[Humanist] 28.914 comments on continuities and universals

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Apr 26 09:56:30 CEST 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 914.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 25 Apr 2015 21:56:34 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: continuities & universalities

It is, it seems, inevitable that we approach the subjects we study with 
pendulum-like variation from an exclusive focus on discontinuities and 
local variations to the opposite, on continua and universals. A 
concentration on one brings the other eventually to the fore. The 
history of the history and philosophy of science in the last century, 
for example, swung from the universalism of The Scientific Method and 
efforts toward a unified science on the one hand to the diversity of 
methods, or no method at all, disunity of the emphatically pluralized 
sciences and "local theory" (Peter Galison's phrase). But at its height 
seeing diversity everywhere has provoked protest. Jed Buchwald and Allan 
Franklin have taken specific aim at "the tendency to regard science as 
purely local and contextual" in their introduction to Wrong for the 
Right Reasons (Springer, 2005). Closer to home Evelyn Fox Keller has 
taken issue with disunity in Peter Galison's and David Stump's The 
Disunity of Science (1996), where she begins with objections to "much in 
contemporary postmodern discourse, with its insistent emphasis on 
ruptures, fractures, and disunities" in order to discuss illuminating 
continuities that, among other things, remind us "of the power of 
cumulative amnesia" to erase history.

This amnesia is greatly fuelled by the dominant rhetoric of 
technological progress and its constant companion, technological 
determinism, which hand in hand obliterate history and have us forever 
thinking we're just now on the verge or on the brink, depending on the 
mood of the moment, for the very first time. I've been reminded again of 
the need for continuities to counter this amnesia by Emmanuel G. 
Mesthene's little book, Technological Change: Its Impact on Man and 
Society (New York: New American Library, 1970). Mesthene, by 
the way, was Director of the Harvard Program on Technology and 
Society, established in 1964 with a grant from IBM "to undertake an 
inquiry in depth into the effects of technological change" (p. 91). 
Mesthene and his Program was responsible for many publications, 
e.g. "How technology will shape the future", Science NS 161.3837
(1968): 135-43.

There are signs of age throughout his book, as the title already signals 
by the use of "Man". But there's much that has not changed. The back 
cover of this deteriorating paperback, printed on paper made from 
wood-pulp, informs us of the then popular reaction to technological 

> (1) GOOD
> (2) EVIL

(Note how easily these three alternatives are translated into 21st 
Century terms.) "The truth, however, is far more complex than any of 
these points of view suggests", Mesthene goes on to inform us. And we 
still need to be told that.

> As this penetrating study points out, the accelerating rate of
> technological change is outstripping traditional categories of
> thought in the same way that it is rendering obsolete many
> established institutions and values of society. What the author has
> brilliantly set out to do is outline the full dimensions of the vast
> upheaval around us, clearly defining both its positive and negative
> aspects and cogently arguing for a response that will make man master
> rather than slave of his own inventions. The result is a volume that
> offers us remarkably stimulating new perspectives on a problem that
> can be ignored only at our gravest peril.

This was written in the U.S. at the height of the Cold War, so perhaps 
the sense of urgency dates and localizes it as well. But again, what 
impresses me are the continuities. It is for this reason that I am 
deeply suspicious of all the post-isms by which we are currently afflicted.



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

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