Rafael Capurro

Keynote address to the conference Thinking Critically: Alternative Perspectives and Methods in Information Studies organized by the Center for Information Policy Research, School of Information Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, May 15-17, 2008. Published in Elizabeth Buchanan and Carolyn Hansen (eds.): Proceedings. Thinking Critically: Alternative Methods and Perspectives in Library and Information Studies. Center for Information Policy Research, School of Information Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee 2008, pp. 190-220. The following text is a modified version of the published one. A modified version of this paper was published with the title Digital hermeneutics: an outline in AI & Society 35 (2010) 1, pp. 35-42. Chinese translation.
See: Christian Pralea: An Hermeneutical Ontology of Cyberspace, PhD, Bowling Green State University, 2010.


A Short History of Digital Hermeneutics
Digital Hermeneutics: An Outline




We live in societies whose political, legal, military, cultural and economic systems are based on digital communication and information networks or in societies that are making major efforts to bridge the so-called digital divide (Capurro, et al., 2007). Maybe this is one reason why hermeneutics, the philosophic theory dealing with issues of interpretation and communication, has apparently lost the academic interest it had in the 19th  century as methodology of the humanities as well as understanding human existence in the 20th century. Santiago Zabala, editor of a recent book in honor of the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, quotes Hans-Georg Gadamer, the founding father of philosophic hermeneutics, as follows:

Vattimo has specifically called hermeneutics a koiné: the common language in which philosophical thought after Heidegger and Wittgenstein, after Quine, Derrida and Ricoeur, has spread everywhere; virtually a universal philosophical language. (Zabala 2007, p. 3)

In his book The End of Modernity. Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Post-modern Culture Vattimo remarks that computer science makes the difference between modernity and post-modernity (Vattimo 1985, p. 22).

As I shall try to show in this paper, hermeneutics is intimately related since the 1970s with digital technology. After having passed through critical theory (J. Habermas), critical rationalism (K. Popper), analytic philosophy (early L. Wittgenstein, Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson), deconstructivism (J. Derrida), the phenomenology of the symbol (P. Ricoeur), psychoanalysis (J. Lacan), dialectic materialism (A. Badiou), mediology (R. Debray), the hermeneutics of the subject (M. Foucault) and particularly through Gianni Vattimo’s “weak thought” (“pensiero debole”), to mention just some prominent contemporary philosophic schools, hermeneutics is facing today the challenge arising from digital technology becoming what I call digital hermeneutics. Every revolutionary transformation in philosophy that leads to the creation of a new type of rationality arises usually from an outstanding scientific or technological breakthrough (Bosteels,  2006, p. 116). This is the case of today’s global and interactive digital network, the Internet. The Internet’s challenge for hermeneutics concerns primarily its social relevance for the creation, communication and interpretation of knowledge. This challenge implies a questioning of the pseudo-critical rejection of hermeneutics with regard to technology in general and to digital technology in particular (Capurro 1990). Facing the digital challenge hermeneutics must develop a “productive logic” (Heidegger 1976, 10) towards understanding the foundations of digital technology and its interplay with human existence. A productive logic “leaps ahead” (Heidegger, ibid.) the established self-understanding of a given science, in this case of hermeneutics, in order to undertake a revision of its main concepts and disclose a new area of research.

There is a blindness in some studies of contemporary hermeneutics with regard to these challenges (Figal, 2007), with a few exceptions (Irrgang, 2005, 2007; Fellmann, 1998; Kurthen, 1992), as well as in seemingly comprehensive encyclopaedia articles (Gadamer 1974, Grondin 1996, Ramberg & Gjesdal, 2005) also with a few exceptions (Introna, 2005; Mallery, Hurwitz & Duffy, 1990). In their article “Hermeneutics” in the Encyclopedia of Artificial Intelligence Mallery et al. speak about the “precomputational nature of contemporary hermeneutics” and suggest “the reformulation and refinement of ideas about both hermeneutics and AI.” (Mallery, Hurwitz & Duffy, 1990, p. 374).

But there is, indeed, a history of digital hermeneutics to which I shall refer in the first part of this paper, before giving an outline of the major topics of digital hermeneutics in the second part. The paper does not intend to give a comprehensive analysis of the literature in the field nor discusses related contributions in philosophy of computing (Floridi, 2004), philosophy of information technology (Mitcham 2004), philosophy of technology (Mitcham, 2000, 1994), phenomenology of information technology (Iharco, 2002, Mingers, 2001) or even of specific information technologies such as the mobile phone (Arnold, 2003). Its purpose is to raise the attention of IT researchers and hermeneuticists to the theoretical and practical relevance of the encounter of their areas of research that are sometimes seen as incompatible to each other. There is still a lot of translation work to be done in order to get these two cultures come closer to and profit from each other. Is digital hermeneutics an oxymoron?


The story begins, to my knowledge, with the discussions dealing with artificial intelligence (AI) in the 1970s and particularly with Hubert Dreyfus’ book What Computers Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason where he pointed to the importance of the context of everyday practices in which we are embedded before we start with any kind of knowledge objectivations and their symbolic manipulations in AI systems (Dreyfus, 1972 followed by 1992). Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus discuss Husserl’s problem of objectivising the shared background of a belief system that should correlate the everyday context of the life-world and could be used to make computers intelligent. They stress the limits of this endeavour:

But, as Heidegger predicted, the task of writing out a complete theoretical account of everyday life turned out to be much harder than initially expected. Husserl’s project ran into serious trouble, and there are signs that Minsky’s has too. During twenty-five years of trying to spell out the components of the subject’s representation of everyday objects, Husserl found that he had to include more and more of the subject’s common-sense understanding of the everyday world. (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1988 in Boden, 1990, p. 322-323)

Their conclusion is:

If Heidegger and Wittgenstein are right, human beings are much more holistic than neural nets. Intelligence has to be motivated by purposes in the organism and goals picked up by the organism from an ongoing culture. If the minimum unit of analysis is that of a whole organism geared into a whole cultural world, neural nets as well as symbolically programmed computers still have a very long way to go. (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, op.cit., p. 331)

With regard to our present experiences “on the Internet” Hubert Dreyfus writes in 2001:

I’ve suggested that, where meaning is concerned, what the Net is doing to us is, in fact, making our lives worse rather than better. Living one’s life on the Web is attractive because it eliminates vulnerability and commitment but, if Kierkegaard is right, this lack of passion necessarily eliminates meaning as well. (Dreyfus, 2001, p. 102) 

