12.0362 primitives and first principles

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Sun, 24 Jan 1999 20:08:26 +0000 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 362.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Sun, 24 Jan 1999 20:10:56 +0000
From: Jim Marchand <marchand@UX1.CSO.UIUC.EDU>
Subject: First principles

If we wish to talk about first things in the humanistic endeavor, we might
want to move the previous question as it were and start with concept
formation, especially in this age of the computer. I have always maintained
that it was I who first said: `The problem is not that computers may come to
think like human beings, but rather that human beings may come to think like
computers.' First said, who cares, but this is a chiasm of which we see the
truth more and more every day. The Aristotelian (yes/no, exclusive either-
or, etc.) frisst verheerend um sich, as my old professor used to say, every
Most of the concepts of the humanities are not, however, Aristotelian and
are not amenable to Aristotelian operations; at best they are of the nature
of ideal types, and many are stippled spectrum, more-so/less-so, even porous.
The questions we ask, however, in my business (philology) are Aristotelian in
nature: to what dialect do we assign this poem, what author, what period,
what genre, but the concepts `dialect, author, period, genre' are ideal
types, and often resist such questions, and much ink is uselessly spilt on
them. We know from grammar school that a definition, to hold water, must be
_per proximum genus et differentiam vel differentias_, but we do not hesitate
to call things definitions which are not amenable to such things (I wax
Bushian). In addition to this lack of attention to concept formation and
definition, we have the problem of labels. We attach a label to a concept,
say _acyrologia_, often ignoring that the concept has other labels attached
to it, etc. One sees over and over again that people think this mapping of
label onto concept is God-given, and that no other is possible. One calls a
spade a spade, an is an is, etc. Arguing over labels is common, fruitless
and futile though it is.
Next ought to be discussion of mode of argumentation. When I used to
teach, I would hand out to the students a list of the medieval _argumenta_,
and we would read articles, seeing how many _argumenta ad verecundiam_, for
example, we could find. One may be disappointed at the shoddy argumentation
on both sides in l'affaire Clinton, but dismay rises when one sees such
things in scholarly works. We ought to be proud that the humanities works
with non-Aristotelian concepts; someone has to; but we ought to be careful in
so doing.
Jim Marchand.

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