You See and What You Get

by Lars Lundsten


1. Introduction: Simpsons, Kosovo and other Things seen on TV

My aim is to argue in favour of an analysis of the relationship between four basic features of communication: act, expression, medium, and message. All four phenomena are to be treated as distinct although they are highly interdependent – both materially and conceptually. According to this approach, any communicative act must have a physical expression as its manifestation. The communicating parties mentally approach a communicative expression both in terms of recognition and in terms of understanding. Acts of recognition are concerned with the expression as medium while acts of understanding are concerned with the expression as message. Television is probably the most illuminating example to be used in favour of this thesis.

A Canadian as well as a Finnish viewer may watch television and see how Homer Simpson makes a fool of himself and of suburban America middle class families in general. In the year 1999, western viewers watched television and saw how ethnic Albanians in Kosovo suffered under the Serb oppression. Earlier we had seen how the U.S. President William Jefferson Clinton was humiliated by leading politicians in his own country.

In many such cases, there is almost negligible difference between let us say Canadian, Finnish, and U.S. viewers. They all see almost the same thing. But when a read-haired lady is shown on screen inspecting a guard of honour dressed in heavy grey uniforms, the footage suddenly means very different things to North American and Scandinavian viewers. A Finnish viewer 'sees' that there is a turn of history occurring since the first female President has been inaugurated. A viewer from the U.S. or Canadian 'sees' that the new Finnish president looks like this. The latter may also 'see' that Finnish soldiers are dressed in quite a peculiar way on such occasions.

What communicative acts are performed in cases like these? What is the communicative expression involved? What is the medium? What is the message?

To start with, we have to dismiss the naive conception of television as a kind of neutral expression of our senses. In spite of its enchanting name, television is not primarily a means of improving our vision. Television is not a device designed to make us see things far away from our retina. On the contrary, television is an instrument designed to improve our ability to show things to other people (cf. Lundsten 1999a). Anything one sees on a television screen has been chosen by a producer to be shown. Things shown on the screen are very different from the accidental visual sensations one has of a landscape seen through the window of a train between Paris and Istanbul. Similarly, visual sensations of television images cannot be compared to the picturesque views one sees when looking through a pair of binoculars, or the tiny but ugly creatures one sees through a microscope.

In short: Images seen in a microscope or a telescope are physical effects of a viewer's effort to see a certain object. A television image is a physical expression of a producer's attempt to communicate by showing a certain image to a certain audience, i.e. to a certain collection of viewers. By 'producer' I refer to a collective body sometimes called 'network'. Since there always are many people involved in the production of a television programme, you cannot define one particular person as communicator.

Evidently, there are other aspects of television than the purely communicative. However, one should be careful to distinguish between communication and its effects, as well as between communication and its objectives. In his speech act theory, John Searle (1969) makes this distinction very clear when he states the difference between illocutionary acts and their perlocutionary effects.

Our four basic features of communication are interdependent in a manifold of ways. A communicative act is dependent of its expression. And the expression is determined by the act it manifests. The communicated message is dependent on the medium available for communication.

How should one proceed in order to describe the communicative act, its medium, and the communicated message with respect to a certain communicative expression? How can one tell apart the medium and the message components of the expression? These questions can be properly addressed only if one has a relevant ontological account of the phenomenon called 'television image'.

In my text, the term 'television image' denotes the communicative expression related to a – usually very complex – communicated act performed by means of broadcast television. The tem 'television image' refers, then, not only to individual pictures, i.e. not only to single 'frames'. On the physical level, the communicative expression I shall call 'television image' consists of diachronic visual changes on a television screen accompanied by diachronic changes in the auditive output through a loudspeaker attached to the screen. Contrary to paintings, photographs, road signs, and sculptures, television images are not continuant objects but temporal processes (cf. Simons 1987).

Strictly speaking, a television viewer does not see Homer Simpson, Serb oppression, political humiliation, or an inauguration. One only sees and hears the flux of visual and auditive emission from a technical device. On this very basic level, one merely perceives the medium and nothing but the medium. As experienced television viewers, however, we do not hesitate to claim that we actually 'see' these events taking place. However, even a superficial context sensitive study probably would reveal that a lot of what is 'seen' on the screen depends on how well the viewer masters a certain cultural convention.

