Rafael Capurro


Contribution to the conference Software Development and Reality Construction held at Schloß Eringerfeld (Germany), September 25-30, 1988, organized by the Technical University of Berlin (TUB) in cooperation with the German National Research Center for Computer Science (GMD), Sankt Augustin, and sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation. Published in: Christiane Floyd, Heinz Züllighoven, Reinhard Budde, Reinhard Keil-Slawik (Eds.): Software Development and Reality Construction Berlin: Springer, 1992, 363-375.

Table of Contents


1. Thinking About Computer Science
1.1 Human Questions in Computer Science, Christiane Floyd
1.2 Learning from our Errors, Donald E. Knuth

2 Living Computer Science
2.1 The Technical and the Human Side of Computer Science, Klaus-Peter Löhr
2.2 Hermeneutics and Path, Joseph A. Goguen
2.3 Computing: Yet Another Reality Construction, Rodney M. Burstall
2.4 How Many Choices Do We Make? How Many are Difficult? Kristen Nygaard
2.5 From Scientific Practice to Epistemological Discovery, Douglas T. Ross

3 On Reality Construction
3.1 Self-Organisation and Software Development, Heinz von Foerster and Christiane Floyd
3.2 Software Development as Reality Construction, Christiane Floyd
3.3 The Idea that Reality is Socially Constructed, Bo Dahlbom

4 Learning to Know
4.1 Scientific Expertise as a Social Process, Klaus Amann
4.2 How to Communicate Proofs or Programs, Dirk Siefkes
4.3 Making Errors, Making Sense, Making Use, John M: Carroll
4.4 Artifacts in Software Design, Reinhard Keil-Slawik

5 Computer Science and Beyond
5.1 The Denial of Error, Joseph A. Goguen
5.2 Towards a New Understanding of Data Modelling, Heinz K. Klein and Kalle  Lyytinen
5.3 A Reappraisal of Information Science, Pentti Kerola and Jouni Simila

6 Understanding the Computer Through Metaphors
6.1 Perspectives and Metaphors for Human-Computer Interaction, Susanne Maaß and Horst Oberquelle
6.2 Software Tools in a Programming Workshop, Reinhard Budde and Heinz Züllighoven
6.3 Soft Engines - Mass-Produced Softwware for Working People?, Wolfgang Coy
6.4 Artificial Intelligence: A Hermeneutic Defense, Thomas F. Gordon

7 Designing for People
7.1 Shared Responsibility: A Field of Tension, Gro Bjerknes
7.2 A Subject-Oriented Approach to Information Systems, Markku I. Nurminen
7.3 Anticipating Reality Construction, Fanny-Michaela Reisin
7.4 On Controllability, Wolfgang Dzida
7.5 Work Design for Human Development, Walter Volpert

8 Epistemological Approaches to Informatics
8.1 Trutth and Meaning Beyond Formalism, Joseph A. Goguen
8.2 Informatics and Hermeneutics by Rafael Capurro
8.3 Language and Software, or: Fritzl's Quest, Dafydd Gibbon
8.4 Activity Theory as a Foundation for Design, Arne Raeithel
8.5 Reflections on the Essence of Information, Klaus Fuchs-Kittowski



List of Authors




8.2.1 Introduction
8.2.2 Heidegger's tool analysis in "Being and Time"  
8.2.3 The existential conception of science   
8.2.4 Some comments on Heidegger's analysis of modern science and technology   
8.2.5 A plea for an open and weak constructivism: The power of software and the weakness of imagination 




8.2.1 Introduction

The short cut and the long path 

Not only the historical development of informatics as a scientific and technical discipline but also its core problems are, prima facie, far removed from philosophical developments arising from soft sciences such as hermeneutics, and closer to logic or the philosophy of science. Is the relationship between informatics and hermeneutics of any mutual relevance? What happens when we reflect hermeneutically on the foundations of informatics? Winograd and Flores have made the attempt, and one result was their insight into "the non-obviousness of the rationalistic orientation" of informatics. Consequently, they found themselves "deeply concerned with the question of language" (1).  
My purpose is to show why Winograd and Flores have grasped, on the one hand, some key issues of Heidegger's hermeneutics, while at the same time distorting some of his insights, particularly with regard to science and information technology.   

