[Humanist] 30.716 first and second-order questions

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Feb 6 07:33:16 CET 2017

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 716.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 5 Feb 2017 08:34:05 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: first and second-order questions

In his article "Linearity and Reflexivity in the Growth of Mathematical 
Knowledge" (1989), Leo Corry writes as follows:

> We may distinguish, broadly speaking, two sorts of questions
> concerning every scientific discipline. The first sort are questions
> about the subject matter of the discipline. The second sort are
> questions about the discipline qua discipline, or second-order
> questions. It is the aim of the discipline to answer the questions of
> the first sort, but usually not to answer questions of the second
> sort. These second-order questions concern the methodology,
> philosophy, history, or sociology of the discipline and are usually
> addressed by an ancillary discipline.

(Corry's aim in drawing that distinction, I take it, is to rescue 
mathematical knowledge from the effects of overstating the case for the 
sociohistorical dimensions of mathematics that have received much 
attention in recent decades.) Obviously in the case of mathematics, 
the prominence of these second-order questions is part of a much 
larger socio-intellectual shift. But in computer science and in 
digital humanities these questions would seem to have much more to 
do with the early stage in which practitioners and others are trying 
to figure out what the discipline is, to justify it to university 
administrators, hold funding applicants up to the proper standards 
and so on. Certain essentially unanswerable questions (e.g. "is it a 
discipline?") cannot disappear soon enough, but questioning "the 
methodology, philosophy, history, or sociology of the discipline" is, 
it seems to me, part of the ongoing growth and development of 
digital humanities. There is the question of competence to do that, 
which is a fundamental difficulty of interdisciplinary research unless 
it be allowed simply to poach where it will. 


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney
University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)

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