Rafael Capurro
This paper was one of three lectures at the Royal Institute of Technology Library (Stockholm, Sweden) in 1985. It was published as REPORT TRITA-LIB-6023 (August 1985, Ed. Stephan Schwarz) (ISSN 0346-9042).
  1. Moral issues in information science.  Report TRITA-LIB-6024 (Royal Institute of Technology Library, Stockholm, Schweden) 1985. In:  Journal of information science 11 (1985), 113-123; transfer-information 3/4 (1986), 226-244.; Fa Fairer-Wessels Ed.: Information Management, University of South Africa, Pretoria, Vol. I 1994 (Reader for INK303-3), 176-186.
  2. Epistemology and Information Science. Report TRITA-LIB-6023 (Royal Institute of Technology Library, Stockholm, Schweden) 1985.
  3. Tasks, Organisation and Activities of the Fachinformationszentrum Energie, Physik, Mathematik. Report TRITA-LIB-1137 (Royal Institute of Technology Library, Stockholm, Schweden) 1985.
The first part of this lecture is based on my doctoral dissertation: Information (Munich 1978). In the second and third parts I develop some ideas published later in my post-doctoral dissertation: Hermeneutik der Fachinformation (Freiburg 1986). The following text is a slightly modified version of the TRITA-Report.
See also:
Messages and Messengers - Angeletics as an Approach to the Phenomenology of Communication (2011)
Digital hermeneutics (2009) 
Interpreting the Digital Human (2008) 

The Concept of Information. (2003)

Hermeneutics and the Phenomenon of Information (2000) 

Informatics and Hermeneutics (1992) 

Foundations of Information Science (1991)
What is Information Science for? (1991)
Hermeneutics and the Phenomenon of Information (1986).




Introductory remarks

I. Epistemological Roots of the Information Concept 
II. The Hermeneutic Paradigm of Human Understanding 
III. Hermeneutics and Information Science 

Notes and References




This paper deals with epistemological foundations of information science. The first part is dedicated to the analysis of the roots of the information concept particularly in everyday English. I give an example of the technical use of the term in medieval epistemology (Thomas Aquinas) and compare it with the concept of representation in modern cognitive science. In the second part, I discuss the paradigm of human understanding as developed by hermeneutics. The third part deals with the relation between hermeneutics and information science.



As information science has become increasingly acquainted with advanced problems of knowledge representation, processing and retrieval, some implicit epistemological questions and models within this field have been the subject of discussions particularly over the past few years. However, this dialogue between epistemology and information science which began fairly recently has a long tradition with regard to the concept of information. The term information itself has a very rich epistemological background. It was used in classical Latin, for instance by Cicero, to denote the pictorial representation of objects in the human mind as well as the process of teaching, i.e., of forming the mind through knowledge communication (1).

The Latin term informatio became a terminus technicus in medieval epistemology and ontology and played an important role in the rationalist and empiricist theories of knowledge of modern philosophy. Today the concept of information is, on the one hand, very difficult to define as it is used in many different areas, not only in philosophy but also in the natural and social sciences (2). This confusing situation can be considered, on the other hand, as a symptom of its theoretical relevance.  

In this lecture I will first analyze the word and concept of  information. We understand the meaning of words, as Wittgenstein reminds us (3), when we know how they are used. I will take as an example the medieval concept of informatio in Thomas Aquinas' theory of knowledge which I shall compare with the modern concept of representation in cognitive science. In the second part I will discuss some arguments developed by hermeneutics which in its reflection on human understanding rejoins, on a more general level, the results attained by modern philosophy of science concerning the structure of scientific thought. Finally, I consider information science, information retrieval and the meaning of the information concept within the framework of hermeneutics.




1. English Roots

In his famous English dictionary dated 1755, Dr Johnson (1709-1784) (4) mentions three uses of the word information, namely: 
  • Intelligence given; instruction
  • Charge or accusation exhibited
  • The act of informing or actuation.
The second meaning is a special application in the field of law of the first epistemological sense. The third use refers to ontology which has not changed since ancient times. Both meanings have their roots in Greek philosophy but I shall not deal with the ontological meaning in this lecture.  

According to Dr Johnson, information means intelligence given, that is, it indicates the act of telling something to somebody who (probably) ignores the content of the message. The use of this term in everyday English goes back to the end of the 14th century. The term instruction is related to the process of education. Let us now look at one of Dr Johnson's quotations from Shakespeare's Coriolanus. An imprisoned slave seems to know about a forthcoming invasion. Brutus does not trust him and suggests that he should be "whipp'd" or beaten. Menenius answers Brutus in the following way:  

"(...) But reason with the fellow,  
Before you punish him, where he heard this,  
Lest you shall chance to whip your information,  
And beat the messenger who bids beware  
Of what is to be dreaded."  
(Coriolanus, Act IV, Scene VI).
As we can hear, information is familiarly related to concepts such as: to reason with somebody, to listen to what somebody has to say, to a messenger and to his message. There is a context of ignorance and expectation but also of common knowledge to which the information is supposed to be significant. Information is a concept situated in the field of human language and intersubjectivity. It refers to the process of telling something to somebody and to the content being transmitted. In short, it indicates a major human characteristic. 

As you are well aware, this sense still prevails in today's English as well as in many other modern languages. If we consult The Oxford English Dictionary (5), we find a major distinction between the epistemological and the ontological meaning. With regard to the epistemological meaning the following differences are listed: 

  • The action of informing, formation or moulding of the mind or character, training, instruction, teaching.
  • The act of informing; communication of the knowledge or 'news' of some fact or occurrence; the act of telling or the fact of being told of something.
  • Knowledge communicated concerning some particular fact, subject, or event; that of which one is appraised or told; intelligence, news.
  • The act of informing against, charging, or accusing (a person).
  • Special in English Law.
  • In other legal systems.
The three last meanings are related to the special application in the legal field. Key senses are again the process of communicating something to somebody as well as the content of the message. When Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver develop their mathematical theory of communication, they explicitly refer to this epistemological meaning. They write:  
"As commonly used, information is a very elastic term, and it will first be necessary to set up for it a more specific meaning as applied to the present discussion."
They intend to eliminate, as they say, the "psychological factors" involved in this concept, in order to establish a "measure of information in terms of purely physical quantities." (6)

This is of course a licit methodological procedure, but, as I shall remark later, it can lead to some confusion when the original sense still pervades the derivative or analogical uses. Anyway, neither Shannon nor Weaver intend to forget the specific common meaning of information, i.e., the semantic and pragmatic levels of the concept. These levels were emphasized by Ch. W. Morris (7), Y. Bar-Hillel (8), D. M. MacKay (9) and others, and they are, I believe, essential to the use of the information concept within information science. 

