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Robotics in Germany and Japan

Philosophical and Technical Perspectives


Edited By Michael Funk and Bernhard Irrgang

Germany and Japan are two of the worldwide leading countries in robotics research. Robotics as a key technology introduces technical as well as philosophical and cultural challenges. How can we use robots that have a human-like appearance in everyday life? Are there limits to technology? What are the cultural similarities and differences between Germany and Japan? These are some of the questions which are discussed in the book. Five chapters comprehend an intercultural and interdisciplinary framework including current research fields like Roboethics, Hermeneutics of Technologies, Technology Assessment, Robotics in Japanese Popular Culture and Music Robots. Contributions on cultural interrelations, technical visions and essays round out the content of this book.
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Humanoid Robots and Human Knowing – Perspectivity and Hermeneutics in Terms of Material Culture

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Humanoid Robots and Human Knowing – Perspectivity and Hermeneutics in Terms of Material Culture

Michael Funk


In this approach I am going to combine the philosophy of understanding and interpreting (hermeneutics) with the philosophy of knowing (epistemology). Related to a concept of perspectivity emphasis is on robots in terms of material culture. Human knowing is introduced as a process of tacit understanding and of interrelating perspectivity with forms of knowledge in particular situations. Those situations are shaped by cultural horizons: 1PPP (“first-person-perspective-plural”: native culture), 2PPP (“second-person-perspective-plural”: foreign culture)1 and 3PPP (“third-person-perspective-plural”: transcultural objective perspective related to natural laws or ethical argumentations, which is also applied in the form of political or legal organizations and Technology Assessment2). Moreover the perspectivity is also related to: 1PP (“I”), 2PP (“You”) and 3PP (external observer). While we are interrelating the personal actions (1PP) with social feedback (2PP), we are always involved in a concrete cultural situation (language, gestures, norms, values... [1PPP]). Within those processes, that is my hypothesis, we intertwine five forms of knowledge: 1. sensorimotor movements; 2. perceptions; 3. emotions; 4. propositions; and 5. philosophical-reflections3. What does this mean for “Humanoid Robots and Human Knowing”?

The basic assumption is that “humanoid robots” are robots with a humanlike appearance (Coeckelbergh 2011a, p. 62; Coeckelbergh 2011b, p. 199; Christaller et al. 2001, pp. 87-88; Decker 2010, p. 45; Hirukawa 2007, p. 1; Knoll & Christaller 2003, pp. 12-14). However, does that entail that “humanoid robots” have human knowledge as well? I do not think so. If we believed that humanoid robots have human knowledge, we would belief that human knowledge could be reduced to only one form, namely propositional knowledge ← 69 | 70 → related to the 3PP within the 3PPP (natural and technical laws that are seen as interculturally valid). Robotics research is strongly motivated by an attempt to figure out who we are, while trying to create a copy of us (Decker 2010, pp. 48-49; Irrgang 2005a, p. 167; Kemp et al. 2008, p. 1308).4 And those attempts are usually driven by mathematical and physical approaches (Christaller 2007, p. ix; Janich 1999, p. 18; Kajita 2007, p. xi), which shape the modern sciences and engineering sciences since Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Kepler or Newton. In terms of robotics: human body-movements and perceptions in copper, silicon and iron; human cognition as 0 and 1. And at the same time, our attempts to build (humanoid) robots are characterized by implicit anthropological assumptions (Decker 2010, p. 42). Insofar, Bionics could be a fruitful paradigm in robotics-research (Christaller et al. 2001, p. 25, p. 74; Decker 2010, p. 48), as long as we do not attempt ourselves to behave like copper and iron in 0 and 1.

The genetic and leiblich-sensory processes of human organic knowing are much more complex and there is a knowledge gap as well: we are not able to transform every piece of tacit knowing in the propositional form of the 3PP and 3PPP; this is the reason why robots cannot replace human knowing. And they cannot replace human creativity because of the same reason: human knowing is a process of interrelating the perspectives with the five forms of knowledge in contingent situations. If we could grasp unforeseeable situations from the 3PP or the 3PPP, quasi as external observers, robots could do the same, but:

“Would it be possible to design an experimental robot that could substitute this creative human action ‘in an equivalent, like-for like way?’ Evidently it would not, because in order to be able to design a machine of this kind it would be necessary to foresee all the unforeseeable incidents […] attempting to foresee rational goal-driven responses to unforeseeable incidents is attempting the impossible.” (Janich 2012, p. 219)


“‘Intelligence’ embedded in machines; embedded in biological organisms and embedded in human bodies (Leiber) is always something different. Animals have merely a 1st-person-perspective, robots have no perspectivity.” (Irrgang 2008a, p. 62)

On the other hand – and here we come to material culture in terms of technical tools and their social implementation since the first hand axes – the praxis of interacting with robots will influence human processes of knowing. This could be called a “human-robot-mirror.” Mirror means that robots will not replace but enhance our 2PP as we are interacting with them, which also includes a verbal level.5 Robots talk to us and we are talking to robots.6 They could shape our human ← 70 | 71 → sensorimotor and perceptual knowledge and the relation between 1PP and 2PP. And even our emotional knowledge may be involved in those processes. Robots will not replace human beings as such but they can be seen as another technological piece of material culture that enhances and challenges the perspective praxis and interactions in human (social) life. In the next sections I am going to elaborate the methodological and philosophical framework of this approach.

