[Humanist] 25.828 what is self-evident

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Mar 20 07:39:05 CET 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 828.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Jascha Kessler <urim.urim at gmail.com>                      (37)
        Subject: re WMcC's question...

  [2]   From:    harry diakoff <harry.diakoff at gmail.com>                  (196)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.824 what is self-evident?

  [3]   From:    Jascha Kessler <urim.urim at gmail.com>                      (26)
        Subject: re M Lana's statement

        Date: Sat, 17 Mar 2012 12:05:15 -0700
        From: Jascha Kessler <urim.urim at gmail.com>
        Subject: re WMcC's question...

How can one not be fond of our moderator/leader/thinker, the Willard?

Today's question concerns the preservation and maintenance of an
inevitable, ineluctable, and, one hopes, indestructible skepticism in the
face of what has become a veritable tidal wave running up the world's
rivers to drown the highlands of the human heart, which ought to be
ice-cold, that wave being engendered by the "authority of scientists",
culturally no different from that of ancient priesthoods, and the College
of Cardinals who condemned Galileo Galilei.  The term he stumbles over is
"self-evident."  What a tricky term that is!  The very same phenomenon is
what one sees, for diversion, in sleight-of-hand card displays.  The
magician will tell us, if he likes, how he does his trick.  Technology is
our tool for prying open what the world and space and time one inhabits can
reveal.  [Below is] a recent letter (26 February) I wrote to a major
newspaper (redacted from an article published in 2009, entitled "Whatever?
— Whatever!), which of course did not publish it.  It presents an image
which I assure all is quite something that was real.  Still, though it is
self-evident, I can say nothing about what it reveals.  Like so many events
of its kind, it is a singularity.  Science means "knowing."  What is known
here.  Technology means doing, as in craft or art (spark from flint).

Neither serves one in this instance.

Jascha Kessler

Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Letters to the Editor
New York City

Dear Letters Editor:

A raft of letters objecting to de Botton’s “secular communalism” proposed to replace not only religiosity but institutions that tie people together, which is what the Latin root means.  All assert the social necessity of  “a living God.”  Whatever that may mean remains always something only an individual might know — or experience.  I have never served any party of any faith.  Still, I am wary of atheists or agnostics.  Here’s why:

We have an apricot tree I planted in 1962. The other year when I heard birds’ clamor outside I knew it was time to pick. I brought down about 15 pounds taken from the top of the tree with a basket pole to stew for compote. They filled the kitchen sink. Sorting them under running water, I turned one up and found a message. That apricot presented me with the inexplicable. The photograph I promptly took shows a two-letter word imprinted as by a blunt stylus.  Uncanny!   By a bird?  Unlikely.  Oddly, I heard in my thoughts my long-dead mother’s voice at that moment.

Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: 310.393.4648

        Date: Mon, 19 Mar 2012 11:21:30 -0400
        From: harry diakoff <harry.diakoff at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.824 what is self-evident?
        In-Reply-To: <20120317090859.EA9652772D9 at woodward.joyent.us>

Willard McCarty challenges us to review what could be thrown out of the
balloon that might permit it to rise a bit higher and gain a wider horizon
than the baggage of our implicit "self-evident" assumptions about the
humanities currently permits.

  Otto Neurath's famous nautical metaphor, which one might paraphrase
roughly as "We are all like sailors at sea who must rebuild our ship as we
sail her" is usually cited as a vivid expression of the inescapable
relativism of all human endeavor, a reminder that there is no Archimedian
vantage point from whose first principles philosophy can begin. Today, when
science suggests that nature herself can dispense with all essences and
absolute categories, even being and nothingness, in favor of ubiquitous
probability waves, the message seems even more poignant. But the metaphor
also draws attention, with perhaps equal vividness, to the hazards of such
an enterprise- try to replace the wrong board at the wrong time, and the
ship sinks.

  In the humanities a great many planks have been replaced recently. Most
of us no longer believe that man has a soul, that the world has a god, or
that man is fundamentally rational. Indeed, the impression is gaining
ground quickly that the distinction between man and other animals is more
one of degree than one that resides in any essential "human" quality.  What
planks then remain at this moment for constructing a leaner, less
assumption-laden, base for the humanities and digital humanities in

  It is difficult to deny that no animal uses symbols with the reckless
enthusiasm that humans do. We create signs, turn them into symbols, compare
symbols by means of metaphors, and link the metaphors together into myths.
And then we forget that we made them and treat them with deadly
seriousness. Manipulation of symbols has given us maps, calendars and power
over nature in general, but it has also allowed us to become symbol
fetishists. What Whitehead called "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness"
still informs much of human discourse. In the fourteenth century whole
schools of philosophers devoted themselves, more or less, to pointing out
that the existence of a name was no guarantee of the existence of the thing
named. Today it scarcely seems an exaggeration to claim that there is an
inverse relationship between the public significance of a word and the
reality of what it claims to refers to: "terrorism," "socialism,"
"addiction," "austerity".