How to identify oppression, humiliation, or inauguration on television could be a topic of dispute. However, nobody would bother watching television if there were not the possibility to 'see' such things. In fact, the entire television industry is based on the possibility of showing abuse, conflicts, relief and other abstract phenomena.

In what follows, I present an analysis that shows how we can 'see' things on television although these things are not to be seen in the proper, perceptual sense of that word. Conflicts, abuse and other such abstract entities cannot be seen at all, not in television nor in real life. Still, these things can be shown on television. Moreover, they are among the most prominent contents of television.


2. A theoretical Heritage from Ingarden and Reinach

Two philosophical authorities that are not too widely recognised in present-day philosophical discussion inspire my argument. The Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden (1893–1970) and his former teacher in Göttingen, Germany, Adolf Reinach (1883–1917) belonged to a scarcely known branch of philosophy called realist phenomenology (cf. Mulligan 1985). Originally, they were inspired by the early work of Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) as presented in the first edition of his Logical Investigations (Husserl 1901). Later, when Husserl became the famous proponent of transcendental idealism, they developed in a direction of their own and coined a way of philosophising that has more in common with so called Anglo-Saxon philosophy than with so-called continental philosophy. This is shown, for instance by the fact that Reinach's line of thought has been re-vitalised by philosophers such as John R. Searle and D. M. Armstrong.

Nowadays, Ingarden is most widely known for his seminal work on purely intentional objects and other questions concerning the ontology of literary fiction and of works of art in general (cf. Ingarden 1989). Accordingly, my point of departure will be in his four-levelled analysis of the literary work of art that he presented in his famous book Das literarische Kunstwerk (1930).

In addition, my argument profits from Ingarden's ideas about modes of being (cf. Ingarden 1964). According to Ingarden, one should distinguish between three kinds of objects that each have their own distinct mode of being: events, processes, and objects enduring in time. This typology has been subject to recent discussion by Peter Simons who favours a terminology distinguishing mainly between occurrents and continuants (Simons 1987). The critical distinction according to him is between temporal objects and enduring objects. Temporal objects are called occurrents since they occur in time. Enduring objects are called continuants since they continue to exist through a certain portion of time. Printed books, photographs, sculptures, and inscriptions are continuants, whereas television images are occurrents. Only occurrents can have temporal parts, i.e. they can have parts that occur in a certain temporal order.

Bill Clinton, Homer Simpson, Kosovo, and Springfield are – as far as they exist – continuants. An episode of ‘The Simpsons’ or broadcasts of the interrogations with Pres. William Jefferson Clinton are, however, occurrents, i.e. temporal objects. This is a fact although the tape on which the video recordings of these items were made is a continuant object.

Nowadays, Adolf Reinach is even less known than Ingarden. Nonetheless, he should be remembered among communication theorists because of his theory of social acts (cf. Reinach 1913). He indeed invented speech act theory half a century before J. L. Austin and J. R. Searle (1969) coined that very term. In addition to this, Reinach contributes an interesting analysis of the distinction between particulars and states of affairs (cf. Reinach 1911).

According to Reinach’s ontology, we should be aware of a very peculiar but important difference between particulars (Gegenstände) and states of affairs (Sachverhalte). He is not as rigorous as is his late follower D. M. Armstrong (1997) who claims that the world actually consists only of states of affairs. In Reinach’s world, there are both particulars and states of affairs. The difference between these two is, however, quite remarkable. Reinachian particulars exist (or if they do not exist, their place is just empty). States of affairs, says Reinach, either hold or do not hold. If a state of affairs does not hold, its opposite holds. Consequently, either Homer Simpson lives in Springfield or he does not live there. These are two opposite states of affairs and either of them holds.

Furthermore, Reinachian states of affairs are different from particulars in two ways that are significant from the point of view of communication through television. Mentally we approach states of affairs in judgements while particulars are given to us in perception. This means that when we ‘see’ Bill Clinton, we actually perceive him. On the other hand, when we ‘see’ how he is humiliated we do not perceive the humiliation but in some way or another make a judgement to this effect. Television is a presentation of certain states of affairs containing existing or non-existing objects (cf. Lundsten 1999b).

