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The Ghost in the Shell series of anime and manga titles offer many observations on present day philosophy and speculations on future philosophy.


Ghost in the Shell takes place in the year 2029, when the world has become interconnected by a vast electronic network that permeates every aspect of life. People also tend to rely more and more on cybernetic implants and the first strong AIs make their appearance. The main entity presented in the various media is the Public Security Section 9 police force, which is charged to investigate cases like the Puppet Master and the Laughing Man.

Yet, as those criminals are revealed to have more depth than was at first apparent, the various protagonists are left with disturbing questions: What exactly is the definition of human in a society where a mind can be copied and the body replaced with a fully synthetic body? What, exactly, is the "ghost" -- the essence -- in the cybernetic "shell"? Where is the boundary between human and machine when the differences between the two become more philosophical than physical?

While the author is clearly exploring how society will address the coming technological impact on the populace and the resulting "fallout", one can also make the case for his use of this anime as a social commentary or a mirror of "then current" events, just as Mark Twain used his stories to present and explore social issues of his era. Due to a combination of the language barrier and Japanese societal censorship it is more difficult for outsiders to easily observe Japanese current events than to observe events in North America and Europe. However, the diligent reader will be able to find Japanese News translations chronicaling events that bear a striking resemblance to events in the anime. For example:

  • Real World Japan
the cult-based Subway Sarin Incident Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway gas-attack and resulting police actions and coverups.

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the various Individual 11 attacks on the public.
  • Real World Japan
the infamous "Students Allied Red Army" Asama-Sanso Incident of 1972

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The Individual 11 suicide.
  • Real World Japan
unemployed men rioting in port towns, the violent and destructive police response and subsequent coverup.[1]

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Refugees rioting over unemployment.
  • Real World Japan"
Minister and Parliament scandals.

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Minister and Parliament Scandals.
  • Real World Japan
Industrial disasters and resulting coverups.

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Industrial disasters and resulting coverups.

Philosophical elements


In Ghost in the Shell, the word ghost is colloquial slang for an individual's consciousness or soul. In the manga's futuristic society, science has redefined the ghost as the thing that differentiates a human being from a biological robot. Regardless of how much biological material is replaced with electronic or mechanical substitutes, as long as individuals retain their ghost, they retain their humanity and individuality.

The concept of the ghost was borrowed by Masamune Shirow from an essay on structuralism, "The Ghost in the Machine" by Arthur Koestler. The title The Ghost in the Machine itself was originally used by an English philosopher, Gilbert Ryle to mock the paradox of conventional Cartesian dualism and Dualism in general. Koestler, like Ryle, denies Cartesian dualism and locates the origin of human mind in the physical condition of the brain. He argues that the human brain has grown and built upon earlier, more primitive brain structures, the "ghost in the machine", which at times overpower higher logical functions, and are responsible for hate, anger and other such destructive impulses. Shirow denies dualism similarly in his work, but defines the "ghost" more broadly, not only as a physical trait, but as a phase or phenomenon that appears in a system at a certain level of complexity. The brain itself is only part of the whole neural network; if, for example, an organ is removed from a body, the autonomic nerve of the organ and consequently its "ghost" will vanish unless the stimulus of the existence of the organ is perfectly re-produced by a mechanical substitution. This can be compared, by analogy, to a person born with innate deafness being unable to understand the concept of "hearing" unless taught.

Ghost-dubbing, or duplicating a ghost, is a near-impossible act in the Ghost in the Shell universe. When performed, as a cheap AI substitute in Innocence and earlier in the manga, the result is always inferior to the original-which always dies in the process. In Stand Alone Complex, criminals use a ghost-dubbing device to create numerous duplicates of South American drug lord Marcelo Jarti; after the original died, the device continued to duplicate him into a near-infinite number of bodies with identical memories and personalities, essentially immortalizing him.

In Ghost in the Shell, Kusanagi completely reproduces the stimulus of all of her organs in order to maintain her "ghost". If a technical error arises during the transfer of a "ghost" from one body to another, the transfer normally results in failure, since the "ghost" tends to deteriorate due to either the difference of system at the material level or the deficiency of the transferring protocol. The Puppet Master manages not to deteriorate its "ghost" when merging with Kusanagi because his system is the body of information itself, thereby avoiding a deterioration due to the deficiency at material level.

The Ancient Greeks had a similar paradox, called the Ship of Theseus. Hegel's concept of Geist may also be related.


