[Humanist] 22.414 thing knowledge

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Dec 31 08:00:05 CET 2008

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 414.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

[1]   From:    Charles Ess <charles.ess at gmail.com>                       (79)
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.413 thing knowledge

[2]   From:    Martin Mueller <martinmueller at northwestern.edu>          (244)
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.413 thing knowledge

[3]   From:    "Gerry Coulter" <gcoulter at ubishops.ca>                     (7)
Subject: Theory... Later?

[4]   From:    Richard Cunningham <Richard.Cunningham at acadiau.ca>       (220)
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.413 thing knowledge

[5]   From:    John Laudun <jlaudun at mac.com>                             (70)
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.411 more on thing knowledge

Date: Tue, 30 Dec 2008 07:11:14 -0600
From: Charles Ess <charles.ess at gmail.com>
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.413 thing knowledge

Dear Willard and colleagues,

one of the joys of these holidays has been the gift of time - one that I've
used, among other things, to catch up with my reading/lurking of Humanist.

This thread has especially intrigued me, because it calls to mind Rilke's
Ninth Duino Elegy, especially the following:

Praise the world to the angel, not the unutterable world;
you cannot astonish him with your glorious feelings;
in the universe, where he feels more sensitively,
you're just a beginner. Therefore, show him the simple
thing that is shaped in passing from father to son,
that lives near our hands and eyes as our very own.
Tell him about the Things. He'll stand amazed, as you stood
beside the rope-maker in Rome, or the potter on the Nile.
Show him how happy a thing can be, how blameless and ours;
how even the lamentation of sorrow purely decides
to take form, serves as a thing, or dies
in a thing, and blissfully in the beyond
escapes the violin. And these things that live,
slipping away, understand that you praise them;
transitory themselves, they trust us for rescue,
us, the most transient of all. They wish us to transmute them
in our invisible heart--oh, infinitely into us! Whoever we are.

I'm not sure it's entirely appropriate to this thread: but what I hear in
Rilke's (admittedly, perhaps too Romantic?) lines is a sense of how we know
the world _through_ things and especially the artifacts that we create - a
knowledge, moreover, that is at once cognitive and emotive.

What may be helpful to add here: this sense is one that has gained
increasing articulation and support over the past twenty years or so - in
work that has been mentioned in Humanist (Damasio), but also in recent
phenomenological work (Albert Borgmann, Barbara Becker, Darren Barney),
especially as focusing on embodiment. Along these lines, Clifford Geertz has also noted:

Šthe fact that brain and culture co-evolved, mutually dependent the one upon
the other for their very realization, has made the conception of human
mental functioning as a intrinsically  determined intracerebral process,
ornamented and extended, but hardly engendered by cultural devices ­
language, rite, technology, teaching, and the incest tabu ­ unsustainable Š
Our minds are not in our bodies, but in the world. (_Available Light:
Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics_. Reprint edition.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. P. 205)

All of this would seem to support the view articulated by Martin Mueller,
and captured nicely in the quote he provides from Enzensberger: "Am
Anfang waren die Bastler".  That is, given what we now seem to know about
how we know the world as embodied beings, it appears that there is something
indeed essential to the processes of our coming to know the world more fully
- a knowledge that at some point will include theory - in our first
tinkering with things via our bodies, and developing a feel for (or, to use
the phrase common in phenomenology, getting a grip on) how some-_thing_
might be modified, changed, developed, in order to work better in our hands
and with our bodies.

Along these lines, finally, a bibliographic reference: Susan Stuart (Glasgow
University) has an excellent survey of how we come to know the world as
embodied beings:

>From agency to apperception: through kinaesthesia to cognition and creation,
_Ethics and Information Technology_, Volume 10, Number 4 (December, 2008):
255-264. (DOI  10.1007/s10676-008-9175-5)

Susan proposes here that we turn to what she calls "pre-reflective bodily
consciousness" and imagination for the sake of developing "a softer
ontology, one which encompasses our notions of embedded, situational, and
extended minds." While Susan's primary focus here is on what all of this
might mean regarding ethics - especially the ethical implications of
breaking down hard Cartesian dichotomies of mind/body, virtual/real,
internal/external - the larger overview she provides of these developments
may be of interest to Humanist readers also intrigued by this thread on
things and knowledge.

