File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 1

Date: Wed, 07 May 2008 08:36:14 +0100
From: "Humanist Discussion Group \(by way of Willard McCarty              <>\)" <willard-AT-LISTS.VILLAGE.VIRGINIA.EDU>
Subject: 22.001 the 21st time around the Maypole
To: <humanist-AT-Princeton.EDU>

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 1.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to:

         Date: Wed, 07 May 2008 08:17:55 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <>
         Subject: the 21st time around the Maypole

Today is Humanist's 21st birthday! Some of you 
have been around since the very beginning, many 
for many years. So most everyone here knows that 
on 7 May every year I post a HAPPY BIRTHDAY 
message, taking a bit of time out not just to 
celebrate longevity but also to reflect on 
Humanist's conceptual wanderings during the year.

This time allow me to do these things by drawing 
your attention to four bits of writing, whose 
conjunction to my mind sums up what this 
whatever-it-is has been about since it began, in 
1987, when the humanities were nearing the end of 
their palaeo-electronic age. I come to the 
following construction because the necessarily 
extra-/inter-disciplinary position of humanities 
computing gives us quite a balancing act to 
perform, help with which is never superfluous. To 
put this another way, it is useful if not vital 
for us to be reminded that being in play rather 
than at rest, or in still another way, remaining 
in conversation rather than at the conclusion of 
whatever argument (or worse, persuaded by 
whatever sales-pitch), is the trick perpetually 
to be performed. We need our wakeup calls. So I give you the following:

(1) The first three paragraphs in the Preface to 
Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life? (1943), in which 
he states his excuse for venturing beyond his 
area of specialization (theoretical physics, that is):

 >A scientist is supposed to have a complete and
 >thorough knowledge, at first hand, of some
 >subjects and, therefore, is usually expected not
 >to write on any topic of which he is not a
 >master. This is regarded as a matter of noblesse
 >oblige. For the present purpose I beg to
 >renounce the noblesse, if any, and to be freed
 >of the ensuing obligation. My excuse is as follows:
 >We have inherited from our forefathers the keen
 >longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge.
 >The very name given to the highest institutions
 >of learning reminds us, that from antiquity and
 >throughout many centuries the universal aspect
 >has been the only one to be given full credit.
 >But the spread, both in width and depth, of the
 >multifarious branches of knowledge during the
 >last hundred odd years has confronted us with a
 >queer dilemma. We feel clearly that we are only
 >now beginning to acquire reliable material for
 >welding together the sum total of all that is
 >known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it
 >has become next to impossible for a single mind
 >fully to command more than a small specialized version of it.
 >I can see no other escape from this dilemma
 >(lest our true aim be lost forever) than that
 >some of us should venture to embark on a
 >synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with
 >second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of
 >them -- and at the risk of making fools of ourselves.

(2) John Ziman, "Emerging out of nature into 
history: the plurality of the sciences", in 
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 
London 361 (2003): 1617-33, of which here I give 
the abstract (the whole thing is in JSTOR):

 >The idea of a 'theory of everything' is
 >inconsistent with a natural feature of
 >biological evolution: the spontaneous emergence
 >of composite entities with completely new
 >properties. At successively higher levels of
 >complexity, from elementary particles and
 >chemical molecules, through unicellular and
 >multicellular organisms, to self-aware human
 >beings and their cultural institutions, we find
 >systems obeying entirely novel principles. The
 >behaviour of such systems is not predictable
 >from the properties of their constituents, so
 >distinct 'languages' are required to describe
 >them scientifically. The plurality of our
 >sciences is thus an irreducible feature of the
 >universe we live in. In particular, the
 >reversible time coordinate of mathematical
 >physics cannot cope with the natural 'path
 >dependence' of biology. In the human sciences
 >this extends into the imagined future as well as
 >the remembered past. Furthermore, science
 >nowadays usually arises in localized social
 >contexts, where the 'logic of the situation' is
 >continually being transformed by the emergence
 >of cultural novelties such as unpredictable
 >technological innovations. Thus, scientific
 >knowledge cannot be restricted to generalized
 >synchronic models, but involves historical
 >narratives of specific events and unforeseen circumstances.

(3) G. R. Lloyd, Cognitive Variations: 
Reflections on the Unity and Diversity of the 
Human Mind (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), of 
which I will quote the first paragraph from the Preface:

 >This book derives from the interests that I have
 >had, over many years, in comparing the cognitive
 >capacities displayed and the modes of reasoning
 >used by the members of different societies,
 >ancient and modern. What are the commonalities
 >that link us all as human beings? What is the
 >extent, and what are the limits, to human
 >variability in this domain? Claims for
 >cross-cultural universals have been made, in
 >recent years especially, in such areas as colour
 >perception, animal classification, and the
 >emotions. How robust is the evidence for these?
 >At what points and in what respects do we have
 >to acknowledge that cognition varies as between
 >individuals or collectivities, in response to
 >cultural, linguistic, or even physical factors?