  What does exist is the text itself- viewed broadly as the visible fabric
of interdependent ways that man has attempted to communicate meaning to
others and to himself: all the words and images and gestures and the
narratives that interrelate them, as they have developed over time and
throughout space and as they have left both accidental and tendentious
traces in the archaeological and then the historical record. Since this is
really all we have, it doesn't seem all that inappropriate to try to pay
close attention to the factors that affect the creation, survival,
transmission and interpretation of texts. This process of course itself
involves the creation of new texts, whether deeply hermeneutic ones or
"merely" emendations and annotations. When literacy was rare, appreciation
of the magical power of texts was perhaps more realistic...

  In a very real sense there is indeed "nothing beyond the text" at least
as far as effable human experience is concerned. But rather than a license
for uncritical relativism this rather lytic perspective provides even
greater motivation to focus on how texts can be compared with each other.
Texts can clearly differ from each other quite dramatically in many
interesting ways, among them coherence and comprehensiveness. Scientific
texts typically are willing to sacrifice comprehensiveness for coherence,
while the humanities often appear to sacrifice coherence for
comprehensiveness. There are, after all, questions that science has not yet
answered for which humans demand answers, and human needs that knowledge
alone cannot satisfy, as Troeltsch noticed with some chagrin. But
ultimately, texts, and the human agendas they represent, find the existence
of contrasting agendas disquieting and explore various means to reduce or
eliminate the dissonance. The texts of the social sciences, humanities and
even the physical sciences continue tirelessly to explore opportunities for
increased proximity, like moths to flames, and with about the same results.
But the process is not over and all texts like to have the last word.

  We now recognize that texts are the outcome of complex interactions
between individual agendas and the opportunities and constraints that the
cultural environment imposes, so that texts, in theory at least, can be
used to illuminate either the culture or the individual. This slippery
research agenda, that has for so long resisted proffers of assistance from
the social sciences, is beginning to receive some possibly useful help from
cognitive psychology and its congress with genetics, neurophysiology and
the visualization of cerebral events.  We are some way from bringing the
text of a Cavafy poem into meaningful communication with the text of an
fMRI study, but already the study of the origin of symbolic and
metaphorical thoughts and the development of emotional associations with
them is being visualized and quantified. Michael Gazzaniga shows us how
much of what we identify as our self is in fact a narrative created by an
an interpretive faculty that tries to make a coherent story out of what we
find ourselves doing, while Daniel Kahneman shows us how little of what we
find ourselves doing is mediated by reason alone.

   The artificiality and contingency of all our texts becomes increasingly
clear the more we learn how to compare them without preconceptions, and the
more self-conscious we become about the text of our own comparisons. The
irony of course is that while the sophistication of our appreciation of the
antecedents and consequences of the text increases, commercial motives and
technological advances in communications have made increasingly large
segments of our fellow citizens into slaves to slogans. As we learn
progressively how language leads, we see our family and friends led off
into pointless wars, religions and consumer fads.

  In the last few centuries the study of the text has been freed from
various encumbrances, such as divinely inspired authorship. In the later
twentieth century it became apparent that even the notion of human
authorship distorted our appreciation of the text, since it tended to
exaggerate the originality of a text and made use of a largely mythical
construct, the human, which had itself arisen from developments in the
text. In this broad sense, text precedes the birth of every member of our
species and survives his or her demise. While one lives, it flows through
one's consciousness with its current mixture of information and illusion,
some selection from which we call our own, indeed, ourself.

  Digitization of large quantities of texts of the most diverse sorts, has
now given us the opportunity to study texts much more closely,
comparatively and objectively- allowing us to test old theories
quantitatively and challenging us to create new theories by identifying
patterns of which the authors themselves were presumably unaware and which
we can ourselves not yet interpret. Digitization has helped us appreciate
and explore both the deep interdependence of all texts and the precise
degree of autonomy and internal coherence that text itself has shown over
time in different places. Thus it clearly helps us appreciate the special
characteristics of text itself throughout history. But to fully learn what
it can teach us would seem to require that we remind ourselves periodically
of the origins of text in the fitful but cumulative attempts by one
ingenious primate to shelter and entertain itself.

  With recognition of the relatively fundamental role of the text for all
the humanities, we appear to have reached a plank whose removal would be
much more prejudicial to the effective study of the humanities than would
the removal of the concept of the "human" itself.

