17.675 food for thought

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Mon Mar 01 2004 - 11:20:43 EST

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 675.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

         Date: Mon, 01 Mar 2004 11:36:20 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: food for thought

In his marvellous essay, "Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm", in
Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1989),
96­125, historian Carlo Ginzburg traces a modern habit of mind, clearly
active on the analytical side of humanities computing, to the hunt.
(Forgive this very crude summary of his deft and complex argument.)
Although, as he says, to “decipher” or “read” animal tracks may be solely
metaphoric, whatever that might mean, perhaps they indicate an historical
process that culminated in the invention of writing and resurfaced e.g. in
the modern discipline of semiotics, famously in the novels of Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle and in history itself. Semiotics, he notes, is included in a
constellation of disciplines with a common feature: “an attitude oriented
toward the analysis of specific cases which could be reconstructed only
through traces, symptoms, and clues.” In this we perceive “what may be the
oldest act in the intellectual history of the human race: the hunter
squatting on the ground, studying the tracks of his quarry.” Consider that
when you are gazing at your KWIC listing or database output :-).

Another in the same vein. The ecologist Paul Shepard (d. 1996), in The
Others: How Animals Made Us Human (Washington DC: Island Press, 1996),
directs his attention across the vast stretches of time during which human
awareness and intelligence developed, especially in the formative rhythms
of eating and being eaten.

>The first tools of horn, bone, wood, and stone were not constructions like
>the beaver’s dam or the bird’s nest but parts of animals. Digging sticks,
>blades, picks, mauls, saws ­ means for opening things to get at roots,
>kernels, through skin, into joints and marrow ­ were not so much for
>killing as for extracting. Tools revealed not death but clues to the life
>of animals, a society within the body, a mirror of our own. Once opened,
>insides become new outsides. What is around us in daily life can also be
>imagined as some great “insides”. For the Kunwinjku in Australia, the
>ancestors’ body parts became the visible features of the terrain around
>them. Anatomy was perceived as landscape, produced from mythic origins and
>experienced by every generation in the planned itinerary of clan walkabouts….
>Consummation and communion in all their nuances are ritualized in food and
>drink, and whole philosophies of life and death are expressed in quests
>for food and its transformation. The hunt sharpened our intelligence. And
>the crucial turn was the inwardness which began with the scrutiny of the
>opened body.
(pp. 39-40)

Speculative, certainly; outrageously so, perhaps. But when, for example in
Herbert Simon's The Sciences of the Artificial (3rd edn, MIT Press, 1996),
one encounters an argument that reduces the complexity we sense in human
intelligence to the adaptive behaviour of a physical symbol system, asking
the big questions becomes hard to avoid. And part of our brief, I would
think, given the central role we bestow on artificial systems whose design
as well as role are based on constructions of intelligence. Big brains such
as we have, Shepard notes, are biologically expensive and risky:
"Flexibility in behavior and a capacity for imagining reality do not
usually outweigh the disadvantages of making bad decisions and the time
learning takes. Flexible behavior puts a huge array of choices before the
individual with the proportional likelihood for terminal error. Brains are
especially vulnerable to developmental impairment due to malnutrition,
disease, traumatic experience, and injury,and they require large amounts of
energy and investment of parental care and protection for a long time. The
range of psychopathology increases with brain complexity". There are other,
safer, well-attested ways for animals to adapt to their environments (p.
17). So, as always with our computational applications, what is omitted in
the system-design is where the research interest lies.

But the perilously seductive pull, equally from the behaviouristic side and
from the naturalistic, gives us the sharpest, clearest form of our
philosophical research question. This is Charles Taylor's: "What tempts
people to adopt a poorer theory of self?" (Philosophy and the Human
Sciences, p. 4).

Permit me the beginnings of an answer, a bit of practical advice lettered
on an outside wall of a South Dublin pub: "If you're tired, have a Guinness".



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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