Philosophy & Technology

, Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 249–270

Book Symposium on Don Ihde’s Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science

Northwestern University Press, 1998


    • University of Copenhagen
  • Larry A. Hickman
    • The Center for Dewey StudiesSouthern Illinois University Carbondale
  • Robert Rosenberger
    • School of Public PolicyGeorgia Institute of Technology
  • Robert C. Scharff
    • University of New Hampshire
  • Don Ihde
    • Stony Brook University
Book Symposium

DOI: 10.1007/s13347-011-0060-5

Cite this article as:
Friis, J.K.B.O., Hickman, L.A., Rosenberger, R. et al. Philos. Technol. (2012) 25: 249. doi:10.1007/s13347-011-0060-5

Interpreting the Visual

Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen Friis, PhD

University of Copenhagen

Nørre Farimagsgade 5 A, Room 10.0.27

1014 Copenhagen, Denmark


Don Ihde published his book, Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science, in 1998. In this work, Ihde attempts to show how hermeneutics is embodied into the practices of researchers in the natural sciences. Hermeneutics is a method of reflexive thought that aims at an understanding of the meaning intended in the written texts. Written texts are permeated with intention, and given the texts’ physical condition, its content and meaning have a good chance to be understood and explained by the reader. For Ihde, hermeneutics is much more.

The collection of comments on Ihde’s Expanding Hermeneutics presents two perspectives: the retrospective view—scrutinizing the fundament of the “ghost-giants” from where Ihde’s expansion of the hermeneutical method takes its leap—Larry Hickman investigates the relationship between Ihde and Dewey, whereas Robert Scharff is critical to the post-phenomenological enterprise as such. He claims that post-phenomenological hermeneutics cannot replace more a traditional philosophy of science! According to Scharff, post-phenomenologists “…have made only minimal headway against those who think and speak more ‘scientifically’ about science” (see Scharff’s contribution and Ihde’s response in this volume). All of these contributions offer a thorough discussion of the founding ideas leading up to modern post-phenomenological research as we know it today.

The other line of argument is Robert Rosenberger’s “prospective” view—scientific knowledge is not merely a question of understanding nature as it is “in-it-self,” science is also about understanding the complex interplay between man, machine, and nature. With the study of all visual aspects pertaining to the natural sciences such as visualization, observation, and perception, “studies of the visual” have never enjoyed more interest than they do today. At no other time in history has the amount of scientific data, knowledge, and public information communicated through imagery been larger. Better sophistication enables technologies to access realities never before seen. We are capable of achieving better and more reliable diagnostics in medicine compared with just 10 years ago. These technological and scientific achievements open up new “worlds” that “extend beyond human perceptual ranges…” (see Ihde’s comment in this volume). Understanding what images mediate in contrast to what we read into them is vital. Therefore, Rosenberger’s comment on multi-stable images that Gestalt differently for different interpreters, thus enabling them to see things differently, is important. They are important because they concern the question of a realism of knowledge, i.e., that our knowledge about the world out-there actually is about the world out-there.

My own take on this echoes Rosenberger’s. Interpretations generated by an observer have variability built-in to them—there will be a certain amount of “bias” that can never be excluded—variations will always be part of interpretations of images, both as interpersonal variability1 and intrapersonal variability.2 Variability may generate new insights into a given problem, but they more often generate confusion about which interpretation is the correct one. Observer variability is therefore an impediment to the interpretation because you cannot proceed without considering the possibility of making a mistake; this particularly goes for radiologists, whose perceptions result in incorrect diagnostics.

In Don Ihde’s work, we find that hermeneutics derives from our innate ability to interpret, that is to say, to act, and to reflect upon pre-consciously sensuous information, as well as this innate interpretative ability he calls “perceptual thinking”: interpretation is something belonging to the act of perception that is inductive, intuitive, and, at a later stage in the process, reflexive—in other words “hermeneutic.” It is precisely this innate and skillful interpretative activity that I will pursue in the remainder of this introduction to this Symposium on Don Ihde’s Expanding Hermeneutics.

In his book Bodies in Technology (2002), Ihde discusses the concept of “perceptual reasoning.” Scientific knowledge is the result of a bodily sensory–motor–praxis–perception. This means that our subjective embodied perceptual skills—together with the individually acquired scientific know-how—are extended through technological instrumentation, thereby resulting in scientific knowledge. Ihde writes: “It is through instruments that transformed perceptions occur and new ‘worlds’ emerge, but any new world is itself a modification of life-world processes” (2002:58). One important perspective which Expanding Hermeneutics emphasizes is the cultural situatedness of human perception. It comes as no surprise that scientists are struggling with observer variation. Therefore, according to Ihde, now is the time to reinterpret the act of observation (2002:60).

Scientific perceptual habits have changed over the last 200 years. The scientist perceives things differently today than he did in 1810. The reason for this is that we are now looking at different things. We are trained differently. Now we develop our perceptual skills not by drawing but from reading a different sort of object, namely, its photographic image (Daston and Galison 2007:55–114). Scientific observations, both before and after image technologies, are incommensurable activities partly because objectivity and subjectivity have, according to Daston and Galison, changed places. This is a change from the artist-empiricists’ naive notion that the content of visual perception is directly given to the mind. The new view which is claimed across academic disciplines holds perception to be indirect and relativistic.

One reason for this relativism is that we are culturally programmed to use our eyes in certain ways when we look at things. Another reason is that we have become genetically enabled through the long history of human evolution to interpret the environment through perception. The relative aspect enters with the individual observer: how we interpret depends on our acquired skills. How the observer is geared to apply his ability to interpret depends on his individual mix of biological programming and skills acquired through cultural integration. How do we acquire these skills?

The eye is not a camera—it does not capture images. The eye is part of a perceptual processing unit which results in an interpretation of that which is given to the senses. The eye is an interface between mind and environment. As such, the eyes are part of a complex processing unit to trace and identify change, features, and form. What we are programmed to interpret—from a biological perspective—is information from a three-dimensional environment. Contour, texture, and regularity are invariant properties; these properties, which are invariant under different perspectives, allow us to single out objects and experience them as constant and as something that exists “out-there” (Barry 1997:33).

There are of course an unknown number of perceptual properties or abilities on which culturally acquired skills rest. The phenomenon of “filling in” is probably the best known of them. Filling in is an important feature of the perceptually thinking mind. How important filling in is can be explained by pointing to the time lag that exists between “actually happening” and “experienced as happening.” In order to compensate for the gap between the actual event and the awareness of it, the brain has to fill in information to act on from past experiences. As Barry writes: “What the brain does (…) is to utilize billions of synapses to access the whole of memory and to instantly recognize invariance, integrate it, generalize from it, and extend itself through analogy” (Barry 1997:35). In other words, filling in is the act of interpreting what is “actually happening” based on induction, tacit knowledge, and memory.

