[Humanist] 28.283 good and bad models?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Aug 24 09:31:04 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 283.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 23 Aug 2014 10:25:48 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: good and bad models

In his essay "Genesis of knowledge spaces and objects of knowledge" 
(2012), Hans-Jörg Rheinberger writes, borrowing from Georges 
Canguilhem's "The role of analogies and models in biological discovery" 
("Modèles et analogies dans la découverte en biologie", 1968),

> ... a model is a knowledge object that still leaves something to be
> desired. It works precisely by means of the knowledge-promoting
> deficiency resulting from the transmission from one medium to another
> that is characteristic for models.

In the cited essay Canguilhem goes on:

> Could not one say... that in biology the models which have
> the chance of being the best are those which halt our latent tendency
> to identify the organic with its model? A bad model, in the history
> of science, is that which the imagination evaluates as a good one.
> The imagination is inclined to believe that to construct a model is
> to borrow a vocabulary and so obtain an identification of two
> objects. When the cellular boundary had been named a membrane, the
> laws of osmosis and the making of semi-permeable barriers seemed to
> provide a language and a model. It seems, on the contrary, that it is
> in the interest of the biologist to retain the lesson of the
> mathematical physicist: what must be required of a model is the
> provision of a syntax to construct a transposable but original
> discourse. (p. 517, in Crombie, ed., Scientific change, 1963)

This would seem to imply that to the extent they model and so shape 
rather than simply deliver our primary objects of study to us, digital 
resources need to be regarded with great caution, as models that 
eventually mislead. Pride of achievement in them would appear to be 
quite perilous.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

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