18.674 effects of discovery?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 30 Mar 2005 06:23:59 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 674.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 30 Mar 2005 06:17:26 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: effects of discovery

I have a question to pose based on a book I have been reading. Please be
patient while I explain what the book's about. The question will come
eventually :-) -- and the book is, I am convinced, very important for
anyone interested in questions of taxonomy (for example, all those
text-encoders and metadata experts).

The book is Scott Atran's Cognitive foundations of natural history: Towards
an anthropology of science (Cambridge, 1990). In it he makes a strong
argument for commonsense knowledge in the sorting out of living things. You
may be aware that commonsense has suffered a great deal in popular learned
opinion for some time. As he puts it, "Having so long combatted the
ethnocentric view of Western thought as innate or inevitable,
anthropologists had largely come to renounce all appeal to nativism as
scientifically absurd and ideologically pernicious. But in philosophy,
psychology and linguistics the argument over universals of human cognition
was being vigorously pursued. A new nativism arose free of those
simple-minded presuppositions that most anthropologists had rightly
disowned." (p. ix) In 1975 Atran (Margaret Mead's student), curious about
the apparent contradiction, organized a debate between Noam Chomsky and
Jean Piaget that you may have heard about. He emerged from it thinking that
Chomsky was, in the main, right and Piaget wrong: there are innate
structures, and they do seem to be very deep.

Atran argues from an abundance of scholarly research that people all over
the world classify living creatures with quite an astonishing uniformity of
result. From this uniformity, which he examines in great detail, he
concludes that within its realm of competence, folkbiological knowledge is
not only adequate but is also the initiator and cooperative partner of
scientific biology. "In short, folkbiological life-forms [e.g. trees]
partition the everyday world of human experience with local flora in ways
that are 'natural' to the human mind as it partakes of the activities of
ordinary life. Even scientists employ them, as do we all, when there is no
longer direct concern with the extraordinary, nonphenomenal problems of
minute and vastly extended stretches of space and time." (p. 41)

The folkbiological categories, he writes, "thus constitute the fundamental
setting for humankind's ordinary apprehension of the local flora and
fauna." What's really interesting (at least to me, at the moment) is what
happened historically -- and happens in such situations generally? -- when
folkbiological taxonomy collided with experience of a much wider, more
complex world in the age of exploration. Because of this encounter,
folktaxonomy proved "to be inadequate for comprehending the living world at
large. After the Renaissance, the ordinary bounds of sense were
transcended. The complete embedding of the whole array of generic-speciemes
[e.g. oak trees] within life-forms [e.g. trees], which so thoroughly
construed the local ecology morphologically, lost much of its relevance. It
is not that this first echelon of common sense falsely apprehended the
world; it simply did not have the wherewithal to deal with nonphenomenal
problems bound to horizons of an altogether different order.

"All the same, it was common sense itself which, having reached the limits
of its first line of understanding, thereby evinced recognition that a
problem existed for science to treat. Crucial, perhaps, to that recognition
was an awareness that science could draw its initial means of tackling the
problem by appealing to the secondary echelon. In fact, it was the attempt
to constitute a determinate series of local fragments that inaugurated the
'natural method' (in botany first, then zoology) that lasted from Linnaeus
to de Jussieu and beyond." (45f)

My question is this: in what sense, if at all, can we say that because of
computing we are now with respect to our artifacts of study in much the
same analytical situation? Is it plausible that we might be? If so, is
there evidence that our folkcritical ideas (e.g. about literary genres,
historical events, prosopographical patterns or musical sequences),
confronting the much larger array of source material than has been possible
before, show themselves to be inadequate and thus force us to think in
terms of altogether different structures?



Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7 Arundel Street | London
WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax: -2980 ||
willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Wed Mar 30 2005 - 00:44:49 EST

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