Their critique of what they call the rationalistic tradition is based on the following premises:  

1. The process of understanding is a never-ending one; it always implies unspoken conditions; it is limited.  

2. Language does not represent objective meanings, but is a social process through which commitments are generated.   

3. Computer technology is a tool belonging to our being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein): "in designing tools we are designing ways of being" (p. xi).   

In opposition to these premises, the rationalistic tradition's view on human understanding is characterized by the idea of representing a so-called objective world through mental processes. Language is considered to be the result of such mental data processing, which is basically autonomous and independent from the social context. Consequently, computers which manipulate language are said to be intelligent, to understand, to think, to be able to replace experts and so on.  

Winograd and Flores criticize this conception. They view computers essentially as tools for conversation, to be implemented as aids where the user's background expectations are confronted with non-obvious situations.   

In such situations of what they call breakdown, tools are normally no longer of any use. Instead of their readiness-to-hand a Heideggerian concept which I shall explain in detail below we are confronted with their presence-at-hand as objects. By a hermeneutical design of computer programs, some possible breakdown situations can be implemented in order to help the user when something goes wrong with the normal functioning of the system. In other words, the flexibility of the system depends on its capacity for anticipating such situations, i.e., on its capacity to remain a tool.  

These as well as other insights are important not only for informatics, but also for hermeneutics. But some of them are also a one-sided. I shall comment below on this one-sidedness. My critique concerns the following points:  

a) Winograd and Flores' opposition between hermeneutics and the rationalistic tradition, taking as a basis some key concepts from Heidegger's "Being and Time" and leaving aside their connection to Heidegger's overall project of a philosophical foundation of the natural and socio-historical sciences.  

b) Their interpretation of computer-based information systems as tools, taking Heidegger's tool analysis as a foundational paradigm for modern information technology and leaving aside Heidegger's explicit characterization of modern science and technology in his later works.

Is there an opposition between hermeneutics and the rationalistic tradition?

Since the authors devote the first part of their study to discussing specifically some basic concepts of Heidegger's hermeneutics, and as they do so by explicitly avoiding "the twists and turns of academic debate" (p. xiii), i.e., by taking the short cut of popularized accounts, it is useful at least to indicate where the long path might lead to, in order to see to what extent the views arrived at via the short cut are distorted ones. This is particularly the case with regard to Heidegger's tool analysis in "Being and Time" taken as a philosophical basis for understanding computer technology. Moreover,  Winograd and Flores's interpretation gives the general impression that Heidegger's hermeneutics is anti-rationalistic. Neither in "Being and Time" nor in his later writings was Heidegger merely criticizing modern science and technology; he was looking for a point of view which would allow us to see their specific demarcations. If we take the long path   and I can just point to it here!   then we may learn that there is no such opposition nor definite point of view; in other words, that taking the long path means abandoning  the illusion of definite borderlines and foundational oversimplifications based on paradigm changes. 

Can a tool-oriented view of computer-based information systems cope with the radical ambiguity of modern technology?

Taking Heidegger's tool analysis as a key for the interpretation of modern information technology means distorting both phenomena. What is left aside in this instrumental interpretation is   according to Heidegger's explicit analyses of modern technology its radical ambiguity. Recognizing  this ambiguity means seeing the impossibility of surmounting it by trying to master it, because such a project for instance, by trying to replace an old paradigm by a new one is based on the premises of what it tries to replace: it is a petitio principii. This ambiguity is, as I shall point out in the final section, a key issue with regard to software development, since software is not just a tool, but a specific form of reality disclosure and transformation. The question is, then: what kind of reality are we constructing when we develop software, and what are the limits and chances of such a form of reality construction? In order to perceive such limits, we have to take the long path. This is merely an invitation to take such a walk, not the walk itself.   

In the final section, I shall plead for what I call an open constructivism, i.e., for a confrontation of software development with metaphorical forms of reality construction.   



