Learning with the Giants - Critical Insights for IS Design
Ângela Lacerda Nobre
Escola Superior de Ciências Empresariais do Instituto Politécnico de Setúbal (ESCE-IPS), Setúbal, Portugal
Keywords: Heidegger’s Ontology, Peircean Semiotics, American School of Pragmatism, Information Systems Design,
Organisational Learning, Knowledge Management, Communities of Practice, Collaborative Work,
Innovation Management.
Abstract: Martin Heidegger’s ontology and Charles Sanders Peirce semiotics offer a vastly unexplored potential in
terms of IS design and development. Though there are several authors who have explored these giants’
works, such contributions have seldom been disseminated and applied within concrete organisations, in
particular in terms of contributing to organisational IS design. Within the current context of post-industrial
society there is an urgent need to further develop the insights from these scholars. The links between formal
and informal processes, between tacit and explicit knowledge and between diachronic and synchronic
analysis are critical for the understanding of today’s competitiveness. And Heidegger’s and Peirce’s works
are crucial for a better grasp and optimisation of current complexity at organisational level.
Heidegger’s (1962) monumental work, “Being and
Time” was first published in 1927 and only in the
60’ did it reach the American market. It was
received with suspicion and Dewey, a disciple of
Peirce, openly criticised Heidegger’s work. Dewey’s
unpleasant comment was that it seemed like a farm-
man trying to explain his views of the world, in his
own words.
Yet, Heidegger and Peirce (1931) had much
more in common than Dewey could figure out. Both
had had a strong influence from the tradition of life
philosophy and both directed their efforts to
overcome Descartes’ dominance in Western
The contribution of these two giants to the
development of information systems research and
practice is crucial. This recognition has been
acknowledged in the literature (e.g., ). However,
there has been only marginal influence in terms of
the way that the insights from these two scholars
have been incorporated into actual organisational
practices. The reason is twofold. On one hand, both
computing science and management science are still
dominated by Cartesian thinking, relying on cause-
effect and linear relationships, and being strongly
influenced by positivist thinking. On the other hand,
there is still the need to further develop and adapt
the works of these two thinkers in order to integrate
them into current approaches - and transform their
theories into actable knowledge.
The basic rationale of the present paper is the
The context of the post-industrial society implies
new challenges for organisational practice;
IS has played and will continue to play a crucial
role in this process of transition to a new
information era;
Organisations lie at the centre of contemporary
society, being more important than national
states in terms of how the economy is run;
Peirce’s semiotics, sign theory and his works as
the founder of the American School of
Pragmatism enable addressing simultaneously
the individual world of meaning-making, the
social world of organisational life and the
broader societal context;
Heidegger’s ontology opens up new venues for
IS ontology design because it critically addresses
the role of technology, the links between pre-
reflexive knowledge and formal processes, and
Lacerda Nobre Â. (2010).
HEIDEGGER AND PEIRCE - Learning with the Giants - Critical Insights for IS Design.
In Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems - Information Systems Analysis and Specification, pages
DOI: 10.5220/0002977805210525
how novelty emerges from action, from the
manifestation of possibilities of reality.
Both Heidegger’s and Peirce’s work offer a high
potential in terms of IS research.
Organisations play a central role in contemporary
society. The study of organisations enables
addressing key issues of the overall society. Western
society is undergoing profound changes, which may
be related to the evolution in information technology
and the transition from an industrial to a post-
industrial era. Such changes have been visible for
the last half a century, since post-war times. Yet the
central aspects of this transition have been present
throughout the development of modern times, from
the seventeenth century onwards. Namely,
Descartes’ cogito and the hypothetical-deductive
model have become part of dominant thinking across
different disciplinary fields, though several other
approaches developed in parallel, giving rise to a
creative tension that emerged as this post-industrial
Organisational practices are a key element in the
understanding of organisational effectiveness.
