[Humanist] 23.634 disciplinary history (how common, how important)

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Feb 12 09:28:17 CET 2010


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 634.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Patrick Durusau <patrick at durusau.net>                     (47)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?

  [2]   From:    Bovcon Vaupotic <serapeion at gmail.com>                     (88)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?

  [3]   From:    Haines Brown KB1GRM ET1                                   (62)
                <brownh at historicalmaterialism.info>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?

  [4]   From:    James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>                      (25)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?

  [5]   From:    Ali Grotkowski <alig at ualberta.ca>                          (7)
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?

  [6]   From:    Elijah Meeks <elijahmeeks at gmail.com>                      (22)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?

  [7]   From:    "Geoffrey C. Bowker" <gbowker at pitt.edu>                  (105)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?


--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 07:45:29 -0500
        From: Patrick Durusau <patrick at durusau.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?
        In-Reply-To: <20100211083958.E63D94BB9B at woodward.joyent.us>

Willard,

<snip>
> So, I venture an hypothesis (as Peirce said, a guess): that the history
> of a discipline tends to become important to its practitioners when they
> believe their discipline to be in trouble, are dissatisfied as to its
> status in the world etc. They're concentration from the tool to the task
> is broken, so they turn their attention to the tool and begin to wonder
> if it's the right one.
>
>    
Rather than look at its tools, the AI community simply invents new names 
for itself. I had a CS doctoral student tell me in all seriousness that 
his department was now Human Assisted Computing because the AI moniker 
had fallen on hard times.

When I questioned him further it turned out that he meant disappointment 
with AI results in the late 1990's. I had to point out that AI had quite 
similar disappointments in the 1980's, 1970's and 1960's. He assured me 
that this time was going to be different.

Perhaps we should have a new name? 21st Century Humanists? (to imply our 
colleagues are last century humanists) That could lead to century 
inflation so, Renaissance Humanists? (that should put our alleged 
detractors in their place)

> Don't we believe our discipline is in trouble? At least rejected and
> despised and acquainted with grief (hear the music)? I certainly think that
> this belief is healthier than the one which says we're the Next Big Thing.
>
   
No, not at all. What is despised is the "you must be our apprentice" 
sort of attitude and tool sets.

If we want respect from humanists in general then we need to build tools 
that:

1) Have immediate benefit relevant to *their* needs, and

2) Be as easy to use as average office software (if not better, it needs 
to work the way a humanist works, not to make it easy for programmers or 
to fit the underlying representation).

The key word in that suggestion is "their" needs, not ours.

If we want respect from others then we need to earn it, not simply 
demand it based on our judgment about our efforts.

Hope you are having a great week!

Patrick

-- 
Patrick Durusau
patrick at durusau.net
Chair, V1 - US TAG to JTC 1/SC 34
Convener, JTC 1/SC 34/WG 3 (Topic Maps)
Editor, OpenDocument Format TC (OASIS), Project Editor ISO/IEC 26300
Co-Editor, ISO/IEC 13250-1, 13250-5 (Topic Maps)



--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 13:53:23 +0100
        From: Bovcon Vaupotic <serapeion at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?
        In-Reply-To: <20100211083958.E63D94BB9B at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear colleagues,

Let me introduce myself first - I am a new media artist and a literary
comparatist.

I was thinking about a similar issue the other day. Whether to
overcomplicate the methodological and contextual approach or to merely
submit oneself - e.g. a comparatist scholar - to the raw data.

Walter Benjamin's work on the Trauerspiel comes to mind - he studied
an obscure example of art and was therefore more free to interpret it
in a way he wanted (although he was, of course, far from ignoring the
history of research into this subject). This sort of freedom doesn't
apply to e.g. Goethe studies.

On the other hand, the computer science's rejection to study their own
history has its limits. Manovich in his "Software Takes Command"
points to the fact that HCI design is now discovering features, which
have been presented in the Douglas Engelbart Demo in 1968.

