abstract for 2016 East-West Philosophers’ Conference, Hawaii

Conference website: http://hawaii.edu/phil/2016-east-west-philosophers-conference-update/

Paper Title: Philosophical Issues of Place and the Past in Virtual Reality

There are indisputably many good reasons for finding and restoring heritage sites and artefacts with the most impartial and accurate scientific methods and technological advances. Yet the ICOMOS Burra Charter defines cultural significance in terms of the value of a place as it helps people understand the past, as it enriches the present, and educates future generations, these values can be aesthetic, historic, social or spiritual, (and thus not just scientific). Therefore it does not necessarily follow that the best user-experience for members of the public is purely based on a rigorous scientific perspective, because such a perspective does not fully explain the cultural significance of a place as experienced by the originators of the locally situated culture.

On the other hand, evoking cultural significance may be helped by a philosophical consideration of how specific human experiences can be understood and conveyed. The Dictionary of Philosophy says (on p.464) phenomenology “is the attempt to describe our experience directly, as it is, separately from its origins and development, independently of the causal explanations that historians, sociologists or psychologists might give”. While hermeneutics, it says (on p.274-5), “explores the kind of existence had by beings who are able to understand meanings, and to whom the world is primarily an object of understanding (rather than, say, of sense-perceptions)”.

I wish to investigate whether an approach that would best utilise multimedia and the differing multimodal ways in which we learn and experience the outside world would be phenomenological and hermeneutical. In other words it would attempt to understand how the way individual societies experience the world, how they interpret the world to themselves and to each other, how their cultural signs are made, modified, and learnt. It would also attempt to discover how the horizons of current visitors could be nudged out of balance by being either overwhelmed by encounters with genuine alterity (that is, sense of otherness), or by gradually learning how to be accepted in this totally different phenomenological world.

A further pressing issue in the design of virtual places and especially in the design of virtual heritage environments is to avoid the ‘museumization’ and ‘Western’ viewpoint as forewarned by Ziauddin Sardar and others. Can this technology help provide an appropriate sense of alterity and an appropriate situated sense of place?


ICOMOS, (1999).‘The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS charter for the conservation of places of cultural significance’, http://www.icomos.org/australia/burracharter.html.

Mautner, T. (2005). Dictionary of Philosophy (Penguin Reference, 2nd edition, Suffolk United Kingdom: Penguin, Books, p. 464 and p.275.

Sardar, Z. (1996). alt.civilizations.faq: Cyberspace as the Darker Side of the West. In Cyberfutures: culture and politics on the information superhighway, ed. Ziauddin Sardar and Jerome Ravetz, 14-41. London: Pluto Press.


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