  Would anyone care to defend the utility of the
notion of "human" for the humanities?

On Sat, Mar 17, 2012 at 5:08 AM, Humanist Discussion Group <
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 824.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>        Date: Sat, 17 Mar 2012 09:05:32 +0000
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: what is self-evident?
> I want to ask what it is that we take for granted, in the strong sense
> of an unconscious belief of the sort that a person who has never
> experienced an earthquake makes about the earth we stand on. Since we
> use a techno-scientific instrument for our research, I want to ask about
> the scientific cultural ground we as digital humanists imagine solid.
> In her brilliant essay, "Language and ideology in evolutionary theory"
> (in Boundaries of Humanity, ed Sheehan and Sosna), Evelyn Fox Keller
> argues that now fashionable arguments for an alien world, in which
> humans are less than insignificant, are as guilty of anthropomorphism as
> any. She quotes, for example, physicist Steven Weinberg's declaration
> that the world as we imagine it is more or less a farce, that in reality
> it is the result of pure accident within the first three minutes after
> the Big Bang ("Reflections of a working scientist", Daedalus 103.3), and
> biologist Jacques Monod, on the reality of the human, "like a gypsy… on
> the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music, and
> as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes"
> (Chance and Necessity, p. 160). Her argument is essentially that the
> language of such statements shows anthropomorphisms read into natural
> law, then read back to us as if they were pure deduction from physical
> fact.
> The rhetorical force at work here is well illumined by Monod, for
> example, who is essence argues that we had better grow up, wake up,
> clean up our room, stop our fantasies and come to terms with reality. (I
> am making light of a serious argument, but the parental tone is
> audible.) In other words, it is a instance of moral righteousness backed
> by the cultural authority of science. What, then, about science as a
> moral force, as the basis for doing the right thing as scholars? I
> wonder whether our situation is any different from that of Galileo and
> Bacon, for both of whom, as Alastair Crombie says of the former, science
> was “the moral enterprise of freedom for the enquiring mind … a
> therapeutic experience offering perhaps the greatest moral contribution
> of science to mankind” (Styles of Scientific Thinking, p. 8). Even a bit
> of time reading Bacon, for example, makes one wonder about his obsession
> with the afflictions of our minds that, he argues, cause us to see the
> world other than it is -- "the idols of the tribe", he called them. His
> vision of human nature, Peter Harrison has shown in The Fall of Man and
> the Foundations of Science (esp pp 171ff) was profoundly informed by the
> theology of the time, by the deep and pervasive conviction of being in a
> state of sin as a result of the Fall, and so cognitively damaged. Jean
> Delumeau's Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture
> 13th-18th Centuries (Le Péché et La Peur) provides a supportive
> historical context.
> So, I wonder, are we any the less conditioned by our de facto theology?
> What specifically in our work in the digital humanities do we take as
> self-evidently true? Apart from keeping people like me out of mischief,
> or out of other kinds of mischief, what comes from poking at our
> self-evident truths? Is there a possibility that we could unstick
> ourselves from unproductive obsessions by questioning the fundamentals
> as we take them to be?
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's
> College London; Professor (fractional), University of Western Sydney;
> Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org); Editor,
> Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

        Date: Mon, 19 Mar 2012 12:47:05 -0700
        From: Jascha Kessler <urim.urim at gmail.com>
        Subject: re M Lana's statement
        In-Reply-To: <20120317090859.EA9652772D9 at woodward.joyent.us>

Lana posts: "about the scientific cultural ground we as digital humanists
imagine solid.

1) "We"? Who is or are that we? Well, a plural nomination: "digital
humanists."  Strange beasts those.  Singularities associated in a virtual
community.  Ok.

2) What evidences itself to itself?  Evidence is evidenced to someone, or
to a commonalty.  Evidence is not a self to evidence to itself then.

3) And that leads us to to the singletons or singularity.  I take it as a
valid opinion of that physicist who remarked long ago that had Einstein not
wondered about what he saw "evidenced" in time and space, or space-time, no
one might ever have come up with the Relativity hypothesis.  We might all
have remained in Flatland, but for some lens-grinders, who probably were at
work 3000 years ago, if not more.

I am chary of whatever is declared to be self-evident, since  each has
individual eyes and experience unique to see what is evidently evidenced.

But only for that moment, it would appear, since Heraclitus noted that the
physical world flows past our point of observation, and the same person is
not the same person who saw the stream that morning.  I am talking in
metaphor, but this community evidences itself as quick-witted.

Jascha Kessler

Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: 310.393.4648

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