2. Thomas Aquinas on Information

This is a very large and complex subject indeed. The Latin term informatio as it was coined by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) implies ontological, epistemological, pedagogical and linguistic senses. I shall refer to the epistemological use, pointing out its close connection to the concepts of intellect (intellectus) and perception (sensus).  

Aquinas' theory of knowledge is deeply rooted in Greek and particularly in Aristotelian psychology and metaphysics. According to Aquinas man consists of an intimate union between matter, which is a potency, and the soul (anima), the active principle, which in-forms matter. The result of this union or information (in the ontological sense of the word) is a sensitive and intelligent being (10).

Aquinas applies this scheme to the analysis of human knowledge. He calls the knowing principle anima intellectiva, which includes the sensitive principle or anima sensitiva. To know an object means the capability of the passive (or possible) intellect to grasp the species or form of the object. The Latin term species translates Aristotle's term eidos, and it may mean the sensible individual form of things or a universal concept. Both senses are interrelated with the process of knowledge. The sensible form informs the sensation and the passive intellect (informatio sensus, informatio intellectus possibilis), being the active intellect which produces the act of understanding through the abstraction of the universal concept from the representational form or phantasma. Material and sensible things are understood to the extent that they are apprehended by sense, represented by imagination, and made intelligible by the intellect.

A characteristic of human knowledge is the combined movement of abstractio and conversio (from/to the representational form or phantasma). Following Aristotle, Aquinas does not think, as Plato did,  that for us a direct knowledge of universal concepts could be possible. We have only a knowledge of material things through the process of universalisation. Aquinas' technical term for this operation is conversio ad phantasmata. In other words, human understanding is neither purely intellectual nor purely sensible but a unity of both. Scientific knowledge which is of the necessary and universal is considered by Aquinas as the application (by reflection) of universal objects (concepts, definitions etc.), which are designed names, to particular things.

Although modern philosophy criticized many aspects of this paradigm, the term information  plays a significant role, for example, in the English empiricist tradition (J. Locke, G. Berkeley, D. Hume), in Th. Reid's Philosophy of Common Sense and in W. Whewell's Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (11). In all cases it refers to the mediation between the mind and the objects as they are perceived by our senses. According to Whewell, "ideas" are "informed sensations" (not "transformed"), i.e., they are a product of the formative power of the mind on sensations. As indicated by its original meaning in Latin, the term informatio is very close in its meaning to the concept of representation, which is a key concept of modern cognitive science.

Let us now examine this briefly, before we compare epistemological theory with the theory of understanding as developed by modern hermeneutics.

3.  Information and Representation

In a recent comprehensive and interdisciplinary analysis of the information concept Fritz Machlup remarks that representation is one of the key concepts of modern cognitive science. He writes:  

"It is not always clear just what is being represented and what is representing. One would imagine our knowledge representing something observed or assumed in the external world or our knowledge being represented by something going on or retained in our brain or nervous system; or our knowledge being represented by some expressions (visual, auditory and tactile), artifacts (sings, signals, symbols and codes), or various kinds of action (meaningful and communicable to others). Assuming that the stingy economyzers of prepositions mean not representation by knowledge but representation of knowledge, we rule out the first of the three possible meanings; considering that most users much of the time do their research using computers, we rule out the second meaning. Thus, we conclude that representations in question are largely in terms of computer programs." (12)
Representation by knowledge, in the first of the two senses mentioned by Machlup, i.e., representation by knowledge of something observed, or representation of knowledge in our minds, begins to signify something very similar to the meaning of the term informatio as it was used in medieval epistemology as well as in the empiricist tradition, while representation of knowledge refers to the knowledge contents and to the possible ways they can be objectivized. The difference between the traditional epistemological meaning of informatio and information and the modern use of representation is commented upon in a letter by the psychologist George A. Miller to Machlup, in which he refers to the importance of this concept in the rationalist epistemological tradition since Descartes. He writes:
"The cognitive sciences are those scientific disciplines sharing an interest in the representation and transformation of knowledge (read information in the present context). (...) You are certainly right (...) that representation is a keyword in cognitive science. Historically, philosophers since Descartes have assumed that the mind somehow copies, reflects, or represents the real world, so representation is hardly a new idea. The philosophers, however, immediately raised the question of how we can possibly know whether or not the mental representation of the real world is correct, true, valid. At this point Hume, then Kant, then dozens of others were able to create professional philosophy out of the epistemological (metaphysical) problems that resulted. When cognitive scientists revert to the problem of representation, therefore, one assumes (or at least hopes) they have a better strategy in mind than the philosophers did, that there are other more important questions to ask about representations other than their accuracy, since that question is known to lead straight out of empirical science." (13)
As a psychologist Miller sees the potential relevance of the study of representational processes through machines in order to learn more about mental representations. This relevance is, according to Margaret Boden (14), debatable when we consider the differences between our embodiment and a machine, between human behavior and computer programs or between the social dimension of human perception and action. The modern concept of representation refers to three kinds of problems:
  • The type of knowledge to be represented
  • How it should be represented
  • For whom it should be represented.
Cognitive science, as Machlup remarks, concentrates on the two first questions. The third question points to a basic problem, as it states that knowledge representations cannot be considered as such because of the fact that knowledge is being represented but because these representations are related to an interpreter. This raises the question of (human) understanding as an interpretation process and particularly as interpretation of represented knowledge. This is the key issue of the hermeneutic approach. Margaret Boden explicitly refers to hermeneutic and intentional theories as a conceptual basis for the discussion about the analogy between human subjectivity and computational performances (15).



