Digital hermeneutics: from interpreting with machines to interpretational machines


Today, there is an emerging interest for the potential role of hermeneutics in reflecting on the practices related to digital technologies and their consequences. Nonetheless, such an interest has neither given rise to a unitary approach nor to a shared debate. The primary goal of this paper is to map and synthetize the different existing perspectives to pave the way for an open discussion on the topic. The article is developed in two steps. In the first section, the authors analyze digital hermeneutics “in theory” by confronting and systematizing the existing literature. In particular, they stress three main distinctions among the approaches: (1) between “methodological” and “ontological” digital hermeneutics; (2) between data- and text-oriented digital hermeneutics; and (3) between “quantitative” and “qualitative” credos in digital hermeneutics. In the second section, they consider digital hermeneutics “in action”, by critically analyzing the uses of digital data (notably tweets) for studying a classical object such as the political opinion. In the conclusion, we will pave the way to an ontological turn in digital hermeneutics. Most of this article is devoted to the methodological issue of interpreting with digital machines. The main task of an ontological digital hermeneutics would consist instead in wondering if it is legitimate, and eventually to which extent, to speak of digital technologies, or at least of some of them, as interpretational machines.

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  1. 1.

    He (Latour 1993, 63–64) also said that the greatness of the philosophies of the linguistic turn was that “they developed, protected from the dual tyranny of referents and speaking subjects, the concepts that give mediators their dignity […]”. Yet, their great weakness (which, to say the truth, concerns more linguistic structuralisms and poststructuralisms than hermeneutics) was “to render more difficult the connections between an autonomized discourse and […] the referent”.

  2. 2.

    “Methodological” does not mean that these approaches are not concerned with problems of meaning, reference, context or even existence. It just means that the methodological issues are dominant, and philosophical concerns are often no more than vanishing points. In classic hermeneutics, this is the case, for instance, of Peter Szondi’s material hermeneutics. For him, “material” means both object-oriented—i.e., for him, a rigorous internal philological analysis of the text—and context-interested—in the sense of the Frankfurt school, the material conditions of production and reception of the text.

  3. 3.

    Here we use this general and recently coined term for referring to a plethora of approaches such as “digital social research”, “digital methods”, “computational social science” and “cultural analytics”.

  4. 4.

    It must be said that even in this case texts interpretation often remains a paradigm or a metaphor through which data and data analytics are understood.

  5. 5.

    This perspective has been developed by the later Dilthey, especially when he rejected psychologism in Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften (The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences), published in 1910.

  6. 6.

    Boullier et al. (2016) have recently complexified the powerful zooming metaphor in the context of graph analysis. For them, it must be integrated with variations on the initial settings, such as the algorithm, the connections with the totality of the graph and the categories that where used for the first clusterization.

  7. 7.

    Armaselu and van den Heuvel (2017) have recently analyzed how interpretation is supported and shaped by metaphors embedded in an interface. Their article is based on the analysis of three uses of the z-text model and Z-editor interface that allows to create and explore zoomable texts.

  8. 8.

    Bruno Bachimont is certainly one of the most interesting, but less internationally known, authors in the field of digital hermeneutics. In the course of his career as an epistemologist and a computer scientist, he has explored digital hermeneutics in all its forms, from AI-related issues to “methodological” and “ontological” issues (Bachimont 1996, 2010, 2018).

  9. 9.

    For a more nuanced perspective on Gadamer and on the difference between Gadamer’s and Ricoeur’s hermeneutics, see Valée (2013). And yet, as recently argued by Michel (2017, 243–244), one should not underestimate the crucial difference between the predilection for appropriation and tradition in Gadamer, and the interest for distanciation and critical understanding in Ricoeur.

  10. 10.

    There is a particular interest in the field of information systems for hermeneutics. For a general overview, see Webb and Pollard (2006).

  11. 11.

