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Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge


Jean-Francois Lyotard


By Dr. Gilbert Githere, Ed.D.

The paper, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, examines the state of knowledge in the developed countries of the West, specifically Europe and America.  This study has been necessitated by postmodernity that is slowly replacing modernity.

        In this paper, Lyotard agrees that postmodernity has altered the way people perceive science in the society. This subtle paradigm shift has caused a blur or crisis in the discourse of what knowledge is.

       Lyotard agrees that science over history has always failed to keep up with the daily narrative. He notes that science does not confine itself to adherence and knowledge of regulations in its realm - in most cases, science makes sure it works as it’s supposed to.

       In other words, science works according to its own rules. For this reason, when it comes to a social political system, science turns to philosophy for legitimation.

        In order to decipher legitimacy from the metanarratives of the day, science stays very closely and adheres to the grand narratives of the time.  It recruits: 

1. The dialectics of Spirit

2. The hermeneutic of meaning

3. The emancipation of rational or working subject

4. The creation of wealth 

       Lyotard emphasizes the importance that researchers (scientists) and investors agree that the knowledge developed is consensually accepted as of value to the powers of the day. 

         This analysis shows the importance of metanarratives of the time, which Lyotard equates with the philosophy of the day; these tend to legitimize the knowledge the institutions of that day are perpetuating, and in return, the language of the day legitimizes the institutions.

          It is imperative to note that metanarratives keep tabs of knowledge (truth) and they also legitimize the justice of the time.

Lyotard defines the term Postmodern as disbelieving the metanarratives of the day. This state of unbelievability is a product of advancement, especially in the sciences. Also, internally the sciences (progress) detect these contradictions of unbelievability.

           As the tool to decipher the metanarratives (that which explores the art of storytelling and exposes the inconsistencies) becomes unusable or obsolete, all the institutions that make the use of the metanarratives credible collapse, or stop working as intended.  Therefore, the content and process become obsolete.

       He notes when the narratives don't work as they are supposed to, it is a sign that the living essences or entities that are the building blocks of the metanarratives have stopped functioning or they have died all together. He equates this action with a machine whose operator is no longer able to perform his work. When this catastrophic action takes place, it is the equivalent of losing a parent; in this scenario, family members are devastated and in a destitute position when they lose the head of the family, and the family members feel both loss and a sense of direction.

        Things are fuzzy in the sociopolitical milieu; the words do not adequately make sense of the situation.  The system is divided into small incoherent units, and unable to tell a whole comprehensive and logical story.

        This scenario has multiple metanarratives; they all offer different language games and disjointed institutions develop in the system.

             The leaders and their followers try to use these disjointed institutions, as if they were one sensible whole, but their efforts fail, and becomes management by crisis. As they try to apply the rules that managed the language games of modernity, they find that the rules don't work.

          In modernity, the institutions that are equivalent of industries are directed to produce the maximum of their requirements by the people who own them, and they are expected to do this by being as efficient as possible. To achieve this maximum efficiency, the industries or institutions the owners manipulate are the factors of production, especially human labor. Conditions are put in place that fail to produce maximum productivity; the workers may then face dismissal, and reduction in wages or benefits.

       In the postmodern industry, labor is not in high demand, so less is required.  As Jean Baudrillard stated in his book Simulacrum (1983), robots have replaced human labor.

         In the postmodern era, the philosophers have been reduced to storytellers, and the discourse is not centered on the search for truth. Technology is in high demand and in the tech world, truth is just a word, and nothing of value is attached to it. Communication is the most important priority, and the flow of information in the community is critical, and unlike during modernity, there does not need to be consensus for the discourse to be productive or valuable.

        As Michel Foucault, the famous French scholar, stated in his book The Archeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language (1972) that every discipline – for example, Biology, Medicine, Physics or Chemistry – has a specific language game (search for truth). This was very true during the Enlightenment, but it is becoming less important in postmodernity.