Hermeneutics, Pragmatic Phenomenology and Implicit Knowing

Two basic concepts of philosophical hermeneutics can be differentiated. The first one is a classical notion that is related to interpreting texts or other linguistic structures. Here we can draw a line beginning with forms of theological hermeneutics, which is the art and science of interpreting the bible, up to 19th-century methodological movements by Friedrich Schleiermacher. He is reframing hermeneutics as a text-based more general methodology for the Geisteswissenschaften, the social sciences and philosophy (Joisten 2009, pp. 17-18, pp. 95ff.). This first classical notion can be called “linguistic hermeneutics,” which is continued in 20th-century approaches, e.g. Hans-Georg Gadamer´s (Ibid., pp. 149ff.).

Somehow the 19th-century plays an important role in the development of scientific methodology insofar, as it fueled a defensive behavior in the attitude of philosophical thought. Maybe Leibniz can be seen as one of the last universally educated scholars. In 19th-century developments a methodological gap between the natural sciences and philosophy started to take shape: positivism and scientism on the one side; (linguistic) hermeneutics on the other. After the disappearance of the last polymaths (and today´s world is much more complex, we should not wait for any comeback) and the rise of positivistic thinking, philosophers ← 71 | 72 → started searching for a strategy to legitimize their position in a world of independent natural and technical sciences. The narrow notion of hermeneutics as “linguistic hermeneutics” is one fruit of that movement, which is caused by an epistemic and social emancipation of the natural sciences and the technically oriented engineering sciences.

As soon as the natural and technical sciences drifted away from philosophy, philosophers started understanding hermeneutics as a non-technical and non-natural-scientific methodology. The narrowing of hermeneutics as linguistically oriented text-hermeneutics after Schleiermacher or Gadamer can be illustrated as one aspect of this philosophical defensive movement. As soon as this narrow hermeneutics becomes a “hermeneutische Weltanschauung” (hermeneutical worldview), it loses sight for the natural sciences and their genuine justifications and praxis (Jung 2002, p. 134). Leibniz was a philosopher and a technician in personal union. But if we talk about philosophy of robotics or roboethics today, we find a gap: engineers and their knowing in developing, constructing or repairing robots on the one side; and philosophers reflecting the aspects of technical praxis or social and cultural implementation with respect to ethics on the other.7 As long as hermeneutics remains text-oriented and a “linguistic hermeneutics,” philosophy is not well-prepared to provide a contribution for bridging this gap.

In a general sense, we can say that understanding is related to active processes of repetition and changing positions, i.e. changing the perspective. This starts with the first body movements of babies. Insofar hermeneutics is more than interpreting texts; it is a knowledge-based process of interfacing multiple perspectives (Jung 2002, pp. 133-134, p.148; Joisten 2009, pp. 199-202), a form of understanding the world around us and last but not least understanding who we are.

Specific human forms of knowing are related to what could be labeled “pragmatic hermeneutics” (Jung 2002, p. 135, pp. 143ff., pp. 151ff., p. 159; Joisten 2009, p. 200; Kurthen 1994, p. 13). And it is at this point where we can find methodological insights that lead to a concept of philosophical hermeneutics, which is applicable to questions of human-robot-interactions: the amalgamation of hermeneutics and pragmatic phenomenology in the early 20th-century. As far as I can see, the first steps of phenomenology after Clemens Brentano and the early Edmund Husserl where still characterized by defensiveness. But on the other hand, the later developments of phenomenology led to some fruitful so-called “phenomenological-hermeneutical” approaches, which bear the potential to overcome a narrow and defensive form of hermeneutics. In the 1930s, Edmund Husserl developed a new form of phenomenology in his “Crisis”-book (Husserl 2012), which is close to what today is called “postphenomenology” ← 72 | 73 → (Ihde 1993) or “transclassical phenomenology” (Irrgang 2009a, pp. 83-182). Don Ihde argues for an epistemic shift, which arises within the Philosophy of John Dewey, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty or Hubert Dreyfus. For René Descartes, the main epistemic reason had been consciousness. But

“[...] I [Don Ihde] am trying to show how embodiment replaces subjectivity – at least the ‘mind’ subjectivity of early modern epistemology – in a now modified postphenomenology.” (Ihde 2010, p. 42)

In his concept of “leiblicher Geist” (embodied mind) Bernhard Irrgang argues for the same epistemic shift (Irrgang 2007, pp. 184ff.; Irrgang 2009a, pp. 61ff.). His main hypothesis is that mind is not a matter of consciousness, but of competence (Irrgang 2009a, p. 61). Irrgang´s central claim in epistemology is the link between embodiment, technical understanding and a specific kind of embodied knowledge. Therefore he introduces the notion of “Umgangswissen;” handling-knowledge, which is strongly associated with Michel Polanyi´s concept of “implicit” and “tacit knowing”8 (Irrgang 2005a, pp. 43-46, p. 138).