This scepticism is shared in some respect by two other American philosophers, Don Ihde and Albert Borgmann, who have made substantial contributions to philosophy of information technology inspired also by phenomenology and hermeneutics since the seventies and early eighties (Idhe, 1979, 1983, Borgmann, 1984). Ihde has undertaken a thorough analysis of the human-machine relations particularly with regard to the bodily dimension in the tradition of French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He distinguishes between "embodiment relations" in case we experience the world through a machine and "hermeneutic relations" in which humans are confronted with the machine as “other” than themselves (Ihde, 1979, p. 12-13). In both cases technology is not neutral in the sense that it transforms the quality of human experience. The hermeneutic experience is the one Ihde attributes to the relation between the programmer and the computer. He writes:

The relation is one analogous to ‘writing’ (programming into a computer language) and ‘reading’ (interpreting the output) (…) The organization of computer ‘language’ is that which enhances the collection of data, factual information of any kind; it also enhances the breakdown of that data into bits or atomistic items, organized according to a system of categories; and in this organization there is an unfolding of what I shall call linear ‘logics. (Ihde, 1979,p.  58-59)

Ihde compares the interaction of programmers with computers as different from the everyday experience of non-technical users in which case the hardware remains a “hidden background” with regard to the interface experience:

the results often appear hermeneutically as that which is to be read and as that to which one must respond. The computer in this case has rather directly been connected to social situations – yet the computer itself is totally blind to social contexts.” (Ihde, 1979, p. 60)

With regard to the bodily experience he writes in 1979:

And while the computer plays little role with respect to these self-experiences as bodily experiences (at least yet) it does begin to amplify a more restricted area of self-experience, the extension of language, albeit a highly circumscribed type of language. (Ihde, 1979, p. 63)

Some thirty years later the situation has radically changed in both regards: computers are becoming more and more part of bodily experiences (EGE, 2005) and they have amplified the extension of language to everyday language in a global scale as in the case of the Internet. The view of computers as something "other" is disappearing, i.e., they are less and less "some-thing" or "other-than-us" and permeate the world in which we – or, more precisely: some of us – live.

In his book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life Albert Borgmann  develops a phenomenology of “focal things and practices” related to Heidegger’s views on technology (Borgmann, 1984). According to Borgmann focal things and practices are characterized by its simplicity: “A jug, an earthen vessel from which we pour wine, is such a thing.” (Borgmann, 1984, p. 198). What looks prima facie like a romantic view of pre-technological society has the power to reveal the hidden “tightly patterned character of technology” that Borgmann interprets as our belief in the endless promises of technology. In fact, such promises appear from the focal things perspective as an emptiness where they can find their proper place and vice versa, the disappearance of focal things points to a potential threatening of technology (Borgmann 1984, p. 199). Technology – Borgmann does not distinguish in this context between digital and non-digital or conventional technology – builds a positive horizon in which focal things might have a re-birth  within a technological society: they should be re-considered not just as things but as social practices. The commitment to such practices is, according to Borgmann, our opportunity to counterbalance technology. The great meal of the day that gathers the family around a table is such a practice in contrast to a drive-thru consumption of a Big Mac although in many cases a Big Mac together with a TV program is all we need (Borgmann, 1984, p. 208). What remains tacit in this (and other) examples is the question that for millions of human beings a Big Mac is a great meal if they have the chance to have it. In other words, Borgmann argues from the pre-understanding of the life-world of a rich country that turns today to have in many cases similar social troubles as the so called less-developed ones.

Another key contribution to digital hermeneutics was the book by Terry Winograd and  Fernando Flores Understanding Computers and Cognition. A New Foundation for Design (Winograd & Flores, 1986; Winograd, 1995). In the preface they write: “We encounter the deep questions of design when we recognize that in designing tools we are designing ways of being.” (Winograd & Flores 1986, p. xi). Winograd and Flores develop their view in opposition to what they call the “rationalist tradition” and with explicit relation to hermeneutics. They follow Gadamer by stressing that every interpretation relies on the interaction between the “horizon” of the interpreter and the text. Gadamer uses also the concepts of “pre-understanding” or “prejudice” to address the implicit assumptions of the interpreter (Gadamer, 1975). The process of understanding is a never-ending one implying unspoken conditions. Language is understood as a social process through which commitments are generated.  In accordance with Heidegger’s philosophic turn of hermeneutics as a process of understanding not primarily of texts but of human existence, they write: “existence is interpretation, and interpretation is existence.” (Winograd &  Flores, 1986, p. 31). To exist means to be located in a space of open possibilities without being able to take an absolute, a-historical and universal viewpoint. They apply  Heidegger’s tool analysis in Being and Time (Heidegger, 1976, § 16) to describe our experience with computer programs in their quality of “readiness-to-hand” as far as we use them in a transparent way that turn into “present-at-hand” when a “breakdown” takes place. In his commentary on Being and Time Hubert Dreyfus calls these two modes of coping with entities other than the human subject or “Dasein”, ”availableness” and “occurrentness” (Dreyfus, 1991, p. 64-87).  He explains these concepts as follows:

The issue is understanding, not explanation – making sense of how things are, not explaining how they work. We understand a phenomenon when we see how it fits in with other phenomena. Since one cannot make availableness intelligible on the basis of some combination of occurrent elements, one must turn the question around and seek to account for occurrentness by showing that the occurrent is revealed by selectively leaving out the situational aspects of the unavailable. (Dreyfus, 1991, p. 123)

Heidegger mentions three modes of unfamiliarity or “breakdown,” – he uses the terms “trouble” (“Störung”) and “break” (“Bruch”) – namely 1) “conspicuousness” when tools become unusuable because they are damaged; 2) “obstrusiveness” when we miss a tool that we expect to be “ready-to-hand,” and 3) “obstinacy” in case tools happen to stand just in the way, although they are not damaged and we do not miss them. In each case, tools do not simply lose their character of “availableness” or “readiness-to-hand” becoming “occurrent” as mere objects “present-at-hand” (Heidegger, 1976, ibid.). Heidegger calls “world” the perspective that allows us to see tools as decontextualized things. The formula “being-in-the-world” characterizes the mode of being of human beings addressing the way in which we originally share a common world having a ‘pragmatic’ relation to things as tools. This is not to say that Heidegger is negating or underestimating the objective view  to tools as things. Being able to switch between the two modes makes manifest our capability of going beyond both, tools and objects. In accordance with the Aristotelian definition of the object of the “first philosophy,” namely the question of beings as beings (Met. 1060 b 31), Heidegger will state that the pre-understanding of Being makes possible the ontological understanding of beings (Heidegger, 1976). He replaces the philosophic concept of subject and its correlate, the object, and chooses the one of existence or “Dasein”. To exist means to share with others originally “pragmatic” relations to things as tools (Greek pragmata) within the horizon of Being. Heidegger's tool analysis does not set out to describe the phenomenon of modern technology. It is also not opposed to the theoretical or objective view of science. Quite the contrary, it looks for its existential foundation (Capurro, 1992).

