Rafael Capurro, Tadashi Takenouchi, Leslie M. Tkach Kawasaki, Toshikazu Iitaka

This text is based on an interview, which goes back to the workshop "Information Technology and Hermeneutics" organized by the Research Group on the Information Society (ReGIS), Tsukuba University (Japan) in June 5-7, 2003. The questions were posed by members of ReGIS, namely Tadashi Takenouchi, Leslie M. Tkach Kawasaki, and Toshikazu Iitaka.The  text was published in Rafael Capurro - John Holgate (eds.). Messages and Messengers. Angeletics as an Approach to the Phenomenology of Communication. Munich: Fink 2011, 327-335. It was also published in International Journal of Applied Research on Information Technology and Computing (IJARITAC), Vol. 1, No 2, May - August 2010, 233-239.


kai to sigan pollakis esti sophotaton anthropo noesai

and silence is often the wisest for a human being to think about

(Pindaros, Nem. V,  18-19)

1. On the Relevance of the Concept of Message for Information Theory and Information Technology

It was modern information technology and particularly computer devices that gave rise in the late forties of the last century to the so-called information theory. Claude Shannon's problem was in fact, as stated in the title of his famous paper, "a mathematical theory of communication" (Shannon 1948). The concept of information within this theory of communication has little to do with the everyday meaning of this word, i.e., with 'knowledge communicated'. What is being communicated between a sender and a receiver is not information but are messages. Nevertheless Shannon speaks about "transmitting information." In my opinion a comprehensive theory of information must deal also with the semantic and pragmatic aspects of message communication which are excluded in Shannon's theory.

If we use the framework of systems theory and second-order cybernetics, we cannot say that there is something like "ubiquitous information-gathering capability" just because information is not something out there that can be gathered but the result of a selection within a system on the basis of a meaning offer, i.e., of a message. What becomes ubiquitous is then the possibility of sending and receiving messages. On the basis of an interpretation process the meaning of a message becomes information for a given system. This corresponds to the categories used by the sociologist Niklas Luhmann when he states that there is a difference between a meaning offer or announcement ("Mitteilung"), a selection process ("Information"), and an understanding process ("Verstehen"), their unity being called communication ("Kommunikation") (Luhmann 1984). The crucial question is the possibility of making a difference between the meaning offer and the selection process. When we read a text, for instance, we can take our time in order to think about what possibilities of interpretation can be considered. This is more difficult in the case of a face-to-face dialogue or even of modern real-time media, because we have little time to reflect on what is being said, as analysed for instance by thinkers like Paul Virilio. 'Ubiquitous information-gathering capability' does not mean to gather something called information which is already there but the possibility of making all the time and everywhere a difference between a meaning offer and an interpretation process. Information technology affects indeed information theory as far as we have to think about what kind of communication processes are taking place and what dimensions are lost or won.

2. On  "Capurro's Trilemma" and its Possible Solutions [1]

According to the so-called "Capurro's trilemma" information may mean the same at all levels (univocity), or something similar (analogy), or something different (equivocity) In the first case we lose all qualitative differences. If we say the concept of information is being used analogically, then we have to state what the original meaning is. Equivocity means that information in, say, physics and information in education are wholly  different concepts. In this case, information cannot be a unifying concept any more, i.e., it cannot be the basis for the new paradigm.

One apparent solution of the trilemma is to say that we do not need anything like a common information concept for all fields. We operate with different concepts defining them in different fields, which is what we do for instance when we use the concept of force in physics or in everyday life or in politics (Capurro/Hjørland 2003). This solution was proposed by the philosopher Peter Janich (see Capurro 1998) when he states that it is possible to solve this kind of semantic problems with adequate definitions, i.e., restricting the meaning of a concept to a specific field (Janich 1998). But the problem is then that Janich does not admit at all the use of the information concept outside the human sphere. He admits this use only as an analogy. And here we are facing the trilemma once again, i.e., the question of using this concept analogically, equivocally or univocally.