1. Preliminary Remarks

Hermeneutics as a philological discipline dealing with the problems of text interpretation has a very long tradition that I cannot evoke here (16). I shall concentrate on the paradigm developed by philosophical hermeneutics that is an attempt to explore the complex issue of human understanding including the question of text interpretation.

The hermeneutic paradigm was developed by the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900- ) (17) on the basis of Edmund Husserl's (1859-1938) phenomenology and Martin Heidegger's (1889-1976) existential analytic. This paradigm has been criticized by different philosophical schools. Some of these criticisms have lead to a mutual fructification and, in some cases, to similar results. This was possible because in many cases the spirit of polemics has been overcome by the spirit of dialogue and argumentation.

Before considering some of the main features of the hermeneutic paradigm I would like to mention three main criticisms that should be kept in mind when talking about hermeneutics:

  • Critical rationalists (18) criticized the attempts of hermeneutics to become a special methodology for the humanities or Geisteswissenschaften in contraposition to the methodology of the natural sciences based on causal explanations. This discussion was based partly on mutual misunderstanding but it lead to some interesting insights to which I refer later. Hermeneutics was accused of dogmatism as it seemed to be in search of some kind of definite ground or evidence. In my opinion, hermeneutics is eo ipso conjectural and in no case is there a claim for absolute knowledge or definite solutions.
  • Analytic philosophers criticized the tendency of hermeneutics to considering the meaning of words as something objective at least in the sense of an intentional object of the mind. But meanings, they say, are dependent of their use or of the context in which they are used. We can call this the contextual argument (19). This argument is to be considered with regard to the hermeneutic concept of pre-understanding.
  • Critical theory (20), finally, accused hermeneutics of lacking reflection on problems concerning psychoanalysis and political ideologies. With regard to psychoanalysis I will just mention the work of Jacques Lacan who was influenced by Martin Heidegger and H.-G. Gadamer. The second criticism leads to ethical questions as developed by K.O. Apel (21).
Let us examine now the hermeneutic paradigm on the basis of two discourses which I call the existential and the contextual-critical discourse.   

2. The Existential Discourse

This argument was originally developed by Husserl's phenomenology and Heidegger's existential analytics. Its starting point can be explained as follows. 

Traditional epistemology, including the modern one, as we have already seen, regarded the question concerning human knowledge to be a problem of the relation between a knower and an object that are separated from each other and come to a partial fusion, called by Kant a synthesis. Phenomenology states, in opposition to this dualism, the original connection or intentionality of knower and the known (object), building an original whole. But this whole, as Heidegger remarked, is not to be considered idealistically, as the field of subjective consciousness, but as the world or world-openness that is being shared by the human community. This shared world is the field of human existence or Dasein.

This argument is a challenge to the underlying assumption of dogmatic skepticism concerning the question of the existence of an outside reality as it is asked by an isolated and capsule-like subjectivity. Following the existential argument, we already share the world-openness together with others. Already means that the presupposition of a worldless subjectivity made on the ground of the Lebenswelt, as Husserl called it. Man's being-in-the-world is furthermore not of the kind of a passive or mere theoretical observer, but of acting with others creating a common world through language (22).

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) calls the existential dimension in all its variety and complexity, "the web of human relationships". In her remarkable work The Human Condition she writes:  

    "Action and speech go on between men, as they are directed toward them, and they retain their agent-revealing capacity even if their content is exclusively objective, concerned with the matters of the world of things in which men move, which physically lies between them and out of which arise their specific, objective, worldly interests. These interests constitute, in the word's most literal significance, something which interest, which lies between people and therefore can relate and bind them together. Most action and speech is concerned with this in-between, which varies with each group of people, so that most words and deeds are about some worldly objective reality in addition to being a disclosure of the acting an speaking agent. Since this disclosure of the subject is an integral part of all, even the most objective intercourse, the physical, worldly in-between along with its interests is overlaid and, as it were, overgrown with an altogether different in-between which consists of deeds and words and owes its origin exclusively to men's acting and speaking directly to one another. 
    This second, subjective in-between is not tangible, since there are no tangible objects into which it would solidify; the process of acting and speaking can leave behind no such results and end products. But for all its intangibility, this in-between is no less real than the world of things we visible have in common. We call this reality the web of human relationships, indicating by the metaphor its somewhat intangible quality." (23)
In other words, an objectivist (or materialist) epistemology intend so divide the objective from the subjective web or in-between considering the last one a less real superstructure, while subjectivist (or idealist) epistemology tries to do the contrary. Existential hermeneutics stresses the original unity of our being-in-the-world, allowing us to live in a pluralistic world, sharing (or not) what is between us. Theoretical knowledge is not something separated from the vita activa (Arendt) which implies labour, work and action. Thinking is, according to Arendt, "the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable." (24) In other words, human understanding is not an isolated human capacity but a key phenomenon implying world-openness (or the in-between), intersubjectivity, language and human action. This brings some traditional epistemological paradigms to their feet.  

3. The Contextual-Critical Discourse

This argument has to do with the linguistic dimension of human understanding. According to medieval and modern epistemology the process of knowledge and the process of expressing the known are two separate events. Hermeneutics, on the contrary, considers our being-with-others sharing a common world as articulating itself through language. This linguistically shared common world disclosure builds an non-thematic pre-understanding of the world upon which all thematic interpretation is already based. Hermeneutics criticizes the tabula-rasa theory of knowledge, according to which the mind is a kind of pure observer reproducing an outside objective reality.

Modern philosophy of science - for example Karl Popper's conception of knowledge as intrinsically "theory-laden" - has stated a similar view. In fact, Popper criticizes the attempt to create a separate methodology for the humanities, as a subjectivist view. But his own theory is similar to the hermeneutic discourse. The process of testing theories through experience can be considered as a specific application in the field of scientific methodology of the dynamic relationship between situation, comprehension and interpretation, metaphorically called the hermeneutic circle. Also the (scientific) process of conjectures and refutations can be considered as a specific form of the process of questions and answers as analyzed by hermeneutic theory. In his seminal work Truth and Method (25)  Gadamer conceived the role of prejudices (Vorurteile) as something pertaining necessarily to human understanding. In other words, human knowledge is always biased, pre-understanding can never be completely eliminated.

