Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 257.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Date: Thu, 20 Sep 2001 06:55:19 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: data and reality
In "The Historical Imagination", an epilegomenon to The Idea of History, R.
G. Collingwood presents what he calls the common-sense idea of history, as
>According to this theory, the essential things in history are memory and
>authority. If an event or a state of things is to be historically known,
>first of all, someone must be acquainted with it; then he must remember
>it; then he must state his recollection of it in terms intelligible to
>another; and finally that the other must accept the statement as true.
>History is thus the believing someone else when he says that he remembers
>something. The believer is the historian; the person believed is called
>This doctrine implies that historical truth, so far as it is at all
>accessible to the historian, is accessible to him only because it exists
>ready-made in the ready-made statements of his authorities. These
>statements are to him a sacred text.... He must therefore on no account
>tamper with them. He must not mutilate them; he must not add to them; and,
>above all, he must not contradict them. (rev edn, ed Jan van der Dussen,
As Collingwood notes, "These consequences of the common-sense theory have
only to be stated to be repudiated". In general, however, when historians
reflect on their work, he notes further, they seem to accept the
common-sense theory, softening the contradiction between what they actually
do and this doctrine by thinking of their interventions as emergency
measures rather than as the ordinary operations of historical research and
writing. In other words, the common-sense view remains quite powerful
despite the fact that no historian, or no good one, actually carries its
doctrine into practice.
An exposition of similar problems in graphical representation can be found
in Edward Tufte's fine books, as you probably know.
My question is this: how do we introduce our students, in humanities
computing, to the complex and treacherous domain that lies between data and
our representations of reality on the machine? How do we jolt them out of
the common-sense view that these representations are purely and simply factual?
Dr Willard McCarty / Senior Lecturer /
Centre for Computing in the Humanities / King's College London /
Strand / London WC2R 2LS / U.K. /
+44 (0)20 7848-2784 / ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/
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