Rafael Capurro
Published in:

Carl Mitcham, ed.:
Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Technology.
Research in Philosophy and Technology
Vol. 19, Amserdam: JAI/Elsevier Inc. 2000, pp. 79-85.



Part I. Theme Section: Metaphysics and Epistemology of Technology

Changed Encounters with Things and Ontological Transformations: The Case of Ubiquitous Computing
Agustin A. Araya

The Implications of Consistency: Plato's Protagoras and Heidegger's 'The Question Concerning Technology'
Mary Bloodsworth

Technology and Embodiment in Ihde and Merleau-Ponty
Philip Brey

Theories of Technology as Extension of Human Faculties
Philip Brey

Hermeneutics and the Phenomenon of Information
Rafael Capurro

Toward a Philosophical Analysis of Efficiency
José Manuel de Cózar

The Fate of Skills in the Information Age
Bill Hook

Toward New Foundations in Philosoophy of Technology: Mitcham and Wittgenstein on Descriptions
Andrew Light and David Roberts

Toward a Phenomenology of the Body in Virtual Reality
Craig Murray

On the Cognitive Demarcation Between Technology and Sciene: An Attempt At Epistemological Clarification
Yannis A. Niadas

The Conception of Time and its Relationship to Technology
Theodore John Rivers

Bakhtin's Concept of Individualistic Ideolects as a Propitious Model of Communication Among Humans and Between Humans and Computers
Karina Stokes

The Negative Teleological Metaphysics of Hans Jonas
Ton van der Valk

The Thing About Technology: Toward a Phenomenology of Technological Artefacts
Peter-Paul Verbeek

Part II. Review Essays on Metaphysical and Epistemological Themes

The Future's so Bright  We've Got to Wear Shades
Albert Borgman, Holding On to Reality: the Nature of Information at a the Turn of the Millennium
Dan Schiller, Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System
Reviewed by Brian Rosmaita

Digital Reality Check: Are Computers Transforming Philosophy?
Terrell Ward Bynum and James H. Moor, eds., The Digital Phoenix: How Computers are Changing Philosophy
Reviewed by Roderick Nicholls

Philosophy of Mind and Technology?
David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory
Daniel Dennett, Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds
Reviewed by Richard Liebendorfer

Living with Machines
Harry Collins and Martin Kusch, The Shape of Actions: What Humans and Machines Can Do
Bonnie a. Nardi and Vicki L. O'Day, Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart
Reviewed by Sergio Sismondo

Superficial Metaphysics and Technology
Marc C. Taylor, Hiding
Reviewed by Stuart Dalton

Part III: Reviews: Metaphysical and Epistemological Issues

Technology and Science: Trading Zones, Discontinuity, and Instrumentalization
Peter Galison, Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics
Reviewed by Sergio Sismondo

The Unknowable Being of Lightness
David Park, The Fire with the Eye: A Historical Essay on the Nature and Meaning of Light
Reviewed by Stephen Crowley

Philosophy and Technology?
Joseph C. Pitt, Thinking About Technology: Foundations of the Philosophy of Technology
Reviewed by Raphael Sassower

Epistemology and Technology?
Robert F. Port and Timothy van Gelder, Mind as Motion: Explorations in the Dynamics of Cognition
Reviews by John Collier

Technology and Ontology?
Brian Cantwell Smith, On the Origin of Objects
Reviewed by Drew Christie

A Historical Metaphysics of Electricity
Ronald C. Tobey, Technology as Freedom: The New Deal and the Electrical Modernization of the American Home
Reviewed by Albert Borgmann

Part IV. Reviews: General

From Boon to Bane: Evolving Local Perceptions of a Nuclear Weapons Production Plant
Len Ackland, Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West
Reviewed by Karen B. Wiley

Shaped by the Atomic Age
MicheleStenehjem Gerber, On the Home Front: the Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site
Hal K. Rothman, On Rims and Ridges: the Los Alamos Area Since 1880
Reviewed by Cornelis de Waal