Narrative of the Legitimacy of Knowledge 

       Lyotard, in this very in-depth paper, looks at two types of legitimation, one political and the other philosophical. The two legitimation systems are important when it comes to the history of Knowledge.

           For example, when legitimation is done through politics, it is said to be through a prism of humanity, and it becomes the hero of liberty. The belief becomes that people have a right to use science to better their lives.

He reminds us that there was a time when religion was a leader in the legitimation of knowledge. 

The Church controlled the metanarratives, and this meant the language games of the day were under the control of the church. Lyotard concurs that throughout history, there has been a struggle among different parties who controlled the flow of knowledge, especially the education system.

Napoleon is said to have been motivated to control metanarratives for the legitimation of knowledge. This effort assured him that the higher education system would produce results for his government and the type of administrators his institutions required.

        This was a double edge sword because the survival of a healthy state rested on an educated populace. For this reason, the state felt the obligation or duty to educate its citizens. As the leaders of state did this, they gave the people more freedom and also improved their lives, which was a form of progress.

       The next institution that wanted to control the language games of the day is comprised of the philosophers, who became responsible for the legitimation of the knowledge of the day. Positivists did this during the Enlightenment by using science.

        During the founding of the University of Berlin, the issue of who would control the language games of the institution became very obvious; the intelligentsia of the day felt knowledge should be left free to control itself. This stance for some people was viewed as an attitude of, “Science for its own sake,” but in actuality, truth was far from what the authorities wanted.

           Wilhelm Humboldt, an intellectual of the day, was charged with drawing up the constitution of the university. He believed the university should be allowed to “self-propel,” as knowledge was a living thing constantly in a state of change.

         Lyotard observes that science should direct people's moral and spiritual training. Wilhelm, in formulating the mission statement of the new institution, emphasized the role of character and action of citizenry, rather than just learning. 

        But Wilhelm noticed a problem when he looked at the history of culture of the German people, which borrowed heavily from Kantian Philosophy. In the value system of the Germans, a strong belief asserted the search for knowledge, and the search for truth was at the core of it all (leading to Absolute Truth).

       The language games also adhered closely unto the fact that justice had to be sought simultaneously as truth. The national narrative for the legitimation of knowledge was Kantian in orientation, and centered on the theory of knowing and willing.

        When drawing up the constitution of the university, Wilhelm made sure that it addressed the politics and the philosophy of the German people. He ensured idealism was interwoven with social political ideals, which were the core values of the constitution.

       At the end of the day, the education system of the institution would pass these values to its students. The search for truth in this young university would subtly respect justice.

      It was believed that an education system that centered on searching for truth automatically translated to a just and moral society.

       Germans of the time adhered to idealism, and they also believed knowledge was a people's right; they also believed that knowledge should be left to the speculative spirit. The narrative of the legitimation of knowledge was a philosophical thing.

        Although the intelligentsia believed in speculative knowledge, they still remained highly skeptical of state politics. The politicians generally wanted to usurp this freedom from the people with the intention of introducing a system that promoted and preached nationalism, protectionism, utilitarianism, and positivism, which always went against the freedom of the people and indirectly introduced authoritarianism.

        After the French Revolution, the narrative for the legitimation of knowledge  was left into the hands of the state. In Germany, it was very much a speculative system, and in the hands of the country's intellectuals. Revolutions did not always mean freedom for the people and their institutions.

       The universities had the power to lay open the whole body of learning and expose all the principles and the foundations of knowledge. The Germans believed creativity lay in speculative spirit. Speculation was the discourse that involved the legitimation of all scientific research.

         The primary education was considered a functional realm, and the education at university level was left to the speculative spirit. Speculative spirit was a philosophical endeavor to explore knowledge.

        Speculative spirit brought together all knowledge that was scattered in the society and assembled it under one roof at the university level. Once at this level, knowledge acquired contributed to the whole metanarratives for the legitimation of knowledge; Fichte and Schelling, two famous scholars, contributed to this belief.

