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



This paper deals with the perspective of interpretation theory or hermeneutics of the process of information storage and retrieval as it was conceived in the early eighties. Further developments in the information technology as well as a broad international discussion on the hermeneutic paradigm in the information field were added to the original paper from 1986. The main thesis concerns not only the interpretative nature of information-seeking processes but also the role of interpretation with regard to the fragmentation of knowledge. Information is the shape of knowledge at the end of modernity. On the basis of the existential turn of interpretation theory the role of pre-understanding is stressed not only with regard to the information retrieval processes but also to the specific worldly situation in which the inquirers are embedded. 


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 by Wolfgang Schirmacher and Carl Mitcham. After thirteen years, obviously, things have changed and I have done some further work too.

My book Hermeneutik der Fachinformation was published in 1986 and since then I have written some articles on this subject as well as another book Leben im Informationszeitalter (Capurro 1995). Some of the 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 the 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.




In the editorial preface to Philosophy and Technology II: Information Technology and Computers in Theory and Practice, Cohen and 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 computerized  information processing and human reasoning? They also point to 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. With 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 language.  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 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 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 commonality. Information is something basically human which should be in principle accessible to everyone. Modern knowledge is something common, shared by a community, for instance by a 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, commonality, and mediation point toward the nature of information, its present shape at the end of modernity.   




In setting up for example  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 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 dealt with via 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 for 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 fixing 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 established 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 such as: thesauri, key words and classification schemes.   

With the statedness 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 hermeneutic circle refers to the process of understanding as a dynamic process of fusion of horizons (Gadamer) 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 in 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 concerns 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 (open or fixed) pu which is what mentalism in fact postulates. The distinction between PU and pu does not preclude of course the possibility of integrating dynamic learning patterns into retrieval systems (Doszkocs/Reggia/Lin 1990).    

This can be depicted schematically in the following diagram:     

"fusion of horizons"
hermeneutic circle

open pre-understandings (pu)
world-openness (PU)

objectivized pre-understandings 
classifications, thesauri etc.

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 various 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 Froehlich (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 various 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, R.N. Oddy, H.M. Brooks and P. 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). Frohmann (Frohmann 1990 and 1992) and Blair (Blair 1990) have made various objections to this paradigm. Existential hermeneutics can also provide an antidote to mentalism in information science.   

I agree with 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 her/his 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 Spark Jones (Spark Jones 1991) points out, the role of artificial intelligence in information retrieval will not be in the foreseeable future "to replace humans by machines" 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 say hermeneutically, without operating on its own existential basis. "Information-as-process" as well as "information-as-thing" (documents) are, in other words, situational (Buckland 1991, p. 50 and Cornelius 1996).



Information technology can 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 double-edged: as a techne it partakes of poesis and brings something forth into the open, 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 continually undermined by chaos and creativity (Vattimo 1989 and Capurro 1995).


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

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


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

Arendt, Hannah. 1970. The Human Condition. 6th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.   

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

Buckland, M. 1991. Information and Information System. New York: Greenwood Press

Capurro, R.: 1996. Information Technology and Technologies of the Self. Journal of Information Ethics, Vol. 5 (2): 19-28.   
-: 1995. Leben im Informationszeitalter. Berlin: Akademie.   
-: 1992. What is information science for? A philosophical reflection. In: P. Vakkari, B. Cronin Eds. Conceptions of Library and Information Science. London: Taylor Graham 1992, 82-96.   
-: 1986. Hermeneutik der Fachinformation. Freiburg/München: Alber.   
-: 1985. Epistemology and Information Science. Stockholm, Royal Institute of Technology Library, Report TRITA-LIB-6023.   

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, Copenhagen: The Royal School of Librarianship, 11-21.   

Doszkocs, T.E., Reggia, J., Lin, Xia 1990. Connectionist Models and Information Retrieval. In: Martha E. Williams, Ed.: Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, Vol. 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. 1992. Knowledge and Power in Library and Information Science. In: P. Vakkari, B. Cronin, Eds.: Conceptions of Library and Information Science. London: Taylor Graham 1992, 135-149.   

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

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

Heidegger, Martin. 1967. Vorträge und Aufsätze. 3rd ed. Pfüllingen, Germany: Neske.   

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

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

Mitcham, Carl, and Alois Huning, eds. 1986. Philosophy and Technology II: Information Technology and Computers in Theory and Practice. Boston 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: Garzanti.

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