File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 120

Date: Tue, 15 Jul 2008 09:15:53 +0100
From: "Humanist Discussion Group \(by way of Willard McCarty              <>\)" <willard-AT-LISTS.VILLAGE.VIRGINIA.EDU>
Subject: 22.118 adequately conceived human ends
To: <humanist-AT-Princeton.EDU>

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 118.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to:

         Date: Mon, 14 Jul 2008 16:58:17 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <>
         Subject: adequately conceived human ends

In a public lecture he gave at the University of Bristol in 1970, 
"'Literarism' vs 'Scientism': The misconception and the menace", 
published in the Times Literary Supplement for 23 April 1970, F. R. 
Leavis spoke of "The professional subhumanities of computerial 
addiction", one of the causes he identifies for the change in 
education from learning to information retrieval, the mechanization 
of society and of scholarship as a series of structured tasks and the 
refiguration of universities as industrial plants. He comments,

 >I am not proposing to ban the computer, but
 >emphasizing the problem of ensuring that the use
 >of the computer shall be really a use -- that it
 >shall be used as truly a means in the service of
 >adequately conceived human ends. More
 >generally, I am not suggesting we should halt
 >the progress of science and technology, I am
 >insisting that the more potently they accelerate
 >their advance the more urgent does it become to
 >inaugurate another, a different sustained effort
 >of collaborative human creativity -- the
 >continuous collaborative creativity that ensures
 >significance, ends and values, and manifests
 >itself as consciousness and profoundly human purpose.

One can detect in this long lecture, stretching over 4 pages of the 
TLS in very small type, the common fear of the time of what was 
happening and about to happen in part because of the computer, or 
more generally, automation (which is the word to look for in 
discussions among members of the working class of the time, e.g. in 
the British Trades Union Congress reports from the mid 1950s). The 
whole basis of society was shifting, and many felt it and feared its 
outcome. But it must be said that what Leavis feared for university 
life has largely come to pass, his vision of the future strongly 
familiar to us now, alas. It would be silly to assert that the 
computer was the cause -- a devastating war had just concluded, with 
effects in this country that many elsewhere couldn't even begin to 
imagine. The undoing of Oxbridge-educated privilege was proceeding 
apace. Calls for extending university education that people in the 
U.K. now attribute to New Labour were being heard in those Trade 
Union Congress meetings of the 1950s. But it would be just as silly 
to think that computing was not involved, that (not to put too fine a 
point on it) computing had blood on its hands, and it would be 
irresponsible not to see that the damage doesn't continue. In reading 
about what computers are good for in the scholarly life (we're still 
trying to figure that one out) so often I run across the purely 
instrumental arguments Leavis was complaining about: "the computer 
helps us get on with it", where "it" is simply assumed, or 
reflexively uppercased. One could say, I suppose, that this "it" 
depends on the discipline, and so offload the responsibility, but if 
"it" changes with the means, as seems obvious, then it's our lookout.

What would we say if Leavis turned up and wanted to know what we thought?


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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