Winograd and Flores use this analysis in order to deal with design questions arising from “breakdowns” when using computer programs. Programmers should  articulate possible situations in which the users get involved with digital tools that become useless, and foresee their “pre-understanding.” But, they add, computer programs are not necessarily more user-friendly in case they mimicry human understanding:

There is an error in assuming that success will follow the path of artificial intelligence. The key to design lies in understanding the readiness-to-hand of the tools being built, and in anticipating the breakdowns that will occur in their use. A system that provides a limited imitation of human facilities will intrude with apparently irregular and incomprehensible breakdowns. On the other hand, we can create tools that are designed to make the maximal use of human perception and understanding without projecting human capacities onto the computer. (Winograd & Flores, 1986, p. 137)

The mimicry of human intelligence, autonomy, sensual perception, emotions etc. can turn programs into objects “present-at-hand” instead of transparent tools for conversation. This is not to say that, for instance, intelligent robots might be quite useful “in spite of (or at times because of) not reflecting the nature of human perception and action.” (Winograd & Flores 1986, 128). In other words, AI is not about imitating human intelligence but about making a difference with regard to it – otherwise the term ‘artificial’ makes no sense (Negrotti, 1999).  According to Winograd and Flores, computer programs are embedded in existential situations in which the user must take a decision with regard to given options and based on his/her pre-understanding. The user is not an isolated subject but is embedded in a social context in which computer programs are used as “tools for conversation.” The computer itself is then

a structured dynamic communication medium that is qualitatively different from earlier media such as print and telephones. Communication is not a process of transmitting information or symbols, but one of commitment and interpretation. A human society operates through the expression of requests and promises among its members. There is a systematic domain relevant to the structure of this network of commitments, a domain of ‘conversation for action’ that can be represented and manipulated in the computer. (Winograd & Flores, 1986, p. 176)

In my book Hermeneutics of Scientific Information published I explore the question of information retrieval as an interpretation process of bibliographic data  stored in a computer (Capurro, 1986, see also Capurro, 2000a). My argument is as follows. When we create a bibliographic database we do it on the basis of fragmented pieces of information such as journal articles. In order to retrieve them we must create a common background, for instance, a classification scheme or a thesaurus or to rely on the original text itself searchable as basic index. What we do in any case is to fix or objectivize a pre-understanding common to producers and users of the database. Such background changes according to new scientific developments, historical situations, new linguistic utterances etc. There is no such a thing as a a-historical knowledge nor are users isolated minds with disembodied cognitive structures but social beings that share pragmatically a horizon of pre-understanding in their everyday life as well as in their professional activities. The question of relevance and pertinence in information retrieval that plays a key role in information science can thus be hermeneutically re-considered with regard to different horizons of expectations based on the Gadamerian concept of “fusion of horizons.” In terms of Luhmann’s system theory (Luhmann, 1987) information retrieval can be understood as a communication process based on a meaning offer,  Luhmann calls it “message” (“Mitteilung”), a selection process that  he calls “information” (“Information”) and the integration of information into the pre-understanding of the system (“Verstehen”). These are the three components of the concept of communication (Luhmann, 1987, p. 225-226). The creation of explicit and digitally objectivized horizons of understanding such as formal categories (author, title of the publication etc.) as well as classification codes, descriptors and abstracts allowed searches in large bibliographic data bases since the early 1970s. The present discussion about the semantic web faces similar approaches (Pellegrini & Blumenauer, 2006, Capurro, 2006a).

This view of the relationship between hermeneutics and information retrieval was proposed in similar terms by Thomas Froehlich in an article published in 1994 in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science (Froehlich, 1994).  Froehlich states that the design of information systems includes three hermeneutical aspects namely:
1) a hermeneutics of users, capable of interpreting their own needs as well as their relations intermediaries and the system itself,
2) a hermeneutics of the collection capable of laying the foundation for the processes of document or text  selection as well as of they ways in which there are indexed and catalogued, and
3) a hermeneutics of the intermediary system that takes place with the classic matching procedure during the information retrieval process. These ideas have been further developed in the field of library and information science, for instance, by Frederico Fonseca (2005) as well as by Melissa Cole and David Avison (Cole & Avison, 2007).

The book by Winograd and Flores had strong impact on some members of the computer science community, particularly among the ones devoted to software  development. This impact is documented in the proceedings of the international conference Software Development and Reality Construction organized by the Austrian software engineer Christiane Floyd and her co-workers that took place in Germany in 1988. Among the some thirty participants there were Donald E. Knuth, Gordon Pask, Heinz von Foerster and Kristen Nygaard (Floyd et al., 1992). In the introduction Christiane Floyd writes:

We focus on software, since we consider it to be pivotal in the intertwining of computer technology and the human world. (…) Cognition, then may be viewed as bringing forth concepts and insights fitting our experience and viable for obtaining our aims in open situations where we interpret our needs. It is shaped by our perspective and unfolds against a background or meaning horizon coloured by our tradition, our interests and our life experience. The main points of current controversial discussion concern the relation of my own reality construction to yours and that of others, and the interleavement between our scope for reality construction and the so-called objective world of nature shaped by socio-cultural evolution. (Floyd, 1992, p. 13-17)

Heinz von Foerster and Christiane Floyd conceive the relation between self-organization and software development as a dialogical process, also called constructivism, through which the participants construct together a common understanding. She writes:

The interactions between the participants of this conference may be taken as recursive operations giving rise to stabilities in terms of richer distinctions and common insights leading to further interactions. In the case of design, I have argued that the making and revising design decisions are recursive operations and the resulting web of design decisions the emerging stabilities. In doing so, I may find a way of understanding these processes better as an observer. Even more, I am interested in facilitating these processes as a participant. (Foerster & Floyd,1992, p. 81)

The idea of a “web of design decisions” is closely related to the hermeneutic insights by Winograd and Flores. In their contribution to this conference Heinz Klein and Kalle Lyytinen propose a new understanding of data modelling based on the “hermeneutic circle.” Interpretation is a never ending process for which there is no possibility to find an “anchoring point.” But at the same time it is possible to question the presuppositions upon which the conceptual scheme relies upon such as type of definitions, integrity constraints, and semantic rules. To elicit such pre-understanding is called by the authors “bracketing.” They give the following example:

Assume you are reading a map and have difficulty matching the landmarks that you see to the map. You may say to yourself, well maybe I am not here, but have already overshot my destination. You have now “bracketed” a fundamental assumption. This means, you have identified a fundamental presupposition on which your map reading up to this point rests, put it aside “into brackets” and “pealed it away” so to speak. By attempting to do this systematically, particularly in social communication where different minds look at the same “text” from slightly different viewpoints, several layers of presuppositions may be revealed and bracketed. Again there is no guarantee that this converges or any implications that this leads to an “approximation of reality. (Klein & Lyytinen, 1992, p. 214-215)