8.2.2 Heidegger's tool analysis in "Being and Time"

The task of philosophical destruction

Since Heidegger's phenomenological interpretation of our being as There-Being or Dasein on the basis of a pre-conceptual comprehension of Being (Seinsverständnis) as a condition of possibility for the interpretation of beings, hermeneutics has left the domain of text interpretation to become a philosophical research programme (2).  

In "Being and Time" (§ 6) Heidegger calls the task of questioning the obviousness of a dominating tradition destruction (Destruktion). This term does not have the negative meaning of eliminating the past, but rather suggests the task of criticizing a present theory or world view by an analysis of its presuppositions. Since this analysis, being itself historical, cannot be regarded as a definitive, we are left with the figure of a circle a hermeneutical not a vicious one. From a hermeneutical perspective, then, it makes no sense to replace old paradigms by new ones; the question of their destruction concerns the critical appraisal of their forgotten historical roots in order to perceive their limitations. In other words, with the help of hermeneutics we learn to see theoretical and practical traditions and their terminologies as answers to forgotten questions, and we learn how to question the questions themselves.  

Being-in-the-world and the outside world

Winograd and Flores oppose the dualistic view of the rationalistic tradition, with its conception of a subjective mental world and an outside world of physical reality, to the phenomenological insight in the "more fundamental unity of being-in-the-world (Dasein)." (p. 31). This approach is, in my opinion, diametrically opposed to Maturana and Varelas' radical constructivism, to which Winograd and Flores refer directly, leaving aside the dimension of openness (Offensein) or being-outside (Draussensein) as the way human beings are (which is also the reason why Heidegger chooses the term Da-sein), retaining only the hermeneutical process of understanding, reinterpreted now as an autopoietical one. Heidegger also calls our way of being existence (Existenz, Ek-sistenz). This term means being open to a field of possibilities, and it expresses the contrary of what we usually mean when we point to the existence of things, grasping their being as actual being. Thus, we can paradoxically say that human beings are not, but that they exist (3).   

In their somewhat eclectic approach, Winograd and Flores fail to see the contradiction between Heidegger's hermeneutics and what I call strong or radical constructivism (4). The dimension of openness, not that of a so-called external reality, lies at the very heart of Heidegger's "Being and Time". He writes:   

"When Dasein directs itself towards something and grasps it, it does not somehow get out of an inner sphere in which it has been proximally encapsulated, but its primary kind of Being is such that it is always 'outside' alongside entities which it encounters and which belong to a world already discovered. (...) And furthermore, the perceiving of what is known is not a process of returning with one's booty to the 'cabinet' of consciousness after one has gone out and grasped it; even in perceiving, retaining, the Dasein which knows remains outside, and it does so as Dasein." (5) 
This is the exact opposite to an autopoietic system, which   
"holds constant its organization and defines its boundaries through the continuous production of its components." (6) 
Tools and breakdowns

The way we in which we exist in the world is intrinsically a social and a practical one. As being-together-with-others (Mitsein), we are immersed in the world, but not just in the common spatial sense we think about when we say a chair is in the room. World (Welt) does not mean the totality of beings out there, but the complex and open web of meanings in which we live. How do we become aware of the world in terms of the open dimension of our existence in which we are normally immersed ? In order to answer this question and not in order to describe the phenomenon of modern technology Heidegger shows how, through the negative experience of using tools, the worldhood (Weltlichkeit) of the world, i.e., our specific way of being in it, becomes manifest (7). The phenomenological analysis of our everyday immersion in the world shows human beings concerned with things in terms of using them as tools. This means that things are inserted within a project, building a structure of references for practical purposes. This implicit purposefulness remains tacit unless a disturbance occurrs.  Winograd and Flores call such a disturbance breakdown, thus simplifying the Heideggerian terminology and missing the point.  What happens in these cases is not simply that tools become present-at-hand (Vorhandenes) instead of their former practical way of being as ready-to-hand (Zuhandenes), but that the world itself, i.e., the possibility of discovering beings within a structure of references, becomes manifest.   