Practices, in the broad sense, include activities,
routines, norms, behaviours and attitudes. What
people actually do in the process of performing a
professional function and organisational action, are
also forms of describing organisational practices. A
focus on practice implies that at least two aspects are
considered as being relevant, as two sides of the
same coin: the formal, procedural and visible side
and the informal, non-predictable and invisible
aspects of practice.
For a varied number of reasons, there is an
undervaluation of the informal aspects of
organisational practices and a generalised difficulty
in acknowledging their role in terms of pre-
determining, conditioning and prefiguring formal
practices. Every process has a context and a history
and every formal practice was informal first.
Understanding these links, connections and
relationships enables exploring new interpretations
of organisational effectiveness.
There is a constant quest for new knowledge in
contemporary society – the recognition that science
is insufficient to deal with current problems has
often been referred to as a crisis in science. This
search has affected what is known as modern
rationality, leading to the emergence of post-modern
thinking. This new rationality emerges as a way to
call attention to that which is not yet known, to the
limits of previous knowledge, and not so much as an
alternative to modern thinking.
In parallel, there is the acknowledgement of the
complexity of current reality and the conviction that
these new knowledge forms have to take the issue of
complexity into account - yet this movement
towards complexity is hard to reconcile with
universalist trends.
This epistemological situation was raised by XIX
century historical knowledge, through the works of
Dilthey, who did not accept that all knowledge
forms should fit the model of the natural sciences, as
these remained blind to certain essential dimensions
of reality.
The need to take into account the category of
complexity, beyond others factors, is related to the
fact that no human initiative, no human enterprise or
organisation starts and finishes in itself: they are
products of their time; they continue that which has
passed and they open up future possibilities; they
will reach their end, eventually, and they cannot be
understood as if they were fixed solely in the
To look back and to reflect upon the past is to
recognise that which is still present and active today.
It is to show the roots of present initiatives, of
present works. It is to identify possible constraints
that could have been avoided in the past and to open
up new opportunities for future development. In the
same way as history has a proto-history, every
human enterprise has a proto-enterprise, i.e. has a
process from which it has emerged.
To situate an organisation among these parameters
of complexity is essential but it is not sufficient. It is
not enough to harmonise synchronic and diachronic
perspectives and to link the individual and the social
dimensions. In order to grasp the question of future
development, in terms of a potential to be achieved
and made real, we have used Heidegger and his no-
ICEIS 2010 - 12th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems
tions of Dasein and of being-in-the-world.
Reality is itself understood as the manifestation
of being, the manifestation of possibilities. Dasein
means to be “thrown into” reality, i.e. before there is
consciousness and self-consciousness there is
already an experience of the world and of others.
This experience is the being-in-the-world instance,
or, in other words, the pre-reflexive work which is
previous, a priori, to conscious thought. All
reflexive knowledge has a pre-reflexive process to
support it.
When designing work processes, workflows,
organisational structures or information systems, the
definition of these processes not only determine
abstract formalisations but they also have a direct
effect on the people who are to perform such work,
through the actual enactment of the work practices
themselves. Designing information systems is also
designing ways of being, as Winograd and Flores
argue, based on Heidegger’s ontology.
“All new technologies develop within a
background of a tacit understanding of
human nature and human work. The use of
technology in turn leads to fundamental
changes in what we do, and ultimately in
what it is to be human. We encounter the
deep questions of design when we recognise
that in designing tools we are designing ways
of being.” (Winograd, Flores, 1986).
The advantage of using philosophical based
approaches is that they enable a richer understanding
of organisational reality and of its human interaction
Heidegger’s ontology developed from Husserl’s
phenomenology, which explicitly calls attention not
to individuals in isolation but to the individual in
context. There is a change of perspective in
phenomenological studies so that the focus of
attention goes to the overall environment, and to the
social embeddedness and continuous networks of
relationships which take place in such environment.