Applying this example to data modelling means that all data models have a fundamental bias that can be made more transparent through bracketing in form of a self-critical dialogue. As they remark (Klein & Lyytinen, 1992, p. 213, 215) this procedure is similar to the one I  developed  for the area of information retrieval (Capurro, 1986). They apply the Gadamerian metaphor of “fusion of horizons ” to data modelling in the sense of capturing some of the meanings intended by the users but alien to the developers who must translate them into some appropriate formalism and re-translate into the user’s horizons in order to become part of their everyday practices. Inspired, as they say, by the book by Winograd and Flores and based on their doctoral dissertation dealing with a hermeneutic  foundation of the concepts of tool and machine in the context of a programmer’s environment (Budde & Züllighoven, 1990), Budde and Züllighoven use Heidegger’s notion of “equipment” (“Zeug”) in order to describe the kind of software tools they work with (Budde & Züllighoven, 1992, p. 253). The following example shows that “embodiment relations,” as Don Ihde calls them (Ihde 1979, p. 12-13), were perceived and phenomenologically articulated in a similar way by computer scientists:

Technical equipment binds us into a multitude of obvious and hidden links. It transforms our physical and sensual aspects and our body language. The more complex the procedures that are “encapsulated” into technical equipment, the more “abstract” the gestures of our body become. (Budde & Züllighoven, 1992, p. 257)

They make a key distinction between technical equipment as tool vs. as machine that correlates in some way Heidegger’s distinction between “readiness-to-hand” and “present-at-hand.” In their formulation: “A machine is repeatable motion which is abstracted from its specific context and  cast into construction” (Budde & Züllighoven, 1992, p. 260). It is the result of a process of decontextualization from the human context of its use. On these premises, they explore the notion of algorithm as the result of formalizing an activity or “reducing [it] to its form” (Budde & Züllighoven, 1992, p.260) with the purpose of de- and re-contextualization. In other words, formalisms and machines mean the same thing. They follow: “Software systems which appear as machines when in use will be called automata.” (Budde & Züllighoven, 1992, p. 262)

The concept of automata recalls the classical non-digital predecessors such as androids that were presented to the astounding onlookers as something familiar to them as well as machines. This happens in our everyday experience when we have no means of influencing, say, a ticket machine in order to get what we want. In a programming environment software developers aim at using software such as compilers, editors or browsers, as a tool, and not as automata that they use for handling “programming materials” such as an interface specification using “programming utensils” such as spelling checkers or e-mail systems. They summarize:

It depends on our objects of work and the different settings in which they are used whether we look at software components as materials, utensils, or tools. […] As software developers we process, probe and organize programming materials by means of software tools and with the support of programming utensils. (Budde & Züllighoven, 1992, p. 255)

In his contribution to this conference, Wolfgang Coy points to the limits of the tool metaphor when speaking, for instance, of telecommunication or computer networks: “Here the idea of a technical medium arises, which allows another description of readiness-to-hand.” (Coy, 1992, p. 279) I make a similar point with regard to the misinterpretation of the tool analysis in Heidegger’s Being and Time understood as a pre-modern philosophy of technology (Capurro, 1992). Heidegger’s aim was to show how the “world” understood as a horizon of meaning arises when we go “beyond” tools, i.e. at the moment when their tacit frame of reference breaks down. Heidegger’s formula “being-in-the-world” refers to this original tacit situation or “pre-understanding” in which we are pragmatically embedded that relates ultimately our ontological projects regarding the meaning of Being itself or our pre-conceptions of what we mean when we speak about reality. In his later writings and particularly in The Question Concerning Technology Heidegger develops an interpretation of modern technology based on the concept of “challenging disclosure” by which everything becomes a object of human manipulation within the horizon of “enframing” (“Gestell”) that embraces all kinds of possible manipulative “positioning” (“stellen”) of objects (Heidegger, 1977). I disagree with Andrew Feenberg who misinterprets Heidegger’s questioning of technology as “essentialism” (Feenberg, 2000). Heidegger is in fact trying to grasp the present, i.e., in the early fifties of the last century, shape of modern technology without prejudicing future changes. Information technology appears, on the one hand, within the horizon of modern “enframing” – I use the term “information Gestell” – as well as, on the other hand, of human liberty and language. This second perspective weakens the totalitarian or ideological ambitions of digital technology by situating it within larger non manipulative potentialities of language. The conjunction of language and information technology leads to what I call “weak constructivism”. I borrow the “weak” concept from Vattimo’s “pensiero debole” (“weak thinking”) (Vattimo, 1985). Joseph Goguen points to these non manipulative experiences, opening a fascinating dialogue with Eastern thought, particularly with Buddhism, in the very heart of software development (Goguen, 1992, 1992a).  At the other end of this debate on hermeneutics and information technology, Thomas Gordon develops a hermeneutic defence of artificial intelligence as far as the meaning of the term intelligence is not fixed and we might be able to develop AI in ways that do not necessarily contradict the arguments by Dreyfus, Winograd & Flores and others (Gordon, 1992).

I believe that many of the issues concerning the relation between hermeneutics and information technology discussed in the conference I already mentioned on Software  Development and Reality Construction some twenty years ago are key questions of digital hermeneutics today and in future (Floyd et al. 1992). Their relevance can be seen for instance in a recent study on the potential of hermeneutics in information systems research by Melissa Cole and David Avison (Cole & Avison, 2007). In this case, hermeneutics is understood in its classical sense as the theory of text interpretation in the constructivist Gadamerian tradition. Melissa Cole explored the notion of ‘convenience’ in Internet shopping applying the hermeneutic circle as an empirical methodology for the interpretation of implicit prejudices in online consumer behavior. She summarizes her experiences this way:

Despite its potential as a powerful IS research approach, hermeneutics is not a popular methodology. The lack of formal structures for conducting hermeneutics research; the difficulty in understanding and correctly using its technical language; and the time needed to learn ‘how to do’ hermeneutic reflection have reduced its attractiveness when compared with other approaches such as survey, case study and action research. And yet, its ability to investigate evolving behaviours by uncovering anomalous words or deeds makes hermeneutics highly suitable for human-computer investigations, a core topic area for IS researchers. (Cole & Avison, 2007, p. 831)

And she is well aware that hermeneutics deals not only with making explicit the pre-understanding of the consumers but of the researchers as well as far as their intuitive leaps can become more transparent in case the researcher mutates into an interpretative one.