If we now add technologies—with the accompanying technological “noise” adding artifacts into the image—and in addition changing cultural frameworks such as personal interests, ideology, religion, and influence from teachers and parents, socioeconomic background and friends, media and scientific training, we can begin to fathom the variety of external influences on interpretation . All of these influences are structuring perception and are also part of the background for Gestalt variations. These individually varying influences constitute an addition to the experiential background—there must be a horizon for experiences to guide our awareness in order to act—there is no “one conductor conducting the symphony of synaptic charges, but only the neurological symphony in its fullness and, perhaps, a democratic synchrony among parts” (Barry 1997:43). Take the radiologist as an example.

The radiologist has been trained to read two-dimensional images in a three-dimensional world which he masters with skills acquired through touch and movement. Reading images demands a new way of seeing and a different know-how than the one he applies in his real-world situations. The radiologist cannot move about in the image, he cannot observe or touch the invariant shapes and patterns—he cannot filter out irrelevant information or judge depth and distance the way humans are geared to do when they go hunting on the moors or driving their cars in the city. What the radiologist can do is to look for internal inconsistencies, then examine these inconsistencies, and, lastly, to reflexively determine the nature of the found irregularity.

In this process, vision is not a one-way delivery system of information from the senses to the brain. Instead, according to Goldstein, we are involved in an active explanatory process which, in all respects, is “hermeneutical”; that is, the perceptual process is cyclical and there is a continual feedback and interaction throughout the visual system. This may not be a representation as such as many cognitivist theoreticians claim; it may instead be more like an activity on the part of embodied skills and practices. The visual system is an intelligent interpretative, sense, and order-making system (Goldstein 1989:50; Barry 1997:37; Noë 2004:2).

Rosenberger, Hickman, and Ihde all point to important extensions of hermeneutics, to observations and visualizations, which are likely to become relevant to the issue of realism in observations, diagnostics, and visualizations in science. Post-phenomenology is an “empirical turn” toward the philosophy of science and technology. There are at least two ways of understanding an “empirical turn” in this context. In accordance with Ihde’s aim, Larry Hickman writes that the essence of the empirical turn is to “help scientists to improve their tools and techniques….” In order to do just that, Rosenberger and numerous others have been applying detailed case studies in their research, all of which are contemporary cases. The other aspect also mentioned by Hickman is to extend “hermeneutics as a science practice” so that it meets up with experimentation. This suggestion is interesting, particularly if we want to investigate “how interpreters and instruments co-determine reality.”

To use case studies is one thing familiar to many. Experimentation is quite another thing all together. In philosophy, there is a new discipline called “experimental philosophy,” comprising a large number of analytically schooled philosophers who have become tired of the intuitive approach of the so-called armchair philosophers. Our gut feeling does not always tell us what is right or wrong. The new approach is to take nothing at face value, but to give it a thorough empirical investigation before we settle on a meaning. This approach has been proven very fruitful on moral intuitions. However, very little research has been conducted on scientific issues.

With regard to Hickman, the question now is what does it take to transform hermeneutics into a form of experimentalism? Can we experimentally investigate how interpreters and instruments co-determine reality? This would be post-phenomenology and technoscience mating with science. Perhaps methods from experimental psychology can be applied here—not in the questionnaire style, but for instance by using eye trackers or other measuring technologies.

Understanding reflective experience is important—as claimed by Dewey and in accordance with Hickman in this volume. Understanding how interpretation operates in primary object perception is equally important; otherwise, we will not be able to have any understanding of what sorts of elements inhabit our secondary reflective experience.


Amrine, F., Zucker, F. J, & Wheeler, H. (1987). Goethe and the sciences: A reappraisal. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science (BSPS), vol. 97. D. Reidel Publishing Company.

Barry, A. M. S. (1997). Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Daston, L., & P. Galison. (2007). Objectivity. ZONE Books.

Goldstein, E. B. (1989). Sensation and perception, 3rd ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Wadsworth.

Mosterín, J. (1998). Technology-mediated observation. Techné, 4(2).

Noë, A. (2004). Action in perception. The MIT Press.

Torretti, R. (1986). Observation. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 37, 1–23.

Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science

Larry A. Hickman, PhD

Center for Dewey Studies

Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Carbondale, Illinois 62901, USA


Some philosophers have seemed content to talk about the technosciences. Don Ihde wants to help scientists improve their tools and techniques by expanding the hermeneutic tradition into the domain of visualization.

In this collection of essays, published in 1999, Ihde argues for an expansion of hermeneutics beyond its traditional scope, which has for the most part tended to involve texts and textuality, into a wider and more vigorous program that is appropriate to the technosciences. His narrative begins with an attempt to clear the ground of as much of the traditional Cartesian dualistic underbrush as possible. With the help of painstaking analyses of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricoeur, he leads his readers beyond traditional treatments of hermeneutics toward a new mode that involves, as he says, “thing interpretation through imaging instruments” (Ihde 1999:8).

A crucial point in Ihde’s narrative appears at the end of Chapter 2, published for the first time in 1970, and at the beginning of Chapter 3, published some 20 years later. In these two essays, he notes the differences between Merleau-Ponty, who began with the silence of perceptual experience and viewed speech as a vehicle of emergent significance, and Heidegger, whose fundamental ontology was a phenomenology of language in a broad conceptual and historical sense (Ihde 1999:35). It might appear to some that this distinction between a phenomenology of speech and a phenomenology of language just reprises the old empiricism/idealism split. But Ihde thinks not.

First, he suggests that it is not a matter of either/or, but of both/and: “the phenomenology of speech and the phenomenology of language work together,” thus presumably providing a platform for the advances he wishes to make. Second, in a move that recalls the work of Bruno Latour, this platform allows for the expansion of hermeneutics into the nonhuman and inorganic, and into the artifactual as well, in ways that marry phenomenology and hermeneutics. That is more or less what Ihde means by “expanding hermeneutics.”

Remarkably, if we simply bracket the word “hermeneutics” and examine his larger project, Ihde appears to be closer to some of the twentieth century pragmatists, especially John Dewey, than he does to his hermeneutic predecessors. For one thing, he wants to bridge the gap between conceptual (linguistic) objects and material (in this case, visual) ones. Dewey did more or less the same thing early in his career, and his 1916 Essays in Experimental Logic took up the matter in some detail. For another, he wants to get beyond naive realism by emphasizing the role that selective interest plays in the technosciences. That is precisely the point of Dewey’s 1896 essay that demolished the concept of the reflex arc in psychology and of his 1905 essay “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism.” In a related point, Ihde wants to demonstrate that instruments are not just neutral conduits of reality, but that we interpret our experiences through, with, and by means of instruments. That is a recurring theme in Dewey’s 1925 Experience and Nature, and elsewhere. I could go on. But it is also worth noting that Ihde does not follow Dewey’s move of embedding techniques of analysis and interpretation within a wider theory of inquiry. Nor does he advance a thick treatment of what Dewey terms objects of a “secondary and refined system,” most notably including abstract objects. I will say more about that in a moment.

Ultimately, then, Ihde wants to advance beyond hermeneutics as it has traditionally been practiced, and even well beyond the very broad sense of language as the development of the significance of perception and bodily movement that he finds in Merleau-Ponty. He moves from concern with hermeneutics of language to hermeneutics of perception, and ultimately to treatment of technoscientific instrumentation as a “scriptorum of things” (apparently a place where things do their writing). He has thus traveled a considerable distance beyond Husserl, and beyond the later Heidegger as well, toward a thick pragmatic involvement with the technosciences.

