Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 163.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Sat, 26 Jul 2003 07:13:04 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: a philosophy of tools?
In his essay "The Function of Measurement in Modern Physical Science"
(1961), reprinted in The Essential Tension (1977), Thomas Kuhn argues that
"a quite highly developed body of theory is ordinarily prerequisite to
fruitful measurement in the physical sciences" (201). To put a complex
argument crudely, theory is needed to tell the researcher where and how to
look and what sorts of numbers to expect; contrary to the popular notion,
measurement seldom if ever leads to discovery. In consequence, it may seem
to follow "that in these sciences theory must always lead experiment and
that the latter has at best a decidely secondary role". But, as he notes,
"that implication depends upon identifying 'experiment' with
'measurement'", which he disavows and which would seem obviously false. "It
is only because significant quantitative comparison of theories with nature
comes at such a late stage in the development of a science," he continues,
"that theory has seemed to have so decisive a lead." If instead we were to
focus on "the qualitative experimentation that dominates the earlier
developmental stages of a physical science and continues to play a role
later on, the balance would be quite different. Perhaps, even then, we
would not wish to say that experiment is prior to theory (though experience
surely is), but we would certainly find vastly more symmetry and continuity
in the ongoing dialogue between the two" (201).
Thomas K Burch, in "Computer Modelling of Theory: Explanation for the 21st
Century", (in The Explanatory Power of Models, ed. Robert Franck, Methodos
Series, vol. 1. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 2002), notes that the word
'theory' varies widely in meaning across writers, disciplines and
disciplinary groups (245); so also 'experiment'. So we have to be cautious
in drawing conclusions for our own field(s) from Kuhn's argument. At the
same time, however, we encounter the broad effects of what Ian Hacking
calls a "theory-dominated" philosophy of science both in the classroom and
in conversation with our colleagues. So mutatis mutandis: is our function
(I can imagine being rhetorically asked) not to verify ideas thought by
others about digitally represented cultural artifacts, events &c?
Somehow, it seems to me, we have to get our idea of mind out of its bony
cage right to the cutting edge of the tool, or as Edwin Hutchins says in
Cognition in the Wild (MIT Press, 1995), move the boundary of the unit of
cognitive analysis out beyond the skin of the individual so that we might
begin dealing with what he calls "cognitive ecologies" (1995: 287). One of
the greatest strengths of our practice is that through it we preside, more
or less made self-aware by it, over the encounter of mind with stubborn
data. In the encounter, as Kuhn suggests, theory does not always come
first. Sometimes we come to it with no theory at all, or nothing worthy of
being called a coherent idea. Sometimes -- is it not so? -- we find the
ideas there, in that encounter. How?
One thing that would seem to follow from this is the epistemological
importance of the tool. Does not the person who designs and crafts the
investigative instrument play a crucial, intellectual role? Our tools
realize ideas in themselves. How might we begin to undestand the
'philosophy' (if you will) in and of tools? How might we begin to explain
it to those who cannot read the tool? How might we communicate it?
Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || email@example.com
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