Date: Wed, 07 May 2008 08:36:14 +0100 From: "Humanist Discussion Group \(by way of Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty-AT-kcl.ac.uk>\)" <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 www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/humanities/cch/research/publications/humanist.html www.princeton.edu/humanist/ Submit to: humanist-AT-princeton.edu Date: Wed, 07 May 2008 08:17:55 +0100 From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty-AT-kcl.ac.uk> 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. Yours, WM Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities Computing | Centre for Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26).
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