To his great credit, then, Ihde will have none of the dystopian angst of most twentieth century European philosophers regarding technology. It is not that he wants to break with his tradition, however, but, as his title indicates, to renew and expand it. Nevertheless, some of his readers may wonder whether the old wine bottles will hold the new wine. Others may conclude, as I have suggested, that the new wine turns out to resemble a vintage produced long ago in a different philosophical vineyard.

It is worth asking whether, in his attempt to expand traditional hermeneutics, Ihde has not in fact staked out a place between traditional hermeneutics and what the pragmatists called experimentalism. Dewey, of course, thought the realm of meanings much broader than written or spoken language. As a part of his effort to functionalize (de-ontologize) the difference between conceptual and material instruments, Dewey wrote simply of “objects of secondary or reflective experience.” Such objects are hermeneutic in the sense that they are said to “enable us to grasp [primary objects] with understanding instead of just having sense-contact with them” (Dewey 1987:16). They provide a path by which we can return to things of primary experience with an enlarged store of meanings. Such secondary objects would of course include refined instruments of visualization, among others. They are the results of noting and constructing novel relations not only among things but also between ourselves and reconstructed things. This, I take it, is more or less what Ihde means by co-constitution, which is a kind of pragmatic constructivism that avoids the problems of both realism and idealism.

Unlike Dewey, Ihde does not have much to say about the consequences of the uses of instruments for our social and political lives. This is something that has not gone unnoticed among some of his critics. If we are to believe Dewey, a robust experimentalism must take into account not only the multivalent properties of media that Ihde describes so well but also the political contexts in which multivalence grows and functions. It might be asked, therefore, whether Ihde, as a part of his effort to maintain solid links with the hermeneutic tradition, has not perhaps been obliged to stop a bit short of a full-fledged socially and politically contexted experimentalism.

Lest it be said that he is tilting at straw figures, however, it should be noted that in Chapters 7 and 8, he argues that high profile work in the “analytic establishment,” such as that of Derik Parfit, has exhibited a kind of neo-Cartesianism that has not even come to terms with embodiment relationships. It thus appears that Cartesians, like the poor, we have with us always.

As for Rorty, Ihde thinks that he came a bit late to a rejection of foundationalism that he, Ihde, and fellow phenomenologists had achieved decades earlier (although he admits that there are still phenomenologists who are not only foundationalists of various sorts, but who also accept some form of transcendentalism). Nevertheless, he thinks that one of Rorty’s positive contributions was to stress what he, Ihde, terms the “horizontalization of language.” Seen negatively, this involves “a rejection of hierarchies to language and specifically a rejection of the language/metalanguage developments of foundationalists” (Ihde 1999:116). More positively, this would mean that there would be “no privileged language games, no disciplines, no privileged activities,” or, in other words, “a kind of democratic anarchism” (Ihde 1999:117). Ihde thinks that Rorty’s heroes, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey, all exhibited this move. This may be true of the first two, but I can find no evidence that Dewey went as far in this regard as Rorty suggested, or that Ihde seems to think. He argued, for example, that methodological naturalism was superior to supernaturalism in the domain of inquiry. But since inquiry is one of the things that we all do if we wish to survive and flourish, that fact alone constitutes a strong case for the priority of that particular activity over alternative supernaturalist approaches. There is simply no anarchism there.

At times, reading Ihde’s attempts to come to terms with the phenomenological version of the “linguistic turn,” one almost gets the sense that he has sipped some of the kool-aid. Yes, it is to a certain extent true, as he says on page 72, that “Meaning, in an existential theory of language, is the entire movement from silence to speech. It is a ratio of the implicit to the explicit.” But one wonders just how much breadth and plasticity he reads into the term “language.” Perhaps he is only glossing Merleau-Ponty at this point. Yet, a constant emphasis in Ihde’s work is the embodied nature of thought, of meaning. I cannot help imagining in this connection a deaf-mute sculptor who expresses visual meanings with a large marble and the tools required to work it. Certainly there is something here that is analogous to Merleau-Ponty’s move from silence to speech if speech is identified with the vocal or the literate. But there is also something that functions well outside of the realm of spoken or written speech, and that something is the very materiality that Ihde is keen to address with his expanded hermeneutics.

One of the strongest features of Ihde's program, in my view, is his emphasis on referentiality. His treatment of this matter rejects the emphasis of Derrida and his followers on: (a) deferral and difference, (b) the putative failure of reference, and (c) the claim of infinite re-interpretability of signs (Rorty’s “redescriptions”). At the same time, however, he rejects the desiccated treatments of referentiality that one tends to find in analytic philosophy, desiccated, that is, because they fail to take account of the embodied nature of thinking and acting. His position thus moderates the extremes of the positivist/postmodern polarity. In this respect, at times he writes like Dewey: “Referentiality results properly only from critical and ‘socially constructed’ results within a trained community employing variational investigations” (Ihde 1999:97). Furthermore, perceivability “is polymorphic and is always both bodily and cultural—no perception without embodiment, no embodiment without hermeneutic context.” To put matters bluntly, without this treatment of referentiality, or something like it, there can be no technoscience. Dewey told us as much when he laid out his “denotative method,” which insists that hypotheses (read interpretations) be tested by overt physical or imaginative actions (Dewey 1987:16).

In this volume, Ihde thus shares with pragmatism and French-style postmodernism some common positions, including falibilism, suspicion of transcendental arguments, anti-foundationalism, rejection of essentialism (tools and techniques are treated as multivalent), and so on. Where his project (and that of the founding pragmatists) goes beyond most French-inspired postmodernists is that Ihde and the pragmatists have treated the sciences as more than merely a convenient source of literary tropes (Charles Peirce was a career scientist, for example, William James was an M.D. who taught physiology, and Dewey collaborated with Myrtle McGraw on her experiments with differential physical development in twins).

One matter in which Ihde differs greatly from Dewey, however, as I have already suggested, is that he does not appear to locate his expanded phenomenological hermeneutic within a larger experimental theory of inquiry. A second difference involves the movement beyond the visual to the multi-sensory. Ihde addresses this matter to some extent in the final sections of his book, but it is probably not necessary to speculate in the way he does in order to go beyond a phenomenology grounded in the visual to an aesthetic that involves the tactile as well. Dewey, for example, went in that direction in 1934 in Art as Experience.

In sum, it is fair to say that Expanding Hermeneutics occupies an important place in Ihde’s larger project of moving the phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions into a domain from which they have largely been absent: a domain of broader and deeper engagement with the technosciences. Like his other volumes, this one testifies once more to Ihde’s well-informed and highly innovative approach to his subject matter and his preeminence as a philosopher of technology.


Dewey, J. (1987). Art as experience. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The collected works of John Dewey, 1882–1953, The later works. vol. 10. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969–1991.

Dewey, J. (1980). Essays in experimental logic. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The collected works of John Dewey, 1882–1953, The middle works. vol. 10. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969–1991.

Dewey, J. (1981). Experience and nature. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The collected works of John Dewey, 1882–1953, The later works. vol. 1. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969–1991.