Another solution is the idea of emergent qualities and thus of different but evolutionary connected concepts as suggested by Wolfgang Hofkirchner which is similar but not identical to my Wittgensteinian suggestion of connecting different information concepts according to their "family resemblances" within a network allowing different kinds of relations some of them analogical, some equivocal, some univocal.  This means nothing less than creating a double-bind connection or a hermeneutic circle between univocal scientific terms and natural language. This is the path suggested by the physicist Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker when he relates information to language (Weizsäcker 1974). This means not only the question of translating the language of science into everyday language but, more basically, the question on how everyday words can be seen as a source of scientific concepts, giving rise for instance to different kinds of metaphors and analogies. There is a productive tension  between the semantic polyvalence of words and univocal concept definitions within the framework of scientific theories. This question concerns also the difference between Western languages, which are more concept-oriented, and Eastern-languages, which are more word- or even silence-oriented. This was the matter of Heidegger's "Dialogue with a Japanese" (Heidegger 1975).

3. On the Relationship between Power and Information: Is Information Machiavellian?

Let me try to give first a few historical references about the concept of power following some of the hints given in the article "Macht" of theHistorisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie" (Röttgers 1980). The concept of power is derived in the Western tradition from Greek dynamis (Latin potentia) meaning the capability or potentiality of becoming. Within Plato's philosophy this concept is used in a political sense. Platon criticises the sophists because in their view power was not subjected to or legitimated by reason. The sophist Gorgias considered the power of words -- and, we could add, the power of the selection from a meaning offer, i.e., the power of information -- as a kind of pure force (bía). For Plato tyrants are paradoxically powerless because they do not achieve what they really want, namely the good. In the Roman tradition there is a difference between power related to a public position (potestas) and the recognition of one's authority (auctoritas). In Italian Renaissance Machiavelli does not look for a metaphysic foundation of power because the question of power is something that must be stated with regard to each particular case. This kind of casuistic or Machiavellian power philosophy is closely related to the thinking of Francis Bacon for whom "human knowledge and human power meet in one." Bacon stresses the importance of human dominance over nature through empirical based knowledge, and thus of science and information, as a necessary condition for political power.  Kant makes a difference between power ("Macht") and force ("Gewalt"). Force is the kind of power needed to overcome another power. In both cases we deal with the idea of overcoming and subordination. Force ("Gewalt") is a necessary condition for the establishment of a legitimate power that can protect freedom and law. Law and freedom without force means anarchy, law and force without freedom means despotism, force without freedom and law means a barbarian situation, and finally force with freedom and law means a republican state. Hannah Arendt distinguishes between force ("Gewalt") as related to means and ends from power ("Macht") as a situation of institutional dependence. In other words, not only the question of technological means and their force is decisive for social order but also the question of power, i.e., of legitimisation. Michel Foucault explores the question of "bio-power" as related to specific institutions such as hospitals and jails.

Giorgio Agamben has recently considered the question of power (potenza, potere) within the context of political violence (violenza) relating both perspectives, the one by Hannah Arendt and the one by Michel Foucault (Agamben 2002). He interprets the present situation as one in which the political power of parliamentary democracies has changed into a permanent "state of emergency" (Carl Schmitt), the paradigm of such a situation being the "camp" in which human beings such as refugees are kept in their pure physical existence at the same time inside and outside the geographic and legal limits of national states.

In my opinion the question of information and power should be stated today within this context of the crisis of modern democratic states facing digital globalisation. Information is thus a kind of force that cannot be controlled by legal state regulations alone but that can be also seen as a danger for national security. This is a paradoxical outcome of the ideal proclaimed by the Enlightenment with regard to censorship free societies. Some human beings have "informational existence" while others remain excluded from it in what we are used to call the digital divide. A way of dealing with this problem are international regulations such as the ones being discussed at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). It is evident that digital information can be used and is being used for political violence and millions of people suffer from all kinds of digital attacks such as viruses and daily (sexual) spam.

