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This paper was presented at the European Computers and Philosophy Conference, June 2007, Enschede, Netherlands, in the 'Intersections' track. It summarises how the author has used Dooyeweerd's philosophy to formulate frameworks for understanding five areas of research and practice in information systems. It was very well received. For more, see the author's book, Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems, (publ. IGI Global, Hershey, PA, USA), 2007.

Frameworks for understanding IS and ICT

Andrew Basden.

Primary Track: 8. Intersections Secondary Track: 4. Philosophy of Information and Information Technology

Philosophy is used in a variety of ways in relation to computers. Some authors refer to philosophers to support points they wish to make; for example, Checkland [1981] makes reference to 40 different philosophers in his portrayal of Soft Systems Methodology. As Probert [1997] points out, some of these are incommensurable with others, which might cast doubt on the philosophical soundness of SSM. A second use of philosophy is to address specific issues. Mingers [1997], for example, uses Maturana, Habermas and Dretske to discuss the nature of information and its relation to meaning. Though arguably a sounder approach than the first, addressing specific issues can still be narrow. Other issues remain untouched.

A third, less common, use is to employ philosophy systematically to formulate a framework for understanding a whole major area of research and practice relating to computers. Winograd and Flores [1986] have used this approach to 'understanding computers and cognition' especially in relation to human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence. They argue that the Cartesian subject-object relation has led to a distance between human user and computer, but that Heidegger provides a basis for closer engagement that would revolutionize computer use. It turns out, however, that Heidegger is not sufficient and they find they must supplement his ideas with those from evolutionary philosophy and Searle's notion of speech acts. Spaul [1997] criticises their approach as being unable to provide the critique of social structures that is necessary for just and innovative computer use. While Winograd and Flores provide a framework for understanding the human-computer relationship in use and the nature of computers, they do not provide any useful basis for understanding the shaping of basic IT resources (computer science).

This paper reports on an attempt to use philosophy in this third way to formulate frameworks for understanding five broad areas of research and practice in information systems:

  • 1. Human use of computers
  • 2. The nature of computers and information
  • 3. Information systems development
  • 4. Shaping of basic technological resources for ISD (computer science)
  • 5. Technological ecology and society.

The challenge is that the types of issues that are important in each area demand a different type of philosophy. Some of the issues important in each area include:

  • 1. Use: Types of human-computer relationships, computer use as part of everyday life, diversity of uses and impacts of use, how impacts occur, including the unexpected, and differentiation of beneficial from detrimental impacts.
  • 2. Nature of computers: Relationship between hardware, software and application, and between data, information and knowledge, nature of program, the artificial intelligence question of whether computers can truly understand.
  • 3. ISD: Methodology; coherence of the overall ISD project, keep the project team together, anticipating use, knowledge elicitation and representation.
  • 4. Technology: Forms of computer languages, diversity of types of meaning that must be represented, system architectures, symbol-bit mappings.
  • 5. Technological ecology: Whether information technology is ultimately a valid human endeavour, the impact of ICT on our beliefs and ways of life, and insciption of our world views into ICT; globalization and gender issues; societal acceptance of, and beliefs about, ICT.

Because different ranges of issues are important, the types of philosophical issues found useful in each area are broadly:

  • 1. Use: The I-It relation, diversity, 'causality', normative evaluation.
  • 2. Nature of computers: Ontic nature of things.
  • 3. ISD: Social theory, anticipation and possibility, normative guidance, epistemology.
  • 4. Technology: Universality, diversity.
  • 5. Technological ecology: Global ethics, macro-micro interaction, life-and-world-views.

It is no surprise that, traditionally, different types of philosophy have been appealed to by those working in different areas. So, for example, area 3 is comfortable with interpretivism while areas 2 and 4 are not; they are comfortable with a positivist stance. This means that what is delivered by research and practice in one area often does not fit well when delivered into another area; for example, basic technological resources often do not meet the needs of IS developers, and the IS developed do not meet the real needs of users.