Husserl did not only develop the roots of a post-Cartesian phenomenology that replaced the mathematical transcendental and disembodied subject by a subject of bodily actions in a concrete lifeworld. He also established an approach of non-linguistic hermeneutics. The second author in that philosophical trajectory is Martin Heidegger with his early works including “Being and Time” and the third one is Maurice Merlau-Ponty. These authors are important roots for what is now called “expanded hermeneutics” (Ihde 1998), “material hermeneutics” (Verbeek 2005, pp. 121-146) or “technical hermeneutics” (“Technikhermeneutik”) (Irrgang 2009b). Hermeneutics is more than interpreting texts, moreover it involves processes of understanding who we are, and bodily (leibliche) processes of sensory and perceptual understanding and interpretation. Materiality in both meanings – technologies and the culturally shaped human body – is involved. Here is the point, where hermeneutics and epistemology are intertwined. The same shift that happened within 20th-century philosophical hermeneutics happened to philosophical epistemology as well; a turn away from the narrow focus on linguistic-semantic structures, semiotics or language in the sense of formal logic and symbols. Not only propositional knowledge, but primarily the tacit fundamentals of human knowing gained the epistemological center stage. The empirical and embodied turn of hermeneutics is related to a pragmatic and embodied turn in epistemology9 and an “empirical turn” in the philosophy of ← 73 | 74 → technology (Achterhuis 2001) as well. According to these approaches, which are close to Michael Polanyi´s concept of implicit knowledge (Mahrenholz 2011, pp. 242-243) and supported by an embodied turn in the cognitive sciences (Johnson 1987; Varela et al. 1997, pp. 172f.; Noë 2004), technical praxis, gestures, and the use of handcraft tools, sensory body movements and perceptions have been accepted as genuine non-linguistic but pragmatic forms of human knowing (Dreyfus 1979; Heidegger 2006, §§ 14ff.; Ihde 1998; Irrgang 2009a, p. 188ff.; Piaget 1954; Rentsch 2003, p. 15; Ryle 1946; Wittgenstein 2006, § 7810). There is a genetic-organic basis for that on the one side; and a cultural on the other.11 Human knowing is a process of realizing genetic-organic potentials within concrete cultural horizons while interacting with the social-human and material-cultural environment.

This can be illustrated with the example of music. Linguistic hermeneutics is related to interpreting texts, and that includes musical scores. If you see a piece of composed music, you may understand it terms of propositions or notational harmonic structures and say something like: “I know that Beethoven has composed the first movement of Op. 27.2 – the moonlight-sonata – in c-sharp minor.” What is being interpreted in this context is the semantic meaning of four specific symbols: the four crosses at the beginning of the musical notation. They belong to E major as well as to C-sharp minor. But the context and the first octave of the left hand are ensuring that this piece of music is composed in moll and not in the parallel major. The result is a propositional sentence like the above-mentioned. Linguistic hermeneutics is a hermeneutics of context relations and pre-knowledge. Only if you know that four crosses are related to E major and C-sharp minor, you interpret the scores of the moonlight-sonata in those terms.

What is material hermeneutics in that context? As long as a piano player interprets the scores in propositional aspects, they remain silent. With the first touch and the first feeling of the feedback of the piano keys the material and bodily-sensory interpretation starts. (And it begins even earlier on the visual level, when somebody enters a room, realizes a black and white thing close to the ← 74 | 75 → wall and interprets it as a tool for musical gestures.12) So, material interpretation is sensory interpretation. The material weight and feedback of the key involves a particular sensory perception as well as a particular human form of body movement. Thereby the piano becomes a cultural mirror that shapes our social and self-interpretations on a tacit level. While we are in interaction with the instrument and other human beings, we are involved in feedback loops and processes of implicit knowing. The body-gesture of a pianist playing the moonlight sonata is more than he is able to say. But it is a matter of knowing, related to a concrete cultural horizon and bodily tacit pre-knowledge. The cultural horizon of material hermeneutics is not only represented by the piano, but necessarily also by the traditions of piano players, who share their knowledge within social interactions. Therefore it is not necessary to read scores in an ivory tower. The shared gestures of student and teacher sitting next to each other in front of the piano are the basic point. Even if they do not say any word, within processes of trial and error, of moving the hands and copying the movements of hands, on a gestural level knowledge is shared.13 Related to perspectivity the 1PP (the student who interacts with the piano) and the 2PP (the teacher who gives the feedback gesture) are involved in the 1PPP (the cultural horizon of musical traditions …).14

Perspectivity and Hermeneutics of Action

Now I would like to focus on robots and on the engineering sciences (Technikwissenschaften). In the current discussion, the search for an epistemic theory of the engineering sciences plays an important role (Banse et al. 2006; Irrgang 2010; Kornwachs 2012; Poser 2012, pp. 312-331). The question is related to the different structures of handcraft knowledge and scientific knowledge, the relation between sciences and the so-called “lifeworld,” but also how they are interrelated within the praxis of engineering. Different approaches and methodologies are discussed, with Technikhermeneutik playing an important role as well. Following the impulse of Bernhard Irrgang (Irrgang 1996, pp. 56ff.), in current research on engineering sciences Hans Poser tries to overcome the defensive behavior of linguistic hermeneutics when he states:

