[Humanist] 23.325 claiming interdisciplinarity

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Sep 29 07:46:41 CEST 2009

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 325.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

Date: Mon, 28 Sep 2009 07:00:14 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: being plural

The question Richard Cunningham raises via assertion, of whether anyone
trained in discipline X can wholly think his or her way into discipline Y,
gets down to cases and probabilities, I'd think. Northrop Frye, in a version
of the Medieval "centrum ubique" argument, spoke of starting with a
structure that could expand into other structures. Thomas Kuhn spoke of the
wrenching agony of switching among the three disciplines in which he worked
(physics, history, philosophy), of their incommesurability. Frye was always
a literary critic, but he could stand on another's ground -- as a student I
was convinced anyone's, anytime, though he would never have made that claim.
Kuhn (one who knew him well once said) was always really a philosopher, and
wanted to be regarded that way. 

I wonder, however, what profit there is in dealing with the question of
whether X can become Y. The point for the work we do, I'd think, is to
become agile in moving in and out of various disciplines, to expand, to
improve what we begin with. Sometimes the work we set out to do will involve
others who are proper representatives of disciplines Y, Z and W etc.
Sometimes, for purposes of our own, we'll play all the parts. I've always
tried to test the results when I do that against colleagues who know those
disciplines from the inside. I don't mind being told I have a strong accent,
but I do want to be understood in foreign parts. 

The point, I'd think, is in the process, the travelling around, not in
achieving total indistinguishability from the natives. For someone full-time
in humanities computing, though, this would seem to mean at our stage of
development a home-base stocked mostly with others' goods, its aesthetics a
matter of arrangement. Like my bookshelves, whose principle of organization
I have never yet been able to get straight. But it does seem clear to me
that the richness and depth of the collection is due to the mixture of
borrowed subjects (not borrowed books, I hasten to add). The virtue of
multiple cohesibilities rather than of singular coherence?

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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