    For a similar perspective on hermeneutics and information, see Diamante (2014). According to Acker (2015, 73), “There is a role for historians of computing to tell us more about how this moment of data science came to be by looking at information domains through data and the ways data acquires layers of context to become information. [...] A hermeneutics of data is needed at the micro-, meso-, and macro-scale of networkes infrastructures”.

  12. 12.

    In the concluding remarks to this section, we will show how even the use of the singular “political opinion” or of the plural “political opinions” corresponds to embracing different theoretical conceptions.

  13. 13.

    For a history of the concept see Habermas (1991) and Noelle-Neumann (1984). “Toward a Science of Public Opinion” (1937) by Floyd H. Allport can be considered as the paper that officially opened this academic field of research, even if the previous contributions of Gabriel Tarde and Walter Lippmann do not have to be forgotten.

  14. 14.

    We carried out several keyword queries on bibliographic databases (Scopus and Google Scholar). We selected only conference papers, articles in journals and book chapters (thus excluding books, thesis and reports). By considering the query “political AND opinion AND twitter” in Scopus, we obtained a corpus of 255 abstracts. Among them, several were not pertinent to the analysis because the focus was on a specific aspect of the data treatment or presenting more general questions as cross-platform communication. In particular, all papers related to the relationship between broadcasting events and commenting on Twitter have not been considered. As regards Google Scholar, searching in the full text of publications, the query “political opinion AND twitter” (2010–2017) returned 3530 results. In order to identify a relevant sub-sample of interesting papers, we considered the most cited papers in both databases and excluded papers that were simple reproduction of already tested methodological workflows on different case studies. Globally, we considered 70 papers.

  15. 15.

    Already in 1901, Tarde (1989) underlined the aggregate nature of the opinion, by introducing the connection between the opinion and the mass. Then, the succeeding contribution of Walter Lippmann that obtained a greater notoriety, insists both on the mass character of public opinion and on the difference between the opinion conceived as a mental image (a “picture in our head”), a stereotyped and selected view of the reality, and the reality itself (“the vast world”).

  16. 16.

    The idea of a deeper preference depending on individual attitudes was already developed by Key (1961, 1966) and by Zaller (1992). Key (1966, 7) affirms that “the electorate behaves about as rationally and responsibly as we should expect, given the clarity of the alternatives presented to it and the character of the information available to it”. He also underlines that this more latent opinion is difficult to measure. Key notably criticizes surveys that are not suitable to know opinions of individuals, that is for example opinions of political elites, of activists or of influentials.

  17. 17.

    More recently, Watts and Dodds (2007) suggested that the importance of influentials must be relativized. Indeed, they demonstrate through computer simulations that “cascades do not succeed because of a few highly influential individuals influencing everyone else but rather on account of a critical mass of easily influenced individuals influencing other easy-to-influence people” (Watts and Dodds 2007, 454). In this way, they did not aim at negating the two-step theory but they rather proposed a more complex model of network influence emphasizing flows amongst the three parties involved in influencing public opinion (i.e., media, influencers and general public).

  18. 18.

    In this sense, Heideggers’ perspective on the Mitwelt completes in the field of digital hermeneutics the Ricoeurian effort of articulating truth and method.

  19. 19.

    In continuity with the thesis of Capurro, Tripathi (2016, 147–148) affirms that technology is directly related to our bodily selves. In the digital age, it means that we are facing the issue of the digitized body, that is, a body as (digital) data.

  20. 20.

    Some authors such as Gens (2008), De Mul (2013) and Clingerman et al. (2013) developed in those years a hermeneutics of the nature, considering the interpretational patterns in intra-species and inter-species communications, but also at micro levels like those of the cells and the DNA.


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Part of this work has been funded by the European Commission H2020 FETPROACT 2016-2017 program under grant 732942 (ODYCCEUS).

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Romele, A., Severo, M. & Furia, P. Digital hermeneutics: from interpreting with machines to interpretational machines. AI & Soc 35, 73–86 (2020).

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  • Hermeneutics
  • Digital hermeneutics
  • Political opinion
  • Data
  • Digital traces
  • Methods
  • Information
  • Information technologies
  • Interpretational machines