21.419 cognitive science like alchemy

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 15 Dec 2007 10:03:21 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 419.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 15 Dec 2007 10:01:23 +0000
         From: "Hunsucker, R.L." <R.L.Hunsucker_at_uva.nl>
         Subject: RE: 21.416 cognitive science like alchemy

> . . . to the effect that one day neurobiology will do to cognitive
> science what chemistry did to alchemy.

When Willard first posed his query, I too had the feeling that
I'd read that before, and indeed probably somewhere in Rorty.
But I couldn't, and after thinking about it for a few days still
can't, place it. (Maybe I've just read too *much* Rorty since
his 1979 breakthrough). I do still have the feeling, though, that
we're dealing with a Rortian formulation -- rather than with one
from the subsequently mentioned Dreyfus or the Churchlands.

But there *is* at least, I see now, another publication, later
than the passage we apparently were remembering, in which
Rorty considered the same subject and took the same sort of
stance -- and which anyone who's interested therefore may
want to have a look at in this connection. It's his article called
"The brain as hardware, culture as software", which appeared
in _Inquiry_ 47.3 (June, 2004 -- Symposium Vincent
Descombes, The mind's provisions), on p.219-235.

And, interestingly enough, the indictment on "alchemy" was
cleverly turned back on Rorty ("a very bright alchemist . . .,
while what is needed is a superb chemist"), by Tibor
Machan, in his "Indefatigable alchemist: Richard Rorty's
radical pragmatism", _American Scholar_ 65.3 (Summer,
1996), p.417-424.

Ian Lancashire's most interesting remarks on cognitive
theories remind me that there was a time (1980s and
into the 1990s) when the "cognitive paradigm" was
dominant in the field of information retrieval research
and of information needs, seeking and use ("INSU")
studies in general. For more than ten years now the
fashion has been, at least in INSU, to make light of
(at least the tendancy to accept the overriding or even
unique validity of) that paradigm, with the implied
question "how could we ever have been so
unsophisticated as to take such a simplistic view
of the processes and factors involved".

Willard also wrote :

> I keep wondering (and here am eager for comment) how
> it is that as humanists we can feel so comfortable ignoring
> so much of what human beings have thought and done
> under the rubric of science?

Maybe because it's so much easier that way (and the actual
academic risks, peculiarly, remain low). Which doesn't make
it -- indeed -- any the less regrettable, from both disciplinary

And he furthermore wrote :

> What we tend to see is a more or less straight line of
> development . . . . But, as I understand it, that's not an
> historian's view.

Nor, fortunately, as I understand it, a sociologist's :-).

- Laval Hunsucker
    U Amsterdam
Received on Sat Dec 15 2007 - 05:17:11 EST

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