The work of nation-state in Germany, through its intellectuals, facilitated free expression, especially with speculative knowledge. The University of Berlin developed a constitution that respected speculative knowledge, and this practice was copied globally, even in America.

        Speculative knowledge had this inbuilt trait, it had a life of its own, self-replicating in nature, and the power to self-multiply. As it did this, it also developed contempary knowledge. It is good to note, that learning was not perpetuated for its usefulness, as was science; they were not meant to serve the state, but for higher goals, Life and Spirit (Hegelian).

       At the same time, humanity built on freedom and dignity of man through knowledge was not accorded much importance in the life of the German people, or the government of the day. 

       The most important component in the education system was the search for “divine life.” Like Hegel's book Phenomenology of Spirit, the dialectical search always aimed for the Spirit.

Dialectically knowledge finds itself, and after finding itself, the knowledge of the day, defined the state and the society. In the course of doing so, the definition knowledge did a self-identification (life/and spirit), at the same time naming itself.

       Truth-value status is not important in speculative knowledge; rather value is acquired in a point found within a developed continuum in the metanarratives for the legitimation of knowledge.  This position allows speculative knowledge to quote these values that are in its realm of knowledge.

        The value of discourse on learning takes a certain position in the metanarratives for the legitimation of knowledge. It is good to note that there are different varieties of discourses matching to specific disciplines; for example, those that go with physics, chemistry, medicine, etc.

           For example, contemporary hermeneutic discourse was one of the disciplines with its specific language game. This was useful and essential when one was to study the history of knowledge.  

        Lyotard was of the opinion that the speculative knowledge was unbalanced and didn't work effectively. For this reason, other narratives were allowed to creep in, so there were other versions of legitimation coming in; a good example is human psychology.

          The new legitimations were in disciplines pertaining to practical subject-humanity.  These discourses related to human freedoms amongst these freedoms self-management of knowledge, allowing speculative knowledge to roam freely. The core or the central essence of this legitimation was self-determination – for the people of the land.

The self-management for the citizens was through legislative bodies – legislators or people's representatives creating and passing laws.  The legislators made and passed laws also affected them as members of the same society. This check and balance made sure that these laws tallied with the will of the people (Kantian).

          Autonomy of the will, introduced in the in the discourse by speculative knowledge, has allowed a totally different language game to develop; this is referred to as prescriptive knowledge.

The term prescriptive, for example, is seen: doctors prescribe medicine to their patients, i.e. Tylenol is a prescription for headache etc. 

        The same thing can be said about information, information can prescribe, a product to a client or a patient. A person who has lost a finger can have one made by a computer using 3D technology. This is what prescriptive knowledge can do to improve the life of a human being.

         At this juncture, we look at practical knowledge in which the subject is not the knowledge, but rather the subject is to be served by knowledge of the day. This legitimation in which the subject is served by knowledge, and the legitimacy allows morality to become a reality.

         Self-management of narratives is part of the legitimation of knowledge, where people are the center, and the power is absconded to the state, through a legitimate government.

        Should the speculative knowledge in practice at the university realize that the state was short changing its citizens, the university manpower made up of the country's intellectuals can refuse to work together with the government of the day.

            The above arrangement introduces knowledge to the people or the citizenry, and the government, directly kicking in a procedure of means leading to an end.

From the analysis above, it is very true that narratives of the legitimation of knowledge cannot be unified into one entity or one metadiscourse.

           Self-management in the narratives of legitimation are separate from the speculative knowledge, which are scientifically-oriented narratives. It is important for researchers to note that the speculative knowledge is basically related to information dissemination.

        Marxism falls between the two legitimations, self-managed and the speculative one. For example, in Marxism, the Party is the University. 

Humanity, a variety of dialectical materialism is the speculative idealism. In this context, science is associated with utterances in the metanarratives leading into socialism, a point where the people or workers take control of the means of production. 

