Library and information science in an age of messages: Rafael Capurro’s comments

In a previous post, I gave a slightly modified version of a chapter written by Lyn Robinson and myself for a Festschrift in honour of Rafael Capurro.


Capurro subsequently wrote an insightful and generous commentary on all of the book’s chapters. Below, I reproduce a shortened version of his perceptive comments on our chapter:

Thanks for your clear, concise and comprehensive analysis of thoughts on the nature of information science and its foundations.

You write “There is a good deal to be said about the relation between information and entropy, complexity and similar physical concepts, but it is not yet evident that this is best expressed in terms of messages and messengers.” You are right. What is missing in my analysis is no more and no less than the concept of time. Three-dimensional time plays a key role also in quantum mechanics as Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker and others have shown.

With regard to “Capurro’s Trilemma”, you write: “There are, it seems, two kinds of gaps: those between the concepts; and those between scholars who think it worthwhile to bridge such gaps and those who do not.” The “gaps between concepts” are in fact gaps between contexts. Aristotle is a master in presenting commonalities and differences between the use of concepts in different contexts. Take, for instance, his analysis of the concept of middle (meson, mesotes) in physics, logic, epistemology, and ethics.

With regard to the importance of the concept of document … you write “This might be seen as an endorsement of a focus on documentation as a central concern within LIS, although Capurro does not seem to have made this link explicitly”. This is not quite the case. I pointed to it in my PhD [thesis of 1978] where I defined information as documented knowledge made available or “useful” – ready-to-hand or “Zuhanden” in Heideggerian terms – within a network of institutions, media, instruments for classification and retrieval and the like. This definition is not only not in contradiction to Popperian World 3, but includes also Worlds 1 and 2. Popper’s criticisms of “pure facts” and his insistence that any observation is “theory-laden” is not dissimilar to the hermeneutic concept of “pre-understanding”.

Floridi’s “Philosophy of Information” is pretty near to my early research on the Latin root informatio and the Greek concepts of eidos, idea, morphe and typos. In the course of time I took a self-critical distance from it, becoming less metaphysical and more existential. Some clarity in these matters might come from a thorough analysis of what ontology means on different schools of thought and, as in my case, in Heideggerian phenomenology. An analysis of the question “what is a document?” should reflect the epochal changes of this concept in such a way that the word “is” in the definition should be always hermeneutically understood as an ‘as’.

… I am more curious than ever on how information science – will find its place within this [an] interdisciplinary framework (one that appears to me more like a labyrinth than having one sort of rationale based on a common language and related to the whole of reality.) But you are right when you ask: “What is real and what does ‘real’ actually mean?” These are fundamental questions that need to be asked again and again because the meaning of being changes epochally, as in the case of Heideggerian interpretation of being (as three-dimensional time). Thinking of the nature of the real from this perspective means to be able to look at the changing essence of what appears within a field of possibilities and not the other way round as metaphysics tends to do.

LIS can embrace both traditions, the metaphysical and the phenomenological, as it has to do with the reification of human knowledge as well as with its use. The use perspective is the practical and original horizon in which users are embedded. Information science takes the objectivizing “present-at-hand” perspective. In the preface of their seminal book Understanding computers and cognition (1986), Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores wrote “All technologies develop within the background of a tacit understanding of human nature and human work. The use of technology in turn leads to fundamental changes in what we do, and ultimately in what it is to be human. We encounter the deep questions of design when we recognise that in designing tools we are designing new ways of being.” This was and is still a key insight for my LIS research as well as for my view of information ethics from an intercultural perspective.

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