Gerry's Home Page Interpretation in Design Hermeneutic Software Design Marx & Heidegger

Sec 4.1
Sec 4.2
Sec 4.3

Chapter 4


Chapter 4 explicates Heidegger’s analysis of understanding and interpretation. It traces his discussion through the relevant sections of Being and Time, his major work that addresses these issues. Heidegger presents his analysis of interpretation through a discussion of the human understanding of artifacts in the world. This involves analyses of:

a.   what it means for artifacts to be situated (Heidegger, 1927[1], §15 - §18; see Section 4.1 below);

b.   how the situation is understood through shared traditions and personal perspectives (ibid., §26, §29 - §31; see Section 4.2); and

c.   what the role of language is in communicating interpretations (ibid., §32 - §34; see Section 4.3).

This chapter uses examples of design from Chapters 2 and 3 to illustrate Heidegger’s points. It explores his philosophic analysis just far enough to shed light on the role of interpretation in design. Then Chapter 5 will apply the analysis developed here more explicitly to design. That will form the basis for a theory of computer support for interpretation in design, presented in Chapter 6.

Three points of background information are presented prior to beginning the Heidegger interpretation:

1.   Heidegger’s “hermeneutic” philosophy (or analysis of interpretation) is of central importance to people-centered sciences and other endeavors, including innovative design.

2.   His philosophy provides the foundation for the recent approach to cognitive science known as “situated cognition.”

3.   Heidegger does not develop a theory of design, let alone a theory of computer support for design. Even his analysis of human understanding is developed to serve a methodological role in an argument about ontology (the philosophy of being) that is tangential to the interests of this chapter. His philosophy will have to be adapted to the analysis of design and its computer support in Part II.

1. Heidegger’s hermeneutic philosophy is important to a people-centered science of design. Since Aristotle, the philosophy of interpretation has been known as hermeneutics. The term hermeneutics suggests the process of arriving at understanding, especially through language (Palmer, 1969). As such, it has long been associated with textual interpretation, such as Biblical exegesis. Etymologically, it derives from the Greek god Hermes, the wing-footed messenger, who was associated with the function of transmuting what is beyond human understanding into a form that human intelligence can grasp, and who was credited with the discovery of language and writing—the pre-computer tools humans have employed for grasping meaning and conveying it to one another.

In the nineteenth century, the hermeneutics of Dilthey and Schliermacher helped differentiate the Geisteswissenschaften (human sciences) from the natural sciences by contrasting the methods of (humanistic) interpretation and (scientific) explanation. Heidegger and his student Gadamer revived that orientation to expound a general theory of human understanding and interpretation. Today, hermeneutics refers primarily to this philosophy of interpretation as fundamental to human existence, which Heidegger (1927) formulated and Gadamer (1960) further expounded.

This chapter culminates the argument that design is to be understood as fundamentally a process of interpretation. That is, innovative design tasks such as lunar habitat design cannot be reduced to sets of explicit rules that are taken to be independent of the situations in which they are applied and the perspectives of the people who interpret then. To understand design, one must take into account the role of human interpretation. This means that a science of design—or, for instance, a theory of computer support of design—should be conceived on the model of the human sciences more than on that of the natural sciences. This is contrary to the traditional approach of AI attempts to automate design with rule-based expert systems, that look primarily to the mathematical sciences rather than the interpretive sciences for their model of scientific method. The subjective human aspects they often dismiss as incidental to design or view as unfortunate limitations are here taken as being of the essence.


Figure 4-1. Hermeneutic versus natural science approaches to design.


Heidegger’s philosophy of human interpretation occupies a pivotal role in this dissertation because innovative design is here approached from the perspective of the human sciences. This contrasts with, for instance, the influential approach of Simon (1981), who starts from a computational natural sciences outlook and then points out its bounds or limitations in design in order to arrive at a “science of the artificial.”