“Almost every great philosophical work carries
with it a more or less explicit reinterpretation of the
nature of philosophy and the methods appropriate to
fulfilling its aims” (Guignon, 1983). Heidegger
shifts his orientation from epistemology to ontology.
For Heidegger, the basic theme of philosophy is
‘being’. The question of being has this central
position because any inquiry into one of the areas of
philosophy, e.g., epistemology, logic, ethics, or
aesthetics, operates within a tacit set of
presuppositions about the ‘being’ of the entities with
which it deals. What is true of the discipline of
philosophy holds for the sciences as well. Every
science presupposes some conception of the being of
the entities that are the objects of its inquiry. The
ontologies of the regional sciences, Heidegger says,
have already been worked out “roughly and naively”
on the basis of our “prescientific” ways of
interpreting and experimenting “domains of being”.
“Scientists work within frameworks that
determine in advance what sorts of question
are appropriate and what kinds of answer will
make sense. Generally, there is no need for
scientists to question the ontological
frameworks in which they work. During
periods of crisis in science, however, it is
precisely these frameworks that are called in
question.” (Guignon, 1983).
When what are at issue in the sciences are no
longer questions within the frameworks of those
sciences but the very frameworks themselves, the
“ontological presuppositions of the regional
inquiries must be made explicit” (Guignon, 1983).
Heidegger believes that philosophy alone can
fulfil this role. Philosophy that he sees as not itself
being bound by any framework, and which is “the
study of frameworks in general”.
The inquiry into the ‘being’ of entities in general
Heidegger calls “ontology taken in the widest
sense”. It is a “science of Being as such”, and its task
is to provide “a genealogy of the different possible
ways of Being”. Ontology in the widest sense lays
out “the conditions for the possibility of any
science”. And philosophy, as ontology in the widest
sense, is the “science of sciences”.
The Anglo-American tradition of analytical
philosophy, according to Guignon, generally tends
to see philosophy as a set of current topics or
problems that are to be discussed within pre-given
frameworks. The method is “argument and counter-
argument along tacitly agreed-upon guidelines.”
(Guignon, 1983). In contrast, Heidegger maintains
that it is these philosophical frameworks themselves
that are the source of traditional philosophical
Knowledge is always a linguistic product. In the
same way, an enterprise or an organisation are also,
unavoidably, linguistic products. It is possible to
look at the history of how something has been
developed, like an organisation, addressing the
structures that have been present in each moment in
time, or else to focus on the structures which have
HEIDEGGER AND PEIRCE - Learning with the Giants - Critical Insights for IS Design
been achieved in the last place, and on that which is
considered to be the last scientific knowledge. The
debates around structuralism are well known and
have been polarised around the questions of
synchronism and diachronism.
A synchronic perspective focuses on the
relationships between different parts of a whole,
whilst a diachronic perspective addresses the
developmental process of the parts or of the whole,
taking historicity into account.
An organisation is also a language, which has to
be studied taking into account its roots and its
maximum possibilities - these future possibilities are
conditioned by the knowledge of its past roots.
For this reason every organisation must be
interpreted through these parameters and it cannot be
circumscribed to a fixed and finished grid, even
when this grid is assumed to have a provisory value.
To stress this, we have resorted to semiotics,
which is the knowledge area that studies the capacity
to produce and to interpret signs. Thus semiotics
deals with the production of meaning, with capturing
meaning. And this is precisely what an organisation
is about.
Semiotics, seen from the perspective of an
organisation, tends to be interpreted either in
synchronic or in diachronic terms. This paper draws
the attention to a diachronic perspective.
This paper also stresses the social dimension of
organisations, in line with the need to take
complexity into account, as was referred above. A
purely individualist vision of the authorship of a
human enterprise or of an organisation would fail to
acknowledge this complexity. Nevertheless,
positivism tried to reduce all knowledge to social
knowledge, working towards simplification and not
Peirce’s pragmatism has denounced all forms of
dualism and has claimed that the individual
subjective and internal world and the social and
external worlds form one single reality, which must
be studied as a whole.