At this point, I would like to draw attention to one oversimplification of Winograd and Flores' short cut. They write:   

"Another aspect of Heidegger's thought that is difficult for many people to assimilate to their previous understanding is his insistence that objects and properties are not inherent in the world, but arise only in an event of breaking down in which they become present-at-hand" (p. 36) 
If we read Heidegger's analysis (§16), we find a very detailed description of different modes of concern in our everyday encounter with entities we use for doing something, through which the phenomenon of world becomes manifest, namely:  

a) Conspicuousness (Auffälligkeit): when we meet tools as something unusuable, i.e., "not properly adapted for the use we have decided upon. The tool turns out to be damaged, or the material unsuitable." (p. 102). In this case we do not merely have an event of breaking down from readiness-to-hand to presence-at-hand, but a case where tools, in their readiness-at-hand, cannot be used. Heidegger writes:   

"Equipment which is present-at-hand in this way is still not just a Thing which occurs somewhere. The damage to the equipment is still not a mere alteration of a Thing   not a change of properties which just occurs in something present-at-hand." (p. 103).  

b) Obstrusiveness (Aufdringlichkeit): whereas, in the case of conspicuousness, we come up against unusable things within what is already ready-to-hand, there are also cases in which things are not to hand at all, namely when we miss something. In such cases, we look at what is missing in such a way that the more urgently we need it, the more obstrusively it reveals itself. Things seem to lose their character of readiness-to-hand completely 

c) Obstinacy (Aufsässigkeit): finally, we have the case where we encounter things which are neither unusable and not missing, but just standing in the way. Tools reveal their unreadiness-to-hand, although they are not damaged and although we do not miss them; we just do not need them here and now. They disturb us in such a way, that they obstinately call our attention. We must deal  with them before we do anything else. The un-readiness-to-hand means, in this case, that we have to do something before we can go on with our concerns.  

In all three cases, as Heidegger remarks, tools do not become mere things, i.e., tools show themselves to be still ready-to-hand in their presence-at-hand. Readiness-to-hand does not simply vanish. What we experience through these three modes of concern is, therefore, not just the readiness-to-hand of tools, but the phenomenon of the world itself. Why? Simply because we go thematically beyond things, i.e., we discover ourselves as the ones whose character it is to go beyond things, or whose essence is existence or openness. The experience of unfamiliarity of tools reveals that we do not just operate within a system of thematic and non-thematic references, but are radically (or, as Heidegger says, ontologically) open to Being itself as the horizon of significance, allowing us to discover beings in the modes of concern of readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand.  As one clearly see, Heidegger's tool analysis does not set out to describe the phenomenon of modern technology this is precisely what it does not do and it is not intend to be in pragmatistic opposition to the theoretical view of the sciences 



8.2.3. The existential conception of science

It is important to remember that, when Heidegger reinterprets the whole analysis of our being-in-the-world under the explicit notion of temporality, he gives as an example of authentic existence not only the temporal structure of world discovery under the horizon of purposeful instrumentality, but also the process of scientific discovery (§ 69). Why? Because science is a kind of disclosure, where man must make explicit the preconditions for the discovery of beings, no longer as tools, but as objects. In other words, the scientific disclosure shows the unity of man and world. The process of knowing is neither a projection of a worldless subjectivity on an outside reality, nor is there an objective world influencing a subject. It is an encounter, where the project of Dasein is not an arbitrary construction of reality, but always relies on a pre-understanding as the horizon for a specific non-thematic-practical and thematic-theoretical approach, enabling human beings, during the encounter, to disclosure their own structures.   

Heidegger insists that the emergence of the theoretical scientific attitude does not  simply lie in the disappearance of praxis (p. 409). To no longer regard a hammer as a tool, but "as a corporeal thing subject to the law of gravity" (p. 412), is not the result of a breakdown but of a change-over (umschlagen) of our understanding of Being. There is no opposition or even contradiction between taking something as present-at-hand and the scientific attitude, merely because that which is ready-to-hand can also be made the subject of scientific investigation, for instance, economics (p. 361). The main point is not the modification in the kind of being of things, but the modification of our understanding of Being, i.e., of the way we project a priori the horizon that is to serve us as guide for the disclosure. Heidegger concludes:  