4. On Information Technology and Michel Foucault's "Technologies of the Self"

I believe that Foucault had in mind the old and ambivalent Greek concept of techne that is of the knowledge how things are being produced (poiesis). There is a classic discussion on this between Plato and Aristotle, Aristotle being the one who, on the one hand, made the distinction between techne and phronesis which is the word he uses for ethical knowledge, i.e., for the kind of knowledge which is specific human and related to the moulding of our character and actions (praxis), while techne refers to the knowledge need for the production of material things or poiesis. But, on the other hand, Aristotle also uses the word techne with regard to the moral as well as to the political sphere. Foucault speaks about four kinds of technologies, namely the first one concerning the production of material things, the second one concerning the production of signs, the third one concerning the production of power and finally the one regarding the operations of the individuals with themselves and with others that he calls "technologies" but also "practices" of the self (Foucault 1988, 18; Capurro 2005)

My view on this matter was to look for the connection between technologies of self and technologies of sign production such as modern information technology. My question is to explore in which way we use such technologies in order to produce or model or, remembering the Latin origin of the word 'information', namely informatio, in-form ourselves, as individuals and as a society, as we have been doing this for instance with printing technology and with writing. But information technology is not just a mean to an end or a mere instrument but in a more basic sense we are or exist online. This is the reason, I believe, why information ethics cannot take only the instrumental perspective. If this diagnosis of modern information technology as a digital ontology -- in the Heideggerian sense of this term -- is right, then we are dealing with a projection ("Entwurf") of Being and not just with the production of digital beings that pervades, for better or for worse, our existence, similarly as, for instance, in the case of modern physics, to which Heidegger refers in "Being and Time." The basic ethical question is then how do we model our lives within and beyond this digital horizon.

5. On Being a Hermeneutic and not a Postmodern Philosopher

I am indeed not a postmodern philosopher in the sense of pertaining to a historical epoch of philosophy that took place in Western thinking particularly during the seventies and eighties of the last century and that was mostly an eclectic movement. But in a more general sense we could say that all present thinking is postmodern as far as it does not simply and purely rely on the presuppositions of modern philosophy. The question about conscience as a firm basis for thinking as established for instance by Descartes or Husserl is being radically questioned by brain scientists as well as by some leading philosophers. I basically agree with Gianni Vattimo with regard to the hermeneutic or "weak" nature of human understanding. Hermeneutic thinking opens the possibility of a dialogue with the tradition or, better, with traditions and orders of values beyond the wrong alternative between eclecticism or fundamentalism. The true alternative being the one between solipsistic and dialogical thinking.

I would say that a dialogue is not only a question-answer exchange but a message-message exchange. Questions are a possibility of message content, but not every message is a question. According to Hans-Georg Gadamer, every statement can be seen as an answer and the hermeneutic problem is to explore what was the question that gave rise to this answer. In other words, hermeneutic brings a dialogical and dynamic perspective into the world of static texts (Gadamer 1975). This presupposes not only the exchange of messages but the very fact that a message is indeed accepted by the receiver as relevant and vice versa. The analysis of these conditions of message announcement and transmission is what angeletics deals with. The effect of message announcement and transmission is what hermeneutics calls the tradition but taking at the same time for granted this very phenomenon of bringing a message and dealing only with its interpretation. Within and between traditions we may indeed ask questions or look for the questions behind the statements.

But not every message is embedded within such a question-answer structure. More basically: every statement can be considered as an announcement, but not necessarily as an answer to a question. In fact, most of the messages we receive everyday are not questions that require an answer but just announcements that as far as they are seen as relevant by the receiver may lead to another message. Take for instance a message telling you that you have won ten million Yen in the lottery and that you are kindly requested to pick up your money or another message from your girlfriend telling you that she cannot be with you during the weekend. In case you consider these messages as relevant to you, you may like to answer them or not without considering them as a question. In case you reply sending a message, this one is then not an answer to a question but a message that may be again relevant to the lottery or to your girlfriend and who may send you again another message and so on. In other words, answering a message is not the same as answering a question. We may say that the message-message structure is the essence of communication.

6. What would a Message Ethics look like?

This is indeed a very relevant question as we live in a message society (Capurro 2003). Of course, every human society has been a message society but we live today in a society in which digital messages and messengers play a significant role not only in politics and economics, but also in everyday life. This is due particularly to the ongoing transformation of the 20th century society dominated mass media with their hierarchical one-to-many structure of message distribution and consumption. This transformation which is due to the invention of the internet is still difficult to evaluate. The ideals proclaimed by the 'founding fathers' of the internet, such as free access to knowledge for everybody or joyful learning from each other have turned more and more into the opposite.