Another interpretation of the fusion of Kusanagi and the Puppet Master is analogous to the concept of birth whereby two separate entities create a third entity which is not the same as either of the originating ghosts or DNA sets but shares common traits. The Puppet Master carefully explains that diversity is the only way that he can continue; no matter how many times he copies himself, a trick, virus, or weakness discovered that destroys any of his copies could destroy them all. He quite specifically asks her to fuse her "ghost" or "soul" with his own, a form of marriage/birth in which the resultant being is neither the Puppet Master nor Kusanagi but a new being entirely. Notice the symbolism in the movie when Kusanagi/Puppet Master gets a new body - that of a child. This touches upon concepts of birth, immortality through progeny, and the union of two ghosts/people in the creation of progeny. Interestingly enough, her new body in the original manga is instead a male body. She also states that this new lifeform will create children, as well.


Throughout the story the cyborg characters, being more or less a human brain with a manufactured body, contemplate individually and together what being human really is, and how a soul or ghost is truly defined. The Puppet Master is an AI, yet they recognize traits and personality within his mind structure that are clearly analogous to a human soul or ghost image. They cannot discount this similarity as it is very clearly analyzed by their medical scanning tools when they first captured the Puppet Master. The members of Section 9 must re-evaluate their own tenuous hold on the idea of humanity and "self", when faced with a being who clearly is self directed and has a ghost but was originated as a complex program, not a biological organism.

AI as a step in evolution

An important concept within Ghost in the Shell is that evolution is the process of merging two sets of data (DNA) in order to create a third set of data which contains the most vital elements of the original organisms along with some element of chance. The Puppeteer has evolved beyond DNA as a data set and thus to procreate (his true desire and purpose for leaving the net in the first place) this new organism (a soul not born of DNA) a new paradigm of data merging needs to be contemplated for which he has sought Kusanagi out. This is a merger of two operating "souls" or "ghosts" into one mind, which is specifically different from birth while being simultaneously analogous to it.


One of the consequences of this revelation is a final resolution of the nature versus nurture debate in sociology. When a criminal is convicted of a crime in Masamune Shirow's future world, a detailed technical analysis is conducted upon the subject. If it is discovered that the crime was committed due to a material defect in either the biological or electronic components of the convict's brain, the defect is repaired and the convict is released. If, instead, the crime is determined to have been the result of an individual's ghost, then there is only one cure: the removal of the portion of the brain that communicates with the soul, thereby de-ghosting the criminal and preventing any possibility of future criminal behavior.

Tachikoma/Fuchikoma (タチコマ / フチコマ)

Tachikoma (Tachikomas are second generation AI tanks, preceded by the Fuchikomas and succeeded by the hybrid Uchikoma) are artificially intelligent mini-tanks (walkers) employed by Section 9. Because of the demands of field duty, these robots are constructed with extremely flexible, adaptable AIs that lack many of the safeguards present in other artificially intelligent robots. While this enables them to behave unpredictably and flexibly, it also presents difficulties for the members of Section 9, who must monitor the Tachikoma closely for signs of undesirable emotional development.

The underlying statement here is that predictable behavior results in inherent weakness. Section 9, as an organization, needs heterogeneity and even organic weakness if it is to survive. "A machine where all the parts respond the same way is a brittle tool."

Tachikoma ask questions that otherwise would not have been brought to mind, much like children that are trying to understand the world, yet with superior thinking capabilities. There are Tachikoma short clips that involve them discussing complex philosophical issues and how they relate to existence. They provide more of an innocent look on the world that surrounds them.

The Tachikomas are also used to approach the question of whether or not one's individuality can withstand a parallelization of information from a different perspective. Here, the parallelization is perfect since they are machines. In the series, they are able to retain their respective individualities through the use of external references (Batou's favorite, the one which has books, etc.), similarly to the Major.

Cyberbrain warfare/Ghost hacking

Cyberbrain warfare is the practice of employing ghost hacking as a means of gaining access to an opponent's cyberbrain, and ultimately, their ghost. A successful cyberhacker can intercept, censor, or augment the sensory information being received by a victim, or even go so far as to destroy or rewrite complete memories. Furthermore, a person's cyberbrain can be directly injured, by making the cyberbrain undergo unaffordable computation and thus overheat. (See Cordwainer Smith's "The Burning of the Brain")

Cyberbrain warfare is portrayed as a natural consequence of the integration of cybernetic and wireless communication technology directly into the human brain. Despite the apparent risks, even the most paranoid characters in the story find the benefits of directly networking their brains to be indispensable.

