[Humanist] 23.58 mutual failures, wonderful rewards

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat May 30 10:27:56 CEST 2009

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 58.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 30 May 2009 09:26:53 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: mutual failures

Reading around in what at first seemed a distant hinterland to the main 
action of literary computing in its early years, I ran into the 
thrilling work of Warren McCulloch and through him cybernetics. (Here I 
do not exaggerate; though McCulloch's work has been largely left to 
gather dust -- his collected works remain unavailable after their minor 
publisher fell into bankrupcy -- the intellectual passion and vision of 
his project are breathtaking.) Jean-Pierre Dupuy's history of the first 
wave of cybernetics, The Mechanization of the Mind (Aux origines des 
sciences cognitives), derives its inspiration largely from McCulloch, 
though this does not make Dupuy less critical of the failure of 
cybernetics to connect with, among others, people like us. It's that 
failure I want to note here.

One cannot help but wonder about the lack of interest from the 
humanities at the time, esp from those who were, like us, involved with 
computing and so encountering strangers. Perhaps most of this can be 
explained simply by lack of opportunity, by the constraints of busy 
lives and so forth. But there are signs here and there in the literature 
(e.g. the complaints of Louis Milic, the reachings out of Margaret 
Masterman, the paranoia -- or should we call it justifiable fear -- of 
F. R. Leavis) more of refusals to stretch the mind rather than 
forbidding conditions. The pressures of professional life that reward 
keeping the head down are very real, as many of us know. But, still, at 
least from among the tenured class, from the professoriate, one would 
expect more curiosity. Even just that.

Dupuy, in considering failures from the other side, from the 
cyberneticians, notes Norbert Wiener's early abandonment of any attempt 
to reach from physical to social systems and the poor showing from the 
social scientists involved in the project. What he says about the latter 
is indicative of the greater problem. "As for the others, Warren 
McCulloch included," he writes, "their training in the human and social 
sciences was not extensive enough to enable them to appreciate how much 
they might have profited from deeper exposure to these disciplines, 
still less to suspect the inspiration they might have taken from them." 

Recently I found myself at an alumni/ae gathering put on here in London 
by my greatly respected and admired alma mater, Reed College. Us 
Reedies, young and old, were grouped around tables to discuss inter alia 
what we might change about the College. An idea that emerged from my 
table was to augment one of the two or three central features of Reed's 
pedagogy -- the mandatory 1st-year course in the humanities from Archaic 
Greece to the 17C -- with a strong emphasis on the sciences. I may be 
inclined to disagree with Dupuy's assessment of McCulloch's 
interdisciplinary depths, but I do think he is exactly right about the 
pernicious effects of enforced relocation to this or that disciplinary 
ghetto without first the kind of highly intense training that Reed's 
humanities programme gives. In my opinion Reed needs to extend this to 
the sciences, and so become even more intense (if that is possible), but 
the broader point is the important one here.

THe risk-taking implied by the exercise of such curiosity is great, as 
risks in academia go. But what rewards! Can we afford not to be changed 
by them?


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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