2. Heidegger’s ideas are fundamental to situated cognition. The power of Heidegger's writings to inspire critiques of rationalist outlooks can scarcely be over-estimated. In particular, the approaches of design theory, AI, and cognitive science that are important for this dissertation are philosophically close to Heidegger. His influence is, for instance, traceable via Dreyfus to the major spokespeople for situated cognition: Suchman, Ehn, Winograd, and Flores. Their relevance to the analysis of interpretation in design was discussed in Section 1.4 above. The parallels of Heidegger’s thought to other important writers like Rittel, Polanyi, Kuhn, and Schön are striking. Without understanding Heidegger’s alternative to the rationalist tradition, it is easy to misunderstand and trivialize the novelty and importance of situated cognition theory.


Figure 4-2. The two mainstreams of contemporary philosophy.

Their influences on theories of design and computer support for design can be traced back to Heidegger’s philosophy or to rationalism.


3. Heidegger’s analysis must be adapted to a theory of computer support. Being and Time (Heidegger, 1927) presents an "existential analytic". By this Heidegger means a hermeneutic interpretation of what it is to be human, to be involved with one's world and concerned with one's self. Along the way to his explication of people’s understanding of themselves, Heidegger analyzes the ways that people can be involved with things other than themselves in the world—for instance, by using tools like hammers. It is this secondary analysis of artifacts that will be of primary concern for the following discussion of interpretation in design. Heidegger's presentation will need to be reinterpreted along these lines and fleshed out with observations about the involvement of designers with design artifacts. It is entirely in keeping with the spirit of hermeneutics that Heidegger's writings be construed in accordance with current concerns, because interpretation is always necessarily from a perspective of specific human interests.

To understand Heidegger’s view, it is important to place his analyses of understanding within his methodological context, even if these notions are eventually to be applied in a quite different context here. The ideas presented in this chapter form the analytic core of the first step in Heidegger’s project: to explicate the meaning of being. Roughly, his general question is, what does it mean to say that something is? —what is it to be a person, a hammer, a lunar habitat? It is hard to say more precisely just what Heidegger means by the meaning of being, even after he spent a lifetime struggling to articulate it. This difficulty is due to peculiarities of the history of Western thought according to Heidegger. While the early Greeks had a tacit understanding of being, even that vague grasp became increasingly obscured from the time of Plato to the present. So Heidegger’s task is to regain the original tacit understanding and explicate it. This is a matter for interpretation, and that is precisely how Heidegger treats it. He argues that it is methodologically possible to pursue this question only because people do have a vague, tacit sense of the meaning of being. The question can be pursued by gradually explicating this sense. So the problem of tacit and explicit understanding is central to Heidegger’s task, just as it is to the task of providing computer support for design.

Heidegger’s argument is, in a way, circular. He first postulates that people have this sense of the meaning of being and that they have the ability to explicate their tacit senses through interpretation. They have a sense of the meaning of being because they exist in a world where they are involved with and concerned about beings: artifacts, other people, and themselves. Heidegger takes these postulates as phenomenological givens of human experience. For him, understanding never starts with a blank slate, but always with some meaningful content that can then be explicated: what was tacit can be stated, discoveries can be made, and terminology can be iteratively revised. From this starting point, he develops a coherent theory of interpretation that justifies his approach, provides an original philosophic outlook, and explains the ways in which traditional views obscured our relation to being.

Heidegger's thought can be viewed as a philosophy of interpretation or hermeneutics (although it is ultimately concerned with a very abstract form of interpretation: the philosophic understanding of being). His analysis of what it means to be human is inseparable from his analysis of what it means to interpret. The "hermeneutic circle", according to which "any interpretation that is to contribute understanding must already have understood what is to be interpreted" (S.152), is symptomatic of our relation to our world: "In every understanding of the world, [our] existence is understood with it and vice versa" (ibid.). Heidegger's writings are notoriously abstract, abstruse, and difficult to interpret. In order to render more concretize his ideas—including the analysis of the hermeneutic circle and of our relation to our world—the following sections will focus their attention on Heidegger's analysis of the three features of understanding that have already been considered in the previous chapters: its situated, perspectival, and linguistic nature.

[1] Due to the intricacies of Heidegger's language and the unreliability of English translations, quotes from Heidegger's (and Gadamer’s) works will appear in original translations, with references to the page (S.) or section (§) numbers of the German originals. The published English version of Being and Time includes the German page numbers in the margin.

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This page last modified on January 05, 2004