Dewey, J. (1977). The postulate of immediate empiricism. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The collected works of John Dewey, 1882–1953, The middle works, 3 (pp. 158–167). Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969–1991.

Dewey, J. (1977). The reflex arc concept in psychology. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The collected works of John Dewey, 1882–1953, The early works, 5 (pp. 96–110). Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969–1991.

Ihde, D. (1999). Expanding hermeneutics: Visualism in science. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

The Body as Image Interpreter

Robert Rosenberger, PhD

School of Public Policy

Georgia Institute of Technology

DM Smith Building, 685 Cherry Street, Atlanta, GA 30332-0345, USA


Despite being published back in 1998, the time is right for a critical appraisal of Don Ihde’s Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science. It is a cornerstone work upon which builds the emerging school of thought called “post-phenomenology,” a movement studying bodily relations to technology from a phenomenological and pragmatic perspective. More specifically, this book provides the inspiration and the conceptual framework for many cutting-edge projects on the philosophy of image interpretation (e.g., Verbeek 2007; Hasse 2008; Rosenberger 2008; Carusi 2009; Riis 2011; Rosenberger 2011a, b; Vanhoutte and Wynants 2011; Carusi and Hoel, forthcoming; Forss, forthcoming; Hasse, forthcoming; Hoel, forthcoming; Rosenberger, forthcoming). In what follows, in the first section, I identify the key contributions of Expanding Hermeneutics, and in the second, I consider a specific philosophical project left in this book’s wake, namely, determining the implications of the notion of “multistability” for the epistemology of science.

1. Bodies and Scientific Imaging Technologies

Though Ihde is not the first to contend that it is productive to account for scientific practice in terms of “hermeneutics” (or, roughly, the study of interpretation), he approaches the topic in a sharply innovative and useful way. Ihde identifies the phenomenological dimensions of language interpretation, highlighting the ways that written language is always interpreted through a concrete bodily context, including embodied habituation and perceptual Gestalts. The central insight: much of scientific imaging practice can be productively understood in terms of relationships between technology and human bodily perception. That is, rather than understanding image interpretation in science as a process of decoding data or representations, or even as a form of language translation, image interpretation should be conceived as a bodily encounter with an artifact, one which conveys its information in a visual Gestalt.

Once image interpretation in science is understood in terms of human–technology relations, a number of issues are cracked open for study. One issue is the crucial role of a scientist’s embodied position in the process of image interpretation; an imaging technology produces a specific kind of thing, a readout, an artifact which is available to the human body’s specific capacities of visual perception. Ihde writes, “the embodied ‘here’ of the observer not only may be noted but is a constant in all sensory perspectivalism.…The ‘ideal observer,’ a ‘god’s eye view,’ and nonperspectivalism do not enter a phenomenology of perception” (1998, p. 171).

This insight calls attention to an abundance of oft-overlooked yet relevant features of scientific images, features which are the result of technological transformations rendered to an object of study in the process of making it available to human perception. Just to name a few: images are segmented and “framed” space; they are often flatly two-dimensional; they may involve the use of false color; they may involve transformations of temporality, for example isolating a single moment; they may involve transformations of space, changing location or size. Ihde writes, “Technologies transform all possible representations and are never purely correspondent. In this respect they are ‘hermeneutic’” (1998, p. 92). This relates to another important point: despite the often significant transformations rendered to an object of study in the process of image making, a scientist trained in the practices of interpretation becomes able to apprehend much of an image’s content all at once in a perceptual Gestalt. According to Ihde, this is precisely what makes images so useful. He writes, “The role of repeatable, Gestalt patterns…is the epistemological product of this part of the quest for knowledge” (Ihde 1998, p. 171).

A second issue is what Ihde calls “technological trajectories.” According to Ihde, the refinement of an imaging device introduces its own research vector: technological refinement incites more and more refinement. This provides a counterpoint to a conception of science as exclusively theory-driven. He explores a number of trajectories present in the history of science and reflects on their influence and contingency. One important distinction that emerges is between isomorphic images which maintain some visual relation to their targets and non-isomorphic images which have no such relation. On non-isomorphic images, he writes, “I am pointing to those analogues of texts which permeate science: charts, graphs, models, and a whole range of ‘readable’ inscriptions which remain visual, but which are no longer isomorphic with the referent objects or ‘things themselves’” (1998, p. 167). Even images which lack any isomorphism with their target of study involve the phenomenological features of human–technology relations discussed.

2. Multistability and Scientific Epistemology

An issue I have stumbled upon through the course of my own applications of Ihde’s ideas to several cases of image use in science is that his influential notion of “multistability” is deployed in a rather restricted way in Expanding Hermeneutics. Multistability refers to a technology’s capacity to mediate user experience in multiple ways, to hold different meanings for different users, and to always retain the potential to fit into various use contexts. This idea is a mainstay of Ihde’s corpus, is a central tool uniting much of the work in the post-phenomenology, and is one of the key concepts grounding post-phenomenology in pragmatic non-foundationalism. I suggest that an open project for post-phenomenology, even after Expanding Hermeneutics, is to determine the implications of the multistability of images for the epistemology of science.

In other works, most notably Experimental Phenomenology, Ihde provides a detailed account of the multistability of human perception itself (1986). He explores the nature of perception through the analysis of visual illusions.

For example, the Necker cube, shown in A of Fig. 1, is a drawing of a cube that can be interpreted in multiple ways. It can be viewed with different sides standing forward (e.g., the sides highlighted in B and C) and can even be viewed as a non-cube shape, that is, a kind of top-down view of a cut gem (D). Other perceptual stabilities are possible. Ihde writes, “The objects of the inquiry—multistable phenomena—should appear in different ways to the now educated vision” (Ihde 1986, p. 104). Through the analysis of this and other visual illusions, Ihde investigates what makes possible the recognition of the multistability of human perception.
Fig. 1

Drawings of Necker cubes with different areas highlighted

In addition to human perception, Ihde claims that technologies are multistable. Across his corpus, Ihde identifies a profusion of examples of technologies which have been embodied in a variety of ways, shifting through history or becoming embedded differently in different cultural contexts. For example, he recently has investigated the history of archery, outlining different kinds of bows and arrows and the different cultural practices and bodily training associated with each bow and arrow type (Ihde 2009, pp. 16–19).

Building from Ihde’s accounts of the multistability of human perception and the multistability of technological embodiment, it is possible to see how multistable hermeneutic relations could be characterized. A multistable hermeneutic relation to technology would be one in which a user can maintain multiple stable perceptual relationships with a “readable” device. Take, for example, a wristwatch. One who can “tell time” is able to look down at the watch’s face and immediately perceive the time of day in a perceptual Gestalt. Alternatively, a wristwatch can be used as a stopwatch; one can monitor the seconds that go by with the help of the watch in order to determine the duration of an event. Multiple perceptually coherent relationships are possible.