Should we, then, seek a single over-arching conceptual framework that covers all areas? Lyytinen [2003] believes this is a 'hopeless' quest. This project does not attempt to develop a single over-arching framework for understanding all areas. What it does is to aim for five distinct frameworks that do at least cohere with each other rather than undermining each other. It does this by employing a single philosophy, on the basis of which all are formulated. This philosophy is able to do this because it stems from a different root from that of most Western philosophy for 2,500 years.

Part of the problem is that most Western has tended to divorce philosophical issues from each other. In broad terms, Greek thinking drove matter and form apart, mediaeval thinking drove sacred and secular apart, and Western thinking since the Renaissance has driven apart nature and freedom in various guises: science v. personality, control v. freedom, fact v. value. See Tarnas [1991]. Pre-Kantian philosophy tends to lead to reductionism, which disallows debate about many important issues or forces them to be discussed in ways alien to them. Since Kant, who separated Thought from Thing, researchers have had to make a choice between ontology and epistemology, it being very difficult to hold the two together. Since Hume, who divorced Ought from Is, there is presupposed to be no inner connection between normativity and being, so areas in which normativity is important (use, ISD) cannot be comfortably integrated with areas in which being is important (e.g. nature of computers). Likewise, Universals and Particulars are separated, as is Theory from Practice. As a result, genuine inter-area discourse and mutual understanding is rare.

This paper reports on the use of a philosophy that makes fundamentally different presuppositions from most Western philosophy to formulate frameworks for understanding in all areas. The philosophy of the mid-twentieth century Dutch thinker, Herman Dooyeweerd, has both a critical and a positive strand. It makes presuppositions that do not drive apart Thought from Thing nor Ought from Is, and can thus speak to many of the issues in all areas. Exposing what he called the immanence presupposition and questioning it, Dooyeweerd suggested that Meaning and Law are more fundamental than Being, Process or Knowledge (or Information); the latter may be derived from the former. This enables us to formulate frameworks for understanding in which human beings are central but never autonomous in any absolute way.

The paper examines briefly the central issues in each area when seen from a Dooyeweerdian perspective, including:

  • 1. Use: multi-aspectual human functioning, with inner normativity
  • 2. Nature of Computers: multi-aspectual being (e.g. hardware, software, content)
  • 3. ISD: multi-aspectual human functioning directed towards the future, which includes perspectival commitments
  • 4. Technology: doing justice to the diversity of the transcending law side of created reality
  • 5. Information ecology: enkaptic relations between Umwelt and its denizens; also religious assumptions about the nature and role of technology.

It briefly discusses how frameworks for understanding may be systematically but sensitively formulated for each area. Particular emphasis is given to the everyday lifeworld of each area without falling into the trap of naive realism. Since a single philosophical approach pervades all these frameworks, there is the hope of some coherence between them, while at the same time maintaining diversity of frameworks.


Checkland P.B. (1981) Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, Wiley, New York.

Checkland P. & Holwell S. (1998) Information, Systems and Information Systems - Making sense of the field, Chichester: Wiley.

Dooyeweerd H. (1955) A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Vol. I-IV, Paideia Press (1975 edition), Ontario.

Lyytinen, K. J. (2003). Information systems and philosophy: the hopeless search for ultimate foundations. In J. I. DeGross (Ed.), Proceedings of the Americas Conference on Information Systems: AMCIS 2003. Atlanta, GA: Association for Information Systems.

Mingers, J. (1997). The nature of information and its relationship to meaning. in Winder, R.L., Probert, S.K., Beeson, I.A. Philosophical Aspects of Information Systems, Taylor and Francis.

Probert, S.K. (1997) The metaphysical assumptions of the (main) soft systems methodology advocates in Winder, R.L., Probert, S.K., Beeson, I.A. Philosophical Aspects of Information Systems, Taylor and Francis.

Spaul, M.W.J. (1997) The tool perspective on information systems design: what Heidegger's philosophy can't do. in Winder, R.L., Probert, S.K., Beeson, I.A. Philosophical Aspects of Information Systems, Taylor and Francis.

Winograd, T., & Flores, F. (1986). Understanding computers and cognition: A new foundation for design. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Created: by Andrew Basden.

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