"When the basic concepts of that understanding of Being by which we are guided have been worked out, the clues of its methods, the structure of its way of conceiving things, the possibility of truth and certainty which belongs to it, the ways in which things get grounded or proved, the mode in which it is binding for us, and the way it is communicated all these will be determined. The totality of these items constitutes the full existential conception of science." (p. 414)
The primordial difference between this type of constructivism and a subjectivist one is that, for Heidegger, Daseins's projects are based on the facticity of thrownness-character (Geworfenheit) of Dasein itself. Its being as Being-possible is not a free-floating potentiality but a thrown posibility (geworfene Möglichkeit), already got into definite possibilities, being free for (not of) them (p. 183). As Being-possible, we are a pro-jection, a temporal transcendence, always outside with others within a process of practical and theoretical disclosure of beings.  

Since Dasein is neither the creator of itself nor of beings, this process of un-concealment is, given our finitude (natality and mortality), groundless. To be concerned with concealment means ultimately to face death as the horizon that makes all other possibilities of existence to come forth as  finite possibilities. Because of the limited nature of its possibilities, Dasein is not able to comprehend Being under other conditions than finite ones. This way of encountering beings presupposes a being whose mode of being is to be this encounter itself, a temporal being. We interpret the world as the web of relations in which we are embedded on the basis of a finite or temporal pre-understanding of Being. This is not a solipsistic process. It takes place as listening to others as the way we are originally open to each other, capable of dialogue and communication. Dasein articulates its being-in-the-world, anticipating the structure of beings and letting them appear during the encounter through mood and speech

8.2.4 Some comments on Heidegger's analysis of modern science and technology

In his later works, Heidegger poses the question about the specific nature of modern science and technology. This is another part of the long path which remains untrodden in Winograd and Flores' short cut und that should be taken into account when reading their critique of the rationalistic tradition using as a basis Heidegger's "Being and Time".


Heidegger on modern science 

Heidegger's starting point in his phenomenological analysis of our being-in-the-world is actually a pre-scientific view of our everyday comprehension of beings within a practical perspective or project. This primacy of the practical does not mean, as I have already shown, a devaluation of the scientific or rational view of the world. Science is, in actual fact, a genuine possibility of our being-in-the-world. What Heidegger is questioning throughout "Being and Time" is not rationality (or even science) as such, but the critical problem as posed by Neo-Kantians: how does a knowing subject emerge from its subjectivity in order to establish contact with an external object in the real world. This Cartesian dichotomy and the corresponding realistic and idealistic positions disappear as soon as our way of being is grasped as being always outside, as There-being. This is the reason why Heidegger does not simply use the word consciousness or subject. We are not, as Medard Boss puts it (8), a capsule-like psyche re-presenting things from an outside world and communicating these representations to other psyches.  

The concept of science in "Being and Time" aims at giving sciences an ontological ground in man's being-in-the-world, instead of their modern transcendental constitution in subjectivity. One should remember that "Being and Time" begins with a reference to the crisis of scientific research (§ 3) and to the logical precedence of the question of Being in order to be able to distinguish between the different regions in their ontological specificity.   

Heidegger's later analyses of modern science (9) make explicit the differences between science in Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, showing modern science to be a particular project or dis-closure of Being on the basis of subjectivity. Some of the characteristics of this project are: materialism (= everything becomes raw material), uniformity, functionality, objectivity, calculability, domination, productivity, exploitation (10). Modern (natural) science reveals nature in its objectivity, but this not the only possibility for dis-covering it. Heidegger contrasts the conception of subjective re-presentation of beings with his view of human existence as primarily open or receptive to Being. While, according to Heidegger, in Antiquity the projective and the receptive paradigms coexisted, modern science superimposes only the projective standards, now founded not in Being, but in subjectivity and, ultimately, in its "will to power" (Nietzsche). But it is the openness to Being that enables to inquire into the foundations of beings, as we do it in science. We experience this basic dimension in our relation to beings when we regard them and ourselves with the eyes of the artist, i.e., when we open ourselves to the aesthetic dimension of existence. This is, in fact, not just another possibility, but the implicit condition of modern science, and its future, too.  