“Dies [die Lösung eines konkreten technischen Problems] verlangt, dass der Ingenieur zu etwas in der Lage ist, was man normalerweise als besondere Qualifikation des Geisteswissenschaftlers ansieht, nämlich eine gegebene Situation in ihrer Einzigartigkeit zu verstehen. […] So zeigt sich, dass es eine Dimension der Technikwissenschaften ← 75 | 76 → gibt, die einer Methodologie bedarf, welche bisher als reine Domäne der geisteswissenschaftlichen Hermeneutik galt.” (Poser 2012, p. 327; see also Poser 2004, p. 190)

This means: An engineer needs to be able to understand a given situation in its singularity because he wants to find a concrete technical solution. Specific circumstances call for adequate technological solutions. Therefore engineers need skills that are usually associated with the “Geisteswissenschaften.” Insofar, there is a nuance of the engineering sciences, which is shaped by a hermeneutical methodology, which has previously been related to the social sciences.

Especially the unavoidable influence of concrete given situations shapes what Thomas Rentsch discusses as “Situationsapriori,” the apriority of situations (Rentsch 1999, pp. 68ff.; Rentsch 2003, pp. 75ff.; with respect to hermeneutics see also Joisten 2009, p. 9). And for Don Ihde, “our action, experience and knowledge is situated” (Ihde 2010, p. 41). The apriority of situations is an anthropological and existential framework of human actions, of engineering actions as well as philosophical or musical actions. Competence and knowing in handling (“Umgehen mit”) particular constellations belongs to the 1PP. We are always part of situations. There is no isolated view from outside (3PP). And it is at this point where we can link hermeneutics and epistemology with perspectivity. “Things can only be understood from perspectivity, as the Renaissance illustrated fairly well.” (Irrgang 2008a, p. 58)

What does this say about Human-Robot-Interactions? “The concept of action […] is an ascriptive one, which is to say it is based on other people´s ascriptions to an action performed by an agent.” (Janich 2012, p. 217; see also Irrgang 2005a, p. 187; Irrgang 2005b, p. 248) And those ascriptions are done from the 3PP embedded into the 1PP. In terms of Armin Grunwald: “The interpretation is made in reconstruction by external observers, or by the actor him-/herself.” (Grunwald 2012, p. 192) This is related to the apriority of situations: the interpretation and understanding of situations is inherently involved in contexts of specific actions.

“Action itself is a construct of interpretation, a phenomenon of attribution. Viewed as pure physical procedure (3PP), actions don´t differ from events (Ereignisse).” (Irrgang 2008a, p. 65)

From this point of view, a robot can “act” (Grunwald 2012, pp. 199-200), because the “objective part of technical competence-action-schemata can be implemented into machines” (Irrgang 2008a, p. 66). But the “abovementioned hypothesis is only then tenable, if the attribution is made from the perspective of an external observation, and when questions of a ‘personhood’ are avoided.” (Grunwald 2012, p. 190) “The acting of a robot is a case of action without acting subject.” (Irrgang 2008a, p. 64) Human behavior is simulated by computers in terms of the 3PP but human executions (Vollzug) of an acting “I” are related to the 1PP and not a matter of computer simulation or robots (Irrgang 2005a, p. 76, ← 76 | 77 → p. 160; Irrgang 2005b, p. 246). Insofar, a robot could sit or stand in front of a piano and simulate a piece of music. But it could not creatively interpret the scores with personal articulation. The epistemic reason is the robot´s inability to interrelate the actions of 1PP to the mirror of the 2PP within the cultural horizon (1PPP). This cannot be substituted by the 3PP. Technikhermeneutik is not a way, in which robots are interpreting the world. Technikhermeneutik is how human beings interpret perspective actions that are always authentic constellations of 1PP, 2PP, 3PP, 1PPP, 2PPP and 3PPP. This observation is not only valid for music or philosophy, but also for engineering competence and knowledge, which is not replaceable by robots.

The 2PP and Intersubjectivity

As ascription or attributive term, viewed from the outside (3PP), robots can “act.” Both interacting poles – human and robot – are seen as on the same level. When we say that the objective part of a competence-action-schema is imple-mentable, then we focus on objective knowing, which is expressible in strict and truth-apt terms or natural laws. Now, let us ask the question about personhood and relate it to a skeptical twist. Arguing against skepticism means searching for the true foundations of objective and strict knowledge, as it has been done by René Descartes (Descartes 2009), who discovered perspectivity (Irrgang 2005a, p. 29). His basic argument against skepticism is “cogito ergo sum.” He does not pay any attention to concrete other individuals (2PP). Descartes did not write: “I tell you about my thoughts and you give an intelligent response to it, therefore we are.” His focus is on the acting “I” (1PP) in relation to the possibility of objective knowing (3PP).

In that classical philosophy of subjectivity the “I” (1PP) is not related to a “You” (2PP). But later in the 1840s Ludwig Feuerbach developed a concept of philosophy of Leiblichkeit in critical distance to Hegel. He described the importance of social interaction and the 2PP (Feuerbach 1983, §32, § 36, §§50ff.). Feuerbach´s argument was about human beings, not robots or machines, and it illustrates what is human about human knowing: the competence of social interaction related to the personal actions (1PP) and interactions with other persons (2PP).15 We are always interacting in specific situations (Situationsapriori) and the hermeneutical skills of understanding and interpreting those situations characterize human knowing and acting inherently. There is no isolated cogito that was taken for granted by René Descartes.

