[Humanist] 23.632 how common, how important?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Feb 11 09:39:58 CET 2010

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 632.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 08:33:35 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: how common, how important?

I have a question which needs the thought of ordinary practitioners of
several disciplines or, more broadly, forms of life. The question is
this: how commonplace and how important is a practitioner's awareness of
the history of his or her own practice? In practice is an historical
awareness basically an optional extra, which may make you better at what
you do but is not at all necessary?

Take literary scholarship, for example. I suspect that most literary
scholars work within whatever theoretical framework (to put the matter
grandly) is current without giving much thought to the fact that this
apparently solid framework is a highly contingent affair. I suspect that
as students they were merely anxious to walk the walk and talk the talk
so as to get a job, and then they become anxious to say the right things
in the right way to get published. At one point or another as students
they may have taken a course in the history of criticism and seen
Coleridge, Arnold and the rest flit by, but the brief glance does little
to relativize their thoughts.

In the case of computer science, with half as much history and changing
at much more than twice the speed, I suspect that most practitioners, if
they regard the history of CS at all, think it irrelevant, full stop.
And they do have a point as long as they stick within the technological
frame. The sciences are more or less generally like that, I'd suppose.

Historians, of course, pay loads of attention to the past of knowledge
when knowledge is their subject. But apart from those few who wander
into historiography, does the past of doing history matter when you're
doing it?

So, I venture an hypothesis (as Peirce said, a guess): that the history
of a discipline tends to become important to its practitioners when they
believe their discipline to be in trouble, are dissatisfied as to its
status in the world etc. They're concentration from the tool to the task
is broken, so they turn their attention to the tool and begin to wonder
if it's the right one.

Don't we believe our discipline is in trouble? At least rejected and
despised and acquainted with grief (hear the music)? I certainly think that
this belief is healthier than the one which says we're the Next Big Thing.

Does my guess make sense?


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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