With all best wishes to Humanist readers for the new year!

- charles ess

Distinguished Research Professor,
Interdisciplinary Studies Center  http://www.drury.edu/gp21
Drury University
Springfield, MO  65802  USA

President, Association of Internet Researchers <www.aoir.org>
Co-Editor, International Journal of Internet Research Ethics
Co-chair, CATaC conferences <www.catacconference.org>

Exemplary persons seek harmony, not sameness. -- Analects 13.23

Date: Tue, 30 Dec 2008 07:37:05 -0600
From: Martin Mueller <martinmueller at northwestern.edu>
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.413 thing knowledge
In-Reply-To: <20081230092225.29B6923C3E at woodward.joyent.us>

Responding to both R. L Hunsucker and Stan Ruecker, I quite agree with
them. What they say covers my first point that to call a prototype a
theory is a tautology.

Of course, you have to some idea of what you're trying to prove or
disprove.  You have to think ahead, and you have to ask "what if" -- a
question that Stan asks twice in his posting. There is a perfectly
good term for building a prototype. It's called 'proof concept'.
We're in a world of experimentation, we try to figure out whether
something that works 'in theory' also works in practice, whether the
practical obstacles observed map to the obstacles expected, whether a
successful prototype could scale, etc.

That is the world of intelligent tinkering or model building for which
I have the greatest respect. But that is not what I heard when I read
Lev Manovich's perhaps quite casual remark that a 'prototype is a
theory'.  What I heard there was the use of 'theory' in English
departments. As used there (and in cognate disciplines), the word
'theory' and its awful verbal partner 'theorize' has almost nothing to
do with an experimental attitude of designing and testing models,
looking for evidence that confirms or disconfirms a hypothesis, and
generally giving an account of what you are doing in the light of
constraints, opportunities, and available facts. It is rather a term
that marks a stance of airy speculation that already knows better and
is scornful of such things as 'evidence', 'relevant facts',
'constraints', 'proof'.

I am a great admirer of Michael Oakeshott in general and of the
hermeneutical introduction to his late work On Human Conduct. There
are some wonderful and trenchant remarks on this peculiarly restricted
and inflated use of the word 'theory' and 'theorist'.

If we associate prototype with 'theory' in that sense,  God help us.
If you think of it as a synonym for 'hypothesis' or 'concept', that's
OK. But those seem to me much better words to explain what goes on
when somebody builds a good prototype.

Date: Tue, 30 Dec 2008 16:47:11 -0500
From: "Gerry Coulter" <gcoulter at ubishops.ca>
Subject: Theory... Later?
In-Reply-To: <20081230092225.29B6923C3E at woodward.joyent.us>

Re: F Flores (and S Ruecker and R L Hunsucker)

Worry about the theory later...?

Theory precedes the world...

Did Foucault and Baudrillard's entire ouevres suddenly disappear?

Maybe we'll worry about them later???

Best for 2009

Gerry Coulter  gcoulter at ubishops.ca

Date: Tue, 30 Dec 2008 21:25:05 -0400
From: Richard Cunningham <Richard.Cunningham at acadiau.ca>
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.413 thing knowledge
In-Reply-To: <20081230092225.29B6923C3E at woodward.joyent.us>

Perhaps I'm dense.  Certainly I'm simplifying.  But . . . in following this
thread I'm increasingly inclined to believe that a prototype is not a theory,
but follows from a theory.

In the examples provided by Stan, below, I think a theory about, as Laval
Hunsucker puts it (again, below) "how the world works" precedes the
prototyping.  In fact, probably numerous theories precede the prototyping.  One
might be that people's brains are subject to cognitive overloading.  I know
this to be true at the level of statistics (that is, people in general), but I
also know too few tests have been run on those whose brains we might describe
as higher order or higher functioning.  That is, does the human brain
necessarily suffer cognitive overload, or is it largely a function of some
external factors, factors that an individual might--by accident of living or by
careful upbringing or by assiduous self-control--overcome?  A second theory
might be that the kind of information to be provided is the kind best presented
via the medium of an electronic interface.  (I'm at a loss to imagine a kind of
information that doesn't fall into that category, but there might be such.)
Neither of these theories is a prototype, but both are necessary and
necessarily precede the development of a prototype, don't they?

