[Humanist] 28.690 engineering and the humanities

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Feb 2 07:59:17 CET 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 690.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 02 Feb 2015 06:43:37 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: engineering and the humanities

Bravo, Paul Fishwick (in Humanist 28.689)!

But it's a struggle against the blinkered view so often a result of
disciplinary training. Not necessarily, I hasten to add. I keep recalling
Northrop Frye's statement that it doesn't so much matter where you begin as
long as you begin within a discipline that can expand into all others -- his
secular translation of the medieval "centrum ubique circumferentia nusquam",
centre everywhere, circumference nowhere, I'd guess.

A good dose of history really helps. For engineering one very good place to
start is Eugene Ferguson's "The Mind's Eye: Nonverbal Thought in
Technology", Science NS 197.4306: 827-36 (in JSTOR), which later expanded
into a book, Engineering and the Mind's Eye (MIT, 1992). (And one must not
overlook Walter Vincenti's What Engineers Know and How they Know It, Davis
Baird's Thing Knowledge and so on.) Ferguson points to the common ground of
engineering and the arts. That in turn leads to the revolutionary project of
the original humanists (humanistae, as they were called). This leads to
Francis Bacon, and so to the ground of the Early Modern period, for which
Tina Skouen's and Ryan J. Stark's Rhetoric and the Early Royal Society: A
Sourcebook (Brill, 2015) is very helpful. Loads of good work has been done
on this period that could help bring into closer, kissing proximity
engineering, the sciences, the arts, the humanities.

I can imagine two things happening then, providing one does not give up,
turn one's back and walk away muttering imprecations. One is to cultivate
the differences, to grow "expanding eyes". The other is to ask, what is the
aim? Something more than epistemic multiculturalism surely. Do we struggle
for an eradication of the difference, let us call it between mathesis and
poesis in computing, with the aim of transcending the binary or denying that
in a complex system it matters? Do we call one or the other of these silly,
mistaken, wrongheaded or pernicious? My argument would be, with McGann, for
exploitation of the difference, confrontation with it, deliberately
cultivating and seeking to preserve the conflict. If the sciences champion
mathesis (quite a generalisation, I realise), then we treasure them for
that, see how far they can go (very far so far), how they stimulate change.

I like to think of Gilgamesh and Enkidu -- not because of Star Trek, though
at the time the reminder was apt. (My son read Gilgamesh as a result :-).

Further comments?

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

More information about the Humanist mailing list