Documentality. Ontologies and Technologies for Citizenship and Democracy

The fact that being “sans papier” amounts to being devoid of citizenship (and of the associated rights) is extremely revealing as to
the significance of documents, namely of those things that we shall regard as objects that record social events.
Nonetheless, the importance of such objects has been somehow underestimated, and the reason for this lies in the fact that, for a rather long time, the specific nature of social objects, namely the ontological category that comprises documents, has gone somewhat unnoticed. In the influential social ontology propounded by Searle (1995), social objects are still regarded as mere higher order objects founded on physical objects, in line with the “paper money model”, i.e. the idea according to which a piece of paper acquires a social value in certain contexts.

Following Ferraris (2005), the alternative hypothesis that motivates this research project is that the nature of social objects, as distinct from physical and ideal objects, is defined by the law Object = Inscribed Act: social objects are social acts (involving at least two individuals) that have the distinctive feature of being inscribed – on paper, on a computer file or also in people’s mind.

Differently from Searle’s version, social acts and their records come to the foreground, and if we look at what the record of a social act comes down to, we realize that what we have found is the definition of “document”. Documents are the social objects par excellence and, at the same time, they are the matrix lying at the foundations of social reality, providing rights, identities, and obligations. In brief, if we look for the difference between an archaic or underdeveloped state and a
modern one, we will immediately identify such a difference in the quality and quantity of the documents they are able to produce.

Unsurprisingly, an effective management of documents (in all the different forms corresponding to the different possible supports) looks so indispensable in realities such as those of western countries or of developing countries (which in particular might rely on documentality to boost their development, as suggested by de Soto, 2000) to have suggested the institution of a specific discipline: “document engineering” (see In spite of what have been said against bureaucracy, the rational production
and management of documents is indispensable both for the organization of complex realities and for the improving of their
The engineering approach, however, looks somewhat deficient from a theoretical point of view, since it doesn’t acknowledge the
specific nature of the objects that it is supposed to deal with, namely with what we propose to call “documentality”, and that we shall consider in its philosophical, neuroscientific, juridical, and socio-political underpinnings.
The national research – which is preliminary to a project that will be submitted to the European Union (Seven Framework Program:
January 2007) in the frame of the Center for Theoretical and Applied Ontology (CTAO: directed by Maurizio Ferraris – aims at answering three questions:

1. What is a document?

2. How are documents managed in a complex society?

3. What are the technologies for documents circulation?

These three questions – assuming that social identity has an institutional and not merely a biological foundation – correspond to the three levels of enquiry of the research. The first level of enquiry (philosophical and neuroscientific) coincides with an Ontology. The second one (juridical and philosophical) coincides with a Pragmatics. The third one, involving the overall expertise of the Units – in particular, the one relating to information science – coincides with a Technology.