Walther Zimmerli

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2017/2018
discipline Philosophy
Endowed Senior-Professor "Mind and Technology", Humboldt Graduate School, Humboldt University Berlin

Research project

To Know is to Make. A Transdisciplinary Theory of the Digital Civilization


The aim of my stay at Collegium Helveticum is to complete a monograph on genesis and characteristics of knowledge production in a digital civilization. The leading hypothesis is that the presently ongoing digitalization of the world is to be best understood against the background of the (at least) modern process of technological civilisation.


A reconstruction of the stages of this development reveals that the more machines human beings are using the more obvious it becomes that we are dealing with hybrids of human beings and machines: "human-machine-tandems". The most successful heuristic move of the Enlightenment to try to understand human beings as some kind of highly refined machines and vice versa has led to both the Turing test and the Turing machine, i.e. to Artificial Intelligence using this two-way mutual explication of living and thinking beings ever since.


The different attempts to overcome the shortcomings of the attempts to create individual Artificial Intelligence (AI) by building and interpreting systems of Distributed Artificial Intelligence (DAI) and later so-called "intelligent networks" are drawing on the aforementioned Turing strength of machines being capable to copy or rather simulate all other processes, i.e. to create a second reality and working with it instead of the first one. Whereas in the pre-digital world it was still possible to in principle distinguish between the Real and the Virtual this distinction now starts to lose not just its meaning, but especially its significance not just for the interpretation, but also for the production of knowledge: If knowledge in the pre-digital era could be defined as the mental representation of states of affairs this definition doesn't seem to make sense anymore, the difference of representation and the represented being blurred by the permanent omnipresence of human being-machine tandems.


The possibility to know what is real did always rely on the difference between knowledge and ignorance and on the possibility to actually know this difference as well as on the preference of knowledge over ignorance. If, however, the digital simulation as the construction of a second reality has become the rule and not the exception these presuppositions have to be questioned. Since Francis Bacon we know that (scientific) knowledge itself is power, and by Giambattista Vico we were taught that only what we ourselves have produced can be considered true knowledge. Are therefore "Know-how" and "Know-what" coinciding in the digital world, and how does this contribute to knowledge as management of ignorance?






After having held different chairs of philosophy (1978-1999) and having served as president of different universities (1999-2013), Walther Ch. Zimmerli is currently Honorary Professor "Mind and Technology" at Humboldt-Universitaet zu Berlin. He holds a Ph.D and a Habilitation from the University of Zurich as well as a DPhil h.c. from the University of Stellenbosch. He is member of different national and international academies and his distinctions include the International Humboldt Research Award. His main research interests focus on philosophical aspects of science and new technologies, education, the future of work, applied ethics, and the new economy.




Selected publications


'Reproducibility between Production and Prognosis', in H. Atmanspacher & S. Maasen (eds), Reproducibility - Principles, Practices, Problems, Wiley, Hoboken, 2016, pp. 21-38.


'To Know is to Make. Knowledge, Ignorance, and Belief in a Technological Society', in H. Meisinger, W.B. Drees & Z. Liano (eds), Wisdom or Knowledge?: Science, Theology, and Cultural Dynamics,  T&T Clark, London, 2006.


Die Zukunft denkt anders. Wege aus dem Bildungsnotstand, Huber, Frauenfeld, 2006.


Beyond the Two Cultures. University Education in the Technological Era: The new South Africa and Germany, The Vice-Chancellors Prestige Lectures, University of Pretoria Press, Pretoria, 1994.


Einmischungen. Die sanfte Macht der Philosophie, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1993.





senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
Collegium Helveticum
discipline Sociology
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2016/2017
Collegium Helveticum
discipline History
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Collegium Helveticum
discipline Philosophy
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Collegium Helveticum
discipline Psychology