Questions raised here include: what are the implications of the multistability of hermeneutic relations to technology for our understanding of images in science? What does it mean to say that an image produced by scientists is open to multiple stable interpretations? A central accomplishment of Expanding Hermeneutics is the development of an account of the Gestalt experience incited by images that have been produced through the transformations of laboratory technologies. To maintain that an image in science is multistable is to understand it to have the potential to Gestalt differently to different interpreters, to be significant to interpreters in multiple ways, to enable different interpreters to see different things.

Of course images are important in science for their role in empirical claims; often, images are developed to provide a kind of visual evidence for testing a scientific theory. What, then, are the implications of an understanding of the multistability of images for the epistemology of science? It seems clear what the implication is not: conceiving of images in science as multistable does not imply that all interpretations of an image are equally correct about the world. It is simply the case that an image—as a mediating technology—is capable of supporting multiple stable perceptual relations. Yet it remains an open question, even after Expanding Hermeneutics, as to just what the consequences of the multistability of images are for accounts of imaging in the production of scientific knowledge. Ihde reflects on the practice of using multiple kinds of imaging devices to perceive a single phenomenon (e.g., contrasting fMRI and PET scans of the same target) and, following Ian Hacking, considers its relevance to the issue of scientific realism. This is an important start. But it is just the beginning of the project of exploring the implications of the multistability of the hermeneutics of science.

Two projects which touch on this topic, and thus point to the kinds of issues that remain open, are Cathrine Hasse’s anthropological studies of training practices in physics and my own case studies of scientific debates over image interpretation. Hasse investigates the ways physicists learn skills of image interpretation, and she contrasts differences in image reading across communities of scientists in different countries and across different generations (e.g., 2008; Hasse, forthcoming). My case studies regard contemporary debates in neurobiology and in Mars exploration in which the same images are interpreted through rival theoretical accounts (e.g., Rosenberger 2008; Rosenberger 2011a, b, forthcoming). In both of these cases, at issue are moments of practice in which trained scientists perceive different meanings in the same images or sets of images.

As further studies are conducted in this path of inquiry, more will be revealed about the multiple ways that images are approached in science. And building from this perspective, more refined questions will be able to be formulated about the implications of the multistability of images for the epistemology of science.


Carusi, A. (2009). Philosophy engines: Technology and reading/writing/thinking philosophy. Discourse, 8(3).

Carusi, A. & A. S. Hoel. (2011). Looking to nature for new ontologies of scientific vision. In C. Coopmans, M. Lynch, J. Vertesi, and S. Woolgar (Eds.), New representation in scientific practice. MIT Press (forthcoming).

Forss, A. (2011). Cells and the (imaginary) patient: The multistable practitioner–technology–cell interface in the cytology laboratory. Medicine, Health Care, & Philosophy (forthcoming).

Hasse, C. (2008). Postphenomenology: Learning cultural perception in science. Human Studies. 31(1), 43–61.

Hasse, C. (2011). The anthropology of learning and organizational culture. Springer (forthcoming).

Hoel, A. S. (2011). Technics of thinking. In A. S. Hoel and I Folkvord (Eds.), Form and technology: Reading Ernst Cassierer from the present (forthcoming).

Ihde, D. (1986). Experimental phenomenology: An introduction. Albany: SUNY Press.

Ihde, D. (1998). Expanding hermeneutics: Visualism in science. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Ihde, D. (2009). Postphenomenology and technoscience: The Peking University lectures. Albany: SUNY Press.

Riis, S. (2011). Dwelling in-between walls: The architectural surround. Foundations of Science. 16, 285–301.

Rosenberger, R. (2008). Perceiving other planets: Bodily experience, interpretation, and the Mars orbiter camera. Human Studies, 31(1), 63–75.

Rosenberger, R. (2011a). A case study in the applied philosophy of imaging: The synaptic vesicle debate. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 36(6), 6–32.

Rosenberger, R. (2011b). A phenomenology of image use in science: Multistability and the debate over Martian gully deposits. Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, 15(2).

Rosenberger, R. (2011). Mediating Mars: Perceptual experience and scientific imaging technologies. Foundations of Science (forthcoming).

Vanhoutte, K., & N. Wynants. (2011). Performing postphenomenology: Negotiating presence in intermedial theatre. Foundations of Science, 16, 275–284.

Verbeek, P.-P. (2007). Beyond the human eye: Technological mediation and posthuman visions. In P. Kockelkoren (Ed.), Mediated vision (pp. 43–53). Rotterdam: Veenman Publishers.

How Does a Postphenomenologist Expand Hermeneutics?

Robert C. Scharff, PhD

University of New Hampshire

Durham, NH 03824-3574, USA


How does Ihde know we should “expand” hermeneutics? The answer involves his reading of Dilthey, and after. Ihde’s Dilthey is textbook Dilthey, the epistemologist who makes room for human science in a world that recognizes only natural science. For post-phenomenology, Dilthey’s importance lies in his showing how human science requires an extension of textual hermeneutics into a full-blown method for understanding human practices and then treating natural science as one of these understandable practices. Ihde notes, however, that most philosophers of science reacted to Dilthey by setting up a “hermeneutic–positivist [HP] binary,” according to which natural science remains real science and Dilthey’s human science is defined in some secondary way.3

Given this HP reaction, Ihde’s idea for a hermeneutic phenomenology of scientific practice confronted two sorts of objection. For Anglophones, his very emphasis on practice, influenced by Dilthey or not, misses the epistemic point about what science really is. More surprisingly, some Europeans who had no problem contextualizing epistemology objected to Ihde’s claim that nature’s mathematization is just as “interpretive” a practice as historical-human understanding, and still more to his focus on the technological mediations involved in this practice. To vary Ihde’s image, analytic philosophers continued to picture Galileo without a telescope; conservative Europeans saw no reason to talk about his using it. Against both objections, Ihde embraces what he sees as Dilthey’s more radically “pragmatic” advance. In viewing even natural science as a practice and not just a form of reasoning, Dilthey anticipates a still further expansion of hermeneutics—this time, in the direction of the phenomenological study of technoscientific mediation, just as he and Schleiermacher expanded it from textual interpretation to human science (Ihde 1998, pp. 39–42).

To Ihde, however, all of this is old news, and we should get on with things. Everyone is a post-positivist now. All the features of logical empiricism—its Humean concept of “empirical,” its dream of procedural unity, its narrow view of science as legitimating theoretical claims, its Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung—all of this belongs to the past. Ihde is right that most philosophers now admit that all sciences are hermeneutical—that is, “interpret” how the world appears to us in pre-scientific experience. In one famous image, we now witness “old-guard Diltheyans, their shoulders hunched from years-long resistance against the encroaching pressure of positivist natural science, suddenly pitch forward on their faces as all opposition ceases to the reign of universal hermeneutics” (Taylor 1980, p. 26).

Ihde cites Rouse citing this passage, but only to capitalize on Rouse’s conclusion (Ihde 1998, pp. 39–42; Rouse 1987, pp. 49–50). There is reason, however, to linger a bit over Rouse’s analysis. Neither Rouse nor Ihde cites Taylor’s next sentence, in which he calls the self-congratulatory universalization of hermeneutics a “pleasing fantasy” that obscures the whole point of the Verstehen controversy. To concede, as analytic philosophers now do, that even natural science “interprets” what is “practically pre-understood” ignores the fact that the human sciences interpret what things mean, whereas natural science is concerned with what there is, no matter what it might mean. Any theory of interpretation that fails to recognize this difference of purpose will carry forward precisely the old ontology that privileges the traditional idea that real science represents reality as it is, not as one might “interpret” it.

