[Humanist] 24.632 more than the cuts

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jan 6 09:19:28 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 632.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Ray Siemens <siemens at uvic.ca>                             (32)
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 24.619 more than the cuts

  [2]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (57)
        Subject: biology & apparent lunacy

        Date: Wed, 5 Jan 2011 18:04:27 -0800
        From: Ray Siemens <siemens at uvic.ca>
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 24.619 more than the cuts
        In-Reply-To: <20101228080637.7D9ABC6732 at woodward.joyent.us>

Hi Willard, and all,

I've been thinking about your post since I scanned it in-between bits of family time over the holidays.  It is your comment about lack of imagination being a key problem, rather than budget cuts and funding levels, that has stuck with me.

My thinking has, rather unimaginatively, come down to a question I'd like to ask readers of HUMANIST:  

     On this list and others we note large scale success of the kinds you note, but where in DH do we acknowledge great accomplishment that does not rely on significant resource support?

Perhaps we need some visible exemplars to celebrate, as a first step toward considering how we might emulate them.

All best,



                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 619.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 27 Dec 2010 16:47:53 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: more dangerous than the cuts

Those here who have been following the outcries against the cuts to 
higher education in the U.K. will want to read Simon Head's article in 
the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, "The Grim Threat to 
British Universities", 

Places in the world that are more favourable to research will benefit from the 
inevitable migration of talent. But let me ask again: would it not be wise to 
consider ways of working and problems on which to work that do not depend 
on large-scale institutional support? We do not any longer need computer 
centres, at least for raw computing power. Communication networks may be 
assumed. Storage is cheap. There are exceptions, of course, but starting to 
make such a list leads me to think that resources aren't really the problem. 
I am led to think that imagination, or the lack of it, is -- that what matters is 
what we know to desire. Good resources help, of course. But what good are 
they if we're thinking that a job at the end of education is the target?


        Date: Thu, 06 Jan 2011 08:14:31 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: biology & apparent lunacy
        In-Reply-To: <20101228080637.7D9ABC6732 at woodward.joyent.us>

In "What is Science?", chapter 2 of This is Biology: The Science of the 
Living World (Harvard, 1997), Ernst Mayr describes the dominance of 
physics from the time of the Scientific Revolution, then considers why 
it is that biology was such a late starter, and why it is that biology 
has had so little presence in philosophy of science (i.e. disciplined 
reflections on the nature of scientific thought):

> A revolution in thought through the Scientific Revolution...
> nevertheless did not include a revolt against allegiance to the
> Christian religion, and this ideological bias had adverse
> consequences for biology. The answer to the most basic problems in
> the study of living organisms depends on whether or not one invokes
> the hand of God. This is particularly true for all questions of
> origin (the subject matter of interest to creationists) and design
> (the subject matter of interest to natural theologians). The
> acceptance of a universe containing nothing but God, human souls,
> matter, and motion worked fine for the physical sciences of the day,
> but it worked against the advance of biology.
> As a result, biology was basically dormant until the nineteenth and
> twentieth centuries....

He considers the work that was going on in collection of factual 
knowledge under the rubric of natural history and medicine but concludes,

> In retrospect, it is evident that some of this early natural history
> was very good science; but not being recognized as such at that time,
> it did not contribute to the philosophy of science. (pp. 29-30)

There is much to talk about here, but allow me to narrow the beam to one 
point: the potential of a discipline -- or the potential of a potential 
discipline -- versus the conditions under which it might flourish. Or, 
to put the matter the other way around, the conditions that favour 
particular disciplines, or particular ways of doing this and that 

It seems clear historically that by the time awareness of computing 
spread across the humanities, in the mid to late 1960s, already for the 
humanities these "conditions" I am speaking of were in process of 
becoming unfavourable to the kinds of work that computers could then do, 
i.e. process words. New Criticism was on its way out; very different 
ideas of literature were on their way in. Hence our kind of thing became 
simply invisible to the mainstream.

The point to which I arrive with this brief and potted history is, if 
you will, a sobering realisation that what we can do intellectually is 
limited by forces way beyond our control, and then a question: assuming 
that current conditions can be assessed, what can we do that we're 
neglecting? For it seems to me that (let us call it) progress in a field 
of knowledge wouldn't happen unless someone is attempting work on the 
(apparently, to others, the lunatic) fringe. And if this is so, then 
perhaps our sense of acccomplishment, for recognized and funded work, 
should be somewhat qualified.



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

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