[Humanist] 23.153 experimental resonant thinking?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Jul 11 10:21:03 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 153.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 11 Jul 2009 09:19:17 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: experimental philosophy; thought as modelling

In a luminous little book, somewhat deceptively entitled The Nature of 
Explanation (1943), Kenneth Craik says two things that I think are 
helpful to us. (O. L. Zangwill's brief biography of Craik is worth 
looking at, www.answers.com/topic/kenneth-john-william-craik.)

The first is on the need for an "experimental philosophy", that is, a 
philosophy which works through and with experimental procedures, rather 
than (as he sees it) from a priori non-tautological statements. In 1943, 
he saw this style of philosophy emerging; whether philosophers now would 
recognize his description of it as conforming to what they do I'll leave 
to anyone here who can speak to the point. It would seem to me that much 
of what Hacking does is in this style, but again I'll call on a proper 
philospher to say. Anyhow, Craik argues the need for this philosophy 
based on experimental problems alive at the time, still alive now, that 
simply cannot be tackled within single disciplines. The kind that 
concern him lie between psychology and physiology, but the kind we deal 
with in the digital humanities certainly qualify as well, though we must 
struggle to get recognition for them in this light.

The other thing that Craik talks about, for which he is still known, is 
his core argument about the nature of thought. In chapter 5 of his book, 
"Hypothesis on the nature of thought", he does a very fine job of saying 
what modelling is and then goes on to argue that "thought models, or 
parallels, reality -- that its essential feature is not 'the mind', 'the 
self', 'sense-data', nor propositions but symbolism, and that this 
symbolism is largely of the same kind as that which is familiar to us in 
mechanical devices which aid thought and calculation" (p. 57). Anyone 
who knows about the work of Warren McCulloch and about cybernetics will 
understand immediately how what he was saying (before being tragically 
killed in a bicycle accident in 1945 at the age of 31) chimes with 
McCulloch's ideas and anticipates in some sense the ideas Wiener 
developed. Anyhow, I think it is worth contemplating how the notion that 
thought models reality might shape our thinking on how computing relates 
to our artefacts of study. If, for example, a literary text is taken as 
input to such an internal modelling device, then we might ask what sort 
of external counterpart (a.k.a. software) would allow us to further the 
right kind of resonant understanding of that text?


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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