The second important way in which states of affairs are different from particulars is the following: Reinach claims that only states of affairs can take modalities. This follows more or less from the claim that states of affairs are either negative or positive while particulars are only positive or non-existent. Hence, states of affairs can be possible, necessary, imagined, hoped for, and so forth. Particulars cannot. It may be possible that Bill Clinton was humiliated. President Clinton himself is neither possible nor impossible.

The core in Reinach’s definition of communicative acts, or social acts as he calls them, is the following: A communicative act is an experience (Erlebnis) of something but it is an experience that must have an external manifestation. Furthermore, this manifestation must be recognised as such by a counterpart who thereby makes the act completed. Reinach’s communicative acts are – as implied by his terminology – fundamentally social. In a communicative act, a person does something that affects the world around him. But he is able to fulfil his intent only if it is recognised by his counterpart. And in order to make such recognition possible, there has to be a physical expression which refers not only to the topic of communication but to the communicative act and the involved persons. Intelligibility seems to play a key role in this respect.

Reinach’s theory of communicative acts is very much the same as J. L. Austin’s and J. R. Searle’s version of speech act theory. Still, some features give it a closer similarity with Kent Bach’s and Robert Harnish’s approach (cf. Bach & Harnish 1979; Harnish 1987/1994).

Reinach discusses only linguistic communication, but his analysis applies very well to television. In this context, a programme is the expression. The producer wants to achieve a certain understanding with his audience. In order to reach this, he selects a number of images, which are transmitted in a certain order and with certain duration. The television producer and his audience reach an understanding concerning the fact that Serb oppression in Kosovo is a bad thing, or they may agree upon the fact that Homer Simpson acts carelessly when driving home from his job at the nuclear power plant in Springfield.

An agreement concerning the state of affairs in Kosovo is as valid as is an agreement on the state of affairs in fictitious Springfield. Neither the producer nor the members of his audience are necessarily committed to believing in the existence of Homer Simpson. Similarly, none of them may have any commitment to the actual existence of oppression in Kosovo. The communicative acts are concerned with ethical evaluation of Homer Simpson’s behaviour and of Serb oppression. In other words: communicative acts seem primarily to be concerned with states of affairs but not with particulars.

For Reinach and Ingarden, Husserl’s theory of dependence, his formal ontology, serves as a conceptual foundation. This theory was presented in Husserl’s Third Logical Investigation (1901) and Barry Smith and others (Smith 1982 and Simons 1987) have later discussed it. An important distinction in this theory is made between proper parts and moments. Proper parts can be detached from the whole to which they belong. A moment, however, is a non-detachable part of an object. For instance, you can peel an apple since by doing that you remove a part of it. But you cannot take away the surface of that apple. As long as the apple exists, it has a surface. Thus, the surface is a necessary moment of an apple.

Inevitably, there is a very close dependence relationship between medium, message, and expression. From our present point of view, it is crucial to explore whether medium and message are proper parts or non-detachable moments of a communicative expression. My solution on this problem is that message and medium are necessary moments of a communicative expression. You cannot detach them but the expression is void unless they are parts of it.


3. The Four-Levelled Expression

In his book Das literarische Kunstwerk, Ingarden departs from the ontological problems that arise from the fact that there are objects without a distinct spatial position even if these objects have a distinct position in time. Normally, one would expect that only ideal objects lack spatial position. But ideal objects lack a temporal location as well. He calls these temporally existing but non-spatial objects ‘purely intentional objects’. In this case, he speaks mainly of literary fiction as an example of such objects. A novel clearly has a position in time, since it is created and did not exist before its creation. Unfortunately, one cannot locate the novel to any particular place. There are many copies of a published novel, some of them are e-texts, a person might have memorised the whole text, etc. As long as at least one single copy is available or somebody memorises the text, the novel exists.