Recapitulating, we could say that, while in "Being and Time" Heidegger was looking for an existential foundation of science, in his later works he became aware of the peculiarity of modern science. Whether we agree with this analysis or not, one thing is clear: questioning the rationalitic tradition is not just a matter of changing paradigms. The pragmatistic will to surmount paradigms belongs closely to the tradition it sets out to criticize. The change from one paradigm to another is not just like changing clothes... This is the reason why Heidegger also prefers the term overcoming (Verwindung) to surmounting (Überwindung) when talking about our relation to Western metaphysics, of which science and technology are the outstanding results. The term Verwindung is related to the way in which we overcome a disease or a pain or the loss of a loved one. It means letting our possibilities come over us, individually and socially,  and becoming acquainted with them as something we cannot simply through away or surmount, according to the different modern idealistic or materialistic theories of progress.   

Heidegger's analysis of modern science is closely related to his views on modern technology.  

Heidegger on technology 

Winograd and Flores refer to the possibility of designing computer technology as a tool, and they do so by reference to the analysis in "Being and Time". Heidegger's analysis of the question of modern technology can be found in his later writings, particularly in "The Question Concerning Technology" (11). The connection between modern science and modern technology is usually seen in terms of the one technology emerging, as applied science, out of the other. Heidegger sees modern science as being already technological. Technology is not a collection of tools to be designed according to a pragmatical idea, but a specific form of un-concealing or disclosure of beings. Where does the specificity of this kind of disclosure lie? Heidegger considers this question with regard to technological disclosure in Ancient Greece and in the Middle Ages, as well as to other forms of non-technological disclosure, particularly art. The first approach leads to the conception of modern technology as challenging disclosure (herausforderndes Entbergen). Both art and technology are similar insofar as they bring forth beings which cannot, as in the case of nature, disclose themselves. But, in that case, technology does not exactly mean using tools for manipulating things. This characteristic already implicit in the Greek conception of causes or 'aitiai' becomes predominant in the case of modern technology. Ancient technology was less challenging and therefore nearer to art. The univocity of modern technology accentuates such characteristics as control, by considering things to be in supply (Bestand). Even nature is now being conceived from this one-sided anthropocentric and subjectivistic view, i.e. everything is viewed as supply or as 'ob-ject', lying before man's challenging disclosure. Modern technology is a generalized attitude towards the world, whose characteristics are summarized by Heidegger in the single concept: Ge-Stell.   

This is a word that normally means 'frame', 'stand', 'rack'. An English translation might perhaps be 'framework', as suggested by Mitcham and Mackey (12). This generalized attitude is not something we simply change ad libitum. It belongs to our Western tradition, and it is particularly interrelated to the non-challenging disclosure of Being we call art. Technology belongs to our destiny, but not in the sense of a tragical necessity or Nemesis. Pessimism and voluntaristic optimism are re-actions which presuppose either the idea of a hidden power behind history or of man as having such power over reality. Being is not God or its substitute, but merely the very fact of finite givenness of man and the world in a changing, non-perennial tradition.

For Heidegger, entering into a free relation with technology means being able to see and let coexist different attitudes to the world. Instead of surmounting technology or indulging in back-to-nature dreams, he looks for possible forms of its overcoming or Verwindung. According to Heidegger, we have understood what modern technology is when we do not see it merely as a tool or as man's activity, but as a kind of world disclosure. At the origin of technology - in Greek 'poiesis' and 'techné' the character of challenging does not entail the primacy of the non-dominating attitude of bringing forth things. This gives us a clue in our search for a definition of modern technology or, in other words, when looking for a free relation to it. This is, I feel, neither a naïve nor a romantic view of modern technology. And it is not, of course, an anti-rationalistic one!  

Heidegger's reflections information technology may serve as an illustration here (13). What are the characteristics revealed by information technology as it appears in modernity? Analogously to the view on modern technology as a whole, information technology is not just a tool for manipulating language. Nor does it suffice to look on it, as Winograd and Flores do, as a tool for designing human conversations. In actual fact it is what I suggest calling the information Ge-Stell. This term is meant to recall the Heideggerian characteristics of technology and particularly that of challenging disclosure in their relation to language. This characteristic becomes manifest when we consider language from a non-dominating attitude, as in the case of poetry. The crucial point about modern information technology, as well as modern technology as a whole, is not how to design computer-based systems under the hermeneutical premise that they should be regarded  merely as tools.