Of Macaronis, Prostitutes, and Excise Men
Miles Ogborn, Spaces of Modernity: London's Geographies 1680-1780
Reviewed by Jessica Sewell

Tychism, Agapism, and Synechism
Charles Sanders Peirce, Chance, Love, and Logic: Philoosophical Essays
Reviewed by Jean-Yves Bezian

Perelman's Information
Michael Perelman, Class Warfare in the Information Age
Reviewed by Michael Neumann

The Rhetoric of Sharing the Earth
Tarla Rai Peterson, Sharing the Earth: The Rhetoric of Sustainable Development
Reviewed by James Gerry

The Armoring of Undisciplinarity
Eric Ramsey, The Long Path to Nearness: A Contribution to a Corporeal Philosophy of Communication and the Groundwork for an Ethics of Relief
Reviewed by Katya Mandoki

Real-World Ethics for Engineers
Caroline Whitbeck, Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research
Reviewed by David Clowney

Remembering the Nameless
Edith Wyschogrod, An Ethics of Remembering: History, Heterology, and the Nameless Others
Reviewed by John Caruana

Also published in "Ubiquity. An ACM IT Magazine and Forum" (2008).

See: Fernando Flores Morador: Broken Technologies, The Humanist as Engineer (Lund University 2009), pp. 131-132.




I. Information and Modernity   
II. The Hermeneutical Process of Information Storage and Retrieval   
III. Language, Knowledge and the Information Ge-Stell   

Notes and References   



In the preface to Philosophy and Technology II: Information Technology and Computers in Theory and Practice, Robert Cohen and Marx Wartofsky consider two questions to be at the heart of philosophical thinking about modern information technology: What is information? and What is the relation between computer calculation and human reasoning? They also point toward a third issue — one which in my opinion is central and underlies the other two — namely, the interaction between society and information systems. (1)

My contribution to the first question is a tentative proposal utilizing recent discussions of the concept of 'modernity'. I take a restrictive view of the second question by analyzing the hermeneutical components of the interaction between an inquirer or user and data bases.In regard to the last issue, I contrast the whole field of the technological instrumentation of information with a non-instrumental but at the same time highly 'productive' view of human 'logos'. I will argue that the hermeneutical dimension of language allows not only a critical view of what I call the 'information Ge-stell', but also gives us some hints about the fundamental potentialities of language which remain hidden when the information phenomenon blinds our eyes.   


What is information? Information is the shape of knowledge at the end of modernity. Some characteristics of the end of modernity are: (a) abandonment of the primacy of rational or scientific thought as qualitatively superior to all other types of discourse; (b) abandonment of the idea of human subjectivity as opposed to objectivity, in which intersubjectivity and contextuality play only minor roles; and (c) abandonment of the (Platonic) idea of human knowledge as something separate from the knower.   

All these positions, especially the third, were core discoveries of Edmund Husserl. They are also fundamental characteristics of the phenomenon of information, so that information can be described as the shape of knowledge at the end of modernity.   

First, with regard to the abandonment of the primacy of scientific rationality, information is admitted to be fragmentary, to come in pieces. The fragmentation is two-fold: in reducing knowledge to pieces, the original contextuality disappears or becomes tacit. Knowledge becomes, literally, partial, dependent on prejudices or on the knower's frame of reference. This relativity of knowledge to a changing horizon of interpretation also brings to the fore of epistemology a new category: that of truth as now, at the end of modernity, inseparable from that of relevance.   

Second, with regard to the abandonment of the subjectivity-objectivity opposition, information is described as having a certain commonness. Information is something basically human which, in principle, should be accessible to everyone. Modern knowledge is something common, shared by a community,in the first instance by the scientific community.   

Third, with regard to the abandonment of the idea that knowledge is something separate from the knower, there is the notion of mediation. Modern information technology disseminates all kinds of knowledge all the time to everyone in a way prefigured by printing. Information becomes part and parcel of media, becomes a medium.   