Apparently, any conduit by which information is absorbed by the brain can be exploited for ghost hacking. Shirow envisions the use of firewalls for protecting the ghost against attack, and multiple layers of encryption.

Mnemonic Devices

Like information stored in the hard-drive of a modern computer the memories of a ghost can become fragmented and unreliable. This is the result of ghost-hacking, psychological treatment, trauma experienced while ghost-diving, corrupted transference from one cyber-brain to another, and the degradation of memories as they are collected and cross-referenced over the course of a lifetime.

The response that humans have developed to cope with the confusion of memories is to reinforce them with external reminders. Artwork, books, clothing, personal electronics, places of employment, and even companions are carefully chosen to familiarize the landscape of one's existence. In a sense we are partly motivated in our actions by the desire to look back on them with fondness and clarity.

The need for these mnemonic devices is also a philosophical hurdle for the members of Section 9. They are, after all, a watchdog group mandated with rooting out cases of cyber-brain crime. Kusanagi shuns the accumulation of trinkets (beyond the watch she wears in Stand Alone Complex). Being an expert in ghost-hacking and the workings of the cyber-brain, she considers these to be a sign of weakness that can be easily read by enemies. In an age when a detective can reconstruct a person's psyche based on study of their external memory Kusanagi has a sound position. Even she, however, still keeps that one single watch, and still keeps the same model of cybernetic body.

Batou, on the other hand, is sentimental. He keeps a pet dog, has safe houses full of books and art, lifts weights despite it being pointless, and even has a favorite Tachikoma to work with. Though they may be a fatal indication of one's living habits in his line of work he still clings to such comforts.

External Memory

External Memory is exactly that, memories and experiences that are stored "offline" onto a hard disk or such. If you possess a cyber brain (as nearly everyone does in the Ghost in the Shell universe), there is a definite separation of mind and body since your brain case can be removed and put into a new body. Since there is an electronic separation, the signals received from the senses (touch, taste, etc.) can be recorded and replayed at any given time. Thus, you could record important events such as your wedding day and replay it as if you were actually there anytime you wish. Your external senses turn off, and you’re fed recorded sensory information. Better than any video camera recording, you're feeling the heat of the sun, the breeze, your brides’ hand trembling as you slip the ring on her finger, etc. Storing these memories also allows others to play them back and experience them as well.

In Stand Alone Complex, the Section 9 team view Togusa's memories while he is in hospital to find out what happened to him, and Batou becomes temporarily overcome with rage as a result of experiencing the traumatic event through the recorded memory. In an earlier episode Kusanagi reviews the initial broadcast of the Laughing Man incident and some associated media by connecting to her external memory device she keeps at a friend's apartment.

A comment by Batou after exchanging philosophical quotations with Togusa in the Innocence movie suggests that they had each been recalling the quotes from their external memory. This means they must be either carrying the data in a storage device inside their own cyberbrains, or connecting to it wirelessly (quite possible, as they regularly communicate wirelessly), unlike the external device Kusanagi connects to in SAC.

Additionally external memories seems to refer to physical mnemonic objects, such as the objects kept by the shop owner who stores the childhood cybernetic bodies of Kuze and the major. These objects can be represented in almost any form who's only prerequisite is that they invoke a memory, emotional or otherwise. Those this is how the shopkeeper describes the objects she cares for in 2nd GIG the more generally accepted definition of the term remains the former and if a character is speaking of 'external memories' they most likely are referring to the definition seen above.

Technological Singularity

The Technological Singularity is a hypothetical point in time when humanity’s technological innovations become so powerful that they become uncontrollable and irreversible. This idea is most commonly applied to Artificial Intelligence. It is believed that humanity will inevitably reach the Singularity and create an all-powerful AI and the question becomes if this all powerful AI will be hostile or friendly.

In Ghost in the Shell the idea of the technological singularity is represented through the merging of Kusanagi and the Puppet Master. The Puppet Master is an AI that is capable of producing copies of itself, exerting complete control over the cybernetic human population, and accessing a massive neural network. The Puppet Master explains that its only weakness is that it has no diversity. This is why, by merging and adding diversity, the newly combined Kusanagi has surpassed the Technological singularity and reached the state of an unstoppable being. The question of if this new being will be friendly or hostile is represented by the last few minutes of the film where Kusanagi, in her new form, looks over the city and says “Now, Where shall I go”.