According to 20th-century post-Cartesian philosophy, an adequate understanding of the 1PP is related to a “hermeneutics of the self” (Irrgang 2005b, p. 242) and the reference to another person (2PP) that is a “hermeneutics of the ← 77 | 78 → other” (Irrgang 2008a, p. 56). Human “intersubjectivity” is constituted by the interrelation between both perspectives as emphasized by Shaun Gallagher (Gallagher 1996). Paul Ricoeur is another influential author in this tradition. For him selfhood and otherness cannot be separated. We always understand who we are in social interaction with other humans. Insofar, this hermeneutics of the self is a philosophical approach that is leaving the trajectory of classical philosophy of subjectivity and cogito = sum (Irrgang 2005b, p. 242). Human actions are always bodily and socially constituted and thus shaped by horizons of intersubjectivity and multiperspectivity:

“A Robot behaves within a frame. An animal behaves within a frame of behavioral patterns. But Humans act inside a horizon [that is the 1PPP, remark by Michael Funk]. For this reason, it seems to me, the problem of intersubjectivity and hetero-phenomenology arises against the background of the perspectivity of human subjectivity. The question regarding perspectivity of human intersubjectivity constitutes the problem of horizon for human-embodied action. Competences have horizons; they are not constituted by omnipotence.” (Irrgang 2008a, p. 59)

Human actions are a matter of different points of view, of different standpoints. In social everyday life, 1PP and 2PP are the most significant perspectives. But human interaction is also embedded in cultural horizons. Language, gestures or material traditions such as handcraft technologies are examples for that. These cultural horizons constitute the platform of intersubjective understanding and communication, they shape the “we” (1PPP). And

“[…] actions are (always, by definition) ‘intentional;’ moreover, anything that contains an element of action is ‘intentional,’ and vice versa. One of the most important forms of action is language.” (Janich 2012, p. 218)

And here we can find the link to social interaction and the interrelation between 1PP and 2PP:

“Language comprehension and generation […] remains tied to intentionally acting human agents, even in forms of communication that remain invariant regardless of the speakers and listeners. […] a translation must capture what it is that one person wants of another when they speak to them. (And this is not decided by an observer located at an Archimedean vantage point outside of the communicative situation. In case of doubt, the two interlocutors themselves must reach a consensus on it.)” (Janich 2012, p. 228)

Material hermeneutics is related to Technikhermeneutik as we have seen with respect to perspectivity and processes of knowing. Especially the interactions between humans or humans and robots are characterized by body language, gestures etc. And “since languages and the cultures in which these languages are embedded differ, this approach naturally suggests paying attention to cultural differences” (Coeckelbergh 2011a, p. 65). If we talk about “material hermeneutics” or “Technikhermeneutik” related to cultural perspective praxis, what does “material” mean? What is material culture? ← 78 | 79 →

Material Culture and Embodied (Leibliche) Technics

“Material culture may be defined as the human significance of the totality of tangible artifacts that humans have produced. These artifacts range from the mundane and perishable to the monumental and enduring, and have been linked together in distinctive ways across place and time.” (Borgmann 2005, p. 1172)

Borgmann emphasizes the developments since the industrial revolution till today (Borgmann 2005, pp. 1173ff.). One important aspect can be seen in the interrelations between technologies and the rise of modern natural sciences:

“Research and development have to this day been the major sources of productivity growth and thus of an exploding material culture. By now technology and science have so fulsomely embraced one another that it has become fashionable to see them as one creature – technoscience (Ihde and Selinger 2003).” (Borgmann 2005, p. 1173)

Our knowledge about material culture is linked to leibliches/embodied knowing: sensorimotor movements (form 1) and the associated perceptions (form 2), emotions (form 3), propositions (form 4) and philosophical-reflections (form 5). There is no Cartesian dualism (between res extensa: the body, and res cogitans: the mind) in human praxis. Of course we can use the words “res extensa” and “res cogitans” to illustrate something, like I am using the words “form 1” or “form 2” in this text. But it is important to see that this is always done by a philosophical scalpel, with which we are cutting the things that happen into systematic pieces. Insofar it is not wrong to separate words like “materiality,” “culture,” “technology” or “sciences.” But on the other hand, it is also important to focus on the cut surface. This is done with terms like “material hermeneutics,” “Technikhermeneutik,” “material culture” or “technoscience.” And here we can realize that technical-material frameworks have shaped human cultures at least since the first use of hand axes (Müller-Beck 2008, pp. 18ff., p. 28, p. 30; see also Irrgang 2008b, pp. 55ff.). Insofar the term “material culture” is not only reserved for technological developments since the industrial revolution or for “technoscience.” Understanding the meaning of material culture implies understanding the interrelations between cultural evolution and biological-genetic evolution. There is also a cut surface between nature/biology and culture. A genuine feedback between biological evolution and cultural evolution caused the rise of modern homo sapiens on the basis of handcraft-tool-culture (Schrenk 2008, p. 77, p. 99, p. 122). Within cultural praxis we are shaping our genes. One example is the capacity for digesting lactose that has been developed in early livestock breeding cultures (Leonardi et al. 2012). There is a long tradition of tacit and implicit breeding knowledge, which precedes written records and is an important part of our material cultural traditions. My hypothesis is: We can understand Human-Robot-Interactions as new forms of those traditions, where human cultural and human biological evolutions are intertwined. Robots are ← 79 | 80 → pieces of material culture, which are to be embedded in frameworks and horizons of perspectivity, related to the five forms of knowledge.