Taylor thus argues that to appreciate Dilthey’s point, one must restrict the traditional idea to natural science and show how the human sciences explicate our pre-understanding of specifically human relations instead. In Taylor’s phrase, when “self-interpreting animals” try to understand other self-interpreting animals, the result is not an “absolute…[causally explanatory] account of the world as it is independently of the meanings it might have for human subjects,” but precisely an articulation of these meanings (Taylor 1980, p. 31; cf. Taylor 1985, pp. 45–76). Taylor’s modified HP solution satisfied almost no one. Rouse, for example, argues that if all science is deemed interpretive, then all science is in this respect ontologically the same. To effectively contrast natural vs. human science, they must be differentiated in terms of the cultural, social, political, and instrumental conditions that shape them, not just in terms of how they allegedly “reason” or “what” they study (Rouse 1987, pp. 172–176; Rouse 1996, pp. 242–257).

So, both Rouse and Ihde aspire to be more than post-positivists, but their conceptions of how to do this are very different. Both want a shift of focus from the structure of knowing, however recontextualized, to the whole practice of knowledge acquisition. But for Rouse, it is not technological mediation—in natural science or elsewhere—that should now receive priority; rather, one should first back off from the traditional theory–practice dichotomy itself, recognize that “theorizing is as much a practice as any aspect of scientific work,” and embrace a Wittgensteinian–Heideggerian hermeneutics of practice. Otherwise, he argues, a Quinean–Davidsonian hermeneutics of (linguistic) translation, which still shares most of the commitments of traditional philosophy of science, will tend to win by default (Rouse 1987, pp. 48–80). We are battling, as Taylor says, not just a fantasy but a pleasing one. Old positivist prejudices do not disappear just because the deductive-nomological model now seems bankrupt, or because we cannot sharply distinguish between theory and observation (Taylor 1980, p. 32; Rouse 1996, pp. 101–121; Scharff 2011, pp. 240–243). Post-positivists purchase their view of the universality of hermeneutics too cheaply—by naively overvaluing their critique of logical empiricist doctrines. Really doing better, says Rouse, means producing a comprehensive alternative model for science studies.

In contrast, Ihde offers no such alternative model. In Expanding Hermeneutics, he simply moves directly to the laboratory—“the place…where scientific objects…are made readable” (Ihde 1998, p. 150). Drawing on analytic, hermeneutic–phenomenological, pragmatist, and sociocultural accounts of technoscience, he shows how remote traditional accounts are from the realities of scientific vision and instrumentation (Ihde 1991, pp. 98–114). Science always implicitly includes interpretive practices, but it would profit if these practices were made explicit (Ihde 1998, pp. 151–83; Ihde 2009, pp. 45–62). I have been a cheerleader for Ihde’s expanded hermeneutical studies since Listening and Voice (2007 [1976]). Yet I believe that not even a deluge of such studies can displace so powerful and pervasive a philosophical tradition as classical empiricism/positivism. In fact, the Rouses, Dreyfuses, and (post)phenomenologists of the world have made only minimal headway against those who think and speak more “scientifically” about science. In North America, philosophers like Rouse are still lumped together with sociologists as performing the limited service of stressing science’s “social dimension,” and Ihde’s work is classified with the “humanities”—where we find interesting but philosophically uninformative “critical reflections on technology and its socio-cultural role.”4

What replaced logical empiricism is positivism-lite. Long-standing assumptions constituting our ontological default position concerning reality, experience, knowledge, and practice continue to function, in Rouse’s colorful image, like “vampires, the philosophical undead that…haunt our concepts and interpretations of nature, culture, and science”—still “deeply entrenched in familiar patterns of talk and thought, periodically emerging to vex even those who aspire to surpass them” (Rouse 2002, pp. 63, 78). I see the vampire problem not only in post-phenomenology’s notion of technological “mediation” (Scharff 2006, pp. 132–139) but also in its easy appropriation of multiple “perspectives”—empiricism (somehow Jamesian, not classical), pragmatism (somehow Dewey more than James), phenomenology (somehow without Husserl’s essentialism), and “critical” philosophy of science (where criticism is mostly about improving science—not, say, about how science dominates as a social force; Ihde 1998, pp. 127–136). It is not that Ihde never reflectively questions his kinship with others; it is that he tends to look only at kinship. On Kuhn, he says

I shall not address the mainline reaction [to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions], which accused Kuhn of both reducing science to a sociology of science and…irrationalism….Rather, what I see happening in Kuhn is the hint at a different model of interpreting science…which includes perceptual and…praxical features often left out of standard accounts. (Ihde 1991, p. 11)

The problem with Ihde’s pursuit of hints is that the “mainline” is still the mainline; it still marginalizes Ihde’s Kuhn, and it still denigrates “humanistic” movements like phenomenology and post-phenomenology.

In Expanding Hermeneutics, Ihde urges us to treat all of Husserl’s talk about method metaphorically—because “he has seen something difficult to see,” but Heidegger must be taken literally, exposed (Ihde 1998, 203n.5, pp. 115–116). To my knowledge, Ihde never explains why we must do this, but seems unfortunate, for it leaves him so ungenerous to Heidegger that like Husserl, he misses something even harder to see than “shifting to the phenomenological attitude”—something not about phenomena and phenomenological seeing but about phenomenologists. For if science and technology involve multiple methodologies, subject matters, and types of research program and if the human sciences show that all of these distinctions arise from “within life itself,” then the question is not just how to describe this practice or that but also how to become the kind of philosopher who understands how to treat all of life’s practices—scientific or otherwise—hermeneutically rather than meta-scientifically. Husserl never addresses this issue; Heidegger puts it first.

How it is to “be” a post-phenomenologist—or critical theorist, neo-naturalist, or pragmatist—of science and/or technology, and how does one get that way? Taylor, Rouse, Ihde, and others all take off against positivism differently, settling this question largely en passant, without much reflection. Perhaps all their moves are somehow right, but they cannot all be right together. How, for example, do post-phenomenologists respond to somebody who objects that concrete descriptions of today’s technoscientific mediations inevitably happen in and thus presuppose a heterogeneous (Rouse) or even undemocratic (Feenberg, Foucault) field, so that turning to these matters “after” discussing embodiment, hermeneutical, and alterity relations always comes too late?

If this controversy were merely among friends, one might just say, let a 100 flowers bloom—leaving post-phenomenologists free to mix it up with everyone “critically engaged” with “ongoing conflicts over knowledge, power, identity, and possibilities for action” (Rouse 1996, pp. 258–259). Ihde might even like my meta-use of “multistability.” Unfortunately, however, all the new flowers are struggling to bloom in an established and unfriendly garden. Today, it is hard for any thinking—whatever it calls itself and however in touch it claims to be with the concrete—to grow out of everyday life without repeating a lot of very unphenomenological and overbearingly traditional ideas. Ultimately, I share Ihde’s sense that we need every up-close account of technological life we can get. Yet recent work seems to me at its best when it is recording how being with our technologies is both unfortunately pre-“enframed” and irreducible to this. To understand the full character of how it is to be in these technoscientific times, we should get over the idea that these two topics mark off separate philosophical paths. Yet, as long as Heidegger must be read “literally” and Husserl is given the benefit of every doubt, this is unlikely.