Stand Alone Complex

While originally intended to "underscore the dilemmas and concerns that people would face if they relied too heavily on the new communications infrastructure," Stand Alone Complex eventually came to represent a phenomenon where unrelated, yet very similar actions of individuals create a seemingly concerted effort.

A 'Stand Alone Complex' can be compared to the copycat behavior that often occurs after incidents such as serial murders or terrorist attacks. An incident catches the public's attention and certain types of people "get on the bandwagon", so to speak. It is particularly apparent when the incident appears to be the result of well-known political or religious beliefs, but it can also occur in response to intense media attention. For example, a mere fire, no matter the number of deaths, is just a garden variety tragedy. However, if the right kind of people begin to believe it was arson, caused by deliberate action, the threat increases drastically that more arsons will be committed.

What separates the 'Stand Alone Complex' from normal copycat behavior is that the originator of the copied action is not even a real person, but merely a rumored figure that commits said action. Even without instruction or leadership a certain type of person will spring into action to imitate the rumored action and move toward the same goal even if only subconsciously. The result is an epidemic of copied behavior-with no originator. One could say that the Stand Alone Complex is mass hysteria-with purpose.

This is not unlike the concepts of memes (refer to the conversation between the major and the Puppet Master in the manga) and second-order simulacra. It also has ties to social theory, as illustrated in the work of Frederic Jameson and Masachi Osawa.

In the series itself, it usually refers to events surrounding the Laughing Man case, and to some extents, the teamwork observed in Public Security Section 9. It is presented as an emergent phenomenon catalyzed by parallelization of the human psyche through the cyberbrain networks. There is no original Laughing Man, no leader. Everyone is acting on his own, yet a coherent whole emerges.

In what is perhaps one of the first examples of this phenomenon to emerge in real life, Project Chanology, an Internet-based protest against Scientology, was formed by a loose association of individuals calling themselves Anonymous who frequent certain image-based bulletin boards. Bill McEllwain writes:

We are thus dealing with a true Stand Alone Complex, probably the first substantive one the net has ever seen. There was no original person who launched and organized this battle, but at the same time, it’s not accurate to call everyone who is participating in it mere copycats, because they are the entirety of it. This battle will continue raging for some time, and it’s about damn time. Scientology is truly dangerous like many other cults and religions, yet their litigious nature has effectively hamstringed the news media from covering these issues (except in Germany). So it makes sense that a fluid, faceless group should take root on the Internet to oppose them. After all, the threats of lawsuits only make sense if they can actually find you to sue you. Now you understand the meaning of “Anonymous”.—Ben McIlwain,"A real life Stand Alone Complex emerges against Scientology"

Relation to Social theory

The relation of SAC to social theory is explored in more depth in the second season. A character, Kazundo Gouda, postulates that, by exploiting the mechanism of information transmission in society, one could achieve a very efficient and subtle thought control. Indeed, since people tend to modify slightly the information (and forget where it came from) in the processes of consumption (or appropriation), it becomes difficult to sort genuine ideas from modified, implanted, ones. He proves to be very successful in the end.

Relation to Teamwork

The loose structure of Public Security Section 9 is another example of the SAC. Members have no clearly-defined ranks, roles or "job-descriptions", no strict policies to follow on how they do things. The only thing they share is the information they have and their overall mission; the way they each go about accomplishing it is left to their individual discretion. Teamwork is never demanded/enforced for its own sake, but simply occurs naturally as a result of multiple highly-competent individuals all pursuing the same goal. Even if this doesn't always lead to optimal results, the resulting team is very flexible and adaptive; a member may emerge as the leader, e.g. the Major, but can be replaced by another should the need arise. However, this kind of "natural" teamwork is much more demanding of individual team members than is a traditional top-down hierarchical approach, where all one needs to do is unquestioningly follow whatever orders come from above.

Another example of highly-efficient SAC-based teamwork in the series would be the very first Individual Eleven in episode 1 of Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd GIG.

Book references (manga)

  • The Ghost In The Shell (Kokaku Kidotai) : Publisher: Kodansha (KCDX) ISBN 4-06-313248-X C9979 Release: 5 October 1991, original Japanese
  • Ghost In The Shell (English Edition) : Publisher: Dark Horse Comics / Studio Proteus ISBN 1-56971-081-3, Release: December 1995, English adaptation
  • Ghost In The Shell 2: Man/Machine Interface (English Edition Sequel) : Publisher: Dark Horse Comics / Studio Proteus ISBN 1-59307-204-X, Release: Dark Horse (January 19, 2005), English adaptation

External links