The hermeneutical-rhetorical circle

As a user experience practitioner, it is interesting to me that the hermeneutical circle (the movement between whole and part that characterizes the process of understanding) originated in ancient rhetoric. The privilege of my profession is that we get to stand on both sides of meaning, as understanders (in the mode of researchers) and as creators of things to be understood (in the mode of designers), and best of all, we get to iteratively connect the two modes. (I’m picturing the infinity symbol: we research understandings, we design things to be understood, we research understandings of our designs, we redesign… etc. )

It seems everything we do in user experience wants to be iterative. (* See note.) I don’t think this is an accident. I think it is because we are in the understanding business, and iterativity is the form of understanding.


An idea to try on: user experience strategy/design as a species of rhetoric. Pan-sensory, interactive rhetoric. (I’ve been enjoying the perversity of using words revaluated by Gadamer to express benevolent thoughts as villainously as possible. This one falls short of the last example of the pattern, characterizing brand as “prejudice design”. )


In his wonderful book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics and Praxis Richard J. Bernstein made a very interesting criticism of Gadamer: that Gadamer did a good job of outlining a theory of hermeneutics, but in regard to practice he left us hanging.

My view is that experience design can be a practical extension of Gadamer’s thought, and in fact is following a semi-conscious trajectory toward this point. It’s always exciting to find new ways to integrate my philosophical mornings and my professional days.


(* Note: Conversely, much of the friction we experience in the world of business seems to center around the flattening of circularities. Business likes predictability, so it likes nice straight lines. Non-linearity is innately unpredictable.)

4 thoughts on “The hermeneutical-rhetorical circle

  1. We really need to get together soon. This is right in line with the experience I’m having of my work these days, with what makes me, apparently, good at my job.

    I’m not doing “content strategy”…I just write these days…and they call what I write “messaging.” Mostly, it seems very simple to me and I’ve wondered why people suddenly think I’m so good at it. And I think it’s this…I’m abandoning ego and just trying to be the center of sense-making. A reverse filter of sorts. Taking all these disparate parts and figuring out what makes them whole. I’m really enjoying it.

    1. That self-conception (“center of sense-making”) definitely sounds like movement beyond the enneatype-4’s characteristic confusion around the ontology of self, and subjectivity in general — which was both Gadamer’s and Bernstein’s critical focus.

      The enneatype 4 looks for a self, but fails to ask what a self is that one might find, or even if any self of any kind pre-exists in a findable way.

      Following me?

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