Feest, Uljana, Ed. (2010). Historical perspectives on Erklären and Verstehen. Dordrecht: Springer.

Franssen, M., Lokhorst, et al. (2009). Philosophy of technology. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved 16 July 2011 from

Ihde, D. (2009). Postphenomenology and technoscience. Albany: SUNY Press.

Ihde, D. (2007 [1976]). Listening and voice, 2nd ed. Albany: SUNY Press.

Ihde, D. (1998). Expanding hermeneutics. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Ihde, D. (1993). Postphenomenology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Ihde, D. (1991). Instrumental realism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ihde, D., & Selinger, E. Eds. (2003). Chasing technoscience. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rouse, J. (2002). Vampires: Social constructivism, realism, and other philosophical undead. History and Theory, 41(1), 60–78.

Rouse, J. (1996). Engaging science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Rouse, J. (1987). Knowledge and power. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Scharff. R. C. (2011). Displacing epistemology: Being in the midst of technoscientific practice. Foundations of Science, 16(2–3), 227–243.

Scharff. R. C. (2006). Ihde’s albatross: Sticking to a “phenomenology” of technoscientific experience. In E. Selinger (Ed.), Postphenomenology: A critical companion to Ihde (pp. 131–144). Albany: SUNY Press.

Taylor, C. (1985). Philosophical papers 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1980). Understanding in human science. Review of Metaphysics, 34(1), 25–38.


Don Ihde, PhD

Harriman Hall 221

Stony Brook University

Stony Brook, NY 11794-3750, USA


Thanks to Philosophy and Technology, its editors and the critical respondents for this discussion of Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science. My very first book was Hermeneutic Phenomenology:

The Philosophy of Paul Riceour (1971). Ricoeur, along with Gadamer and Heidegger, was one of the prominent philosophers to recognize deep relations between phenomenology and hermeneutics. Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature aimed to take “phenomenology to the bloodstream” and his diagnostics were hermeneutic tactics by which he could appropriate insights from methods far from his own, a hermeneutic “expansion” as well.

Technics and Praxis: A Philosophy of Technology (1979) marked my turn to technologies. I claimed that science praxis was embodied in technologies and did a preliminary phenomenology of science instrumentation, a trajectory which became signatory for me. Instrumental Realism: The Interface Between Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Technology (1991) expanded the discussion to both analytic and continental philosophers interested in instrumentation, including folk like Galison, Hacking, Latour, Ackermann, and others; today I would add Giere. Then, Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science (1998) was to become the transitional re-framing of philosophy of science into a new type of hermeneutic practice. This will focus this discussion, but will also point to a material hermeneutics. Following Expanding Hermeneutics, insofar as it too has been stimulated by what I have learned from research on imaging technologies. I find the praxis of using imaging technologies to be a perceptual–hermeneutic practice, but one which differs from classical humanistic–social science linguistic-based hermeneutics. Ultimately I want to decenter both the analytic and continental “linguistic turns” made in the twentieth century.

Expanding Hermeneutics was the first step in this development. I collected earlier essays on hermeneutics, placing these in a context which relates hermeneutics to a different style of philosophy of science which is sensitive to both the interpretive practices of extant science and its visualist hermeneutic (the “weak program” and “visual hermeneutics” already practiced today). I close with a call for a “strong program” which would be both multimodal and implicitly “material” by having things speak.

Exorcising philosophical ghosts: I begin defensively by explaining how and why I deal with the giants-become-ghosts on whose shoulders I admit to stand. Dewey and Dilthey are the two most prominent figures in this case. Hickman’s ghost-giant, Dewey, however, is used very differently than Scharff’s, Dilthey. Hickman frequently tells me he likes to pull me ever deeper into pragmatism, here showing how much of a Deweyan I really am. In his response, he resurrects insights of Dewey’s which I presumably repeat. These include a deconstruction of conceptual/material dualism; the recognition that interests and perspectivalism are entailed in instrumentalism; that philosophy should be an experimentalism; and an avoidance of realism/idealism dichodomies—all of these Hickman recalls from Deweyan writings, and to all I consent. In these, I am happily “deweyan.” But, as I have pointed out elsewhere (in Postphenomenology and Technoscience and in the 2nd edition of Experimental Phenomenology), I hold that classical pragmatism failed to develop rigorous methods to assure robust results in its analysis, which, by including a phenomenological variational theory, here extended to instrumental variations and a material sensitivity developed in a post-phenomenology, does find a mode of analysis which accounts for the inter-relationality of human–instrument praxis. This, too, is part of a material hermeneutics.

Scharff’s ghost-giant is Dilthey. But Scharff misconstrues both my target and project since I call for abandoning the Diltheyan Divide which separates the natural sciences from the human sciences. My target was a response to the largely European hold to a “textbook” Dilthey. This Dilthey remains culpable for the anachronistic science/human science divide. But I was never under the illusion that classical philosophy of science was about to change its sediments.

I do grant that a praxis approach to sciences—and there are a lot more sciences than “natural” and “human” sciences—does find deep differences. I use one such difference which does echo Dilthey’s Divide. There may be a progressivism in most natural science practice, which is or a willingness to let things be abandoned, or cease to exist. For example: ether, phlogiston, democritean atoms were at one time “scientific objects” (from ancient, even into early modern science), but they have ceased to exist. In the case of atoms, as late as the nineteenth century, democritean atoms were competitors with “vortex,” and Rutherfordian mini-solar system atoms, which won out, these, too, have now been replaced by quantum atoms. Similarly, the same thing happens with instruments and their uses. No one today would use Galilean telescopes or Leewenhoek microscopes for serious science. Even more deeply, the ancient cosmos itself and early modern instruments are now at best historical artifacts.

Contrast this with what I consider to be the conservatism of many of the arts, humanities, and religion, which often allows things to exist past their own times. The pre-medieval arguments about the trinity, transubstantiation, and celibacy, while now effective only within a specific religion, remain vehemently preserved in spite of sometimes disastrous consequences. Less consequential are, for example, the traditions which are maintained concerning the use of baroque instruments to play baroque music. Such music can still take its place alongside many newer forms and instruments. Similarly, searches for a “true” Dilthey, Heidegger, or whomever amongst continental scholar-philosophers also persists, using up many careers in the process.

What I hold has happened is the lifeworlds which once supported the ancient elements, the archaic technologies which developed the instrumentation—and, by extension, the metaphysical “worlds” which supported substances no longer ours, have disappeared. In short, should philosophy itself change with changing lifeworlds?

Fortunately, Rosenberger has no ghost-giants to exorcise; indeed, his helpful references to a new generation of post-phenomenological researchers extend the unusual practice of the Stony Brook technoscience research seminar which reads only living authors. This praxical artifice is a partial nudge to producing philosophical change. Rosenberger takes his path by doing new research.

