The philosophy of information in Lyotard and Gadamer: postmodernism and hermeneutics

Lyotard‘s famed antipathy towards meta-narratives might well be framed as the problem of the growing chasm between knowledge on the one hand (the abode of philosophy, sociology, political theory, anthropology, history) and the sources of such knowledge, namely information and data -once we accept the “knowledge pyramid”, or the ascending steps of data, information, knowledge, and that other one. What I wish to illustrate is that the invocation of computer and machine analogies for human thought are precipitous. The philosophy of information is not just that which is practiced by Luciano Floridi. By invoking the philosophy of information, however, we are simultaneously given a route away from the impasse diagnosed by Lyotard, and a means of better appreciating and understanding Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics.

I have noted previously (“Defending Modernism and visions of the future”) that there is nothing necessarily wrong with ideals or narratives in and of themselves. The problem comes with the struggle to define coherent ideals and narratives, and accordingly just ceasing to make any effort at when the going gets intellectually tough. How much, then, was the vulgar notion of Lyotard’s thesis an excuse for laziness? I do not put Lyotard in the dock for this, as he was in the centre of the chasm, diagnosing the problems with our traditional modes of intellectual endeavour, with unironic post-modernists (to borrow from Agnes Heller) on one side, and the grim old-school anti-pomo reactionaries on the other. Lyotard was like Indiana Jones on the rope bridge in The Temple of Doom, only as a man of thought rather than a man of action. We glance away, and look back to see countless figures falling, and have to ask, was the rope cut, or did it break?

In my version of story, the ropes broke, and Lyotard regarded it as a genuine problem. Others would go on to embrace the catastrophe, and claim that this was but another Gordian knot for our times, one that needed cutting. I cannot help but feel that these unironic post-modernists shot their collective theoretical load too early, and this derailed serious theoretical work for a generation. In thinking of this, I couldn’t help but remember Peter Dews‘s judgement on Lyotard’s Libindinal Economy (a text I have always found problematic):

In many ways, Économie Libidinale must be considered one of the termini of post-structural thought. Beginning with a challenge to the supremacy of semiology in Discours, Figure, Lyotard is led to abandon the founding dualism of that book in favour of a metaphysics of libido, and then to think this metaphysics through consistently to the point of appreciating the futility of pitting ‘good’ desire against ‘bad’ desire, ‘revolutionary’ desire against ‘fascist’ desire, as Deleuze and Guattari still attempt to do in Anti-Oedipus. The result is a text which is bereft of any political or moral orientation.

Peter Dews, Logics of Disintegration, p. 169

I am going to take the impasse here at its word, and sidestep the debate for a while. If we turn to the scholarly hermeneutics of Gadamer, we regard one who did not embrace the disastrous cataclysm of significance, our crisis of meaning. The return to systems and structures of thought (be they hard, like Badiou’s, or weaker like Harman, or the weird neither/nor of Zizek) is a flinching in the face of crisis. In terms of addressing the root of the problem, in the literally radical sense, then they are but spasms of reaction. We need a response.

One route to this is via Gadamer, and to a lesser extent via Ricoeur (possibly also Whitehead). The reason for this is to be found if we consider Gadamer’s project. Stripped to its essentials, we can consider it to be an advanced theory of a particular form of information processing, one which does not get sucked into a vortex of scientistic machine-thought analogies. We are not binary processors, and Gadamer’s project is a part of phenomenology not simply for historical reasons, but because he considers thought and information via phenomenological analysis as incorporated, as taking place in the context of the human body. This is whence his focus of prejudice as something which is integral to all human thought. the temptation to interpret Gadamer as an unreconstructed conservative is to be vigorously resisted. The “method” in the title of Truth and Method is that which Gadamer writes against. Think Feyerabend more than Descartes. Method and system are imported from science, to a human realm which quite evidently repudiates them. This is why the very first section of Truth and Method is titled “The Significance of the humanist tradition for the human sciences” and subtitled “The problem of method”.