For all practical purposes, the concept of purely intentional object seems to coincide with the concept of ‘social object’ such as Searle (1995) might think of it. According to this conception, social entities are real things that are existentially dependent on human consciousness. However, Searle does not speak of social objects but of social facts. He makes a similar distinction between object and fact as do Reinach and Armstrong between particulars and states of affairs. Ingarden seems to have ignored this feature.

Television programmes inevitably belong to the category of purely intentional objects. Transmitters, receivers, radio waves in the air, and cathode rays in the picture tube are necessary but not sufficient conditions for a television programme. These physical foundations are in no way ‘purely intentional’ or ‘social’. They belong to the realm of ‘brute facts’ or ‘natural facts’. A television programme should not be reduced to mere physics. In Reinach’s terms, the physical appearance provides the external manifestation (Leib) necessary for any communicative act. It is a natural fact that a television programme is a chain of occurring physical changes. It is a social fact that these changes mean something.

In order to provide a more detailed analysis of the social function – or functions – of the communicative expression, I turn towards Ingarden (1930). He presents a four-levelled analysis of the literary work of art, that he claims to be specific only to this particular type of communication, i.e. mainly to novels and short stories. Nevertheless, his analysis can be generalised in order to apply to communicative expressions in general.

Ingarden denies the possibility of such a generalisation both explicitly and implicitly in his discussion on film (1989) and scientific writing (1930). However, without going too far with this argument, I just propose that Ingarden’s restrictive stance on this matter be due to the fact that he has not properly understood the nature of film and, consequently, the nature of television.

In a version generalised to apply to any technical medium, Ingarden’s four levels or dimensions of communicative expressions can be described as follows:

(1) The physical dimension: Ingarden speaks of the level of word sounds (die Schicht der sprachlichen Lautgebilde), i.e. the concrete manifestation of a literary work such as oral utterances or letters on a sheet of paper. In a more generalised form, this dimension can be said to fill the necessary condition of perceptibility. A television programme must have a physical foundation in visual and auditive phenomena.

(2) The referential dimension: Ingarden speaks of the level of meaning units (die Schicht der Bedeutungseinheiten), i.e. the dimension on which the text literally refers to objects, events, persons, relationships etc. He ascribes the semantic function of language to this level. In a more generalised form, this dimension amounts to reference. An expression refers explicitly to certain phenomena by way of certain conventions that apply to the particular expression type, be it speech, writing, television or road signs. A linguistic expression relies on semantics and syntax of a natural language. Visual presentations are governed by less explicit but still influential conventions. Usually, a person is not presented on screen in an extreme close up shot of his ear. According to the prevailing convention, a person should be presented by showing his face. Objectively, his ear or fingerprint would be as good or even better distinguishing features than his face.

(3) The associative dimension: Ingarden speaks of the level of intelligible patterns (die Schicht der schematisierten Ansichten), i.e. of meaningful implications. According to my reading of Ingarden, one finds things such as idioms, metaphors, and narrative patterns on this conceptual level. This should be the level of associative habits and intelligibility patterns common to members of a certain population, or at least common to members of a certain communicative community. The communicating parties are able to ‘see’ behind the explicit reference of words or visual expressions.

In Searlean speech act theory, this phenomenon would probably be labelled as belonging to the category of ‘indirect speech acts’. However, such a label shows mainly the conceptual limitations of certain philosophers of language. There is nothing indirect in an expression such as ‘feeling blue’ when describing a person’s mood or ‘red alert’ when reporting about measures taken by military personnel. One can define sufficient conditions of significance for sentences containing ‘feeling blue’ or ‘red alert’ even if there is no way in which the literal meaning of the words can be combined.

Only a person like Humpty Dumpty would argue that alert cannot be red since an abstract phenomenon cannot be coloured. And similarly, he would say that the colour blue could not be felt but only seen. In a very limited literal sense of the words ‘feel’, ‘blue’, ‘red’, and ‘alert’, Humpty Dumpty’s opinion could make sense. Linguistic expressions contain, however, normally lots of ‘non-literal’ elements, a fact that probably explains the expressive richness of verbal communication.