Best regards
Aleš Vaupotič
REELC/ENCLS
http://eurolit.net


--[3]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 09:15:12 -0500
        From: Haines Brown KB1GRM ET1 <brownh at historicalmaterialism.info>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?
        In-Reply-To: <20100211083958.E63D94BB9B at woodward.joyent.us>

On Thu, Feb 11, 2010 at 08:39:58AM +0000, Humanist Discussion Group 
wrote:
 
> how commonplace and how important is a practitioner's awareness of 
> the history of his or her own practice? In practice is an historical 
> awareness basically an optional extra, which may make you better at 
> what you do but is not at all necessary?

...

> Historians, of course, pay loads of attention to the past of 
> knowledge when knowledge is their subject. But apart from those few 
> who wander into historiography, does the past of doing history 
> matter when you're doing it?
> 
> So, I venture an hypothesis (as Peirce said, a guess): that the 
> history of a discipline tends to become important to its 
> practitioners when they believe their discipline to be in trouble, 
> are dissatisfied as to its status in the world etc. They're 
> concentration from the tool to the task is broken, so they turn 
> their attention to the tool and begin to wonder if it's the right 
> one.

I cannot resist rising to the bait of Peirce and Handel! 

The premise that action is best described in terms of a Markov chain 
seems valid. A Markov chain forgets its past and responds 
probabilistically to actually existing circumstances. Humans are not 
mathematical operators, of course, and memory does weigh heavily on 
the present, but memory is a mental construction that exists only in 
the present as a one-sided and approximate analog for cumulative 
experience (Peirce). Arguably, the past exists only as constraining 
structures in the present, be they physical or mental, which determine 
the probability distribution of possible futures. It is therefore 
through struggle that we bring about improbable futures.

As for the hypothesis, taking for granted that the discipline is in 
trouble (an issue that begs for class analysis), I suspect that old 
tools are necessarily ill-suited to ever-changing circumstances and 
demands. Besides, are not our historiographic tools now 
extraordinarily sophisticated? Is the problem that our tools are 
inadequate to the task, or that the task itself has been obscured and 
discredited?

There's an approach, which can perhaps be described as existential, 
that keeps popping up to suggest that historic consciousness 
contributes to the effectiveness of action in the present. Carr, What 
is History, is a classic example. Another, which I encountered 
yesterday, is John Marcus, "The Consciousness of History", Ethics, 73 
(1962), 28-41. What these and other examples argue, and with which I 
suspect we all might intuitively agree, is that historic consciousness 
helps us in some way to transcend the present to construct a better 
future.

Unfortunately this is seldom if ever worked out explicitly in terms of 
naturalistic argument. Carr, if I recall accurately, saw it in 
psychological terms. Marcus emphasizes that the present is a process 
of becoming, but remains at the intuitive level. The basic point seems 
that historic consciousness does not have so much to do with the past 
but with the future, and with seeing the present as an open process 
that is only constrained rather than unequivocally determined (caused) 
by the structures of the past.

Does anyone know of work that explores and develops this intuition 
explicitly and does not presume a mind-body ontic dichotomy? I have 
been working on it, but have had to skate on thin ice.

Haines Brown
Central Connecticut State University, Emeritus
brownh at historicalMaterialism.info   

   


--[4]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 10:21:08 -0500
        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?
        In-Reply-To: <20100211083958.E63D94BB9B at woodward.joyent.us>

You always pose such good questions, Willard.  The important thing to
me is a critical self-awareness of one's own methodologies and
assumptions -- the knowledge that you could be working with different
methodologies and different assumptions.  One of the best ways of
gaining this awareness is through a study of the history of one's
field.  The nature of this historical study, however, I think varies a
great deal by discipline.

I don't think knowledge of the state of computational sciences in the
1920s is necessary for the computer scientist today, but I think
knowledge of it since the 50s or 60s could be very useful.

However, in the field of literary theory, anyone who hasn't read much
that was written before the 19th or 20th centuries is ragingly
ignorant and not in a very good position to even understand 20th/21st
C literary theory.  It really helps one's understanding of Derrida,
say, to have read Plato, Augustine, Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche.  It's
really very hard to fully appreciate what he was doing without this
background.

