This video is an attempt to illustrate some of the ideas in Austrian psychologist and philosopher Alexius Meinong’s Theory of Objects, a taxonomy of objects which includes all kinds of things: existing entities (eg tables and chairs), non-existing entities (eg numbers and ideas), fictional entities or ficta (eg Sherlock Holmes, King of France, unicorns), impossible objects (eg round squares) and even unthinkable objects (ie having the property of being unthinkable). For many philosophers, Theory of Objects is a mess; in fact it is known as “Meinong’s Jungle”, which in itself is appealing to us. It is a conceptual space where all kinds of weird objects are welcome and even celebrated. This is our new intellectual home.

Theory of Objects gives equal importance to things that can only exist in fiction or in the imagination as it does to concrete or actual objects such as chairs and mountains. Designers say there is the real and the not real, and that they want to deal with the real. Meinong says there is the real, the sort of real, the hyper-real, the not quite real, the really real, and so on. We want to be in this world. A world that more fully reflects the range of realities and unrealities that people interact with daily.

In a time when many people’s lives are shaped as much by fictional entities as supposedly real ones, designers need to take the fictional side of things more seriously, to embrace unreality, and Meinong’s Theory of Objects is one way of thinking about this.

The process of deciding on what is considered real, and what is not, is where politics and the imagination meet. As Chiara Bottici and Benoît Challand write in The Politics of Imagination, “If politics has become a struggle for people’s imagination this is, in the first place, due to the fact that such a struggle takes place within human beings and not just among them…”. Work that operates on the imagination by either maintaining pre-existing realities, or by challenging them through alternatives that encourage people to question prevailing world views, becomes political.

In this way the unreal becomes political—political in the sense that it can challenge the limits people place on their own imaginations when it comes to thinking about, and questioning, what is possible.

But where could work like this happen? Academic and cultural organisations seem like a natural home for the unrealistic, impossible and yet to exist, zones where the unreal can be experienced, considered and enjoyed. And this is why it is time for design—so often only concerned with the pragmatic and realistic—to join those whom the writer Ursula Le Guin calls “the realists of a larger reality”, by embracing unreality, and beginning to design for the unreal world.

Session 4: Meinong’s Taxonomy of Objects
Commissioner: Thomas Geisler / MAK
Concept and creative direction: Dunne & Raby
Animation: Lukas Franciszkiewicz
Extracts from online lecture (with permission):
Meinong’s Jungle (Theory of Objects) by