Visualism in science: My pragmatic phenomenology, very unlike Heidegger’s essentialism which eschews actual technologies, led me to realize that the frontier imaging instruments developed largely from the very end of the nineteenth century to the present not only made the sciences more technoscienific but also constituted something of a “second scientific revolution.” I discuss this development in the crucial fourth part of Expanding Hermeneutics and show how the new visualization possibilities reveal new “worlds,” extend beyond human perceptual ranges, and co-constitute the postmodern cosmos within which we now live. Here, Hickman rightly picks up on my attempts, not only to make the “empirical turn” of contemporary science studies and philosophy of technology but also to “help scientists to improve their tools and techniques by expanding the hermeneutic tradition into the domain of visualization.” And, in the pragmatist spirit of experimentalism, he applauds my avoidance of the rampant dystopianism of my European predecessors.

Both these aims actually reverberate with a phenomenological epistemology insofar as active, bodily perception plays a focal role in phenomenology itself. What I see in science’s visual hermeneutics are the bodily perceptual capacities we have and to which any instrument design must attend—even when the new instrumentation begins to image beyond our perceptual range. Rosenberger, who has done and published results from his own imaging research in neurology and distance sensing (Mars Explorer), details how a phenomenological hermeneutics displaces image interpretation from a context of decoding data, representations, to the role of human perceptual embodiment. As an aside, I do not believe that the “dominant post-positivists” are as monolithic as Scharff seems to believe. Galison is instructive here in that he thinks there are at least two microphysics instrumental traditions. His Image and Logic (1997) has those who prefer visualizations and those who prefer only data, both vying with each other. As outlined in Expanding Hermeneutics, I actually include both since isomorphic imaging is picture-like, and non-isomorphic imaging more text-like. One now has to add actively constructed imaging with the addition of computer and digital processes to the mix.

Material Hermeneutics: Expanding Hermeneutics already hints at material hermeneutics with my “strong program.” My model for this program continues the material embodiment of science praxis through technologies, but emphasizes whole body perceptual activity and pushes the role of instrumental phenomenological variations to a process which I term “letting things speak,” a process both Hickman and Rosenberger recognize. With respect to the natural sciences, I am suggesting that what is needed is a richer panoply of instruments mediating more than visualization processes, but for the humanities and social sciences, what is also needed is to learn the lessons from already extant imaging technologies. I hold that these sciences remain dominantly under the aegis of the “linguistic” (and textual) turn so much discussed in the twentieth century. My question is: what would happen to these disciplines if they would adopt the practices of the natural sciences to their own fields?

Minimally, the range of questions which could be asked would vastly increase. Secondly, the narratives developed would become much richer, and even more, I believe that the linguistic dimensions would become but one of a multidimensional knowledge production. I here take one simple, but provocative example: the artifact is a cuneiform tablet of the fifth millennium BP. Historically, it took a long time, arduous work, and ever wider contextual comparisons to find the proper translation of the cuneiform writing itself. This was largely done within the disciplinary methods of a cultural–textual hermeneutic and thus belonged roughly to Verstehen practices. One can admire and respect the work undertaken and its results.

However, the textual–cultural object is also richly material, and this, too, may be interrogated. (1) I break the tablet and turn to its material contents—it is river clay, local to the Mesopatamian location, 5000 BP. First, using contemporary microscopes, I can discover that the clay includes now fossilized diatoms and phytoliths, animal and plant fragments, respectively. Contextually, I draw from biological and botanical science, the already attained knowledge that in this river region there were a variety of diatoms, some species of which thrived in fresh water, some in brackish, and others in even more salinated water. By counting these, looking at distributions and ratios, the diatoms begin to “tell us how much the river clay was salinated” at the time it was collected. In short, we are on our way to finding the times and salination ratios which eventually doomed the irrigated agriculture of the Mesopatamian valley in antiquity. The previous textual evidence did not show this, but a material hermeneutics does. In this example, one can see how a textual hermeneutic is enriched by a material one. Note that this “saying” is not speech, nor text, nor in a natural language, but in the visual display (including graphs, data, spectra ‘bar codes’ familiar to science’s visual hermeneutic). But in other variations entailing both linguistic and material analyses, I have found there can be contradictory, corroborative, and other textual/material results. (2) Thus, an expanded and material hermeneutics will call for new critical considerations as well.

  1. 1.

    The example of the cuneiform tablet analysis was demonstrated first by C.E. Watanabe of Osaka University, Japan, when she presented results at Stony Brook (2009). Also, see my “More Material Hermeneutics,” Yearbook of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Science, Technology and Society (Profil Verlag, 2005).

  2. 2.

    Other previous works, for example on the vast literature on “Oetzi” the Iceman, are based upon evidence which has no linguistic or textual dimension.



Ihde, D. (1971). Hermeneutic phenomenology: The philosophy of Paul Ricoeur. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Ihde, D. (1979). Technics and praxis: A philosophy of technology. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science and Synthese Library. Reidl Publishers.

Ihde, D. (1991). Instrumental realism: The interface between philosophy of science and philosophy of technology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ihde, D. (1998). Expanding hermeutics: Visualism in science. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Ihde, D. (2009). Postphenomenology and technoscience: The Peking University lectures. Albany: SUNY Press.

Ihde, D. (2011). Experimental phenomenology, 2nd ed. Multistabilities. Albany: SUNY Press.

Riceour, P. (1973). Freedom and nature (translated by E. Kohak). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

List of Contributors

Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen Friis, PhD

University of Copenhagen

Nørre Farimagsgade 5 A

1014 Copenhagen, Denmark


Larry A. Hickman, PhD

The Center for Dewey Studies Southern Illinois University Carbondale,

Carbondale, IL 62901, USA


Robert Rosenberger, PhD

School of Public Policy

Georgia Institute of Technology

DM Smith Building, 685 Cherry Street,

Atlanta, GA 30332-0345, USA


Robert C. Scharff, PhD

University of New Hampshire

Durham, NH 03824-3574, USA


Don Ihde, PhD

Harriman Hall 221

Stony Brook University

Stony Brook, NY 11794-3750, USA



“Interpersonal variations” occur when two or more persons interpret the same image differently.


“Intrapersonal variation” occurs when the same person interprets the same image differently at different times.


Ihde 1998, pp. 138–50. The original Erklären/Verstehen controversy has not disappeared but rather transferred to new issues (e.g., reasons vs. causes, methodological individualism; see Feest 2010).


See, e.g., the 2009 “Philosophy of Technology” entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which announces that in the past 10–15 years, an “analytic” philosophy of technology has become “dominant,” replacing “humanities” philosophers of technology. This rising star is concerned not with “relations between technology and society” but with “technology itself,” which is “basically the practice of engineering”—something to be analyzed in terms of its “goals, concepts, and methods” and associated with “various themes from [analytic] philosophy” such as “the epistemological status of technological statements,” the “design process” in the engineer’s purely “instrumental” attempt to “realize ideas whose origin lies outside technology itself”…etc. It is hard to imagine a more thorough dismissal of every philosophy of technology inspired by “the hermeneutics of practice.”


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