In sum, the characteristics of fragmentation, commonness, and mediation point toward the nature of information, its present shape at the end of modernity.   





In setting up (say) a bibliographic database, the fragmentation of information forces us to create the conditions of possibility for the retrieval of the pieces because their common context remains tacit. The partialization opens the possibility for different perspectives of interpretation.   

This situation can be described in terms similar to those used by Martin Heidegger to analyze the structure of understanding: the general conceptual background (Vorhabe), the specific viewpoint (Vorsicht), and the corresponding terminology (Vorgriff). In the same way, a database creator must pre-define the field of knowledge, which is usually thematized through a classification scheme. The terminology of the field is objectivized in a thesaurus. Bibliographic description, abstract, index terms (or descriptors), and classification codes are the document surrogates which can be searched, taking into account the objectivized pre-understanding (thesaurus, classification scheme, etc.) of a user community. Once the database is implemented in the system, we have on the one side the objectivized pre-understanding and, on the other, the interpreter or inquirer.    

According to existential hermeneutics, a human being is not an isolated inquirer trying to reach others or the outside world from his or her encapsulated mind/brain, but is already sharing the world with others. Within this world of open possibilities, a person meets others and shares things and concerns, developing in its variety and complexity what Hannah Arendt calls the "web of human relationships" (Arendt, 1970, pp. 183-184). With the fixation of a part of the community background in some database, the inquirer or searcher can match his or her questions against it. Here Gadamer's "fusion of horizons" (Gadamer, 1975) describes not only the situation of text interpretation in general but also and even more accurately the dynamic process occurring during online dialog.   

We can consider the process of storage and retrieval of information hermeneutically as the articulation of the relationship between the existential world-openness of the inquirer, his/her different open and socially shared horizons of pre-understanding, and the fixed horizon of the system. The information-seeking process is basically an interpretation process having to do with the (life-) context and the background of the inquirer and with that of the people who store different kinds of linguistic expressions having a meaning within fixed contexts of understanding (as, for instance, thesauri, keywords and classification schemes).   

With the fixation of a part of a community background in a system, the inquirer can match his/her questions and backgrounds of pre-understanding against it. The online-dialogue is a specific form of the hermeneutic circle. In contrast to a vicious circle, the concept of the hermeneutic circle refers to the process of understanding as a dynamic process of fusion of horizons (Gadamer, 1975) in which statements are considered as answers to questions. Questions arise within a pre-understanding which is itself the result of having asked questions, and so on. Thus the dynamic of the interpretation process has its roots in a Socratic attitude of questioning. This attitude is existentially grounded in the fact that we are embedded into an already structured world (historical situation, culture, language and so on), being confronted at the same time with an open field of possibilites, i.e. with an open frame or a horizon.    

The inquirer's pre-understanding is embedded in a community's pre-understanding, which is itself part of the web of interrelations of things or matters that in their openness and finitude arise within the shared world-openness itself. If we call this world openness Pre-Understanding (PU), as the ontological condition of possibility for the ontic pre-understandings (pu), then the basic difference stated by this theory is that PU cannot be reduced to pu, which is what mentalism in fact postulates. Of  course, the difference between PU and pu does not preclude the possibility of integrating dynamic learning patterns into retrieval systems (Doszkocs, Reggia & Lin, 1990). this can be visualized as follows:

(open horizons) INQUIRER <---> SYSTEM (fixed horizons)

Some consequences with regard to the understanding and design of information systems are:   