          In practical knowledge, the subject becomes the center of knowledge. Here Marxism equates this arena with critical knowledge, at which socialism is meant to free the people from the oppression of capitalism, or in a general term, from any oppressive power, i.e. of the King. 

          So science is one of the tools that equips man with knowledge, which is a required component, when it comes to acquisition of self-determination or freedom.

         Lyotard borrows from Martin Heidegger's speech that he delivered at the University of Freiburg-in-Bresqau. At this time, the speculative knowledge had been usurped by those in power. Humanity had been relegated to the backburner and science for its own sake had become the norm.

       The purpose of the intelligentsia in Germany was to try and decipher Time and Being, a theory perpetuated by Heidegger himself.

This behavior led the loss of life in WWII, where people had turned to worshipping science and what it could accomplish for man.

         During this trying time, Hegelianism was in vogue, the historico-spirtual people. Through dialectic materialism-via consciousness, the search or climax reached the spirit meaning Absolute Reality. This state of nirvana could be reached through labor, defense, and knowledge.  These possibilities could be realized through science, with emphasis on existentialism.

          The general public and the intelligentsia were doing soul searching, and the metanarratives were geared directly to a meta-discourse involved in subjects of working, fighting and knowing. The intellectual preoccupation with the science as a panacea for all human problems was in complete opposite to what speculative knowledge was, i.e. in search for freedom of man. 

       Instead science was pursuing “true world of the Spirit.” This was a core value in the world of conservatives, and the true essence behind this belief was amassing of power (earth and blood), and to use it against man.

          Putting together race and

Continuation: The Existence of Digital Objects 

A good example is the 3D production of a prosthetic limb, or an arm, for an amputee. The computer program that produces the prosthetic arm will link codes using software such that the information travels through the computer hardware using references (Cantwell, 1996; Hui, 2016; Berners-Lee, 1997; Simondon, 2012).

For example, the synthetic material is poured into a mold, in the shape of the client’s arm.

Husserl used phenomenology, or the essence of letting things speak for themselves. This occurs through cognition, knowing and understanding of objects through thought, experience and sense (Husserl, 1932).

In computer programing, the first order of probability calculus, Gottlob Frege developed formulas that reference the codes, using specific algorithms to perform some specific actions with the intentions of achieving some specific results (Carnap, 1947, 1978).

Thus far, this has been a thorough exploration of what Western philosophers have stated about the existence of objects around them.

Now consider Greek philosophers like Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. For example, Aristotle wrote about objects as they are related to categories (quality, quantity, substance, relations “reference-reciprocity, spontaneity,” place, time, posture, state, action, undergoing, opposition, priority, simultaneity, simultaneously, and having). Then consider Rene Descartes and idealism, whereby the body, mind and objects are entities of ideas that came from external forces and manifested themselves as things in the minds (Rorty, 1979).

During the Enlightenment, philosophers like Immanuel Kant continued to decipher the world of objects as they pertained to humans. In his famous book The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant looked at objects through the acquisition of knowledge by man (Kant, 1927).

After Kant, objects for Hegel (1900) were the center of human consciousness. Without objects, there was no possibility of having knowledge.

With being-in-the-world as the foundation of all discourse, relation (form) is a subset of reference. These facts are were not discussed by philosophers, just as being had not been examined fully until Heidegger.

Is relation a substance that is another thing which no philosopher had explained? For example, does substance exist independently? Similarly, was it a real thing by itself?

There are three types of relations: psychological relations, identical relations and causal relations.

Aristotle noted that philosophers had to tackle this question regarding the existence of relations.

Why are relations so important in the world of Artificial Intelligence or Computation? The simple answer is that the existence of coded information that makes computation possible is an accident of essence.

 The bundles of electric voltages, carrying coded information, travel or are relayed through different computer chips. The relation of these bundles has to be there, and the computer software must make this clear to the computer systems.