The ambitious paradigm of the Enlightenment (sapere aude) should be understood as a request that we should be aware of the limitations or, as hermeneutics says, horizons within which we determine the possible sense of what appears to us. Popper speaks of the "horizon of expectations" and Thomas S. Kuhn (26) has made clear the importance of "paradigms" in the sense of a shared body of concrete expectations, which guides the work of "normal science", and which can be criticized and radically changed in periods of "revolutionary science".

In a more general way, hermeneutics states that not only science but human life itself is constantly dependent on pre-understanding or, as Gadamer says, on "prejudices". He writes: 

"Prejudices are not necessarily unjustified and erroneous, so that they inevitably distort the truth. In fact, the historicity of our existence entails that prejudices, in the literal sense of the word, constitute the initial directedness of our whole ability to experience. Prejudices are biases of our openness to the world. They are simply conditions whereby we experience something - whereby what we encounter says something to us." (27)
In other words, the tabula-rasa theory of knowledge is nothing but a myth and conversily, we are not prisoners of our prejudices but criticize them and even use them in a productive way. Objectivity is the product of our biased intersubjectivity. It rests upon presuppositions and it is always open to revision.

The  Norwegian philosopher G. Floistad has recently remarked the parallel between the insights of hermeneutics and philosophy of science. He writes: 

"From the point of view of hermeneutic and structuralist theories of language, the meaning of a perceptual judgement is determined not merely by its theoretical superstructure, but by the wider context of ordinary language. The perceptual judgement and the theory of which it is a part, as well as scientific notions, statements and theories in general, are thoroughly embedded in ordinary language and ordinary ways of life. The significance of such overall claims are certainly difficult to assess. Hermeneutics and structuralism are on this point strongly influenced by the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger. Acccording to phenomenology, our access to 'world' or 'reality' is conditioned by its constitution in our consciousness or understanding. And ordinary language or daily 'forms of life' play an important role in that reality-constitution. This is in principle no different from saying that observation-statements are interpretations whose meaning is theory-dependent. Hermeneutics and structuralism merely extend this principle into all realms of human life or consciousness. That is to say, the language-dependent view of reality in scientific understanding and explanation is but an application of a general principle to be found in all uses of languages. It appears to be a sort of Kantian property of our consciousness or understanding. And the application of this principle in science certainly derives its overall meaning from this general principle, common to both ordinary and constructed uses of languages." (28)
Gadamer calls this evolutionary interaction between pre-understandings "fusion of horizonts" ("Horizontverschmelzung"). The process of understanding is essentially an open and therefore a critical one. Its results are context-dependent and can always be criticized from other viewpoints. It is interesting to remember that the idea of the fragility and relativity of human knowledge was considered to be a weakness of the so-called soft sciences for a long time, while the exact sciences were praised by the certainty of their results. Neither hermeneutics nor philosophy of science are, by any means, aiming at diminishing the strength of scientific methodologies. We are coming of age, that is all. 
With the conception of human understanding as a world-open not vitious but creative circular and intersubjective self-conditioned language-game, hermeneutics is pointint to something as fascinating as ... Gödel, Escher, Bach, and Douglas Hofstadter (29). 




1. Recent Studies

Several authors, information scientists as well as philosophers, have considered the relationship between hermeneutics and information science. Having the honor to held this lecture in Stockholm I would like to mention first the work of Börje Langefors. The following quotation may give a general idea about his infological approach:  
"If data are what is handled by computers and information is what is to be served to people, then information is totally distinct in kind from data. Information is of the same kind as knowledge and data must form sentences in some language. Data inform if they bring about changes in the knowledge of the users. This will only happen if the data (or sentences) are formed in correspondence with the knowledge structure (S) of the user. Data, or sentences, do not 'contain' information, they only 'represent' information fragments and the information becomes established only if these fragments are brought into connection with a knowledge 'whole'. This was brought out in terms of the 'infological equation' (Langefors 1966):  
I = i (D,S,t)
Where I ist the information (or knowledge change) established by the transfer of some data (or signs) D. The equation is meant to stress that to obtain information (I) from certain data (D), an information process (i) is needed and the process requires a certain time (t). Furthermore the outcome of the process (I) is whole dependent on the 'pre-knowledge' structure S available to the process (thus to the data user). To 'understand' the data or receive the information will mean to conceive of a situation or event observed by somebody else and recorded as D. A deeper understanding may then result by the process (user) drawing all sorts of conclusions from the information received. All this, clearly, will depend on (other parts of) S. It is immediately obvious that the knowledge structure S implies all the kinds of problems recently articulated under 'buss words' such as paradigms, world-view, language games, ideology, personal styles and hermeneutics. It should also be clear that the data D are, basically, any real-life pattern that may be not only perceived but also 'understood' or interpreted in some way." (30)
Langefors has successfully integrated the concept of pre-understanding in a theory of information science. However, the question still remains as how far he still conceives human existence under the premise of a capsule-like subjectivity. Nevertheless, intersubjectivity and the idea of a community of interpreters play a central role in his infology.

Alwin Diemer and Norbert Henrichs, founders of the philosophy documentation center at Düsseldorf University, have made important contributions to an information science hermeneutics (31). Following Husserl's phenomenology - and particularly the terminology of knower/"noesis" and its correlate the known/"noema" -, Diemer calls thought content being transmitted in the information process "Informem". Informemes are constituted by the intersubjective process of understanding and they are identified in different ways through the processes of indexing and abstracting. The core of Diemer's informations science hermeneutics can be seen in the phenomenological relationship between the informemes and the interpretation community(ies). Informemes are constituted through the mediation of the interpreter's pre-understanding which is itself part of the of pre-understanding of a scientific community. The computer processes only data or tokens. Diemer's approach was, as far as I know, the first attempt to consider the whole information field from the point of view of hermeneutics. Some of his ideas were further developed by Henrichs.

Henrichs' approach (32) is based on hermeneutics as well as on Peirce's semiotics. Object, sign and interpreter, Peirce's central categories, constitute the underlying structure of the information field. If we consider the information concept from a semiotic perspective, we can distinguish between the meaning or content of the messages, the signs used to represent it, and the interpreters (producer, mediators, recipients). A characteristic of Peirce's semiotics as well as of Henrichs' approach is the non-separability of these three elements. It would be absurd to speak, for instance, of meaning (or knowledge)  in itself, i.e., without any relation to an interpreter as well as to signs denotating it.