“[…] how we interact with robots and the precise form of our relation with them partly depends on our own character, identity, and personal history. […] The historical aspect is often neglected in reflections on human-robot relations.” (Coeckelbergh 2011b, p. 201)

This is what Michael Polanyi describes as “personal knowledge” (Polanyi 2002). The individual perceptual, emotional and sensorimotor histories of human beings carry personal knowing. Within our histories we not only remember visual perceptions or information, but also body movements, which are the basis for sensory embodied knowing (form 1 and 2)16 and structures of emotional (form 3), propositional (form 4) and philosophical-reflexive (form 5) remembering are cross-linked. Individual processes are always mirrored on a perspectival prism: social interactions (2PP) within a cultural horizon (1PPP), which carries theoretical and objective knowing (3PP). But as we have seen, especially with robots we are enhancing the framework of intersubjectivity, the “quasi other” (Ihde and Coeckelbergh) that is the 2PP.

A basis for material-technical handcraft cultures in general is the human competence to remember long sequences of body movements related to particular perceptive, social and material feedback. That is the fundament of human handcraft cultures since the first use of hand axes (Irrgang 2008b, p. 55; Irrgang 2009a, pp. 47ff., pp. 68ff., pp. 91ff., pp. 109ff.; Irrgang 2009b, pp. 7ff.). This epistemological approach does not deny or diminish the importance of semantic or propositional information. But an explanation of human culture has to start from the aspect of technical praxis; and insofar a philosophical approach of Technikhermeneutik is on one level with the state of the art in paleoanthropology or paleogenetics (Irrgang 2009a, pp. 47-82). Here the transdisciplinary gap is bridged. Within processes of robotics-research the approach of Technikhermeneutik provides a contribution to the development and framework of transdisciplinary oriented Philosophy of Technology and Technology Assessment.

Robots can be seen as another technical tool,17 thus another piece of the development of human material culture that is involved in the feedback loop between biological and cultural evolution. ← 80 | 81 →

“Deshalb wird hier vorgeschlagen, Robotik ausschließlich als Werkzeug bzw. Mittel für menschliche Zwecke aufzufassen – zumal der gegenwärtige Stand der technischen Entwicklung kaum eine andere Deutung zulässt. […] Unabhängig davon ist generell Versuchen zu widersprechen, spekulativ die Kluft zwischen menschlicher und künstlicher Intelligenz einzuebnen oder deren Einebnung als kulturelles Ziel auszugeben.” (Christaller et al. 2001, p. 127:

“Hence it is suggested that robotics is understood only as tool or means for human purposes – especially as the current technological state of the art allows no other interpretation. […] Anyway, attempts at bridging the gap between human and artificial intelligence or at establishing this as a cultural target are to be rejected.” [Translated by the author, Michael Funk.])

What does this mean for robotics in German and Japan culture?

Robotics in Germany and Japan

Technologytransfer between the Western World and East Asia has a long tradition. The Silk Road is an example for that. With technologies we always share perceptions, e.g. with spices we share a specific taste or with musical instruments a certain sound. And there is a genuine history of technology transfer between Germany and Japan as well, starting in the middle of the 19th-century and continuing till today.18 The mid-19th-century developments in Japan caused an opening to European and Western influences related to what we are used to call “industrialization” or “modernization.” The synthesis between European industrialized technologies and East Asian traditions mostly led to forms of so-called “alternative modernizations.” Alternative modernization means understanding and handling modern technologies, in non-Western cultures. Sharing technologies is more than sharing artifacts or physical and mathematical information. Moreover we also share values, tacit knowing and other factors of cultural embedding (Irrgang 2006). Saying it in words of perspectivity: there is not “the one and only“ modernity, but many cultural horizons of handling and understanding modern technologies. If we talk about “alternative modernity” we talk through the 1PPP. If something is “alternative” it is only “alternative” viewed through the scope or glasses of a native cultural horizon. The slogan “alternative modernity” belongs to the 2PPP, the focus of other cultural horizons.

Related to the development of robotics, the engineering sciences and the research on robots, we can see a scientific community that tries to establish transcultural knowledge that should be valid on a physical and mathematical level for robots all over the world (3PPP). The WWW, online journals and international robotics-conferences are amplifying that effect: the expertise in developing, constructing and repairing robots becomes globalized like the problem of waste disposal. On the other hand, the expertise – the perspective interrelation of the five ← 81 | 82 → forms of knowledge related to concrete humans using robots – is strongly shaped by the 1PPP. The way we handle robots is not globalized. And it is at this point where we find the most obvious differences between robotics in Germany and Japan.

