17.363 reification; or, a complaint

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Thu Oct 30 2003 - 01:39:58 EST

  • Next message: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty

                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 363.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Wed, 29 Oct 2003 10:39:13 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: reification

    Allow me to complain about a habit of mind that makes clear thinking more
    difficult for us than need be. This is the habit of writing about vague
    notions as if they were concrete realities. Two of the best known ones are
    hypertext and "the" Semantic Web.

    Hypertext. If, for the moment, we grant existence to "hypertext" as a
    bundle of related notions, then we can say that "it" is of course partially
    instantiated and in partial form used by millions of people every day, even
    as I write. But the pseudo-thing that many so-called theorists write about
    does not exist. Thus Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, in "Hypertext and the Next
    Generation" (First Monday 3.11
    http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue3_11/pang/): "...hypertext, while a
    breathtakingly radical and even noble technology, doesn't actually exist,
    though hypertext theory is based on the assumption that it does. Versions
    of some of hypertext's features can be found in software programs like
    Storyspace and Intermedia, on CDs, and on the World Wide Web. But none of
    these is hypertext as described in the literature."

    "The" Semantic Web. I would have no complaint if people called it "a"
    semantic web and wrote subjunctively. But they don't. This case is worse
    because, as far as I understand this pseudo-thing, the muddle of ideas that
    it names is not even partially instantiated, at least not where we can take
    a clear look. Yet one could hardly be surprised if people started selling
    shares in The Semantic Web, Inc., and buying them too. For the diversity of
    ideas gather under the general rubric, see Catherine C. Marshall and Frank
    M. Shipman, "Which Semantic Web?" Proceedings of the fourteenth ACM
    conference on Hypertext and hypermedia, Nottingham U.K., 2003

    I am reminded yet again of the cartoon figure who walks off the end of a
    cliff and keeps walking until he notices that there's nothing underneath
    him, then plummets. Don't get me wrong: I am not arguing against having and
    using an imagination (which by definition makes things present to the mind
    that are absent or non-existent), rather against hiding the exercise of it
    when one is writing supposed non-fictional academic prose.

    Too severe? Utterly wrongheaded?


    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

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Thu Oct 30 2003 - 01:55:15 EST