Matthew Chalmers connects hermeneutics and semiology in order to discuss the way systems used in computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW) represent information, situation and activity. He points out that hermeneutics offers a unifying view on the social science and computer science within CSCW. Collaborative filtering (CF) is an example of the relevance of hermeneutics to CSCW. They write:

If you rate one or more recommendations, you feed back into the process of adaptation of your profile, your neighbour set, and your neighbours’ neighbour sets. Ripples of change spread out, demonstrating adaptivity and configurationality. The hermeneutic circle is strong here, and there is no meaning for a rated object independent of a person’s interpretation. If an object has no ratings, it can not be recommended. (Chalmers 2004, p. 223)

Hans Diebner aims at an “operational hermeneutics” as an adaptive cognitive model bridging the gap between hermeneutics and cybernetics. He writes:

… we deal with the interplay between perception and construction of reality, best circumscribed by the German play on words ‘Wahrnehmung’ and ‘’Wahrgebung’ (‘truth taking’ and ‘truth giving’). The external reality is perceived via stimuli by the sensorial organs and passed on to the brain where a model of the world is constructed and performed as a simulus. The continuously ongoing process of re-adaptation can be paraphrased as a tuning and measurement process. We think that this process reflects crucial features of the hermeneutic circle. (Diebner, 2003)


As the Internet and particularly the World Wide Web became a social interactive information and communication technology in the mid-1990s the relevance of its challenge to hermeneutics became even more obvious. In a recent study devoted to Vattimo’s “aesthetic pacifism” the Austrian philosopher Wolfgang Sützl remarks that Heidegger worked with a concept of modern technology opposed to modern communication technology that is characterized by small and networked artefacts (Heidegger 1967). He quotes Vattimo’s essay on Philosophy, Politics and Religion from 1996:

The possibility to see the Gestell not only as the highest risk and negativity but also a first lightening of the event of Being is related to the discovery of modern technology as a communicative one. Neither Heidegger nor Adorno did this step. Both think modern technology based on the model of the engine, of mechanical technology: this model implies necessarily the idea of a passive dependency of the periphery with regard to the centre… (Sützl, 2007, p. 148, my translation, RC)

The leading modern pre-understanding of the engine as a metaphor for the process of social construction is being substituted by the one of the network understood as technology and as a medium of communication. Vilém Flusser was sceptical about dialogical forms of human interaction in view of the overwhelming power of mass media and their hierarchic structures (Flusser, 1996). He did not foresee the impact of  the Internet that was in its infancy in 1991 when he died. According to Richard Rorty one of Vattimo’s

most distinctive contributions to philosophical thinking is the suggestion that the Internet provides a model for things in general – that thinking about the World Wide Web helps us to get away from Platonic essentialism, the quest for underlying natures, by helping us see everything as a constantly changing network of relations. The result of adopting this model is what Vattimo calls “a weak ontology, or better, an ontology of the weakening of being.” Such an ontology, he argues, “supplies philosophical reasons for preferring a liberal, tolerant, and democratic society rather than an authoritarian and totalitarian one. (R. Rorty quoted by Zabala, 2007, p. 25)

Hermeneutics faces today the question of the impact of the Internet not only at all levels of society but also with regard to the self-understanding of human beings, i.e., with the ontological or existential foundation of the digital construction of  reality. I do not use the term ‘foundation’ in a strong metaphysical sense. I follow Vattimo’s idea that hermeneutics can provide only weak foundations that make possible to question rational and irrational ambitions to dominate reality particularly on the basis of digital power (Capurro, 2006; Weizenbaum, 1976) although some philosophers seem to be more optimistic in this regard (Floridi, 2006, 1999). What is new about digital hermeneutics? I believe that we are dealing with two sides of a single weakening process of modern technology. On the one side there is a weakening of the interpreter that finds herself within a network that she can only partially control (Capurro, 1995, p. 75). This is a similar situation to other modern networks such as, say, highways or electricity. In the case of the Internet its political and economic importance is also evident as can be seen, for instance, in the interest of governments, particularly of non-democratic ones, to regulate this medium through, say, data filtering or prosecution of non-obedient Internet users. The question of Internet governance is no less important than the question of freedom and regulation with regard to, for instance, traffic. On the other hand, information technology is a weak technology as far as it deals with “conversations of mankind” (Rorty, 1989) now based on networked subjects, an oxymoron from the point of view of the autonomous subject constructed by European modernity. The network has no central point or final destination contrary to what some cyber-prophets proclaim. It is already part of the everyday life of millions of people. It is integrated in their bodily existence, as Don Ihde has shown (Ihde, 2002). If it is true that we change technology then it is also true that technology transforms us. This happens, indeed, at the very bottom of our bodily experience. Ihde writes:

We are our bodies – but in that very basic notion one also discovers that our bodies have an amazing plasticity and polymorphism that is often brought out precisely in our relations with technologies. We are bodies in technologies. (Ihde, 2002, p. 138)

This is particularly true in the case of the Internet. We are (not just) our brains and thoughts. But it happens that the ways we perceive reality and the thoughts we develop are shaped hermeneutically by our digital technologies and vice versa, digital technologies have to adapt to the ways we perceive and interpret reality, otherwise they will be useless and, in the worst case, dangerous. The Internet has brought up changes in our spatio-temporal social experience that were difficult to imagine some decades ago. It would be naïve to speak about this technology just as a tool without taking seriously its impact at the levels of our being-in-the-world. From this perspective digital hermeneutics is in line with Ihde’s project of “expanding hermeneutics” (Ihde, 1998) particularly with “material hermeneutics” in contrast to traditional text-focused hermeneutics (Ihde, 2005) as far as the digital text is different from its mate, the printed one, one main difference being that it allows to perform actions in the world including the actions of interpreting material (and visual) phenomena. As Ihde  rightly stresses, it would be a “designer fallacy” to believe that as in the case of the author’s intentions with regard to the meaning of his text, it is the designer, as an isolated individual who has the control over the meaning of the object without taking into account the inter-relations with the materials being worked with, the uses and users, including their complex and multistable cultural contexts (Ihde 2008; on Ihde see Selinger, 2006). This is a similar insight to the proposal by Chrstiane Floyd and Heinz von Foerster concerning software development and reality construction based on a dialogical constructivism mentioned above.

This dialogical view of technology implies, as clearly analyzed by the Australian philosopher Michael Eldred, questioning Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology and the Greek classical tradition behind him as far as technology is seen as something – the event of “un-concealment” –  that happens between us and not just between the artist or technites and matter (Eldred, 2006). It means also to enlarge the German concept of technology (“Technik”)  with regard all kind of techniques including the ones of making love, of cookery, leadership and piano-playing. An “expanded hermeneutics” must twist materiality and digitality within the large context of such tecniques and it should include, of course, not only texts of the past or of mass media, as Vattimo remarked (Vattimo, 1985, p. 187), but visual media as well.