“Different cultures have different views on autonomy and human dignity.” (Carpurro 2009, p. 122)

Thus “Robots are a mirror of shared cultural values that show to us and to others who we want to be. We redefine ourselves in comparison with robots in a similar way as we redefine ourselves in comparison with animals or gods.” (Carpurro 2009, p. 120)

“For instance, there seem to be differences between Europe and Japan in the way robots are perceived: the ‘slave’ model seems to be more dominant in Europe whereas Japan seems to go for the ‘companion’ model.” (Coeckelbergh 2001b, p. 201)

One prominent example is the religious background. As a consequence of Christian influence, Europeans are used to understand humans as “Imago Dei,” as beings with a personality. Robots just like stones or trees have no soul. But for example in Japanese Shintoism the animistic background allows seeing and treating robots as beings with an incorporated “soul.” Another point is related to the image of robots in popular culture.19 But these cultural effects are also not separable from economic developments20:

“The differences on the surface, such as more enthusiasm in investing in advanced robot development and popularity in mass media, might result from social demands in order to cope with the lack of young workers due to the aged society, rather than from the cultural and religious background. If Japanese people are deemed to take more positive and less ethical attitudes towards robots, this might result from subtle differences in conceptualization concerning robots as artificial humans and the shared belief about the Japanese historical background of animism and polytheism.” (Nishida 2009, p. 112)

The concrete situations (Situationsapriori) in which people interact with robots are involved into a cultural horizon (1PPP), in which the 2PP is like a mirror of those subtle differences. These situations cannot be substituted by the 3PPP, the horizon of “objective,” physical and mathematical knowing. Insofar, there is no difference between robots and hand axes: physical theory is the same all over the world, but the ways in which humans handle those tools within social and cultural ← 82 | 83 → frameworks are not congruent. From the perspective of modern sciences (3PP and 3PPP), it may be considered as irrational to treat a robot like a personal being with a soul. For certain users (1PP) within an animistic religious background (1PPP), this is not irrational, it is taken for granted.


In this approach, a pragmatic hermeneutics of perspectivity has been developed. This is not a linguistic hermeneutics related to the interpretation of texts but a philosophy of multi-perspective knowing and understanding in terms of material culture. The basic point is to demonstrate the relations between human processes of knowing and the way we treat robots as technical tools. Robots will enhance and shape but not replace human knowing. Insofar robots can be seen as tools just like hand axes or cars. But on the other hand, of course, robots are more complex technical systems that can “act” (as far as we accept “action” as an ascription from the 3PP). Robots cannot replace the human perceptive and emotional, moreover not the philosophical-reflexive, forms of knowledge. Anticipating the replacement of humans by robots is far away from the technical state of the art and bears no useful cultural values. But robots are also a challenge for humans to develop new forms of interrelating the perspectives (1PP, 2PP and 3PP) within cultural horizons (1PPP, 2PPP and 3PPP). Especially the aspect of verbal and gestural communication is relevant for the impact of the 2PP. As far as we know, a hand axe does not respond on a verbal level to what the user does. But (humanoid service) robots may do so. They appear as “quasi others” as a mirror that is not congruent but close to the human 2PP and a challenge for humans to learn new competences.

“A philosophical hermeneutics is required as a rational (scientific) method by which for instance two competing interpretations (i.e. translations) of the same text can be judged by explicit criteria. To date, no such science exists.” (Janich 2012, p. 228)

In terms of perspectivity and a hermeneutical epistemology such a judgment, for example within human-robot verbal interactions, is only possible from the 3PP within a framework of the 3PPP. Human social interactions are mostly driven by non-explicit tacit knowing (1PP and 2PP). But what we can do is to develop a cultural, social and institutional framework within the 1PPP and 3PPP that carries and shares explicit forms of knowing. We need to develop cultural frameworks that allow evolving the competences for using robots in everyday life and thinking about the related social and ethical impacts; namely Philosophy of Technology (Irrgang 2008b, pp. 341ff.), as well as Technology Assessment (Grunwald 2010).

„Wir sollten nicht das Vermögen der Roboter fürchten, sondern unser eigenes technisches Unvermögen.“ (Irrgang 2005a, p. 161: “We should not fear the capabilities of robots, but our own technical inability.” [Translated by the author, Michael Funk]) ← 83 | 84 →


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1 Bernhard Irrgang elaborates a concept of perspectivity that is reframing the 2PPP as “institutions” (Irrgang 2009a, p. 109). From my point of view, institutions are related to the 3PPP and the 2PPP belongs to the framework of different cultures.

2 See also the chapter “Who is taking over? Technology Assessment of Autonomous (Service) Robots” (Michael Decker) in this book. In Technology Assessment, another concept related to disciplinary perspectives is elaborated. Because of the multidisciplinary challenge, the term “perspective” is used to illustrate the different disciplinary approaches to robotics: “Technological perspective,” “Economic perspective,” “Legal perspective,” “Psychological perspective,” “Philosophical and ethical perspectives” (Decker et al. 2011, pp. 38ff.; see also Decker 2011, pp. 250-253; Christaller et al. 2001, pp. 210ff.).

3 Philosophical reflexive knowledge is typical for human beings: a matter of practical success and of logical truth (Irrgang 2005b, p. 247).

4 This is one of the following three reasons for constructing “humanoid robots”: 1. the old dream to build artificial humans; 2. to learn something about ourselves; and 3. because of purposive, means-end rationality (Decker 2010, p. 46; see also Coeckelbergh 2011b, p. 200).