  • In setting up, say, a bibliographic database, the fragmentation of information forces us to create the conditions of possibility for the retrieval of the pieces. We need conceptual backgrounds, for instance the scope of a data base, specific viewpoints (classification schemes), and a terminology. The result is an objectivized or fixed pre-understanding. These backgrounds belong to historical, cultural, linguistic... situations. There is no knowledge in itself.
  • Users are not isolated minds with cognitive structures, but are bodily human beings sharing a theoretical and practical pre-understanding with, for instance, professional communities. The are no users in general.
  • The question of relevance relates to the various horizons of pre-understanding. The hermeneutical paradigm offers a framework for the foundation of different relevance criteria such as systems relevance and individual relevance or pertinence (Lancaster, 1979; Salton & McGill, 1983). In fact, this distinction is not enough. According to T. J. Froehlich (1994), hermeneutics can provide a more productive framework for modelling systems and user criteria. This framework should include a hermeneutic of users, of the information collection, and of the mediation through the system. This is in accordance with what I proposed in my book Hermeneutik der Fachinformation (Capurro, 1986). 
Information systems are embedded in different cultural contexts. The study of information processes includes rhetorical, ethical and political questions. Information science can be conceived as a rhetorical discipline (Capurro, 1991). Information scientists like N.J. Belkin, Robert N. Oddy, H.M. Brooks and Peter Ingwersen (Ingwersen, 1992), have developed a cognitive paradigm that conceives the  information retrieval process as an interpretation process, where the requester's knowledge structures actively interact with the system (Capurro, 1985, Allen, 1991). Bernd Frohmann (1990 and 1992) and Blair (1990) have made different objections to this paradigm. Existential hermeneutics can also provide an antidote to mentalism in information science.   

I agree with Don Swanson's postulate on the "future of an illusion" when he states:    

An information need cannot be fully expressed as a search request that is independent of innumerable presuppositions of context - context that itself is impossible to describe fully, for it includes among other things the requester's own background of knowledge. (Swanson, 1988) 
It is, of course, not only her/his background of knowledge that cannot be described fully, but the very fact of the requester's being-in-the-world. What we do when we retrieve information is, in fact, to interpret it not only intellectually but existentially. Information retrieval is, as Swanson remarks, a misleading metaphor. As Karen Spark Jones (1991) points out, the role of artificial intelligence in information retrieval in the foreseeable future will not be "to replace humans by machines"(Sparck Jones, 1991, p. 563), but to support various kinds of natural language manipulation, operating only at the linguistic level, without being based directly on 'world knowledge' or, as we would hermeneutically say, without operating on an existential basis. 'Information-as-process' as well as 'information-as-thing' (documents) are, in other words, situational (Buckland, 1991, p. 50; Cornelius, 1996).



Information technology is able to help us become more human if we make joint efforts to investigate its presuppositions in all their complexity. This historical reflection in its philosophical dimensions is the task of hermeneutic phenomenology. Let me now try to illuminate this topic, reflecting on the potentialities of human logos.   

According to Heidegger, modern technology is two-sided: as a techne it partakes of poesis and brings something forth into unconcealment, but at the same time it crystallizes into the instrumental structure of the Ge-stell. (2) Instrumentality is good, provided it does not degenerate into a totalitarian or one-sided view. From this perspective, the development of information technology at the end of modernity is the creation of an information Ge-stell. Whereas, on the one hand, we bring forth linguistically mediated knowledge in a new shape, on the other, we transform language into a mere instrument.    

Yet even when this happens, as I have argued in the previous section, the process of interpretation is needed for the constitution of meaning. In fact, written as well as spoken logos never comes to an end, can never be definitively fixed once and for all. It conceals itself in its re-presentations. Modern subjectivity does not pay attention to this concealment while transforming the event of information, its weakness or dependence on interpretation, into an information and/or knowledge establishment. In this way it gives up its ethical responsibility, hoping to rest on a strong or fixed structure (Capurro, 1996).   

Nevertheless the information Ge-stell is an opportunity for modernity to recuperate in one of its characteristic formations the hidden dimension of language. The information Ge-stell can become a voice within the polyphonic nature of human logos — if and only if it is interrelated to the whole range of its hidden potentialities. If it is not, then we will have no more than an information society. The key issue in today's knowledge society is our relation to what we do not know in and through what we believe we know. To do this in a digital environment is one of the major challenges of today's networked environment, where the partiality of knowledge is the strength of a decentralized, non-totalitarian and opaque structure we call the Internet. What we get is not a fully enlightened or transparent society, but an opaque one, where the perspectives are continuously undermined by chaos and creativity (Vattimo, 1989; Capurro, 1995).