Digital hermeneutics is based on digital ontology, a concept that Michael Eldred (2001) and I (Capurro, 2001) developed some years ago (Capurro, 2001). What is digital ontology? Eldred writes:

As long as we remain 'embedded' unquestioningly in the digital casting, everything is manifest as bits. But what does it mean that every appears as a bit? Precisely this view of beings as a whole, that we only admit everything that is in its being when we understand it against the horizon of the digitally functionalized logos represents the encasting central draft thesis of a digital ontology. (Eldred, 2001)

The main point  concerns the word “unquestioningly” which makes the whole difference between digital ontology as a possible and indeed today’s pervasive interpretation of Being and the metaphysical thesis that the digital is the real (Capurro 2006). An epistemological (weaker) version of this thesis is: things are (understood) as far as we are able to digitize them. Digital ontology is pervasive in the sense that it is not necessary that people adhere to it consciously. It has a tendency, as every ontology, to becoming the apparently only true perspective. The practical or ontic consequences of digital metaphysics can be devastating as described for instance by Albert Borgmann in Holding on to Reality:

Information Technology has deeply influenced the ways we cope today with the threat of the devastation and loss of meaning. The challenge to the festive resolution of the ambiguity that rises from the surrounding injustice and misery we are inclined to meet with a version of virtual ambiguity, a loosening of the ties that should connect our celebrations with their real and entire context. While virtuality is our reply to the devastation of common meanings hyperinformation is our response to the oblivion of individuals. Common hyperinformation is the huge amount of colorful information we accumulate through pictures and videos especially. But all the other records we keep and that are kept about us are part of hyperinformation. (Borgmann, 2000, p. 230)

Borgmann’s answer to the challenge of “utopian hyperinformation” – it would be better to call it ‘dystopian hyperinformation’ – is a no less utopian book culture.  Any dualistic  thinking is dangerous as far as it overlooks the ambiguity on both sides and other possibilities in between. I do not think that it makes sense, as Borgman suggests, to emphasize one side – say, the materiality of printed books or of focal points of celebration – in detriment to the other. We are cyborgs. The cell phone is part of our bodily existence. It is our "focal thing" and the practices and celebrations take part in this digital world too. The "lightness" of digital technology  has become part of the gravity of everyday  life which is also the gravity of the market. Everything, including our body, can be object of digitization and become a matter of economic transactions based on the space-time fluidity of the digital sphere.  But digital technology can nonetheless be hermeneutically disclosed as a weak technology for human conversation. In other words, digital hermeneutics must address the changes brought up to our condition humaine in all its facets. It is not enough, I think, as Daniel Fallman does, to contrast the “usability tradition” represented by Ihde, with Borgmann’ “more romantic outlook” (Fallman, 2007). A similar dualistic thinking can be found in Hubert Dreyfus book On the Internet: on the one side there is the Internet which includes virtuality, aesthetics, anonymity, knowledge, the infinite, invulnerability, detachment and the observer, while on the other there is  reality, ethics (and religion), commitment, the body, finitude, vulnerability, responsibility and action. His concluding remarks are in line with this view of the Internet as an area of aesthetics detached from the real ethical questions of human life:

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)

The question whether digital technology takes us away from our bodies or whether it allows us a different interaction with them can be seen as another form of nihilism but of a  different kind than the Platonic/Christian one Nietzsche was fighting against. It could be that there is a new kind of affirmation of the body because we are able to better understand what is going on with it even at the nano level on the basis of digital technology. This new kind of nihilism is related to the fact that our capacity to manipulate digitally our bodies does not provide us with the ethical thinking necessary to manage this capacity to transform ourselves, which also means the very Nietzschean idea of playing with nature not “going back to it” following Rousseau (Nietzsche, 1999, 150). The experience of our groundless existence does not arise out of this or of any other technology but is something that characterizes human life as such. Being human is an experiment. According to the theologian Karl Rahner we are our own designers: “homo faber sui ipsius,” which includes now more and more the possibility of designing our body at very early stages and on fundamental (genetic) levels. Facing the moralist who says that humans should not do everything they can, and the sceptic who does not trust that we will freely give up what we can, Rahner points to the ethical limit of “what does not work” under the very factual worldly conditions (Rahner 1966, p. 59) that would  eventually mean our self-annihilation (Capurro, 2002).

The hermeneutics of the Internet is paradoxical insofar as it is this technology itself that makes possible a critical appraisal of a “strong” hermeneutic subject while at the same time such appraisal allows possible strong informational codes as clearly foreseen by Lawrence Lessig (1999). A second-order hermeneutics, if I may call it in this manner, allows us to observe the use of this code ‘weak/strong’ for instance at the level of local and global information policies as well as with regard to the Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis, blogs or Second Life, the  hybridization of the Internet with the human body and with regard to all kind of artificial tools in the field of, say, robotics and bionics. Wikipedia is an example for global and comprehensive cooperation which means a weakening of the role of the author and a strengthening of community work. Blogs weaken the hierarchic structures of classic journalism. Second Life offers a kind of digital stage where people can play different roles from ‘real life.’ Of course, in many cases, there is the danger of blocking social processes. E-mail is a classic example of a bottom-up weak digital technology that can be used strategically to question political power structures. But it can also be used for the distribution of viruses. A weaker privacy can lead to situations and structures of political surveillance no less than to new forms of social contact. Weaker norms of intellectual property might allow a more broad and free distribution and use of knowledge particularly in societies or social groups that do not have access the economic power to pay such sources. But it can also lead to a situation that is untenable for individuals and enterprises that live from the protection of their intellectual creativity. Today’s information society that wants to make accessible all kind of knowledge to everybody all the time is paradoxically largely based on enterprises such as Google or Microsoft whose programs remain secret. The question of secrecy is vital for any information society and it is more fundamental than, or, at least, as crucial as, the question of privacy (Capurro & Capurro, 2007). The question of concealing and un-concealing information in the digital age is a key issue of digital hermeneutics.

Digital hermeneutics has a double-bind with regard to the linguistic and the mathematical  code. It aims at translating and interpreting logos and arithmos within the human realm but it is not  restricted to this sphere. I also deals with the digital interpretation and construction of natural processes. And vice versa: the horizon of the digital is not the possible only one for un-veiling reality – including human existence as well as nature – or the “truth” of Being in Heideggerian terms. I am questioning anti-technological humanism as well as digital metaphysics. I believe that we live in an age in which the sense of Being is widely interpreted from a digital perspective as the ‘Zeitgeist’ of post-industrial societies. From this perspective I also question what one could call a digital humanism that would look for the limits of the digital within the realm of the human. The reason for this is that digital technology allows a desubjectivation of human processes of interpretation without being necessarily opposed to them.  This means a dehumanization of hermeneutics as far as, for instance, biological processes can be seen as processes of interaction and communication based on the genetic code that can be itself object of human manipulation.

