Beautiful Theology

David asked, “Could you post a short note describing a connection you see [between Edward Tufte’s information design and Christian theology]?” Well, no. “Short” isn’t in my repertoire on this point.

But here’s the beginning of a try:

Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to think about hermeneutics in a much more expansive context than is usual. Most (not all) treatises on hermeneutics discuss only the problem of identifying appropriate interpretations for verbal expressions; I think that picks up the stick at the wrong end. Words are an extraordinarily peculiar instance of meaningfulness; the prevalent examples, from facial gestures (which we significantly call “expressions”) to natural phenomena (“You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky. . .”) to deliberate communicative gestures, involve our responding harmoniously* to the ecology of meaning that suffuses us. Only when we consider verbal interpretation in the broader context of communicative interactions can we appropriately work out problems relative to verbal interpretation.

(I’ll get to Tufte in a minute.)

To this way of thinking, “words” constitute a particular sort of information, not intrinsically more “meaningful” than clouds or physical posture or a frown or numerals or traffic lights. Since Tufte argues for finesse and beauty in information design, and since I’m consumed by questions relative to hermeneutics (particularly about questions involving the relation of written expressions such as the Bible to the enacted interpretations in our daily lives), I recognize profound continuity in the issues that agitate Edward Tufte and those that provoke me.

I’ll go on to write more about the specifics of Tuftean information design and AKMA-ian hermeneutics (and also to write about going to a Cubs game last Friday), but now our beloved friend Phil is here, and it’s time for me to join the conversation in the living room.

4 comments / Add your comment below

  1. It’s been a while since I looked at Tufte, but I recall find him extremely annoying.

    This seems odd, since many people seem to be such enthusiasts for him.

    I seem to recall there is a dichotomy, in general, however, between professional designers and others… I recall thinking that many of his design dicta or postulates where either a) wrong or b) likely to be badly misapplied by an untrained reader.

    Probably I should revisit the books before fulminating further.

  2. “…and it’s time for me to join the conversation in the living room.”

    As isolated entities, with but the senses to break through this encapsulation, the invisible words manufactured by the mind and formed by countless orchestrated movements of countless muscles in the throat and mouth, we utter … and invisible becomes visible as waiting ears drum and signal that others too hunger for the same message — we are not alone.

  3. Were you thinking, Akma, of clouds a written by God in the Book of Nature for our edificationa?
    Otherwise, I wonder if mind-wrought signs and symbols don’t require a different kind of hermeneutics than the signs of natural phenomena.

  4. Pascale, I can see how a design professional might bridle at some of what Tufte says (though Jakob Nielsen beats Tufte for annoying, hands down, I think). Both Nielsen and Tufte have something to teach me, though — Tufte a great deal more than just “something,” especially when I take his work as a starting point to think through for myself, rather than as a last word.

    Phil, the hermeneutics for natural and deliberate signs may differ, but I am not convinced that we understand our hermeneutic of nature better for having begun with a hermeneutic of words. Contrariwise, when our hermeneutics of words depend on such non-verbal contextual cues as tone, facial expression, location, and so on, I think it advisable to begin with a hermeneutics of non-verbal, even non-intentional phenomena, and work from there toward the more unusual, more coplex phenomenon.

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