(4) Ian Hacking, "How Shall We Repaint the 
Kitchen?" Rev. of Cognitive Variations, as above. 
London Review of Books 29.21 (1 November 2007), 
from which I quote the final paragraph (Hacking's 
"nature and nurture" being the poles between 
which Lloyd's argument has proceeded):

 >Nature and nurture are not exhaustive; indeed,
 >the action is mostly at the interplay between
 >the two. They should be regarded only as
 >signposts. Moreover, you should not assume that
 >nature gives what is universal in the human
 >condition, while nurture produces all the
 >variety. There is of course tremendous regional
 >variety in peoples around the globe, and lots of
 >cognitive variability within a single family;
 >conversely, there may be many facts about the
 >very possibility of human societies that make
 >for the cultural universals urged by
 >anthropologists as different as Claude Lévi-Strauss
 >and Mary Douglas.

If I read the situation correctly, current 
writings in the history of science favour (2) 
over (1), e.g. Peter Galison's argument for 
"specific theory" (Critical Inquiry 30, Winter 
2004) or Nancy Cartwright's "deeply dappled" 
world (The Dappled World: A Study of the 
Boundaries of Science, Cambridge, 1999). Some who 
write about Schrödinger refer, with respect but 
at a distance, to his "belief" in the possibility 
of conceptual unification. No one I know remarks 
on his breathtaking intellectual bravery. Lloyd's 
beautiful little book puts the swings and 
roundabouts of such argument into a large 
historical and geographical context. But 
Hacking's review (which I'll send to anyone who 
asks) makes the point I think we need to have 
before us: "the action is mostly at the interplay 
between the two [universalism & particularism]. 
They should be regarded only as signposts." I 
suppose one could say in the spirit of his point 
that interdisciplinarity, such as we have before 
us to practice, is a way of acting in that 
interplay -- and of never coming to rest or 
tumbling into one ditch or the other. Ziman's 
strong argument keeps us honest -- not respecting 
the differences makes identities impossible -- 
but also points the bravery of Schrödinger, to 
venture not just where no one has gone before but 
where the going has no conclusion and admits of no certainty.

Humanist hasn't a singular axe to grind, rather 
as many axes as can be found. But the grinding of 
axes (allow me to follow the metaphor, if you 
please) for the chopping of wood, to build our 
dwellings, keep us warm and cook our food, is the 
singular activity it is most certainly about. I 
suppose this 21st birthday -- to be celebrated, 
note well, at the Digital Humanities conference 
in Oulu, Finland, the last week of June (be there 
or be square) -- can signify some sort of 
maturity, which among other things means having 
that aboutness in mind. It means realising that 
although a sharp axe is at any one time the goal 
of grinding, when one looks back and considers 
all the wood chopped, it's the grinding that is 
to be celebrated. Axes, however substantial, come 
and go, get dull, and so need grinding again.

Looking back on these first 21 years of 
axe-grinding, what strikes me is the potent 
mixture of stubbornness and love in equal measure 
that have kept it going. Or perhaps I should say, 
the stubbornness of love. Humanist certainly 
won't live forever. But even the most fragile of 
human productions -- notably ideas -- have 
longevity measured in millennia. Not that 
Humanist is anywhere near as epochal as the idea 
of the library or the idea of the university, but 
it participates in the elaboration, indeed in the 
defense of these ancient ideas. I here invite you 
to join me in optimism despite the formidable 
janitocracy by which we are currently managed. 
And so, in optimism, as we build our digital 
scholarly worlds, we need to be working quite 
self-consciously in the tradition of such ideas, 
realising that these are what matter. Humanist is 
a place in which to discuss them. It is also a 
manifestation of the discussing that is 
fundamental to everything the humanities have always been about.

Just yesterday an old friend wrote to me that 
"individuals make the digital humanities, not 
centres, which all shrivel and die". I hope he is 
wrong about centres, at least those we have now, 
and one in particular. But he is certainly right 
about individuals, because of what they can do -- 
think, love, act. This collection of individuals 
does these things in language, by correspondence. 
In the 22nd year of Humanist, as the old English 
proverb goes, "Be bold -- but not too bold!" And don't forget to celebrate.


Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities
Computing | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Et sic in
infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26). 


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