(4) The thematic dimension, or the dimension of overall purpose: Ingarden says that the literary work of art has a level on which it presents its overall purpose (die Schicht der dargestellten Gegenständlichkeiten). This is the most synthetic level of communication. On this level, one finds features close to Reinach’s (1913) idea that a communicative act makes the world change in some way. By showing Homer Simpson’s funny life in the town of Springfield, Matt Groening makes a point about lower middle-class Americans. By showing the bombardments of Belgrade, CNN makes a point about the political struggle between Nato and Serbia. Making these points, the television producers change the world. They create a community of people who recognise the point they made.

The thematic dimension of a communicative expression is utterly context dependent. The same video footage makes quite different points when presented by CNN and when presented by national television in Serbia. A broadcasting company such as the BBC or CNN communicates with its viewers in the Western world by showing images of destroyed bridges and passenger trains in Serbia. In doing this, it makes a point about the fact that Nato tries to punish the current Serb leadership. In Serb television, the very same images are making a totally different point. In this communicative context, the theme is certainly not how to punish Slobodan Milosevic. Instead, the point is to show that Nato performs terror bombings against innocent civilians.


4. Medium and Message – Cognitive Moments of Expression

I now have sketched our Reinachian concept of communication and a generalisation of Ingarden’s analysis of communicative expressions. From this position, it should be evident that the communicative expression is more fundamental than medium and message. A communicative expression is a distinct entity functionally dependent on the communicating parties but existentially dependent on a collection of relatively accidental physical features.

A crucial finding made by Ingarden is that the four levels of a literary work of art are abstract moments of the text. One cannot slice a text in order to study pure word sounds, pure meaning, pure patterns or pure communicative points. The levels are interdependent and there is no text at all if we take away one level. A similar argument holds for the general form of dimensions of communicative expressions.

A television image cannot refer to Homer Simpson, Bill Clinton, or to the Finnish President Tarja Halonen if there are no visual elements at all. There has to be some kind of morphological similarity between the patterns of coloured dots on my television screen and one of these persons.

The associative dimension deals with patterns more abstract than just dots on a screen. Still, there can be no associations if there is no reference, i.e. if there are no traces of the pattern to be recognised. The dependence is reciprocal between the associative and the referential dimensions. An explicit reference to a certain player may give rise to associations that form a basis for schematised presentation of a whole game of football. The reference to a particular player functions like a glance of the top of an iceberg.

On the thematic dimension, i.e. on the synthetic level of the expression, we are as dependent on reference, patterns and physical manifestation. But even on this rather abstract level, there is a certain amount of reciprocity of dependence. The communicative context, i.e. the cultural context in which a particular expression is supposed to have a communicative function, defines all semantic, syntactic and pragmatic conventions that are applied to the other dimensions.

A sequence of images featuring semi-nude females will have entirely different thematic, associative, and referential functions depending on to what audience it is presented. In a western liberal community, such an expression would perhaps be understood as yet another attempt to appeal to male customers. In a fundamentalist Christian community or in a strict Moslem community, the communicative function of such an expression would probably be of an entirely different kind. The very same images would make entirely different thematic points in these different contexts.

We should also ask ourselves whether a certain communicative act really could have many equally good expressions in the same context. It does not seem very plausible that one could express a certain idea, ask a certain question, or make a certain promise in entirely different words in the same situation.

According to our Reinachian conception of communication, a communicative act is a social experience. In a communicative act, I invite you to judge that it is uncertain how well Nato succeeded in its attempt to punish the Serb leaders. The expression of this act consists of a television image, i.e. some news footage from Serbia. To a certain degree, these images are the medium for this invitation. But on the other hand, they are also the things that should be judged upon.

The problem of how to identify medium and message in this integral and interdependent entity called ‘communicative expression’ seems more than challenging. A medium is not merely a gadget used for communication or signals transmitted by means of such a gadget. A message cannot be extracted from the medium otherwise than as a paraphrase or as a translation into some other expression. The distinction between medium and message is conceptual and functional but not material.

It would be tempting to solve this problem by labelling some of the dimensions as belonging to the medium and some of them as being the message. Such a solution could be carried out with due respect to Ingarden’s work and profit from it.