Hui, who relied on Simondon and Heidegger’s work, helped us realize the existence of digital objects. Relation is a mode of being for Simondon and Heidegger, and as such, it can be brought closer to substance. Relation is also a predicate of substances.

Heidegger identified the existence of discursive relations, and pointed to an essence of formalization and its entity of temporary existence. Similarly, Simondon identified his own definition of relationship, which he called existential relations. These relations exist in two modes, known as individuation and individualization (Smith, 1996; Hui, 2016; Berners-Lee, 1997; Simondon, 2012).

Individuation is the ability to distinguish and single out self from others of the same kind. This ability is so essential when it comes to computation, the ability of algorithms to give commands to specific individuals.

The same thing is true of formalization, which allows the form and structure of computated commands to be executed specifically to attain some specific results.

The core issue of this analysis was simply to try and see if digital objects exist. First, the investigator examined what philosophers identified as entities that make up objects.

While still on this subject on the existence of digital objects, it is also important note what they said about substance. Substance is a thing that David Hume, the famous British philosopher, associates with passions and emotions. He arrives at this conclusion by way of impressions of objects in the mind, where they live in perception and reflection. Impressions are defined by Hume as the immediate existence of things. For example, Hume listed the following as reflections: sadness, passion and hunger.

Hume perpetuated the philosophy of association, and in doing so, he began linking relations as associations. At the same time, Hume said substances are a collection of qualities found in objects.

In this analysis, arguments from different philosophers, especially those of Guilles Deleuze, have arrived at a definition of substance as being a collection of all properties. Also, substance can be considered being a fiction that presupposes relations. Additionally, when a property of a substance is isolated, what is observed is abstractions and simple ideas, and thus proves the notion these are entities that make objects real in our minds.

At this point, the importance of language and the subject of relations should be considered (Rorty, 1979). Relationship is at the center of the world of computation, and at the same time, there cannot be relationship if it not for language as a discursive tool (Hui, 2016).

The subject of mathematics is made possible by language. Gottlob Frege in his analysis of mathematical formulas, for example, the First Order of Probability Calculus.

This shows how language helps develop different commands, which assists computer programs to function the way they do, especially when it comes to applications of “If formulas.” Hui calls this action the ability to make relational Calculus able to manipulate relational database.

Relationship can be elaborated clearly by looking at a tree. For example, a tree reproduces itself. Next, the tree utilizes the environment to give itself nutrition and survive to perpetuate itself. Lastly, the tree’s parts are able to synchronize their activities such that they facilitate the survival of all the parts, and the whole tree thrives.

The importance of relations begs respect when one looks at what Edgar F. Codd writes about relations in contrast to the early works of Charles Bachman.

The Tuple relational and Domain relational have become the best methods for computation. The data is independent from the hardware, the storage of data in servers is possible, and it is easy to navigate the computer networks.

The top--bottom model of Bachman is hard to service, and there is a lack of independence in the different components of the system.

Relations as described in the aforementioned paragraphs allow machines to stand between language, (coded information) and relations (The First Order of Predicate Calculus). For example, when searching for the phrase “philosopher Martin Heidegger,” the Extended Markup Language (XML) allows the relationship between indexes, names professions, are used in the search. Similarly, other tips using language coding, for example, date of birth, in the main search of the phrase “Martin Heidegger,” the system may include other philosophers in its search (Cantwell, 2019).

Another method of data extraction is the use of metadata. The metadata are machine compliance, which is user friendly, when it comes to computer operations.

They are used in Semantic Web; this means it is easy to decipher information coded using language. It is good to remember the words of Hegel in his book, Phenomenology of Spirit, that there is no language if objects are not there.

A sample of metadata formula using Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP);

xmlns:rdfs=‘http://www.w3.org/2000/02/rdf-schema#’ (Hui, 2016).

In digital objects, content is a form used for making resources for making different relationships in computation.

Consider the meta language used in the prior paragraph. To start with, RDF means Resource Definition Framework. Immediately, this command takes care of the content that is fed into the system (Dreyfus, 1972; Haugeland, 1985; Hui, 2016).

