17.249 the blind man's knowing

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Tue Sep 16 2003 - 09:38:15 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 249.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Tue, 16 Sep 2003 09:19:14 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: the blind man's knowing

    In his remarkable and for us quite valuable book, What Engineers Know and
    How They Know It (Johns Hopkins, 1990), Walter G. Vincenti refers to the
    work of the psychologist Donald Campbell, who "has argued at length that
    all genuine increases in knowledge... take place by some form of a process
    of *blind variation and selective retention* (p. 48). He uses "blind" to
    refer to variations in exploratory work that are not random but which
    proceed with inadequate guidance. Vincenti likens the engineer-researcher
    (include yourself in this noble company) to a blind man with a cane walking
    down an unfamiliar street, not randomly, not without purpose,
    intelligence or direction, but blindly, learning as he can from the taps of
    his cane. This is us.

    Vincenti develops his ideas on selective retention in a concluding chapter.
    I will not attempt to summarize this here -- I have only had time to skim
    the book while travelling on the tube last night. But it strikes me as a
    very promising enquiry for the likes of us. He notes that the epistemology
    of engineering is a field in its bare infancy -- but it IS a field. A
    number of people within the last few decades (Don Ihde included) have been
    arguing that the technological disciplines make a great deal more sense if
    we stop thinking of them as "applied science" and start taking notice of
    their independence. This is company we should be keeping.


    Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
    Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
    7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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