Jim R

> I have a question which needs the thought of ordinary practitioners of
> several disciplines or, more broadly, forms of life. The question is
> this: how commonplace and how important is a practitioner's awareness of
> the history of his or her own practice? In practice is an historical
> awareness basically an optional extra, which may make you better at what
> you do but is not at all necessary?
>



--[5]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 08:25:59 -0700
        From: Ali Grotkowski <alig at ualberta.ca>
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?
        In-Reply-To: <20100211083958.E63D94BB9B at woodward.joyent.us>

Good question. I find that in all disciplines I have studied, the history has been an important component of the introduction to the field (and I have studied in several arts and sciences fields), so I am not sure that your suggestion is the case. Having a good background in history is useful, but also potentially limiting to the range of thought in a field, not necessarily wanting to either depart too far from what has come before or repeat the past, an interesting problem to have.
Ali Grotkowski
MA/MLIS student
University of Alberta

--[6]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 10:36:31 -0800
        From: Elijah Meeks <elijahmeeks at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?
        In-Reply-To: <20100211083958.E63D94BB9B at woodward.joyent.us>


"In the case of computer science, with half as much history and changing
at much more than twice the speed, I suspect that most practitioners, if
they regard the history of CS at all, think it irrelevant, full stop.
And they do have a point as long as they stick within the technological
frame. The sciences are more or less generally like that, I'd suppose."

Actually, Willard, I'd argue that computer scientists are crippled by their
constant looking back at their own history to the point of being incapable
of looking beyond it.  Mac OSX and Linux are just UNIX--which is over forty
years old--and programmers love them, and the digerati loves them, as they
love very old science fiction memes that they believe they're taking part
in.  Programmers and computer scientists either still live in a world of
EMACS and FORTRAN or they hearken back to it nostalgically.  I'd wager you
can't find a coder who has advanced beyond the "revolutionary cybernetic
vision" of the already hackneyed when it was published, c. 1984 novel
Neuromancer.  As a result, you have fogies like Richard Stallman literarally
dressing themselves like iconic portraits of saints (complete with halos)
and espousing extremely shallow philosophical ideals because they think that
they have existed throughout the sum total of "important history" (which is
to say, the history of their domain).  We could all learn some lessons from
them, but lessons of what to avoid rather than what to emulate.

All the best,
Elijah Meeks



--[7]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 15:24:08 -0500
        From: "Geoffrey C. Bowker" <gbowker at pitt.edu>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?
        In-Reply-To: <20100211083958.E63D94BB9B at woodward.joyent.us>

Hi Willard,

Way interesting post.  I have immediate problems with the word 
'discipline' though.  There is no 'discipline' of sociology that would 
cover total quant-heads and qual-heads - the grounded theory of Anselm 
Strauss just does not fit with large scale survey research.  Similarly 
history and any other so-called discipline - disciplines are a place 
where people agree on the terms of debate rather than prosecute a single 
style.  BTW, am just starting to read a French book on Qu'est-ce-que une 
discipline that looks interesting - will report back if this thread 
continues.

That said, the question of when history becomes important is still 
salient. I really like the guess but disagree.  I've seen a few 
genealogies of Artificial Intelligence that trace their routes back to 
Hilbert - this is the 'unassailable genius' route for explaining a 
theory.  This authority exercise is key for many clusters of research - 
I never met a grounded theorist who wasn't by various supervisors 
removed a student of Everett Hughes, nor an ethnomethodologist who 
didn't trace back, however vacuously, to Garfinkel.  As a perennial 
outsider to these ancestries (Gerard Manning-Clark anyone?), I argue for 
an historical understanding of what I do more in the 
Dionysian/Apollonian tradition described by Nietzsche and developed by 
Derrida. This for me is not a sign that I feel I'm in disciplinary 
trouble - more a token for the range of various methodologies I find 
interesting.

BTW - Michel D'Onfray in France has been engaged in a counter-history of 
philosophy (he follows the hedonist rather than the 'all is suffering' 
thread): he has some lovely arguments for needing to know the historical 
situation of whichever philosopher you discuss.

Best wishes,

geof

Geoffrey C. Bowker
Professor and Senior Scholar in Cyberscholarship
Sixth Floor, Information Sciences Building
135 North Bellefield Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15260.

ph.     412-624-9315
email:  gbowker at pitt.edu
web:   http://www.sis.pitt.edu/~gbowker



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