[Humanist] 22.680 the spirit of Humanist

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Apr 9 07:20:30 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 680.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 08 Apr 2009 17:50:27 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: the spirit of humanist

Michael Arbib, who worked with Warren McCulloch and many of his 
colleagues, has provided us with a quite wonderful biographical account 
of the man in "Warren McCulloch’s search for the logic of the nervous 
system", Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43.2 (2000): 193-216. I 
mention this because of an anecdote he tells by way of probable 
explanation of why McCulloch and Norbert Wiener fell out so 
spectacularly. The story goes like this:

> Norbert Wiener, flushed with the success of his book on Cybernetics,
> decided it was time to get really serious and go beyond general
> observations about feedback in the nervous system and so on, and make
> a serious mathematical model of the brain. So he goes to his friend
> Warren McCulloch and says, “McCulloch, tell me what you know about
> the brain.” Now, McCulloch was both a great scientist and a great
> storyteller, and he was not going to let the facts spoil a good
> story. So when he told Norbert about the brain, it was a mixture of
> what was known to be true and what McCulloch thought should be known
> to be true. If you were a naïve person, this could be very dangerous.
> If, on the other hand, you understood the nature of the man, this was
> tremendously stimulating, because then you realized that it was your
> responsibility to figure out what was known and what was provocative
> speculation. It was then your challenge to do the new stuff. But,
> unfortunately, Norbert Wiener was “emotionally challenged.” He had
> been a child prodigy but, poor fellow, whenever he got a brilliant
> idea, his father would not say “Norbert, you are brilliant,” but
> “This proves my pedagogical theory. I can make even you do something
> brilliant.” The result of all this was that Wiener was “tone deaf” to
> nuances of human personality, and had an absolutely pathological need
> for praise throughout his life, even when established as one of the
> world’s great scientists. So he had no way of reading this man,
> McCulloch, and took everything he said about the brain to be true. He
> then, according to Pat Wall, spent three years of his life creating
> the theory that explained it all, went to a physiology congress to
> present the theory, and had it shot down. And again, because he was
> no judge of character, he thought that McCulloch had set him up—and
> thus the fury I experienced a decade later.

(This fury Arbib experienced when he went to say farewell to Wiener, 
under whom he had done his PhD, while simultaneously, unbeknownst to 
Wiener, holding a research fellowship in McCulloch's lab. Seeing no harm 
in it, he let the cat out of the bag, hence Wiener's explosive rage.)

I relate all this because it reminds me so much of how Humanist works 
when it is working best.


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.

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