20.102 tools beyond the grasp of those who need them

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Tue, 11 Jul 2006 09:08:32 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 102.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Tue, 11 Jul 2006 08:22:06 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: tools beyond the grasp of those who need them

In his book The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending
and Minding the Misconceived Gap between Science and the Humanities
(Vintage, 2004), Stephen Jay Gould remarks that,

>however logically sound and however sanctioned by long historical
>persistence, our taxonomies of human disciplines arose for largely
>arbitrary and contingent reasons of past social norms and university
>practices, thus creating false barriers that impede current
>understanding.... [T]he conceptual tools needed to solve key
>problems in one field often migrate beyond our grasp because they
>become the property of a distant domain, effectively inaccessible to
>those in need. (p. 17)

As the subtitle indicates, his concern throughout is with the damage
done by the gap between the sciences and the humanities. Gould's
historical treatment of this gap should be required reading, but is
not my immediate reason for drawing your attention to the words
quoted above. Rather, the pathology of disciplinary gapping and our
healing role in addressing this pathology is.

Throughout the book, Gould argues against E O Wilson's interpretation
of "consilience" (lit. "leaping together"), an idea first proposed by
the great 19C philosopher of science, William Whewell, who inter alia
coined the word "scientist", and whose richly deserved reputation is
on the rise. Whewell argued for the "leaping together" of disparate
phenomena in scientific research -- but, more careful than Wilson,
only in the domain of the natural sciences; Wilson, in his book
Consilience (1998), extends the term in an effort to bring the
humanities under the reductive umbrella of the sciences, "a single
chain of reductionist explanation rooted in the empirical procedures
of science" (Gould, p. 256). Gould's argument is for unity in
difference: not a single way of knowing for all the disciplines, but many ways.

>The unification cannot occur (as a logical debarment, not just a
>practical difficulty), by... establishing a single efficacious way
>of knowing for all disciplines, based on the methods and successes
>of science, ultimately valuing the "humanities" not for any
>intrinsic difference from other factual domains, but for a status as
>the most complex empirical domain of all. (p. 256)

Those here who are listening in on the talk about what computer
science may have to do with the humanities will hear a disturbing
echo, and will, perhaps, be somewhat less happy to be known in CS
circles as having all those tough problems for computer science to "solve".

But to my point. Does it not seem to you that sitting (or standing,
or dancing) in a methodological common ground of the humanities, we
offer its disciplines the kind of unity that Gould is talking about,
and that one of our central roles is to make sure that conceptual
tools needed for addressing key problems are developed and put within
reach of all?



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Tue Jul 11 2006 - 04:40:34 EDT

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