held together by the act of self-reference generating integrative brain operations in the sense of a polycontexturality. Notably, “the living organism is a cluster of relatively discontextural subsystems held together by a mysterious function called self-reference and hetero-referentially linked to an environment of even greater discontexturality” (Guenther, 1971).


If and which ontological compartments cooperate at a given moment essentially depends on the intentional programs of the brain and on an appropriate information in the environment. Intentional programs are generated by a specific polyontological (polycontextural) structure. Since such a polyontological structure embodies both the subject and the objects in the environment, the brain is able to “prelude” in itself a possible cooperation with the environment. Given the fact that every subjective system interacts with others determined by highly individual intentional programs, a real communication or even cooperation is often difficult. What mechanisms enable a human subject to cope with his/her own intentions and with those of others such that a constructive communication is feasible?


Communication based on acceptance and rejection

Guenther (1962) also introduced a rejection operator into logic. A rejection value (e.g. 3) transcends an alternative of values (e.g. 1↔2) via rejecting both values. Therefore, rejection is not a negation of a value, but all alternative values in the sense of an ontological locus (thematic domain) become irrelevant. Guenther characterizes the capability of a system to reject the irrelevant as an “index of subjectivity” or individuality.


However, why and when is information of the inner or outer environment irrelevant so that it must be rejected? A living system like a human being is essentially determined by intentions (biological needs, wishes, plans, etc.) and striving to realize them in an appropriate environment. So every subjective system has to cope with the feasibility of its intentions. The final aim should be a constructive inter-subjective communication. Generally, environmental information corresponding to the subjective intentional programs can be accepted. But if it is inappropriate, it must be rejected as long as the intentions have subjective priority and do not adapt to the environmental situation. To put it in a nutshell, human communication is based on the dialectics between acceptance of the feasible and rejection of the non-feasible dependent on the individuality of intentional programs.


Intersubjective cooperation

From a biological point of view, it is the brain that makes us individual and capable to communicate with many others. My hypothesis is that the interplay between subjective subjectivity (“Ego”) and objective subjectivity (“Thou”) occurs already on the synaptic level of the brain (see Mitterauer, 2008). The formal rules are depicted in Figure 2. Here, the subjective subject (Ss) dominates the relation to the objective subject (So) exerting an ordered relation (→). If the relationship inverses, based on two exchange relations (↔), So dominates Ss. “If we let the relator (Ss) assume the place of the relatum (So), the exchange is not mutual. The relator may become a relatum, but not in the relation from which it formerly established the relationship, but only in a relationship of higher order and vice versa.” (Guenther, 1976). Guenther speaks of a proemial relationship (from Greek: ‘proemion’=prelude). As already mentioned, this formalism may already work in the synapses of the brain. Since a synapse consists of two main cell types (neuron, glia), it can be interpreted as composed of two different ontological loci (“Ego”, “Thou”) processing intersubjective information by preluding the real case in the environment.


Figure 2. Model of intersubjective communication
Ss: subjective subjectivity (“Ego”)
So: objective subjectivity (“Thou”)
→: ordered relation
↔: exchange relation

Most importantly, subjective communication is not only an interaction but also a cooperation towards a feasibility of common intentional programs of both partners. The parabel of “master and slave” (Hegel, 1952) represents an archetypic example of intersubjective cooperation. At the first glance, the master absolutely dominates the slave, but not in every case. If, for example, a special work has to be done from the slave and the master is himself completely unable to do that, the master is fully dependent on the slave so that the relationship has temporarily changed. There are many examples in human history of such cooperative interdependence between a great person and his/her seemingly primitive servant.



Some implications for global communication

Human communication is janus-faced: it can be destructive by both aggressive occupations of realms of the environment and rejection of the intentions of the people involved. In contrast, a constructive communication cooperating with others based on the dialectics between acceptance and rejection is possible as well. Since the solution of social issues can only be achieved by constructive cooperation, let me finally present some proposals as a result of the theoretical model presented here.


First of all, a world consisting of myriads of individuals (humans, animals, or even plants) implies that their local identities must be maintained and respected. This principle should hold for each person, society, animal, environment and culture. Every project of problem solving should start out on the basis of Ego-Thou communications with the purpose of a constructive cooperation. By doing so, both partners should openly declare their intentional programs towards a common project of feasibility. Independent of the present feasibility in the environment, it must primarily be elaborated if one partner rejects one or more intentional programs of the other. This situation is mostly the case, since individuality is characterized by rejection of special domains of the subjective and objective environment in order to constitute personal differences. Achieving a constructive cooperation, such rejection behavior must be tolerated. Now the way is open for the acceptance of some common intentions and their implementation, so that the original tolerance of mutual rejection of subjective intentions does not matter anymore. In this manner, a constructive intentional program can be generated that is testable with regard to its feasibility in the environment. One could also say that this procedure represents a strategy of mediation between different identities or ontological discontexturalities.


Considering the decisive role of individuality in communication, the complexity of the relational structure increases enormously in larger societies, so that the real process of decisions is hidden, e.g. in politics. Therefore, we should actively search for persons who represent a different culture and even a controversial scientific approach. Then we could start the communication strategy proposed here. Such dyadic cooperations may produce “stem-cells-like” effects growing into the structure of a global society. Since the BWW-Society is multiculturally constituted, it could represent a model by preluding in itself what might work in global problem solutions.




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Dr. Bernhard Mitterauer is Professor of Neuropsychiatry at the University of Salzburg's Institute of Forensic Neuropsychiatry. He recived his M.D. from the University of Graz and eight years later received his academic degree in Neuropsychiatry and Psychoanalysis. Dr. Mitterauer studied Philosophy with Gotthard Gunther, the famous Philosopher of Cybernetics, in Hamburg. He developed a close friendship and intensive scientific collaboration with Gunther, whose philosophy has influenced Dr. Mitterauer's work up to this day. In 1984 Dr. Mitterauer was appointed Professor of Neuropsychiatry at the University of Graz and he has been serving as a Professor and Head of Forensic Neuropsychiatry at the University of Salzburg since 1989.  Concurrently with his practical work as a Neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Mitterauer has been involved in interdisciplinary research in Biocybernetics since the beginning of his professional career. In the 1970's he published basic research studies on emotion, depression, narcissism and self-observation. Notably, in 1981 he earned the Eiselberg Award for his already internationally acknowledged research on suicide. During the 1980's he published numerous studies dealing with a new "dialectic" psychopathology. His book "Architectonics, Metaphysics of Feasibility" deals with a future-oriented interpretation of technical activities, especially the development of robots. Dr. Mitterauer decisively advanced the methodology of the assessment of criminal offenders and has published numerous pertinent basic research studies. He is the founder of the Gotthard Gunther Archives for the research and publication of the posthumous works of Gunther at the University of Salzburg.

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