5 That has been discussed by Don Ihde and Mark Coeckelbergh as “quasi-other” (Ihde 1990, pp. 97-108, p. 107; Coeckelbergh 2011a, p. 61, p. 65; Coeckelbergh 2011b, p. 198). The mirror-effect is not only reserved to human-robot-interactions but has its roots in human-human-interactions: “Or, perhaps seeing other humans and recognizing their shapes, we refer back to ourselves with the other-as-mirror.” (Ihde 2010, p. 42) “The robot becomes a ‘you’-not as a stand-in for someone else (which we might call a ‘delegated second person’) but a ‘you’ in its own right, an artificial second-person, which has a claim on me as a social being. […]; by talking to the robot in second-person terms, they [people] also construct it as a quasi-other.” (Coeckelbergh 2011a, p. 65)

6 The important epistemological point is incorporated into the thesis that human communicative competence is principally not substitutable by technical artifacts and systems (Janich 1999, p. 19). But “it becomes evident that human-like robots may have a profound impact on the nature of our communication” (Nishida 2009, p. 107; see also Gill 2008). “The core capability for some service and personal robots is to interact with the user in a natural language.” (Nishida 2009, p. 108) “In current human-robot relations, we can observe a shift from talking about robots and about human-robot relations to talking to robots. Let me [Mark Coeckelbergh] explain this shift and bring out its linguistic dimension and philosophical significance by distinguishing between different ‘perspectives.’” (Coeckelbergh 2011a, p. 63)

7 A third form of expertise belongs to the way we know how to use robots in everyday life. For this, it should not be necessary to have studied philosophy or an engineering science.

8 “I shall reconsider human knowledge by starting from the fact that we can know more than we can tell.” (Polanyi 2009, p. 4; see also Polanyi 1969; Polanyi 2009)

9 “Meansend knowledge, and knowledge for correcting faults can only be referred to action, not to behavior.” (Grunwald 2012, p. 193) And that is the reason why a hermeneutics of technologies is a pragmatic one. Success or failure are pragmatic truth-criteria for embodied knowing (tacit- or implicit knowledge and Umgangswissen). The ground for knowledge in human actions is not logical evidence but pragmatic success (Irgang 2005b, p. 246; Irrgang 2008a, p. 56). “Verstehen hat demnach die Form eines Lernprozesses, der durch das an ihren Folgen erkennbare Gelingen bzw. Mißlingen von Interpretationen gesteuert wird.” (Jung 2002, p. 151: “Understanding has the form of a learning process that is controlled by the success and failure of interpretations, which is recognizable by the consequences.” [Translated by the author, Michael Funk.])

10 On Wittgenstein´s approach in the “Philosophical Investigations” see also Funk 2010.

11 Bernhard Irrgang pays tribute to that by working out a synoptic approach including both sides of this coin in Irrgang 2007. Current paleoanthropological research supports this thesis: there is a feedback-loop of biological evolution and cultural evolution in the development of humankind since the first use of technical tools (Schrenk 2008, p. 77, p. 99, p. 122).

12 Another example is interpreting the paper as musical scores and not as a poem in a foreign language. For visual and pictorial hermeneutics see: Fellman 1991, p. 62; Jung 2002, p. 143ff., p. 153; on visual competence see the discussions in Hug & Kriwak 2011.

13 On the current discussion about theories of knowledge-sharing and new media technologies see Sützl et al. (eds.) 2012.

14 For an approach to the epistemology of classical music, Indian Raga music(s) or Jazz see also Funk 2011; Funk 2012; Funk & Coeckelbergh 2013.

15 According to paleoanthropological research, social behavior (Sozialverhalten) is one fundament for the development of modern humans (Schrenk 2008, p. 99). The interrelation between 1PP and 2PP belongs to that observation.

16 For studies of motor body movements in the arts see De Preester (ed.) 2013.

17 “Roboter, die ‘autonom’ handeln können, […] bleiben Werkzeuge und werden nicht zu handelnden Subjekten.” (Irrgang 2005a, p. 165: “Robots that are able to act autonomously […] remain tools and do not become acting subjects.” [Translated by the author, Michael Funk.]) “Weder der Mensch noch die Realität sollten durch Technik ersetzt werden, sondern vielmehr ihr Werkzeug- und Mittelcharakter betont werden, um die Ziele ihres Einsatzes besser reflektieren zu können.” (Irrgang 2005a, p. 212: “Neither humans nor reality should be replaced by technics. Instead we should put more emphasis on its status as a tool or instrument in order to be able to better reflect the purposes of its use.” [Translated by the author, Michael Funk.])

18 For further studies and detailed information see Pauer (ed.) 1992.

19 See also the chapter “Robots in Japanese Popular Culture” (Maika Nakao) in this book.

20 “The acceptance of technologies and thus their demand may be higher in technophile economies (Japan is generally considered as being one of them) than in more conservative ones.” (Decker et al. 2011, p. 39) “Japaner arbeiten mit Robotern, andere Nationen mit billigen Immigranten. Die Japaner werden davon langfristig einen enormen Vorteil haben.” (Irrgang 2005a, p. 152: “Japanese people are working with robots, other nations with cheap immigrants. In the long run, this will cause enormous benefits for Japan.” [Translated by the author, Michael Funk.])