20.391 Feynman's version of Kelvin's declaration

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 11 Jan 2007 09:04:31 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 391.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 11 Jan 2007 08:37:40 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: Feynman's version of Kelvin's declaration

Whatever the exact words Kelvin used to proclaim the importance of
model-building, much the same was written out by another physicist,
Richard Feynman, on his chalkboard: "What I cannot create I do not
understand." According to Davis Baird, in Thing Knowledge: A
Philosophy of Scientific Instruments (Univ of California Press,
2004), citing Gleick's The Life and Science of Richard Feynman
(1993), this declaration was discovered after his death. Baird remarks,

>In a nutshell, the point is that making is different from saying, and yet
>we learn from made things and from the act of making. Cognitive content
>is not exhausted by theory, and for the same reason, epistemic content
>should not be exhausted by theory either....
>Feynman subjectively knew something through
>his efforts to create it, after which it carried the objective
content of this
>knowledge in a way that might be subjectively recovered by someone else...
(p. 16)

I suppose that the job for us is as different as a model made of
software is different from a model made of less
word-like material. I suppose that there is a genuine puzzle here,
not simply a curiosity. This puzzle seems to me to lie at the root of
some quite practical and even political problems we have, for example
establishing the software creations of humanities computing as
communicable humanities research rather than as the serviceable cogs
that allow the PI of a project to carry out research.

It is well known that for many of us research happens in the actual
writing of what we write, that, to paraphrase Feynman, "What I cannot
write I do not understand." Perhaps some part of the puzzle to which
I refer is due as much to our misunderstanding of the verbal medium
as to our failure to grasp the epistemic nature of made things. Do we
have any idea how words and what we call "meaning" are related?
Northrop Frye wrote at the beginning of Anatomy of Criticism that
poems are dumb as statues, and that criticism is required to give
them discursive voice. And it seems that after criticism more words
are needed, the need being in proportion to the greatness of the
criticism -- to its fruitfulness, as Frye said. Perhaps a big part of
the puzzle is that we focus on the golden egg rather than the goose
who lays it, and another, and another. Perhaps Feynman's sentence is
clearer if written, "What I am not creating, I do not understand."



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Thu Jan 11 2007 - 05:03:05 EST

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