If that's right, that only shows that not all theories are prototypes, even if
some are.  Thus, it doesn't invalidate the assertion that "prototypes are
theories" but, like Martin Mueller's contribution, it leads me toward
disagreeing with that assertion.

Am I splitting hairs when I suggest that a prototype can be the manifestation
of or embodiment of a theory?

Richard Cunningham

Richard Cunningham
Associate Professor, English & Theatre
Director, Acadia Media Centre
Acadia University

Date: Tue, 30 Dec 2008 22:17:46 -0600
From: John Laudun <jlaudun at mac.com>
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.411 more on thing knowledge
In-Reply-To: <20081230092225.29B6923C3E at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear All,

I find it fascinating that we moved from a concern about permanency
within the digital humanities to a discussion of prototypes as theory
in relationship to hammers.

I return to Pr. McCarthy's original comments -- and please forgive me
if I misunderstood at some point -- in which he noted:

> The question is, does the same hold true for the digital
humanities, that "only the written gives any hope for 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 case can we say what that knowledge is without
using words? Is it knowledge without words?

I think I hit a bump in my reading when software was described as "non-
verbal." Software, to my limited imagination, is primarily literary --
one of the reasons that code is sometimes compared to poetry. If
anything, I imagined when I joined this list that we would be moving
to include within the scope of humanistic investigation the writing of
software itself, precisely because, as Pr. McCarthy points out, so
many of us remain "ignorant of how to read" it. Even in my limited
time of doing a bit of observation with an open source group -- the
RadiantCMS project (a Ruby on Rails application), it's clear to me
that there are a number of literary tropes being practiced. A fuller
discussion of what those folks are up to will have to wait until I am
further along in that research.

For now, I am still in the midst of the investigation of a complex
artifact known as "the crawfish boat" here in south Louisiana and
which was born out of the complex interactions between two semi-
distinct but deeply intertwined cultural groups: the Cajuns and the
Germans. The former are of course quite famous; the latter much less
well known to those not familiar with the area's history. These craft
-- a few can be glimpsed here: http://flickr.com/photos/johnlaudun/sets/72157605735666828/
-- surely stand somewhere between the proverbial rock and software.

I'd like to pass over for a moment all the discussions about the
obviousness or non-obviousness of handtools, be they rocks or hammers.
(Anyone who has seen a rock used as a pestle to grind grain in the
hollow of another, larger rock, or has had to explain the use of the
"claw" part of the hammer will appreciate that tools are, by their
very nature, cultural and thus always surrounded by their meanings.) I
do this in order to move more quickly to a point that Pr. Mueller
makes about the "hidden (or not-so-hidden) contempt for skill that
manifests itself in the doing or making" that lingers in prototype

In particular, I am drawn in my own writing now to try to describe in
words that ways in which these men think, quite literally, in metal.
When they communicate with each other -- in the case of at least one
of the shops the communication is between two brothers who have worked
together for two decades -- they begin with their hands, describing
curves and folds and holes and welds, and move slowly toward words,
which always seem insufficient to the task of quickly describing a
dynamic, three-dimensional scene. Thus, there is, even in the best of
metal shops, regular miscommunication when one job must pass from one
person to another and why so often these men tend to work alone on a
job. They seem the opposite of many of us because they do not seem to
be good with words, an appearance which is quickly belied if you take
one of them to lunch and get them telling stories. They are, in fact,
by and large quick-witted pranksters and sly storytellers. Their
tongues seem tied when it comes to the objects they make and to the
things they do to craft them because the telling is so impoverished,
in terms of information, to the doing.

I have, along the way, found and interviewed the two men who made,
contemporaneously in 1983, the first of these spectacular boats, and
how what they did refutes or revises prototype theory is not something
I am prepared to comment on. But I did feel compelled to try to add a
dimension or two to the discussion of "thing knowledge" which I felt
had gotten a little side-tracked by sticking to rocks and hammers as
the prototypical things.

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