Design, Hermeneutics, Wittgenstein and Our Ethical Commitment to the World

I. A New Understanding of Design

The Harvard Business Ideacast #160 is an interview with Roberto Verganti, the author of Design Driven Innovation – Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating what Things Mean.  Verganti’s ideas about design point to the etymology of design, derived from the latin designer – to designate, or as Verganti presents it; to ascribe meaning.  For Verganti, designing seems to be an act of hermeneutics; finding interpretations that change the meaning of things or services.  One of examples that Verganti gives is Sony, who invented the idea the personal and portable music player with the Walkman; later digitalized as the CD playing Diskman.  Later, it was Apple that put music on portable hard disks and subsequently changed the meaning of a personal portable music device, leading to the success of the ipod.  The marketing success of these products was not due to any kind of technical advantage.  Many companies could have put music on portable hard disks including Sony.  Success came in how Apple was able to changed the meaning and the place of music in people’s lives.  In other words, it was a hermeneutic act.  Understanding design as interpretation helps to clarify how design thinking is relevant to human activity across many functions.  First, a short diversion that will hopefully lead to a deeper understanding of hermeneutics.

II. Hermeneutics in Contemporary Philosophy

I’m not a professional philosopher, but hermeneutics was a buzz word from my graduate days in the 90s and here is my take on it.  Whether you trace the philosophical line of thought from Schleiermacher to Gadamer or from Nietzsche to Derrida, hermeneutics and meaning has been playing a central role in contemporary philosophy.  For me, hermeneutics culminates in the later ideas of Wittgenstein because of the scope of his thought that includes important spaces for science, and ethics.

Humans are meaning making organisms that are realized as they participate within situated forms of life.  Just like the story of Adam and Eve naming the animals, we actively experience the world around us, we ascribe meaning to the world and to those experiences and there seems not else we can do.  Words and experiences are better understood if they are not thought of as abstract representations of the mind, but rather, the means of hermeneutic action in the context of a lived life. Deed before word.  This draws from the idea that we do not directly experience the world, but whether we are perceiving objects or our experiences, they are understood by meaning creating mediators like scientific methodology.  Changing the meaning changes our basic understanding of what the object or experience will be.

According to Janik (2002), Wittgenstein took many fundamental ideas from Heinrich Hertz who believed that “rhetorical adequacy is as important as architecture” (see p. 8 ) when talking about scientific models.  Hertz gave three criteria for scientific models

  • They must be logically permissible, (i.e., internally consistent, empirically correct)
  • They must be communicatively appropriate or effective.
  • They must have usefulness in a given situation.

You can see in Hertz, the origin of the thought that even scientific meaning is derived from action; again, the idea of deed before word or action that leads to meaning.  This is also the space where ethics enters into the conversation.  A focus on action also leads to discussions of usefulness and of the need to evaluate the consequences of action.

Contemporary hermeneutics is not trivial.  It is a profound view of the world and what human are thought to be.  It was well expressed in a quoted passage of Slavoj Žižek’s Parallax View, recently discussed and posted by Jeff Meyerhoff in Philosophy Autobiography.

. . . from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to the late work of Wittgenstein, the most radical authentic core of being human is perceived as a concrete practico-ethical engagement and/or choice which precedes (and grounds) every “theory,” every theoretical account of itself, and is, in this radical sense of the term, contingent . . . (Quoting Fichte) “What philosophy one chooses depends on what kind of man one is.” . . . in the last resort there is not theory, just a fundamental practice-ethical decision about what kind of life one wants to commit oneself to.

III. As a final task, I will look at hermeneutics as design from the different ideas that I’ve been discussing recently:

  • Validity – As I’ve said before, Messick’s idea of validity can be thought of as a hermeneutics of measurement and that in turn also serves for me as another path that hermeneutics enters into an account of science.  Science (through measurement and theory) is not a raw empirical experience of the world, but is a hermeneutic application of experience.  It should not be divorced from art as it so often is, but both are still contingent to one’s commitments and practice-ethical decisions.  The Messick account of validity is consistent with Wittgenstein when he emphasizes that validity is found in the interpretation of test use, not in the abstract qualities of a test and when he says that validity should include an evaluation of the consequences of assessment.  An obvious statement of ethical import.
  • In response to an earlier query from Ann Burdick, who wonders why non-designers are so active in design conversations, design, as it is in Verganti’s hermeneutic act, is a form of life that is understood at some level by all humans.  Artists, directors, writers and the like acquire specialized skills and expertise at interpretation within the mediums of their specialization, but at some level; we are all practico-ethical designers and artists of our lives and of those around us that we touch.  Specialization allows them the ability to speak for the broader society, but all people have a need to act designerly.
  • In terms of Fred Collopy’s Management by Design, this is an acknowledgement of the central role of managers as practical ethical interpreter heros, leading society through the chaotic world of business.  Designing managers must master the range of hermeneutic  tools that allows managers and the organizations they lead to re-interpret and to change the meanings of their historical circumstances in route to envisioning and acting on a new and changed future.
  • In terms of the evidence-based movement, evidence and science are profound tools of interpretation, just as they were for Wittgenstein.  You might say, they are the sword and shield of our business hero.  But our manager heros are also like King Arthur in that his true strength is not in his weapons, but in his commitment to those around him, they to him, and in the practical and ethical choices they all make, or fail to make.

Evidence-based approaches, science, art, design, theories, words; these are the tools of our choices and they are not trivial tools.  They are the best and most productive tools we have to create our lived world, but they do not release us from the need to make the ethical choice.  And as Bob Dylan said; “You’re gonna have to serve somebody”.