[Humanist] 22.404 thing knowledge

Willard McCarty willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Dec 27 11:21:04 CET 2008

Stan Ruecker's note on "thing knowledge" raises two questions I'd like 
to push a bit further. One is about the degree to which physical 
objects, such as hand-tools, communicate what they're about without 
verbal gloss, the other about prototypes as theories.

To heft a hammer is to understand its basic purpose almost immediately. 
The fist at the end of the arm is almost a hammer. A stone gripped in 
the hand is even closer. Any heavy, hard, proportional object tied to 
the end of a stick is a hammer, "An instrument having a hard solid head, 
usually of metal, set transversely to the handle, used for beating, 
breaking, driving nails, etc." (OED, where the etymological note goes on 
to say, "The Norse sense ‘crag’, and possible relationship to Slav. 
kamy, Russ. kamen stone, have suggested that the word originally meant 
‘stone weapon’."). A caliper mimics the opposed digits and so needs 
little glossing. Chopsticks require, I'd think, someone using them to 
show one what they are for and how to use them. And we can go on from 
there, to objects that definitely require words, spoken and/or written. 
(A piece of Ikea furniture often features humorously to illustrate the 
need for a perspicuous symbolic language.) And when we go from 
knowledge-of-use to meaning? What about Thor's hammer? The hammer and 

About prototypes as theories -- Manovich's point, which Stan cites. It 
seems to me that his declaration, "a prototype is a theory", is 
circular. The work it seems to do is first to assert by implication that 
the term "prototype" is poorly understood ("a prototype is"), then to 
secure its understanding by identifying it with something that is well 
understood ("a prototype is a theory"). The main problem is, however, 
with the word "theory", which not at all well understood in this 
context. It is marvellously polysemous and adaptable, having in fact 
many different meanings across the disciplines. So before we all relax, 
breathe a sigh of relief and get on with making prototypes, we need to 
ponder what exactly we mean by "theory". What does a "theory" in our 
field look like? What is a "theory" not? An understanding of this term 
that makes everything qualify won't be very useful to us.

It's a rather different thing to say that something, like a prototype, 
is "theoretical", i.e. that it can be involved in the activity of 
"theorizing". Anything can qualify. Still the problem isn't solved. So I 
ask again, what does a "theory" in our field look like? What work does 
it do? For a great example of an attempt to deal with this question, see 
Clifford Geertz's essay, "Thick Description: Toward an interpretative 
theory of culture", in The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973.

But apart from that struggle, the question of how software objects 
communicate remains, which is also the question of whether an unglossed 
complex human artefact can by itself qualify as research output. To 
answer in the affirmative would, I'd think, require us to show that not 
only can it be put to immediate and proper use (like a hammer) but that 
its particular contribution to some field or fields of enquiry, its 
"contribution to knowledge", be self-evident -- and that anything 
requiring words to become evident be discounted. Or am I being too 

I recall a case of an undergraduate dissertation at Reed College in 
mathematics that comprised a half-page of equations with the single 
word, "Behold!", at the end. One could say that the single word was 
otiose, a witty flourish, a bit of bravado. Anyhow the dissertation was, 
I think, awarded a distinction.

Mathematics is in some sense a language. So do we look for the sense of 
a self-explanatory artefact in the gap between a mathematical statement 
and a machine? Where do we put software in this interval?



Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 404.
>          Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>         Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2008 11:08:54 -0700
>         From: Stan Ruecker <sruecker at ualberta.ca>
>         Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.403 writing and pioneering
>         In-Reply-To: <20081224095358.092DB2AD30 at woodward.joyent.us>
> This is a question that has been exercising me lately. I believe that we 
> do have categories of artifacts that both reify knowledge and 
> communicate it. Hand tools are an example. Not all hand tools, 
> certainly, can be interpreted outside their historical context. Anyone 
> doubting that statement need only visit one of the Saskatchewan Western 
> Development Museums (although perhaps not their web site). But in 
> general, if I have opposable thumbs and an elbow, which I do happen to 
> have, then a hammer seems fairly straightforward to interpret. 
> Pre-existing knowledge about nails does help.
> Another example is art. Certainly not all art is accessible without some 
> training in how to look at it, but a kind of knowledge is often 
> available by direct observation. I would argue that the same is true for 
> photography and architecture.
> I think there are two questions: is there knowledge without words? and 
> is the knowledge without words the same as the knowledge with words? My 
> answers would be yes and no, respectively. For some categories the two 
> kinds of knowledge may be closer than for others, and for every category 
> there is the option of adding knowledge with words to the knowledge 
> without words, as we do in art history, for example. There are also 
> cases like literary studies, where we add knowledge with words to 
> knowledge with words, but that is a different case.
> Now the main issue for digital humanists is where in this terrain to 
> place artifacts such as software, interfaces, visualizations, and 
> prototypes. Lev Manovich at DH2007 famously stood up and said "a 
> prototype is a theory. Stop apologizing for your prototypes." I have 
> heard similar statements from others in our community.
> If we take that principle as a way forward, then it seems to me that we 
> haven't really found a solution to a conundrum, but we do have an 
> opportunity by analogy (or identity, depending on how strongly you 
> interpret Manovich). I would say that theories are for discussing, 
> strengthening or weakening with evidence, testing in various ways, 
> inventing experiments for, and also using as lenses to turn onto other 
> material, in order both to frame specifics within the general, and to 
> inform in turn our understanding of the general. We can also set one 
> theory against another for comparison. We can try our hand at taking 
> thesis and antithesis and reaching synthesis.
> If a prototype is a theory, then we should be able to do all those 
> things with one.
> yrs,
> Stan Ruecker
> Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 403.
>>          Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>>         Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2008 09:52:41 +0000
>>         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>>         > 
>> At the beginning of her astonishingly resonant book, Open Fields: 
>> Science in cultural encounter (Oxford, 1996), Dame Gillian Beer writes 
>> about Keats and Darwin -- the poet's insistence in "The Fall of 
>> Hyperion" that "only the written gives any hope of survival", and the 
>> naturalist's transcribing of what he saw. "Darwin, energetically 
>> observing and writing before the establishment of genetic theory," she 
>> says, "had to have the patience of the pioneer -- the patience not to 
>> know for sure within his lifetime 'Whether the dream now purposed to 
>> rehearse / Be poet's or fanatic's', whether it would prove to be 
>> authentic or delusive." (p. 14).
>> So, for us a question and a consolation of sorts.
>> The question is, does the same hold true for the digital humanities, 
>> that "only the written gives any hope of survival"? Given the short 
>> life-span of software artefacts, our ignorance of how to read them and, 
>> as Peter Galison has noted for non-verbal artefacts generally, their 
>> polysemous existence beyond the meaning assigned by their creators, can 
>> any such artefact ever stand for itself wholly without written 
>> commentary and explanation? Solid work in the history of science and 
>> technology gives us the intriguing idea of "thing knowledge", but in any 
>> given case, can we say what that knowledge is without using words? Is it 
>> knowledge without words?
>> (Those here who know their Swift will recall in Gulliver's Travels, book 
>> 3, chapter 5, his description of the Laputan "Scheme for entirely 
>> abolishing all Words whatsoever": "that since Words are only Names for 
>> Things, it would be more convenient for all Men to carry about them, 
>> such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they 
>> are to discourse on.... which hath only this Inconvenience attending it, 
>> that if a Man's Business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be 
>> obliged in Proportion to carry a greater bundle of Things upon his Back, 
>> unless he can afford one or two strong Servants to attend him. I have 
>> often beheld two of those Sages almost sinking under the Weight of their 
>> Packs, like Pedlars among us; who, when they met in the Streets, would 
>> lay down their Loads, open their Sacks, and hold Conversation for an 
>> Hour together; then put up their Implements, help each other to resume 
>> their Burthens, and take their Leave." Of course a laptop with a fair 
>> sized hard disc isn't nearly as heavy.)
>> The consolation is, I suppose, that we may look back at those, like 
>> Darwin, who were as uncertain of what they said and did as we are of 
>> what we say and do. Often I contemplate by example what a mature 
>> discipline allows its practitioners to do. We can only hope, I suppose, 
>> for a magnanimous audience and do what we can to cultivate it.
>> Comments?
>> Yours,
>> WM
> _______________________________________________
> List posts to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
> List info and archives at at: http://digitalhumanities.org/humanist
> Listmember interface at: http://digitalhumanities.org/humanist/Restricted/listmember_interface.php
> Subscribe at: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/membership_form.php

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.

More information about the Humanist mailing list