One should start by defining the functional distinction between medium and message. A probable division could be as follows: a medium is the means by which a message is presented. Then one could proceed by claiming that the physical level is the means while the referential level contains the presented stuff. The next step would be to look at the associative level and decide that the referential level is the means by which a message on this supposedly higher level is presented. Taking this step, however, seems to involve a contradiction; how could the referential level be both message and medium. And the same problem appears when we proceed to the thematic level.

My answer is simple: The distinction between medium and message does not coincide with the four-dimensional analysis of a communicative expression. Furthermore, there is no hierarchy between Ingarden’s levels. Instead, the distinction between medium and message is a cognitive one that cuts through all four dimensions or levels. This cognitive division has its counterpart in the types of mental acts in which a person approaches the communicative expression.

A communicative act, most evidently, is a complex one. It involves perception, memory, judgement and other types of mental acts. Depending on the context, the communicating parties approach the expression with different mixtures of mental acts. If a person is a native speaker of a language, he probably invests very little mental capacity in analysing the physical level of the expression. If he is familiar with the subject, he might not need very much cognitive effort in order to grasp the reference and the associative patterns of the expression. Then he might focus on the overall point or purpose.

A non-native speaker might approach the same expression with almost opposite cognitive tools. He might have a rough idea about the purpose or the point of that expression. If he knew the communicative point, he could be able to figure out the exact reference of the words and idioms. He might even be able to learn some new words or word sounds that he did not master before.

In the native speaker case, the language serves as medium. The message is presented on the thematic dimension by means of language sounds, reference, and idioms. In the non-native speaker case, the contextual point or purpose serves as medium. By understanding the overall point of a communicative situation, the non-native speaker manages to grasp the message, i.e. the meaning of idioms and other patterns, the significant reference, and the linguistic code.


5. Conclusion: A Delicate Equilibrium

As a conclusion of this discussion, we should note that medium and message are involved in a very delicate relationship in every communicative expression. And this dividing line runs across the four Ingardenian levels of the expression. In most communicative expressions, there is a part familiar to the communicating parties. This familiar part i.e. strictly speaking the familiar moment of the expression serves as medium for the communicative act. In most communicative expressions, also a part is unknown or unfamiliar. The message is this unfamiliar moment of the communicative expression.

The distinction between medium and message amounts to the distinction between an act of recognition and an act of understanding. A communicative expression can either be recognised or understood. When significant communication is going on, some portion of the expression is recognised and another portion of it understood as a result of that recognition.

Imagine that you see television footage featuring the inauguration of Finnish President Tarja Halonen. On the referential level, these images would be merely redundant for a Finnish viewer. All persons involved are well-known politicians; the location is more than familiar, since it is the parliament building. The distinct dress code alongside with the common awareness of the recent elections makes the reference easy to grasp. The thematic point with showing such footage is quite evident. It is a ritual kind of public communication. Overall, the emphasis for a Finnish viewer tends to be on these images as medium. Very few details are expected to draw focused attention.

If shown on American, Canadian or South-African television, the same footage would be the expression of a much different communicative act. Foreigners would need to focus quite much on the referential clues of the images; 'oh, there seems to be a female president being inaugurated', 'what language do they speak?', 'why are there two ladies but only one fat man on the podium?' etc.

This argument should show that it is possible to uphold a meaningful distinction between message and medium although they cannot be told apart on ontological or morphological grounds. Medium and message can be identified only in a particular context and only on functional grounds.

In extreme cases, there might be a shift in the equilibrium between the two moments of a certain communicative expression. Either the message component gains more significance or the medium component does. In the former case, there is a danger of lost intelligibility since there is not enough familiar material left in the expression. In the latter case, the expression may lose its appeal if it consists only of familiar things.

The medium is what you just see, i.e. what you do not focus your attention on. The message is what you get, i.e. what you are able to focus on since you are allowed to neglect the medium. Depending on how familiar you are with the communicative expression, the equilibrium may change over time. The more familiar you are with the expression, the better you may understand the message. There is, however, a peculiar consequence of this equilibrium: The better you understand, the less there is left to understand.



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