According to Heidegger, we can only overcome (verwinden) technology, if we are able to see its ambiguity: it looks like a tool, but it is a challenging disclosure of the totality of beings. This is not something we are simply able to change, in the case of information technology, for instance through a different kind of software design. We must first learn first to see its ambiguity, just as we learn to see our image and the image of things in modern art say in a cubist picture by Picasso   not as the deformation of an ideal, but as an original perspective of what things are. By the same token, we must learn how to see information technology as the modern challenging perspective of our being-with-others in the world. In other words, we must learn to see it as the perspective it is. Consequently, we must consider this perspective as a genuine possibility to be inserted into the plurality of other possibilities of social interaction. By assuming a certain distance to it, we learn to view it ironically, by abandoning the illusion that we could cope better with human conversations merely by readiness-to-hand design and breakdown programming. We do, of course, need user-friendly systems. But their friendliness does not lie in their strong capability to assimilate conversations, but in their weakness to do so. By making them suitable for conversations, we may be distorting both 



8.2.5 A plea for an open and weak constructivism: The power of software and the weakness of imagination

Sense and meaning or living metaphors and software development 

Information technology, as well as technology in general, can be seen as a threat. And we have good reasons for seeing it in this way, particularly where we use it for transforming all other possible forms of human interaction under the premises of this perspective. Within this approach, we see the originality of the perspective as the only possible one. This is merely the other side of the coin, as we might try to replace or surmount a so-called wrong or deformed cubist picture by a so-called right one. Instead of that, we must educate our eyes to see the information Ge-stell in its own original perspective. Discovering its originality by assuming a certain distance from it, also enables us to see it not as a threat but as a chance. 

To show  what I mean, I would like to use Paul Ricoeur's concept of living metaphors to illustrate the difference between the world disclosure or reality construction through software technology on the one side, and poetical world disclosure on the other (14). Ricoeur's ideas are basically related to the distinction by G. Frege between sense (Sinn) and meaning (Bedeutung) (15). In the field of poetry, the creation of metaphors can be seen as:   

(a) a production of sense, i.e., of expanding language within language, or  
(b) a heuristic function, discovering new possible aspects of reality (16).  

This last function is not only one of disclosure (revelation) but also one of transformation.   

Both aspects also appear in a perspectivist manner if we look at the information Ge-Stell, and particularly at the field of software development. In this field, we also have, on the one side, a production of sense, i.e., of expansion of language, but it is mainly an expansion of formalisms and it is governed by mainly univocal rules. Unlike literature, for instance, software is primarily limited in its potentiality of sense production. Otherwise, it could not be applied to the referent for which it was conceived. On the other side, software is developed not merely to describe, but to actually dominate i.e., transform or control specific dimensions of reality. In other words, the relation between the creation of living metaphors a poem, for instance and software development can be seen as a reverse one: a poem opens a field of possible sense interpretations and can be used heuristically for the disclosure and transformation of reality (17).   

Software development aims at mainly univocal reduction of the metaphorical sense of language, i.e., it looks primarily for meaning in order to transform or control reality. The will and/or power to dominate reality that is at the basis of a meaning-relation constitutes, in my opinion, the difference between software technology and, say, pure mathematics or logic.  

Strong constructivism versus weak constructivism 

We need, of course, both ways of creative or constructivist relation to the world, i.e., to the field of open possibilities within given traditions, in order to continuing being the finite project we are. If, as a result of a one-sided view of the information Ge-Stell, we see in it the only possible perspective, then it presents to us the illusion of an ideal language, of pure intelligence, of objective information, and so on. But if we have learned to see it as a possible perspective among others, then its claims become weaker, and we learn not to believe that our demands are fulfilled just because be adopt an anthropomorphic terminology. Analogously to the idea of conjectural knowledge in the field of science, we might also begin to see weak technology as good technology.

We could then consider it for what it is, i.e., not primarily as a method for the production of an artificial mind, for instance, nor merely as tool for conversations. It allows both views because it as an ambiguous project of world disclosure. It takes the perspective of modern subjectivity and can therefore try to even substitute it. But, at the same time, it does not enable this subjectivity to look behind in order to become aware of the thrownness character of its world projects.

