By Theo Bart

Maziar Zand had a challenging talk about Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) and his
work on empathy and understanding, which Maziar discussed in the context of
previous and current design projects. Maziar used a series of pedagogical
examples to discuss the necessity of empathy based on understanding in
design, but also brought our attention to its ultimate impossibility: if
someone has a toothache, we can summon our previous experience of a
toothache and thereby muster empathy for others based on understanding.

But how do we know that we are talking about the same thing when we base our
understanding of others on our own experience: how can we know that, when
taking other¹s pain and sadness into consideration, in this way, that we are
really comprehending the same thing? Asked Maziar. His argument, as I
understood it, is that these limitations or questions concerning human
abilities of comprehension can be expressed in design: more particularly,
through the reflective use of emptiness and blank space in graphic design
(of which we showed us a number of his own examples).

I cannot go into the full depth of what Maziar, in my view, raised in his
intervention by proposing this connection. But I find really interesting the
idea that the limits of human comprehension (as developed and conveyed in
verbal language) can be expressed (visually) by emptiness, blanks and void.
In my view, a point that surfaced in conversation between Maziar Z and me
after the classes, is that this might be a case in point of a more general
possibility: that graphic design can extend verbal communication, as a
collateral of ideas expressed in words (i.e., when graphic design works as
visual communication).

During classes we also talked about how the demanding subject raised by
Maziar probing difficult philosophical issues can be of interest to
designers (of which all present at the studio) other than in the context of
an design assignment, in which this type of reading is part of the research
(e.g., to design a cover for a philosophy magazine issue on the topic of
empathy and understanding). There were several views on this issue:
Marianne, for instance, thought the topic interesting on its own account. In
a larger setting, taking such interests into a larger setting, I think it
might be important particularly when interacting with professionals
outside the design field that we manage to clarify what is our designer¹s
³take² on philosophy.

In this regard, I think that for instance a minimum of context is
required. For instance making accounts for Dilthey¹s place among
philosophers we know from German hermeneutics (i.e., word derived from
Greek, meaning the science of interpretation): featuring names such as
Schleiermacher, Gadamer and Heidegger (in France, Paul Ric¦ur is considered
as part of this tradition). In a general fashion, this direction in
philosophy reflects a German cultural intellectual tendency to such a degree
that the key-terms of the method often are quoted in German (also in English
texts). Such as:

1. Verstehen [understanding]
2. Auslägung [expounding the text as it comes out in a detailed reading]
3. Aufkläuring [explaining the text as it becomes available when having
expounded it]

Actually, this order of enumeration does not give justice to the method. In
the hermeneutical method, Auslägung (expounding) precedes Aufklärung
(explanation) and together they bring about Verstehen (understanding):
interpretation comprises all three steps. And the resulting understanding
feeds back into later readings of the same text (assuming that we are
talking of a text of the type we can return to). So, the 3-step of
interpretation defines a cycle called the Hermeneutical Circle that
perhaps could be imagined as a dance.

This three-step or waltz can be important whenever we want to build
empathy where there is no understanding. In trans-professional practice
(i.e., when we work with people of other professional backgrounds than our
own) this is bound to happen: because we know different things.

It is in this precise situation that note-taking can become of avail,
because it lays out what we hear from other people (eve as we don¹t
understand too much of it). At some point, when this goes on for a while, we
start arguing with our notes. And from this exercise understanding occurs:
i.e., the possibility of empathy and, its counter-point, critique.

In other words, interpretation can help us cross bridges, and develop
relations whenever required by our work and the need for empathy based on
understanding is needed: which it is in most design assignments/projects.

Obviously, using hermeneutics as a sales angle is rather hopeless. Throwing
German glossary around in professional encounters won¹t make people move,
nor may it be particularly practical for the designer to form relations. But
the theory introduced by Maziar Z can be of interest/importance when it
comes to talk about empathy and understandings in theory: that is, as the
part of research that has to do with the sharing of research with community
of peers, as in our Studio.

We returned to the topic of research in the closing lecture of our studio.
But before I proceed to elaborate on that issue, I am now turning to
Marianne¹s presentation. Which reminds me that she actually mentioned a
woman in the company of German philosophers just mentioned whose name is
Hannah Arendt. I have not heard Hannah Arendt discussed in connection with
hermeneutical philosophy, but certainly in relation to Heidegger: and her
potential importance to our forum comes from somehere else.

Hannah Arendt is a philosopher who is known first and foremost for her
contributions to political theory. Among a number of other words, she wrote
a book called Vita Activa (which exists in Norwegian translation at Pax
forlat, Palimpsest series), in which she writes about the determining
importance of objects (i.e., in the sense of material artefacts) to social
and political life. She also speaks about the lack of awareness among the
representatives of Homo Faber (designers and makers of different categories)
of this contribution to social life.

All the best,

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