Following this first command is XMLNS and this can be expounded as Extended Markup Language Name and Space. This command is very broad; just by having the word Extended, this allowed broad instructions to be performed by the algorithms, given the Markups were sensed. Lastly, NS mean name and space.

The command shown above uses the equal (=) sign to tell Resource Definition Framework plus Extended Markup Language Name Space to go through Hypertext Transfer Protocol (http), and search for the names.

This name search is going to take place in the World Wide Web, and the emphasis is going to be on organizations. This particular search is going to be from Feb. 1, 1999.

The command also includes the idea that the instructions to be acted on must be made up of sentences that are a complete sense.

According to Berners-Lee (1997), “In the OWL documentary of W3C, there is already a relation called ‘different from,’ which concerns the negation of identities. This is not a coincidence but rather confirms that all logical propositions that construct the digital object already presuppose relations as the foundation of their existence.”

Concretization and materialization of relations allows there to be another Being-in-the World. This seems to be an answer to the question of whether digital objects exist. The answer is yes, but more facts and figures need to be examined in the world of philosophers and other experts (Simondon, 1991).Ontology: A set of concepts and categories in a subject area or domain that shows their properties and the relations between them.

The existence of digital objects is deciphered using ontology, and this means looking in detail at their concepts and categories, which helps an analysis reveal their properties and the relations.

In the aforementioned paragraphs, the relations of information entered or programmed into computer software, using different algorithms, are able to perform due to the phenomenology of relations, relevance, order of magnitudes, etc. (Cantwell, 1996; Hui, 2016; Berners-Lee, 1997; Simondon, 2012).

Martin Heidegger is identified as one of the philosophers who wrote about relations through his talks following World War II. These talks are titled as “Bremen and Freisburg Lectures: Insight Into That Which Is and Basic Principles of Thinking” (1994). In this masterpiece, Heidegger contemplated a jug made out of clay, a material of the earth. At the same time, the jug is also made for the purpose of holding wine to offer the Holy Sacrament in church.

The jug is for serving the Supreme Being, meaning the divine being is involved in the reasons for why the potter decides to make a jug.

This situation elaborates upon the relationships between different things brought together to make the jug. The water, which is used to make the clay, comes from the rain, and rain is formed from different elements of the atmosphere, whereby small water particles join together; this action involves changes in temperatures in the atmosphere (Heidegger, 1962).

The jug also is made due to the cultural beliefs of the people, who believe in a Supreme Being. This deity, which people revere, is worshipped in a certain way that a jug is needed to hold the Holy Wine. For the wine to occupy the inside of the Jug, the wine has to replace the air and therefore, the emptiness of the jug.

“Heidegger shows that thingness can only be thought in terms of relations pertinent to its milieu; there is no longer objectivity as such but rather interobjectivity (Hui, 2016).”

Interconnectivity is a phenomenon that can materialize through relationship and nothing else, and it doesn’t only have to be physical; it can also be through abstraction, a mind thing.

According to Hui (2016), “The technical system evolves according to its own logic as if it has a kind of existence in itself).”

Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is a digital object. This is like a piece of wood for an artist, who sees a statue in a piece of wood.

This paper showed how digital objects exist in our world, especially in the Artificial Intelligence world.

In conclusion, this paper demonstrated that digital objects are a variable of language.

This is brought out in the aforementioned paragraphs, but the Uniform Resource Locator (URL), is the one which made this point very clear. The “Existence of Digital Objects” is there in the commands given to the computer system, or the input commands.

This is the labor equivalent of human muscles, when it comes to the performance of work. The algorithms which are used to conjure the commands are similar to the mind in a human body, which is comprised of the nervous system that operates the body parts, including the hands when it comes to doing some work.

One very important aspect of the digital objects world is they all work as relatives, and relations are essential for their existence. Without relations, there would never be digital objects that work efficiently in the Artificial Intelligence world.


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