My final plea is, therefore, not for modern subjectivity in the form of radical constructivism to be given the tools it needs for the construction of reality as a whole, including human conversations, but rather for this global claim to be questioned a claim common to the rationalistic as well as to the instrumentalistic tradition. In other words, my plea is for a weak or open constructivism through stressing the potentialities of human imagination in a dialogical process of sense creation. Such an open constructivism is the opposite of Maturana and Varela's autopoietical systems, which reduce the openness of our being-in-the-world to the idea of egocentric or closed systems.

On the ethical basis of the dialogical experience of openness to each other and to our common world, we can learn how to see computer-based information systems in all their social, historical and cultural ambiguity, reducing in this way their, as well as our own, hermeneutical ambitions. To this extent,  I see computer-based systems not as a threat but as a chance to insert the originality of the challenging perspective of human interactions into the plurality of other kinds of non-challenging ways of reality disclosure and construction. How can this be done? Well, our Conference on Software Development and Reality Construction was a start





1 [Winograd and Flores, 1986, p. 17].
See the reviews by [Vellino, 1987, Stefik and Bobrow, 1987, Suchman 1987] and [Clancey 1987]; also the  "Response to the reviews" [Winograd and Flores, 1987] and my review [Capurro 1987].
On hermeneutics, see [Shapiro aand Sica, 1984]. 

(2) I am referring to [Heidegger 1987]: "Sein und Zeit" (1927) (engl. transl. 1987). The best introduction to Heidegger in English is still [Richardson, 1967]. See also [Steiner, 1978] and [Capurro, 1991]. For a brief exposition of some of Heidegger's major works, see [Capurro, 1988]. On Heidegger's interpretation of modern science and technology, see [Kockelmans, 1984] and [Kockelmans, 1985]; [Loscerbo, 1981, Schirmacher, 1983] and [Seubold, 1986].  

(3) The term Dasein does not denote an  asexual  human being. It means the primordial structure of being-with-others as the condition for different concrete possibilities of living sexuality. Human sexuality and human body are not conceived merely as biological phenomena, but as being within the field of openness, which is basically related to our affections or moods (Stimmungen). See [Heidegger, 1978, Boss,1975] and [Derrida, 1988].  

(4) See [Schmidt, 1987].

(5) [Heidegger, 1987, p. 89].

(6) [Winograd and Flores, 1986, p. 44]

(7) Heidegger's examples for tools are: "ink-stand, pen, ink, paper, blotting pad, table, lamp, furniture, windows, doors, room" ("Being and Time", p. 97). With regard to the hammer
the example to which Winograd and Flores explicitly refer
Heidegger remarks that there is no real opposition between looking at things merely theoretically or practically, insofar as practical behavior is not atheoretical in the sense of sightlessness, and, correspondingly, theoretical behavior is looking without practical circumspection, but not without rules: "it constructs a canon for itself in the form of method." (ibid. p. 99). Other examples of tools in this context are shoe and clock. Nature itself is discovered (as environment) under its ready-to-hand kind of being from the point of view of toolmaking. Finally, not only the "domestic world of the workshop" but also the "public world" with its "roads, streets, bridges, buildings" is ready-to-hand. Heidegger remarks explicitly that its aim is not to discover that presence-at-hand is founded on readiness-to-hand, but to exhibit the phenomenon of the world, which is not just the sum of both characteristics.  

(8) See [Boss, 1975].  See also [Capurro, 1986] as well as [Capurro 1985].  

(9) See for instance [Heidegger, 1975] and [Heidegger, 1972].  

(10) For a more detailed elucidation of these characteristics, see [Seubold, 1986, pp. 218-227].  

(11) [Heidegger, 1977].

(12) [Mitcham and Mackey, 1983, p. 26].  

(13) For original quotations see [Capurro, 1981].  

(14) See [Ricoeur, 1986].  

(15) [Frege, 1892].  

(16) [Ricoeur, 1986, p. ii].  

(17) See [Eco, 1977] 




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Last update: August 17, 2017


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