The ethic of traditional mass media, the so-called media ethics, was and is still concerned with such questions of centralised moral monitoring of message selection and distribution, i.e., with the problems faced by the institutions and actors, journalists in particular, of such an angeletic setting. What makes particularly difficult the question of ethics with regard to the internet is not only the variety of stake holders and, of course, of share holders, but also the question of how far the internet affects directly or indirectly the digital and material life of millions of people, i.e., either because they have the possibility of being online or because they have not such a possibility. An ethics of the message society should not be restricted to the realm of the digital, being some kind of 'angel-ethics' -- as far as angels have no physical and temporal existence, they are not concerned, at least in the same manner as we are, with the constraints of morality and the possibility of ethical reflection -- or with the ethics of digital action alone, but it should deal with the impact of such action on the physical life of society.

7. On the Difference between Angeletics and Régis Debray's "médiologie"

According to Marshall McLuhan's famous dictum, "the medium is the message" (McLuhan 1964). It seems to me that we have done a lot in order to explore what are media but that we have done little in order to answer the question 'what are messages?'  In his "Cours de médiologie générale" Régis Debray points to the figure of the mediator or the "hommedium" such as "the scribe, the priest, the intellectual." (Debray 1991). Debray is concerned with the study of the medium or messenger that makes possible the transmission and circulation of symbols, and he is also interested in the analysis of how "beliefs and myths" disseminate in early stages. He defines messages ("messages") as being a kind of statement ("énoncés") having the characteristic of being "calling" ("vocatif"), and "prescriptive" ("prescriptif"), and as having "pragmatic valences" ("valences pragmatiques") (Debray 1991, 41). The reason why he is interested in the early stages of message dissemination is that at this moment the difference between cool statements and hot messages, or between science and ideology, is fuzzy (ibid.). His paradigmatic example in this regard is the development of early Christianity, a religion that makes a religion of the mediation itself ("la médiation faite religion") (Debray 1991, 92).
Debray's mediology is in fact a secularised Christology: "la médiologie n'est qu'une christologie à retardement, réflechie dans la sphère profane." (Debray 1991, 93). His analysis of Christian mediations or "interfaces" deals with militant institutions such as Catholic orders, holy texts, and God's people (Debray 1991, 143-144). At the end of his book he categorises three mediatic ages, namely the age of the "logos" or "logosphère" fixing an oral tradition, the graphic period or "graphosphère", and the electronic period or "vidéosphère" which he correlates with Comte's stages of human development (Debray 1991, 387).

There are indeed many similarities and common insights between Debray's mediology -- not "medialogy," i.e., the study of mass media -- and my views on angeletics (Capurro 2003a; 2008). This concerns for instance his analysis of the dissemination of messages or of mediologic interfaces. But this is, I think, only one aspect of the message phenomenon, namely the question of the medium or messenger. The analysis should include not only messengers, but also messages (content, form, production, impact) and the process itself of announcing a message. In this regard angeletics is closely related for instance to marketing, although marketing considers messages only within the horizon of economic profit. Such a comprehensive angeletic analysis would be not primarily concerned with the construction of a system but with detailed and comparative case studies as well as with different evaluation methodologies with regard to the social impact of messages and messengers. Debray's studies on Christianity and his Comtean inspired system are indeed fascinating but too unique in order to deal as a foundation of a "general mediology" or even for a general angeletics, i.e., they are biased with regard to the Western mediological tradition although they are an important contribution to comparative angeletic studies.

Finally it can be said that an empirical science called angeletics should be distinguished from a philosophic angeletics as well as from an angeletic philosophy. This is a similar distinction as the one made between hermeneutic as a methodology, philosophic hermeneutics as developed by Gadamer, and Heidegger's hermeneutic philosophy. In my opinion, Heidegger's phenomenology is in fact an angeletic thinking (Heidegger 1975).


On "Capurro's trilemma" see (Hofkirchner 1999, 9-30). Short version in (Capurro, Fleissner, Hofkirchner 1997)


Agamben, Giorgio: Homo sacer. Die souveräne Macht und das nackte Leben. Frankfurt am Main 2002.

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Weizsäcker, Carl Friedrich von: Sprache als Information. In ibid. Die Einheit der Natur, Munich 1974, 39-60.

Last update: September 22, 2019

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