The production of meaning and the processing of linguistic signs becomes informational when we regard them within the horizon of a community of interpreters. Information is a social category. Characteristic of this approach is the close relationship between hermeneutic and semiotic categories. These ideas were applied at the philosopher's documentation center of the University of Düsseldorf. This system is based on a non-standardized indexing method without taking into account the disadvantages of free-text. The fidelity to the sign level is compensated by a special consideration of the user's pre-understanding at the retrieval side. Henrichs' paradigm of information science is still a torso.

Finally I will mention the ASK-theory developed by N.J. Belkin, R. N. Oddy and H. M. Brooks  (33). ASK stands for anomalous states of knowledge and means that   

"an information need arises from a recognized anomaly in the user's state of knowledge concerning some topic or situation and that, in general, the user is unable to specify precisely what is needed to resolve that anomaly." (34)
According to this theory the information retrieval process should make possible to actively interact with the requester's knowledge structures, i.e., IR systems should be able to initiate a dialogue with the user's large-scale intentions without asking him to specify first his information need. Belkin stresses the importance of the user's "conceptual state of knowledge" which is in interaction with his "image of the world". He writes: 
"interactions of humans with one another, with the physical world and with themselves are always mediated by their states of knowledge about themselves and about that with which or with whom they interact. The IR situation is seeing as a 'recipient-controlled communication system, aimed at resolving the expressed information needs of humans, primarily via texts produced by other human beings." (35)
The key role played by the recipient's knowledge structure in this theory validates in some way its designation as a hermeneutic one. But the emphasis on the individual users should be expanded to the user's community with which he/she shares a similar knowledge structure and from whom he/she expects to get some help in order to solve the anomalies.

Peter Ingwersen (36) has recently related this cognitive model to B. C. Brookes' fundamental equation:

K (S) + D I = K (S + D S)

Where K(S) is an existing knowledge affected by some increment of information D I, and K (S+ D S) is the modified structure. Brookes relates this equation to objective knowledge in the Popperian sense of World 3. Ingwersen's adapts this model within the cognitive paradigm relating explicitly objective knowledge to a human knowledge structure (Popper's World 2) which it eventually modifies. But even in this modification does not take intersubjectivity into full consideration.  

2. A  Hermeneutic Foundation  of Information Science

The following is a rough outline of a hermeneutic foundation of information science that takes into account the existential as well as the contextual-critical discourses previously explained. Information science is thus delimited with regard to a general theory of information and communication. Delimitations are usually controversial. The field of scientific and technical information has proved to be too restricted with regard, for instance, to societal information and to all kinds of professional information that are not produced by research centers and the like. I use the term specialized information (Fachinformation) in this broad sense. Three basic parameters are necessary for its constitution: professional communities, special fields of research or action, a communication process based mainly on represented knowledge.

a) Professional communities

Producers and users of specialized information are not isolated individuals but belong to professional communities. These share common theoretical and practical interests that build up their horizon of pre-understanding. This specific "in-between" of a professional community belongs to the "'web' of human relationships" (Arendt) as mentioned above. Thus, problems and questions are interrelated in different ways within the whole of the existential structure as well as within the concrete personality system of the individual user, i.e., of his/her social, cultural, political, geographical, linguistic etc. system of reference. One major aim of information science is the study of users not as isolated individuals but as members of professional communities. Information science is (so far) particularly concerned with the study of how scientists obtain information. The concept of specialized information refers then to the communication of knowledge contents to one (or several) professional communities. Information in information science is a social category. The term professional points to a more general target as the term scientific community. This is, I believe, a necessary and useful extended sense as it takes into consideration the whole range of theoretical and practical issues that constitute the core of advanced technological societies. 

We usual think about professionals as people with an in-depth knowledge in one specific field. The physicist Werner Heisenberg has a different view. For him a professional (Fachmann) is a person who knows some important mistakes in his/her field, and how to avoid them (37). In other words, professionals are conscious of some major anomalies in their fields. They have a questioning attitude, as they have learned to be cautious. This means, paradoxically, that we should look upon professionals from the point of view of their ignorance. A very Socratic viewpoint indeed. The study of information processes within professional communities are at the core of information science. There is need for research on a sociological theory of professional communities, not just on a sociology of science. We need to explore the ways professionals gather and interpret information in order to solve their problems (38). To consider hermeneutically  professional communities as a core issue of information science means to criticize:  

    • an isolating view of users and their cognitive structures,
    • a restrictive view on scientific communities,
    • a purely objective view of represented information.

b) Special Fields of Research or Action

Special fields of research or action is the second parameter necessary for the constitution of specialized information. They are the correlate of a professional community and their pre-understanding. K. Popper is right, on the one hand, when he states that we do not investigate subject matters or disciplines but problems (39). But problems are, on the other hand, related to specific frameworks of theories, beliefs, traditions, interests and so on. In Popper's words, we can say that as there are no brute facts - facts are always theory-impregnated - there are also no brute problems. Special fields of research and action are not necessarily identical with subject disciplines in universities. In information science the question of delimitation of a subject field plays a significant role. Databases and expert systems are basically always related to of a scope or subject  field. Some of the empirical laws in our field, for instance Bradford's law, refer to the regularities of the core literature of a subject field. 

