Hermeneutic insights from information science

Quite unexpectedly in the field of computing science, also known as information science, I discovered an article today that shows a good grasp of hermeneutics by its author: Matthew Chalmers, Hermeneutics, information and representation, European journal of information systems, 13, 210-220. I shall now quote the most impressive passage in the article:

Interpretation is based on prejudice, which includes assumptions implicit in the language that the person uses. That language in turn is learned through experiences of interpretation. The individual and their prejudice are changed through the use of language, and the language changes through its use by individuals. A new word or experience is understood in relation to, and within, language and history. This endless process of seeing the part in and through the whole is the hermeneutic circle (Chalmers, 2004, 212).

However, unlike computer science, which is founded upon formal constructs, hermeneutics, in its study of lived experiences, does not strive for what Chalmers describes as the tendency for formal language to gain situational distanciation. As Chalmers himself notes, “Hermeneutic theory is based on accepting the effect of this indefinite, inevitable and infinitely detailed situational background” (Chalmers, 2004, 211). In fact based on hermeneutics, Chalmers argues that there is no Platonic space outside language for the meta-language of formal constructs to call home; the latter has to keep referring back to the living language of Dasein in order for it to be relevant and adaptable (see Chalmers, 2004, 212). In other words, language is bound up with the temporality (Zeitlichkeit) of Dasein. User activity and utterances thrive on a system of holism and interdependence: while Chalmers is not advocating that a “hermeneutic system” will be the new be-all-and-end-all of informatics in the “shared toolkit of techniques and devices” accessible to computer scientists (Chalmers, 2004, 219), his vision for the role of hermeneutics in his scientific field is relevant to the application of hermeneutics in even human-centred fields such as nursing theory:

We adapt and strengthen the tool of hermeneutics, testing its claim to universal applicability, with each turn of our own hermeneutic circle (Chalmers, 2004, 219).

However, it may be proper to question Chalmers’ affirmation of hermeneutics as a “tool” in a “toolkit” as missing the whole point of hermeneutics, which is founded upon the fundamental ontology of ontic-ontological differentiation, as emphasised by Heidegger in Being and time? The universality of the question of being (Seinsfrage), hence hermeneutics, does not mean that it can be readily appropriated in a mode of being that is shaped by the instrumentalism of techne. In other words, hermeneutics resists being reduced to techne by virtue of its very essence. Its practical application in being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein) is in the attainment of understanding and not in its mere utility as a device or technique.


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