Digital hermeneutics observes how the digital code is being interpreted and implemented (or not) in the globalized societies of the twenty-first century. It deals with all processes related with the digital network at the social level, autonomous systems of interpretation, communication and interaction (robotics) as well as all kind of hybrid biological systems (bionics) and digital manipulation at the nano level. This broad spectrum of phenomena can be restricted, for practical purposes, to the study of social systems of interpretration and social construction of meaning based on the Internet or on what we now call Web 2.0. The hermeneutic circle as a key metaphor of philosophic hermeneutics should be re-interpreted as a hermeneutic network. This leads to a change of another core idea of hermeneutics, namely the Gadamerian  “fusion of horizons” (Gadamer 1975, p. 284). It is not only a “fusion” but a “linking” that characterizes the relationship between the messengers of the digital network that need to call each other through what system theory calls the “meaning offer.” In this regard, digital hermeneutics transcends the classical task of hermeneutics as a theory  of interpretation und discovers its own hidden dimension as a theory of messages or angeletics (Capurro 2003b). There is no  interpretation without a “meaning offer.” Hermes is not just the interpreter of heavenly messages but the gods’ messenger as well. Of course, digital angeletics does not address comprehensively the complex phenomenon of messages and messengers that pervades human history as well as natural processes.

Digital hermeneutics is particularly concerned with the analysis of power structures in the field of (digital) messages in society, a perspective related to the thought of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze (Frohmann 2007, Foucault 1983, Capurro 2006, 1995). Bernd Frohmann writes:

A primary issue of traditional information ethics is access, which in a networked environment becomes the familiar issue of “information rich” and “information poor”. (…) Bur when we reflect on the processing capabilities of networked digital machines, issues arise of how we are constituted through and by such systems, how are we written by them, and what they do with and to us. These issues are not only different from those of access, but shed a different light on the benefits and moral value of access. Deleuze’s work suggests that the discovery of a “line of flight” leading us away from the “self writing” performed by networked digital machines might be a compelling ethical issue, as does Foucault’s emphasis on the role of documentation in disciplinary societies. (Frohmann 2007, p. 67)

Communication and artificiality are the two key philosophic issues of the 21st century. If we want to understand our lives – including all kinds of artificial and natural processes in which we are embedded – in the present age we must address these issues particularly from the digital perspective. In Being and Time Heidegger refers to human understanding as a circle that is not a circulus vitiosus but a hermeneutic or productive one. He says that what is crucial is not to get out of the circle but to come into “in the right way” (Heidegger, 1976, p. 153). Today this circle is characterized by the hybridization of the digital with at all levels of human existence and self-appraisal. Societies in the 21st century are looking for the “right way” to get into the digital network. They are more and more aware that this network needs a broader ontological foundation than the digital itself. Digital hermeneutics becomes thus a second order hermeneutics that observes the code ‘digital/non-digital’ in all societal processes.

In a digitally globalized world with societies based on digital networks without a fixed meta-system to which they can refer in their search for truth criteria or ethical and political legitimization questions concerning polarization, misunderstandings, conflicts, oppositions, conjunctions, ambitions, interests and illusions with regard to the processes of understanding at a local and global level become a key aspect particularly considering this from the perspective of the accelerated technological innovation that started with the Internet at the end of the last century and is expanding now on the basis  of mobile communication technologies. But the impact of digital communication goes far beyond such a global system as it implies a methodological perspective that transforms genetic biology into a technology aiming at the artificial transformation of living beings, atomic physics into a technology aiming at the manipulation of the material support of all beings at the most basic level. Psychic processes and their organic support are becoming object of manipulation based on digital technology for all kind of enhancements. Digital hermeneutics answers, so to speak, to the call of the digital by making explicit its ontological presuppositions. As a philosophic discipline it does not place itself outside history but tries to understand the factual present situation in which human existence and human thinking is located. It looks for a radicalization of the process of self-understanding of human societies that interact with natural and technical networks and construct complex hybrid  living systems. The 19th and the 20th centuries were fascinated by history and nature. The 21st century is the century of communication and artificiality.

These are strong reasons, I believe, in order to understand why digital technology in a similar but not identical way as in the case of other media, becomes today a key hermeneutic issue. It faces not just a challenge at the level of the processes of understanding and construction of meaning but finds itself  within societies that see this transformation as something obvious, and give themselves a name that has become a vague slogan namely ‘information society’ to which the term ‘knowledge’ is sometimes added. This digital turn is nothing alien to hermeneutics as far as it understands itself from its very beginning as a questioning of what is apparently obvious as well as to what resists immediate understanding. Non-understanding often conceals itself behind what is apparently obvious particularly with regard to the question concerning the interpreter herself.

Who are we as a society at the local and global level in the age of digital and globalized communication? This question does not address a problem of text interpretation  but our own self-understanding and ‘veri-fication’ in the sense that the media itself and the processes that are object of hermeneutical study are at the same time existential dimensions of the interpreters themselves The hermeneutic subject ‘veri-fies’ or makes herself a digital object.

Digital hermeneutics and second-order cybernetics come together. While in the last century mass media could give the impression that they were a kind of meta-observer that would guarantee an objective view of all social systems, such vision becomes today problematic. This is the main lesson brought about by the Internet as an interactive technology that transforms all receivers of mass media messages into potential messengers beyond the one-to-one technology of the telephone. The rise of the Internet as an apparently autonomous sphere shows the historical dimension of this cultural invention that spread over the globe with the speed of light, which is in this case almost not a metaphor, becoming soon not something independent of the real life of the people but the very heart of our political, economic and cultural life. The cellular phone, as a mobile device linked to the  Internet, challenges, as Michael Arnold recently stressed making aware of its “Janus-faces” (Arnold, 2003), our conceptions of freedom and space mobility, of independence and vulnerability, of nearness and distance, of public and private, of being busy or being available, production and consumption, masculine and feminine. He writes:

The perceived need for technology to enable communication at a distance perhaps indicates that one is distant from those one might like to communicate with, if not be with. However, communication is possible at a distance, through the phone, which is reassuring for those who are independent, but who also feel isolated or vulnerable. Even if the phone is never used, it can be carried at all times, and the very fact that it is possible to communicate, or itself creates a link that reinforces connectedness. The phone thus speaks of both a sense of isolation and a sense of reassurance. We are distant but we are connected. In the formal organizational context also, the faces of isolation, vulnerability and reassurance emerge in the presence of the mobile phone. … When I telephone I am part of a social network or familial or organizational network. I am related to others. I exist, they exist, and our relation to one another exists. I am confirmed. I have a position in the scheme of things. I am reassured. (Arnold, 2003, p. 244-245).