The concept of subject fields has radically changed with regard, for instance, to the classification schemes of the 19th century. We can call this change a Copernican revolution. Instead of considering knowledge something static and permanent in the center of a (library) system, we are now aware of the constitutive role played by the interpreter and user of such schemes. This means a dynamic view of knowledge schemes as something which is "in-between" the members of a professional community, i.e., constituted by their horizon of expectations. The delimitation of a subject field also implies the use of a specialized vocabulary or language game (Wittgenstein). The study of the structure and use of such vocabularies including the use of logical devices in modern expert systems is a major concern of information science.

c) Professional communication

Communication is a main concern of information scientists, particularly with regard to modern information technology. The technological view leaves aside, as C. Shannon and W. Weaver remarked, the semantic and pragmatic levels of communication. These levels are at the core of information science research. From a comprehensive view of human existence, communication, on the one hand, cannot be reduced to the physical process of sending and receiving signals, but it is a specific human phenomenon. Freedom of thought, on the other hand, cannot be considered idealistically, as something independent from the ways of its communication. Kant reminds us of this when he writes:  
"But, how much and how correct could we think, if we would not do it together with other people, to whom we can communicate our thoughts and they theirs!" (40)
Communication means making knowledge publicly available. The concept of information points to this potential availability, adding a new aspect to the concept of knowledge: information is knowledge as seen form the point of view of its capacity of being communicated. Here is the place where the concept of representation of knowledge as used by modern cognitive science becomes interesting for information science. In fact, for some information scientists such as B. C. Brookes,  information is identical with objectivized knowledge. As Ingwersen remarks  (41) "objective information" should not be separated but dynamically integrated with the intersubjective process of interpretation. Information scientists are not interested in building knowledge structures in themselves in a pre-Copernican manner, but they study the interaction of represented knowledge with a user community whose pre-understanding of a specific field is supposed to be partially objectivized. 

The concept of information in information science includes these three dimensions: a professional community, i.e. the producers, interpreters and users of specialized information, a specific field of research or action to which (objectivized) thought contents are supposed to primarily refer, and a communication process through which they are shared by the community of interpreters. 

The following quotation by Martha Williams summarizes, I believe, this hermeneutic paradigm of information science:  

"Information science is the quest to understand the nature of information, man's interaction with information, and the communication process. It is a developing discipline and, although it uses the tools and techniques or technologies of many other disciplines, it has its own subject matter (information) and its own problems (human communications)." (42) 
Information and meaning are, on the one hand, very close concepts indeed, but they are not identical, as the concept of meaning is not usually related to that of communication. Information, on the other hand, should be potentially meaningful. Fred Dretske argues in a recent study (43) that the concept of information should not be confused with meaning but that it should be applied to all kinds of communication mechanisms. From the point of view of information science I agree with Langefors' distinction between data and information. Nevertheless, the information concept, as we can see in its history, is a very rich one. A broad application can be useful in order to stress the common ground of different phenomena, as Dretske suggests. However, unless we are monists, analogy does not mean identity. As Bar-Hillel remarked  (44) we must be careful with the "semantic traps".

3. Hermeneutics and Information Retrieval

It is not difficult to see now the relevance of hermeneutics not only for information science but also for the information retrieval praxis.   

Databases (bibliographic, numeric, factual etc.) and other forms of knowledge representation such as expert systems are objectivizations of specific pre-understandings. Their scope or horizon is supposed to be the correlate of the one shared by a professional community. This must be clearly stated before the input of the information items into the computer takes place. Information systems are basically related to outside parameters. There is no absolute system as there is no absolute information. Classification schemes, indexing methods etc. delimit the possible horizon of interpretation of the (bibliographic) items. The online dialogue can be considered as a special kind of hermeneutic process. On the one side we have the fixed horizon of the system, while on the other side there is the open or existential horizon ofthe inquirer. During the dialogue a "fusion of horizons" (H.-G. Gadamer) takes place on different levels (descriptors, descriptive categories, contents of abstracts, classification etc.). The partial identity or "fusion" between the horizon of the inquirer and the objectivized horizon of the system is actively determined by the pre-understanding of the searcher and by his/her question and query formulation(s).

As far as the system corresponds to the user's pre-understanding behind his/her question(s) a partially positive answer or "fusion" takes place, such as (part of) the anomaly can be solved. In the case of bibliographic databases such a solution usually means some references to relevant documents. Thus, bibliographic databases only offer a very limited possibility for a "fusion of horizons" with regard, for instance, to expert systems. Our capacity to build more intelligent information systems depends on our insight on the pre-understanding of a professional community. As D. R. Swanson remarks, the retrieval process can be compared to a trial-and-error process in scientific research. He states, following Popper's ideas, the following analogy:

"Creative research does not begin with a 'topic' but with a problem - a researcher must be puzzled, curious, in a sense 'bothered' about something. Even this is not enough - some initial conjecture as to the nature of a possible solution to the problem at least must also be present. Theories are not synthesized form observations. Quite the contrary; one cannot gather data or make an observation without first having a theory. (...) Analogously, we might look upon the process of information retrieval as a trial of a conjecture, guided by some idea of what one is seeking. The principle value of the process lies not so much in the direct use of the retrieved documents but rather in the indirect function which they serve of stimulating a reformulation of the request. A request (...) is a conjecture, which he tests by examining the retrieved document." (45)
The retrieval process can thus be primarily considered as a problem oriented process and not as a purely 'objective' or 'topic oriented' one. But it would be misleading, I believe, to divorce the horizon of the inquirer from the one he shares with other colleagues and which is, of course, not something definite or 'objective' in a pre-Copernican way. The existential ASK-situation considers the problem to besolved as interrelated with the pre-understanding of a professional community as well as with problems, goals and interests which are finally shared in different ways by society in general. The answers of the system are thus matched against this complex background and just against a query formulation or a discipline, dissociated from the whole existential structure.  

The question of relevance in information retrieval must take these different levels into account. T. Saracevic (46) has summarized this matter some years ago. In his excellent Introduction to Modern Information Retrieval, G. Salton states a difference between an objective or system-oriented and a subjective or user-oriented relevance (47) Of course it would be wrong to identify the process of information retrieval with the conception of scientific research as a trial-and-error process. Stephen P. Harter (48) has recently emphasized the limits of this analogy. The motivation and the subsequent treatment of the results differ significantly in online searching and in scientific inquiry. He writes:

"the raison d'etre of scientific research is its contribution to knowledge, to our theoretical understanding of ourselves and our universe. The purpose of online information retrieval is much less grandiose. (...) The results obtained do not ordinarily become part of a knowledge base or larger theory, as do the results of research." (48, p. 111)
With regard to the problem-oriented and the topic-oriented relevance we should avoid to divorce them, as we can no less divorce the individual inquirer from the (professional) community.

