Rafael Capurro
Contribution to: Hubert Dreyfus' Legacy - A Special memorial issue of AI & Society. Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Communication. In: AI & Society, January 2018, p. 1-2, DOI  10.1007/s00146-018-0799-7


Hubert Dreyfus invited me to his office at the University of California, Berkeley in November of 1992. I was on sabbatical and had just participated in the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science (ASIS) that was held in Pittsburgh, October 23-29, 1992, where I talked about ‘Information Technologies and Technologies of the Self’ (Capurro 1986) and referred to the book by Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow on Michel Foucault (Dreyfus & Rabinow 1983). Leading up to my meeting with Dreyfus, I met my friend and colleague Thomas Froehlich (Kent State University, School of Library and Information Science) as well as German philosopher Wolfgang Schirmacher (New School for Social Research, New York). I had also consulted with the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies at Rutgers University, and the Department of Information Studies, University of California at Los Angeles. Lastly, I had the fortuitous opportunity to speak with the Buddhist expert, Liu Xiaogan, who was living in exile at Princeton University. As such, I was fully immersed in foundational issues of Library and Information Science and particularly in Information Ethics, a topic that had become a major societal issue with the rise of the Internet.

Coming from phenomenology and hermeneutics, I was fascinated when I read Hubert Dreyfus' books dealing with information technology from the same perspective. I expected a U.S. philosopher to be analytic and to reject Continental philosophy in general and Heideggerian phenomenology in particular. It was a sunny November day. I was impressed by the beautiful campus and by his warm hospitality. Dreyfus and I talked about phenomenology in the U.S. I mentioned his book What Computers Can't Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence (Dreyfus 1972) as well as Terry Winograd’s and Fernando Flores’ Understanding Computers and Cognition (Winograd & Flores 1986) in a short contribution to the XIVth German Philosophy Congress in 1987 (Capurro 1987). I also referred to Dreyfus in a 1987 article for the German computer journal Informatik-Spektrum dealing with Winograd and Flores (Capurro 1987a) as well as in an article on Artificial Intelligence from an ethical perspective dealing with Joseph Weizenbaum (Capurro 1998). All these thinkers helped me further develop my ideas on Information Ethics. In 2008 I referenced Dreyfus’ book, Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time, specifically where he notes, ”In anxiety Dasein discovers that it has no meaning or content of its own; nothing individualizes it but its empty thrownness.” (Dreyfus 1991, 180) My reference was in the context of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, the sources of morality and their relevance for Intercultural Information Ethics. I wrote, "Such an experience is not necessarily accompanied by sweating and crying, but it is rather nearer to what we could call today a ‘cool’ experience of the gratuity of existence." (Capurro 2008, 642)

Reading these and various other related texts during the period of my acquaintance with Hubert Dreyfus, I developed a fascination for his phenomenological analysis of computer technology. His breath-taking study on Heidegger's Being and Time (Heidegger 1987) is a uniquely original interpretation of this seminal work of 20th century philosophy. For readers of the original German text, reading Heidegger through Dreyfus is an experience in its own right, an Anglo-Saxon, even pragmatist, Heidegger, so to speak. The task of interpreting Heidegger, as such, was also done by Winograd and Flores, but Dreyfus presents a deeper understanding of the issues at stake as he opened new doors to a phenomenological understanding of what the information age is.

In a recent outline on digital hermeneutics and digital ontology I reference authors like Gianni Vattimo, Vilém Flusser, Luciano Floridi, Don Ihde, Michael Eldred, Albert Borgmann, Lucas Introna, Bernhard Irrgang, Lawrence Lessig, Wolfgang Sützl, and Daniel Fallman. I quote Hubert Dreyfus' concluding remarks in his book On the Internet:  "In sum, as long as we continue to affirm our bodies, the Net can be useful to us in spite of its tendency to offer the worst of a series of asymmetric trade-offs: economy over efficacy in education, the virtual over the real in our relation to things and people, and anonymity over commitment that our culture has already fallen twice for the Platonic/Christian temptation to try to get rid of our vulnerable bodies, and has ended in nihilism. This time around, we must resist this temptation and affirm our bodies, not in spite of their finitude and vulnerability, but because, without our bodies, as Nietzsche saw, we would be literally nothing. As Nietzsche has Zarathustra say: ‘I want to speak to the despisers of the body. I would not have them learn and teach differently, but merely say farewell to their own bodies – and thus become silent. (Dreyfus 2001, p. 106-107)." (cited in Capurro 2010)

Hubert Dreyfus' initial analysis in 1972 of  "what computers can't do" finds an echo in present-day research into what algorithms can and can't do as well as in discussions of what they should and should not be allowed to do.


Capurro, Rafael (1987). Zur Kritik der künstlichen Vernunft. http://www.capurro.de/intellekt.html

Capurro, Rafael (1987a). Die Informatik und das hermeneutische Forschungsprogramm. In  Informatik-Spektrum, 10, 329-333

Capurro, Rafael (1996). Information Technology and Technologies of the Self. In: Journal of Information Ethics, 5 (2), 19-28.

Capurro, Rafael (1998). Die Verantwortbarkeit des Denkens. Künstliche Intelligenz aus ethischer Sicht. In: Forum für interdisziplinäre Forschung 1, 15-21.

Capurro, Rafael (2008) in Kenneth E. Himma & Herman T. Tavani, (eds.) (2008). The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. New Jersey: Wiley, 639-665.

Capurro, Rafael (2010). Digital hermeneutics: an outline. In: AI & Society 35 (1), 35-42.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. (1972). What Computers Can't Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. New York: MIT Press.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. (1991). Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time, Division I. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. (2001). On the internet. New York: Routledge.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. &  Rabinow, Paul (1983): Michel Foucault. Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 

Heidegger, Martin (1987). Being and Time. Transl. by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.

Winograd, Terry and Flores, Fernando (1986). Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.


Last update: February 2, 2018


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