The reason why science and mathematics have had a say in how philosophy considers itself is not accidental. Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Locke all straddled both realms. Then with the rise of philosophical logic, this attained a new urgency. Gadamer’s point is that Aristotle and Plato, in their analysis and dialectic are better guidelines for the thought which takes place in philosophy. Unlike another view of human thought, we are bodily. Indeed, a reading of Gadamer and Deleuze and Guattari side-by-side might bring home just how radical Gadamer’s project was, but as yet, he is still sadly regarded as a lesser – though impressive – figure in twentieth century philosophy. It needs to be continually emphasised here that there is a continuity in the terms used: human thought, humanist tradition, human sciences. Of course, the latter two terms in German are “humanistischen Tradition” and “Geisteswissenschaften”, which might make the connection seem somewhat less compelling, but the emphasis is deserved. The embodied aspect is still there. This is not thought in its abstract, binary sense, as Leibniz and Descartes sought via their respective projects. This is thought as it exists.

Another reading of Gadamer’s view of method is that he is attempting to inculcate a wariness of overconfidence in a given technique. An implication of this should be the ability to encounter each difficulty in our world anew. It is a route to Google’s anathematization of HiPPO, or the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion”, the notion that seniority somehow confers a magical superiority in thought. Equally, it is a route to that scholarly rigour which we have come to expect from hermeneutics. In reading Gadamer, it is crucial to bear in mind that, in line with Kant, he is interested in how we think.

Truth and Method is about hermeneutics. Elsewhere he does hermeneutics, but in this text he implicitly defines philosophy as the examination of us as beings that do thinking, that process information in our own human, biological, psychological way. Hermeneutics is quite literally a pre-digital information theory.

What happens when we accept Gadamer as a guide in these matters, and we return to Lyotard’s impasse? I believe we are afforded an opportunity to reconsider the problem in the information terms I have suggested, but equally we begin to see that we are limited if we focus on this. The pyramid of data/information/knowledge presents itself as a kind of transcendent given, an ideal that simply is. What Gadamer helps us to see is that there is something between these layers. Indeed, it could be said that a Gadamerian approach demands this. Think about it: how do we really think data moves up to become information? How does information then become knowledge? By osmosis? It is remarkable that this model has such influence when it is in fact so sloppy. Lyotard’s outline of the postmodern condition suffers from something similar, but Lyotard is too canny to be unaware of this. He knows that “science plays its own game: it is incapable of legitimating other language games.” [p. 40] The question of legitimation is a co-ordinating structure, that which helps us ascend the pyramid. In short, ideas.

Consider the following, the idea of ‘progress in knowledge’. Lyotard writes that there are two different kinds:

one corresponds to a new move (a new argument) within the established rules; the other, to the invention of new rules, in other words, a change to a new game.

Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 43

The ‘game’ here is the DIKW pyramid, and progress is the movement upward, from data to information to knowledge. The first idea of progress is the standard trajectory, whereby we have ideas and narratives that enable us to process towards the next level. The second progression is in fact a total breakdown of the model, or the ‘game’. The problem of Lyotard’s text, then, is that it was simultaneously diagnosing this breakdown and also partly symptomatic of it. He did not because he could not offer us a way out, for to do this would have required that we step outside the picture for a while to try to define new rules, or ideas. This is what Gadamer’s perspective enables us to do.

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3 thoughts on “The philosophy of information in Lyotard and Gadamer: postmodernism and hermeneutics

  1. Andrew, I love your work! I am not sure if this would be helpful, but are you familiar with the work of António Damásio- author of works such as Descartes Error?

    In the same way you characterize Plato and Aristotle as having a view of thought that is embodied, Damásio, a neuro-scientist who actually thinks the philosophical tradition is important, was largely responsible for bringing the role of emotion for human cognition to light. He is a great fan of Spinoza.

  2. Apologies for the delay in reply, Rick. I didn’t see this comment until now, but thank you for that! Nice to know these scrawls are not just disappearing into the ether.
    I have indeed heard of Damásio, but hearing about is as far as I got. You would recommend “Descartes’ Error”? I have not had much to do with the neuro-philosophy side of things. I have Daniel Dennett’s “Content and Consciousness” and “Consciousness Explained”, but they are on the shelf of books I have saved for the deluge. I shall certainly investigate Damásio anyway. Thank you very much!

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