F. W. Lancaster  (49) makes a terminological difference between  relevance as the relationship between a document and a request statement  and pertinence as the relevance to the requester himself.  Boths aspects are "subjective and equivocal" though "no less important in system evaluation". The reason for this paradox is, I believe, a (tacit) hermeneutic view of the pre-understanding of a community,  subject matters being nothing objective or in themselves, but a relative horizon of such a community.

Finally we should be aware that the scientific process of testing hypothesis is related to truth and falsity of theories, while there is no such specific intention in online searching. The underlying purpose is to search and find presumably relevant information. The concepts of error and truth as used in scientific methodology would prove, in this context, to be misleading. Online searching is not restricted to scientific information but concerns different kinds of pragmatic interests. The concept of relevance has to embrace all possible levels of the process, which thus can only partially be explained with the analogy of scientific inquiry. 

Pointing to the role of the inquirer as a correlate of a request, Swanson and Harper implicitly stress the intersubjective nature of information retrieval. Hermeneutics offers a broad theoretical spectrum that enables a more adequate analysis of the information retrieval process as the specific model of scientific inquiry. The dialectic of pre-understanding and understanding, i.e., of the critical "fusion" between questions and answers as a biased process is a process that leads always to tentative or conjectural knowledge. The present research in information retrieval heuretics should be considered with this broader hermeneutic frame.




Databases and expert systems are, with the framework of hermeneutics, objectivizations of specific pre-understandings of professional communities. Professional knowledge and, correspondingly, information about it, is essentially tentative or non-authoritative. Communication is not only "the essence of science" (Garvey) (50) but a human dimension. In a recent report on Artificial Intelligence (51) some of the lessons learned so far are listed:  
  • AI is much more difficult than expected
  • Heuristic research is required to limit combinatorial explosion
  • The lack of contextual knowledge severely limits capability
  • Expectation is a human characteristis of intelligence
  • It is difficult to handle a broad domain (e.g. common sense)
These are highly hermeneutic lessons. Marvin Minsky (52) considers the modern theories of intelligence to be moving away from traditional attempts in Psychology and Artificial Intelligence trying to represent knowledge as a collection of separate fragments. A key issue in the new theories of intelligence is, according to Minsky, the concept of frame, which he defines as a "data structure for representing a stereotyped situation" (p. 96). Minsky sees this frame concept in the tradition of Kuhn's paradigms: such a data-structure can be "a collection of questions to be asked about a hypothetical situation" (p. 109).  

According to Hubert Dreyfus,  Minsky's proposals are closely related to Husserl's phenomenology. The result  

"is a step forward in AI techniques from a passive model of information processing to one which tries to take account of the context of the interactions between an expert and his world." (53)
But AI comes to an impass when it tries to treat the background as an object. This is, as Dreyfus states following Heidegger's criticism of Western metaphysics, a metaphysical assumption. Intelligence is situated. It cannot be separated from the rest of human life (53, p. 203). The assumption we could represent all "prejudices" is as illusory as the belief it could be possible to obtain unbiased knowledge.

To be intelligent means, for men and information systems, to be able to make conjectural inferences from a bulk of foreknowledge. This is an old truth. Aristotle writes: 

"All teaching and learning by way of reasoning proceeds from pre-existing knowledge." (54)
If we are able to build up intelligent information systems this does not necessarily mean that they will become human. Just because being human means more than simply being intelligent.




(1) R. Capurro: Information. Ein Beitrag zur etymologischen und ideengeschichtlichen Begründung des Informationsbegriffs. München, Saur 1978, pp. 81 ff.  

(2) H. Völz: Information. Studie zur Vielfalt und Einheit der Information. Berlin, Akademie Velag 1982, 2 vol.; F. Machlup and U. Mansfield Eds.: The Study of Information. Interdisciplinary Messages. New York, Wiley 1983. 

(3) L. Wittgenstein: Philosophische Grammatik. Oxford, Basil Balckwell 1969.  

(4) S. Johnson: A Dictionary of the English Language. London, 1755. Repr. Olms, Hildesheim 1968. 

(5) The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, Clarendon Press 1961  

(6) C. E. Shannon and W. Weaver: The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, University of Illinois Press 1949. 

(7) Ch. W. Morris: Signs, Language and Behavior. New York, Braziller 1955.  

(8) Y. Bar-Hillel: Language and Information. London, Addison-Wesley 1973. 

(9) D. M. Mackay: Information, Mechanism and Meaning. Cambridge, MIT Press 1969. 

(10) The following analysis is based on my interpretation of the original texts which I am not going to quote here. See (1) p. 106 ff. 

(11) R. Capurro (1) pp. 162 ff. 

(12) F. Machlup and U. Mansfield, op.cit., p. 34.  

(13) ibid. p. 58. 

(14) M. A. Boden: Methodological links between artificial intelligence and other disciplines. F. Machlup and U. Mansfield, op.cit., p. 229 ff. For a comprehensive inquiry on the epistemological foundations of AI see W. Daiser: Künstliche Intelligenz Forschung und ihre epistemologischen Grundlagen. Frankfurt a.M. Lang 1984. European Univ. Studies, vol. 152). 

(15) M. A. Boden, op.cit. p. 235. 

(16) H.-G. Gadamer and G. Boehm Eds.: Seminar: Philosophische Hermeneutik. Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp 1978; H.-G. Gadamer: Hermeneutik. In: J. Ritter Ed.: Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie. Stuttgart, Schwabe 1974. 

(17) H.-G. Gadamer: Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik. Tübingen, Mohr 1975 (engl.: Truth and Method, transl. by G. Bardeb and J. Comming. London 1975). 

(18) H. Albert: Traktat über kritische Vernunft. Tübingen, Mohr 1968; K. R. Popper: Objective Knowledge. An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford, Clarendon Press 1973). See the discussion in H.-G. Gadamer: Wahrheit und Methode, op.cit. pp. 513 ff. 

(19) K.-O. Apel: Transformation der Philosophie. Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp 1976.  

(20) J. Habermas: Der Universalitätsanspruch der Hermeneutik. In: R. Bubner, K. Cramer, R. Weil, Eds.: Hermeneutik und Dialektik. Tübingen, Mohr 1970, pp. 73 ff. In his recent study: Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp 1981, Vol. 1, pp. 158 ff), Habermas points to the comparable results and mutual fructification of hermeneutics, philosophy of science and critical theory. 