Conceived like this the mobile phone is an eminently existential or ‘ontological’ device on today’s message society. This is a hermeneutic insight that becomes manifest today in all its global and local relevance (Brigham & Introna 2006). Digital hermeneutics is at the crossroad of the producer and interpreter of digital programs no less than at the connection of such programs with natural processes. Hermeneutic questions arise thus not just out of the digital alone but from the interferences of media as well as from the messages that other media send to potential messengers. This was already the case of Plato hearing the voices of the spoken language in face of the invention of writing no less than Derrida’s answer to the call of logocentrism.

Another key topic of hermeneutics, namely the relation between the whole and its parts is getting transformed by the digital network with regard to the possibility of  having an overall view of its object of study. Digital hermeneutics questions the obviousness of these totalitarian visions. It can  look at the whole (“totum”) from different perspectives but not at the same time (“non totaliter”). This formula “totum sed non totaliter”  makes its own totalitarian ambitions weaker as far as it becomes aware that the business of interpretation arises from something outside the interpreter and its hermeneutic power, namely from a message. This is the point in which hermeneutics and ethics meet as they allow the subject to reflect critically on what “common sense” says by allowing a situation of weak social stability in a process of permanent social change. Hegel’s “objective spirit, Heidegger’s historical "un-concealment" of truth as a (possible) “world” or Wittgenstein’s “forms of life” allow the hermeneutic subject to take a rest, so to speak, and give an answer to historical challenges. Today, information societies have a general tendency towards what Derrida, following Heidegger, calls the metaphysics of presence. Digital hermeneutics should make explicit this spectrality of the digital.


The task of hermeneutics in the digital age is twofold, namely to think the digital and at the same time to be addressed by it. The first task leads to the question about in which way the digital code has an impact on all kind of processes, particular on societal ones. In this regard, digital hermeneutics is at the core of information ethics understood as the ethical reflection on rules of behaviour underlying the global digital network including its interaction with other social systems as well as with natural processes. The second task refers to the challenge of the digital with regard to the self-interpretation of human beings in all their existential dimensions, particularly on their bodies, their autonomy, their way of conceiving and living in time and space, their moods and understanding of the world, the building of social structures, their understanding of history, their imagination, their conception of science, their religious beliefs.

If according to Lawrence Lessig “code is law” (Lessig, 1999), hermeneutics must reflect on the nature of this code and its interaction with economy, politics and morality. The balance between these spheres, including nature, is related to what was often called justice (“dike”) in Greek classic philosophy. This concept is broader than the one applied to social interactions, particularly with regard to the distribution of economic wealth. It implies the complex interplay between humans and nature using different programs or digital codes that interact with natural processes (Eldred, 2006). It would be ‘unjust’ if cyberspace would pretend to dominate other spheres becoming a digital metaphysics. The task of weakening such a project is a major task of digital hermeneutics. One example of a strong version of the digital is the dominance of mass media with their hierarchic structures in the 20th century. Vilém Flusser feared that this power would eventually become the dominant one over dialogical structures of communication (Flusser, 2006). The Internet weakens media monopolies. The digital code makes possible the interaction of the human with the natural and the artificial. The digital network weakens the classic Western view of an autonomous subject and makes possible a dialogue with Taoist views of nature (Jullien 2003) as well as with Japanese Buddhism (Capurro, 2006b).

Ethics deals mainly with one question: who am I? This question is not to be understood as asked by an isolated individual but as a basic human question that is stated implicitly or explicitly in practical life by every human being no less than by groups, states and today in a global dimension: who are we as humankind? This question is anything but academic. It is a question of survival. Hermeneutics in the digital age must become aware of this situation in order to make explicit the different political, legal and cultural norms and identities, the way they are affected by the digital code and the consequences for the construction of human identities as well as for the interaction between nature and society. Following Foucault, ethics can be understood as the questioning of morality (Foucault, 1983). It works as a catalyst of social processes weakening the dogmatism of morality and law without just striving towards their replacement through another moral code. It is a open or free space that allows a permanent critique of all kind of blocking processes within and beyond the digital sphere.

Human existence is a valuing activity but the human evaluator has no value but a “dignity” or “Würde” as Kant called it. This is not necessarily based on a metaphysic view of man and world but arises already from the very situation of being-in-the-world itself as far as this being itself is not  something we could valuate but is the horizon within which every valuation takes place. Within this horizon all beings, human or not, have a dignity but non-human beings, as far as they are not subjects of valuation processes, have a relative value when they become object of human transactions within a social process of valuation. From this perspective, the economy as a process of permanent valuation is a main trait of every human community as such. This hermeneutic reflection makes clear why the digital sphere as a product of human invention, cannot become the final horizon of valuation for all possible understanding of the world and human existence. Being relative, the digital becomes an opportunity for the subjects of the 21st century to transform themselves and their connections in and with the world overcoming for instance the strong metaphysical concepts that were leading  for the self-understanding of Western societies for centuries. This does not  mean that such concepts could be let aside or just replaced by the new ones, but  they can be hybridized with different kind of reasons, imaginations, ambitions and utopias, hopes and disappointments arising from the digital code.

If this is the case, in different ways and intensities, the digital code becomes a real contribution to humanity as well as to its interaction with non-human spheres. It could weaken the metaphysic ambitions of (Western) logos by making it more flexible with regard to the global cultural interplay in which we look for reasons for our preferences in dialogue with different beliefs and desires of other human beings. A future world must be open to an open horizon of understanding in which the “principle of charity” plays a major role avoiding that reasons become dogmatic beliefs to be  eventually imposed others by force. The digital network could become the place where such translations between different languages take place in a global scale in this new century. This means to allow the other to articulate herself in the network, looking for nodes of relations, becoming a hermeneutic subject of the digital age. This is the reason for the relevance of intercultural information ethics (Hongladarom &  Ess, 2007; Capurro, Frühbauer, Hausmanninger, 2007).

Who are we in the digital age? What does it mean for humanity to become transformed through the digital code? What are the epistemological, ontological and ethical consequences? How do human cultures become hybridized and in which way does this hybridization affect the interplay with natural processes and their interplay with the production and use of all kind of artificial products in a digital economy? These questions go far beyond the horizon of classic hermeneutics as a theory of text interpretation as well as beyond classic philosophic hermeneutics as dealing with the question about human existence independently of the pervading impact of digital technology. We live in a world that is less and less a familiar “life-world.” We have become a troublesome field that requires hard labor and heavy sweat (“factus sum mihi terra difficultatis et sudoris nimii”) (Augustinus, 1998, X, p. 16). Hermeneutics misunderstands itself if it does not take care ontic and ontologically of digital technology with its overwhelming impact on the world.


I thank Arun Kumar Tripathi (Dresden University of Technology, Germany) for his commitment to an e-mail dialogue on the subject of this paper and for his invaluable hints to relevant literature. I also thank Thomas J. Froehlich (Kent State University, USA) for his criticisms and the editors from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for polishing my English.



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Last update: August 26, 2017


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