It is important to distinguish between Saussure’s
and Peirce’s sign theory. Whilst Saussure’s sign
theory argued that the relationship between the
representation of the “object” and the name
attributed to the “object” was a random, arbitrary,
aleatory relation and that meaning was only possible
from the articulation of different meanings, of
systems of sings, Peirce proposed a triadic
interpretation of the sign, where meaning emerges
from the sign itself. Thus, in Saussure’s sign theory,
meaning is outside the sign and meaning is only
possible through the relationships between different
signs, that is, signs work through the establishment
of meaningful relationships between different signs.
Conversely, Peirce made the sign a complete,
dynamic and never ending process of meaning
creation. For Peirce, each sign, in isolation, includes
all the necessary ingredients to establish meaning
and, most importantly, this meaning is never
completely fulfilled and it may be developed further
through a continuous interpretation process. This is
done through the definition of a triadic relation that
works in a cycle. So there is the “object” and there is
the name or image that refers to that “object”, in
similar terms to Saussure’s theory. And then there is
a third element which refers to the process itself of
establishing the relationship between the object or
image and its name, i.e. an interpretation process. In
the next cycle of Peirce’s sign theory, this
interpretation process itself, becomes the “object” to
be analysed, as if it were an objective reality, in
relation to which, a “name” must be identified,
through a particular interpretation process. In the
next iteration, the new and last interpretation
becomes, once again, a new “object” to be further
analysed and interpreted.
This simple and almost mechanical scheme helps
us to describe all signification phenomena. In
intuitive terms, if we think of a literary object, such
as a book or a poem, or of other artistic productions
such as a piece of music or a painting or sculpture,
or even photograph, drama or cinema, we may
consciously experience the apparent ambiguous and
paradoxical phenomena that every time we came in
contact with that work of art we find new meanings,
new significations and new interpretations. And,
more importantly, the greater the importance of
these spirals of experience and interpretation, the
greater the work of art itself.
If aesthetical experiences are the ultimate, most
extreme, and yet the most familiar, example of this
process of signification, every single situation where
human beings are active taking part in social
practices, using language and establishing meanings
and relationships, this same process occurs.
In technical terms, in Saussure’s sign theory, a
sign is an arbitrary relation. Each sign needs to be
combined with other signs in order to produce
meaning. In Peirce’s sign theory, a sign has a triadic
relation and is the basis of a theory of signification.
Each sign has an inbuilt capacity to create meaning
and each sign develops infinitely in a permanent
In Saussure’s sign theory, there is the signifier
and the signified. The signifier may be sounds,
letters or gestures. And the signified is the image or
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concept to which the signifier refers to.
In Peirce’s sign theory, there is the
representamen (equivalent to Saussure’s signifier),
the object (equivalent to Saussure’s signified) and
there is the interpretant, or a “sign in the mind”. The
representamen is the physical sign that is to be
interpreted, i.e. “something that does the
representing”. The object is an image or concept.
And the interpretant, the sign in the mind, becomes
the representamen, i.e. the sign to be interpreted, as
if it were a physical sign, in the next cycle.
Peircean semiotics holds a vast potential to be
explored in terms of IS research.
The advantage of raising questions beyond
conventional approaches is that they open up new
possibilities for further development of IS research,
at practical and at theoretical levels.
The way that these questions have been
answered in the particular case of this paper has the
positive consequence that it enables the study of
those aspects of organisational reality that are
implicit and informal. And that is a crucial
advantage of using Heidegger’s and Peirce’s
Reality that is “right under our noses” is so
obvious and immediate that we fail to acknowledge
it. Participating in daily practices, the use of
language and meaning-making are examples of such
phenomena. And to understand the concept of
potential, of how it may be reached and even
expanded, these links have to be made explicit,
clarified and optimised.
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