(21) See K.-O. Apel, op.cit. 

(22) For an application of Heidegger's existential hermeneutics in the field of psychology and medicine see M. Boss: Grundriss der Medizin und der Psychologie. Bern, Huber 1975. 

(23) H. Arendt: The Human Condition. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press 1970, pp. 182-183. 

(24) ibid. p. 5. 

(25) H.-G. Gadamer: Wahrheit und Methode, op.cit. 

(26) Th. S. Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press 1970. 

(27) H.-G. Gadamer: Wahrheit und Methode, op.cit. p. 9; see: L.K. Schmidt: The Epistemology of Hans-Georg Gadamer: an analysis of the legitimization of Vorurteile. Frankfurt a.M., Lang 1985. 

(28) G. Floystad: Contemporary Philosophy: A new survey. The Hague, M. Nijhoff, vol. 2, pp. 6-7. 

(29) D. Hofstaedter: Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. New York, Basic Books, 1979. 

(30) B. Langefors: Models and Methodologies. In: J. Hawgood Ed.: Evolutionary Information Systems. Amsterdam, North-Holland 1982 pp. 48 ff; B. Langefors: Hermeneutics, Infology and Information Systems. TRITA-IBADB No. 1052 (June 1977); B. Langefors: Infological Models and Information User Views. Information Systems 5 (1980) pp. 17-32. 

(31) A. Diemer: Information Science - A New Science. In: International Federation for Documentation Ed.: Study Committee "Research on the Theoretical Basis of Information. Moscow, April 1974 (FID 530) pp. 192-203; A. Diemer: Hermeneutik. Düsseldorf, Econ 1977; A. Diemer: Informationswissenschaft. Nachrichten für Dokumentation 22 (1971) 3, pp. 105-113. 

(32) N. Henrichs: Informationswissenschaft und Wissensorganisation. In: W. Kunz Ed.: Informationswissenschaft. München, Oldenbourg 1978 pp. 150-169; N. Henrichs: Von der Dokumentation über die Information zur Kommunikation. Bibliothek, Dokument, Information. Tagungsbeiträge, Wien 1980 (München, Saur 1981) p. 77-98; N. Henrichs: Philosophie-Datenbank. Bericht über das Philosophy Information an der Universität Düsseldorf. Conceptus 4 (1970) pp. 133-144.  

(33) N. J. Belkin, R.N. Oddy, H.M. Brooks: ASK for Information Retrieval. Journal of Documentation 38 (1982) 2, pp. 61-71; N.J. Belkin: Anomalous States of Knowledge as a Basis for Information Retrieval. The Canadian Journal of Information Science 5 (1980) pp. 133-143; N.J. Belkin: Cognitive Models and Information Transfer. Social Science Information Studies (1984) 4, pp. 11-129. 

(34) N. J. Belkin, R.N. Oddy, H.M. Brooks, op.cit. p. 62. 

(35) ibid. p. 65. 

(36) P. Ingwersen: A cognitive view of three selected online search facilities. Online Review 8 (1984) 5, p. 465-492; P. Ingwersen: Psychological aspects of information retrieval. Social Science Information Studies (1984) 4, pp. 83-95; B. C. Brookes: The foundations of information science, Part I: Philosophical aspects. Journal of Information Science, 2,3,4 (1980) pp. 125-133. 

(37) W. Heisenberg: Der Teil und das Ganze. München, DTV 1976, p. 247. 

(38) G. Wersig: Informationssoziologie. Frankfurt a.M: Fischer 1973; G. Wersig: Informations- und Kommunikationstechnologien: Ersatz oder Unterstützung der menschlichen Komponente, Nachrichten für Dokumentation 31 (1980) pp. 11-14; M. Kochen: Information and Society. In: M.E. Williams Ed.: Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (Knowledge Industry Publications, 1983) vol. 18, pp. 277-304; J. Meadows: Social limitations on the use of new information technology, Journal of Information Science 6 (1983) p. 11-20. 

(39) K. R. Popper: Conjectures and Refutations. The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1965, p. 67. 

(40) I. Kant: Was heisst: Sich im Denken orientieren? Darmstadt, Wiss. Buchgesellschaft 1975, Vol. 5. 

(41) See Reference (36). 

(42) M.E. Williams: Information Science and Transparent Systems. In: ASIS Bulletin, April (1985) p. 5. 

(43) Fred I. Dretske: Knowledge and the Flow of Information. Oxford, Basil Blackwell 1985, p. vii. 

(44) See Y. Bar-Hillel, op.cit., p. 296. 

(45) D. R. Swanson: Information Retrieval as a Trial-and-Error Process. In: B.C. Griffith, Ed.: Key Papers in Information Science. New York, Knowledge Industry Publications 1980, pp. 328-348. 

(46) T. Saracevic: Relevance: A Review of the Literature and a Framework for Thinking on the Notion in Information Science. In: M.J. Voigt and M.H. Harris Eds.: Advances in Librarianship. New York 1976, pp. 81-138. 

(47) G. Salton and M.J. McGill: Introduction to Modern Information Retrieval. New York, McGraw-Hill 1983, p. 176. 

(48) S. P. Harter: Scientific Inquiry: A model for online searching. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 35 (1984) pp. 110-117. 

(49) F. W. Lancaster: Information Retrieval Systems. New York, Wiley 1979, 2nd.Ed., pp. 256 ff.

(50) W. D. Garvey: Communication: The Essence of Science. Oxford, Pergamon 1979.

(51) Artificial Intelligence: A New Tool for Industry and Business. SEAI Institute 1984, vol. 1, p. 7. 

(52) M. Minsky: A Framework for Representing Knowledge. In: J. Haugeland Ed.: Mind Design. Philosophy, Psychology, Artificial Intelligence. Cambridge, MIT Press 1982,  
pp. 95ff. 

(53) H. L. Dreyfus: From Micro-Worlds to Knowledge Representation: AI at an Impasse. J. Haugeland, Ed., op.cit. pp. 161 ff. 

(54) Aristotle, Post. An. I, 71 a1.     

Last update: March 31, 2024

Copyright © 1999 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.

Back to Digital Library
Homepage Research Activities
Publications Teaching Interviews