1. Robert S. Cohen & Marx W. Wartofsky, 'Editorial Preface', in Mitcham & Huning, eds., 1986, pp. v-vi. Paraphrasing from p. vi.

2. Heidegger, 1967, 'Die Frage nach der Technik,' pp. 5-36.

3. The origin of this paper goes back to the International Conference 'Phenomenology and Technology' held at the Philosophy and Technology Studies Center, Polytechnic University (New York), October 2-4, 1986, which was organized ba Wolfgang Schirmacher and Carl Mitcham. After thirteen years, obviously, things have changed an I have done some further works, too. My book Hermeneutik der Fachinformation was published in 1986, and since then I have written some articles on this subject, as well as anaother book, Leben im Informationszeitalter (1995). Some of these articles as well as a list of publications, can be found in my homepage. The present text is an enriched version of the original one. I have added some later insights without changing basic ideas, which I still think are valuable and can also be of help when reflecting, for instance, about the nature of communicating and searching for information in the Internet.


Allen, B.L. (1991). Cognitive Research in Information Science: Implications for Design. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 26, 1-37.   

Arendt, H. (1970). The Human Condition. (6th ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.   

Blair, D.C. (1990). Language and Representation in Information Retrieval. Amsterdam, Netehrlands: Elsevier.   

Buckland, M. (1991). Information and Information Systems. New York: Greenwood Press.

Capurro, R. (1985). Epistemology and Information Science. Stockholm, Sweden, Royal Institute of Technology Library, Report TRITA-LIB-6023.  

Capurro, R. (1986). Hermeneutik der Fachinformation. Freiburg, Germany: Alber.

Capurro, R. (1992). What is information science for? A philosophical reflection. In: P. Vakkari & B. Cronin (Eds). Conceptions of Library and Information Science: Historical, Empirical, and Theoretical Perspectives (pp. 82-96). London, England: Taylor Graham

Capurro, R. (1995). Leben im Informationszeitalter. Berlin: Akademie.

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

Cornelius, I. (1996). Information and Interpretation. In: P. Ingwersen & N. Ole Pors (Eds): CoLIS 2. Second International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science: Integration in Perspective. October 13-16, 1996 (11-21), Copenhagen, Denmark: Royal School of Librarianship. 

Doszkocs, T.E., Reggia, J. & Lin, X. (1990). Connectionist Models and Information Retrieval. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 25, 209-260.   

Froehlich, Th. J. (1994). Relevance Reconsidered - Towards an Agenda for the 21st Century: Introduction to Special Topic Issue on Relevance Research. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45 (3), 124.134.

Frohmann, B. (1990). Rules of Indexing: A Critique of Mentalism in Information Retrieval Theory. Journal of Documentation 46 (2), 81-101.

Frohmann, B. (1992). Knowledge and Power in Library and Information Science. In: P. Vakkari & B. Cronin, (Eds), Conceptions of Library and Information Science: Historical, Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives. (pp. 135-149). London, England: Taylor Graham.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. (1975). Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr.   

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Ingwersen, P. (1992). Information Retrieval Interaction. London, England: Taylor Graham.   

Lancaster, F.W. (1979). Information Retrieval Systems. New York, Wiley.   

Mitcham, C., & Huning, A., (Eds) (1986). Philosophy and Technology II: Information Technology and Computers in Theory and Practice. Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 90. Boston: D. Reidel.   

Salton, G. & McGill, M.J. (1983). Introduction to Modern Information Retrieval. New York: McGraw-Hill.   

Spark Jones, K. (1991). The Role of Artificial Intelligence in Information Retrieval. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 41 (8), 558-565.   

Swanson, D.R. (1988). Historical Note: Information Retrieval and the Future of an Illusion. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 39 (2), 92-98.   

Vattimo, G. 1989. La società trasparente. Milano, Italy: Garzanti.

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