20.124 what is it that passes?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 29 Jul 2006 09:44:00 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 124.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 26 Jul 2006 09:27:48 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard_at_mccarty.me.uk>
         Subject: what is it that passes?

In her brilliant essay, "Metaphor and Invention", Diogenes 69 (1970):
12-27, Judith Schlanger observes that, "It often happens within the
same language and sometimes within the same mind, that a concept
changes its place and use, a method moves to another field,
intellectual perspectives and demands transfer from one area to
another..." (22). From such movements she observes "between the
various branches of learning, to a greater or lesser degree, a real
circulation of concepts...." But -- here is the first point for us --
noting that "in these phenomena of intercommunicating fields,
something passes from one area to another", she asks, "but what is it
in fact that passes? Is it the living kernel of the questions and
methods, or their purely verbal shell, their most dogmatic and
ephemeral part?" (22f). What is the status of that which we are
actively passing from one discipline to another, on a daily basis, in
humanities computing?

Schlanger doesn't stop there, however. Considering the interchange of
metaphors among scientific fields, she observes that, "From the idea
of the circulation of concepts it follows that metaphorical activity
becomes integrated into what might be called the nature of the
thought. Between metaphorical conventions and conceptual borrowings,
there is hardly a productive area of thought which does not crumble
and reveal that it contains something which it is not. The
circulation of concepts is also cyclical. If one looks back far
enough, one can see the outline of a perpetual interchange of models
between the various fields of knowledge, a sort of odyssey of ideas."
(23). But, again, what is it that circulates? "The function of an
analogical borrowing from one field to another, whether a
metaphorical borrowing of terminology, or on a deeper level, the
methodological borrowing of an intellectual method or the
epistemological borrowing of an ideal requirement of learning, the
function of the borrowing cannot be understood in etiological terms,
like production or origin. Borrowing only takes place where a problem
already exists: where a powerful but open intellectual elaboration
uses what it needs selectively. Analogy provides expressions,
arguments, representations, models: it gives the thought imaginative
and expressive support; but it does not produce the concept."
Borrowing provides imaginative support. We're accustomed to a
support-role, from the help-desk to the management and implementation
of methodological borrowing.

But, again, there's more. Looking at all this borrowing among fields,
Schlanger asks rhetorically, "Would it be possible to distinguish one
area of knowledge which would be the ultimate basis to which the
circulation of concepts refers? Could one locate the final analogue
of invention?" (25). The answer is, of course, no -- short of
theology or metaphysics. Fields come and go as our exemplars of
fundamental thought, "the analogue is a variable; thought has known
several of them in succession; and when one believes one has found a
model that was used several centuries ago, the representational
contents and associated values will have changed." For her, writing
more than 30 years ago, cybernetics is the new popular kid on the
block, whom we must all get to know and imitate. But it too is an
historical creature: "The temporarily productive and overestimated
field plays an undoubtedly remarkable epistemological and logical
role. But the various types of knowledge use each other in turn as
points of reference and none of them enjoys more than a brief
position of privilege in this respect." (26f). The flux we deal with
is much more rapid, but we share the historian's ironical view.

In a sense, perhaps, our most central question is innovation itself.
"Pure innovatory knowledge has as its basis the impurity and
complexity of the established bounds of culture. In a way knowledge
is acquired against culture; but in what sense? By an epistemological
leap which opens up a new dimension, and not by preliminary
all-embracing discipline" (27) -- or by a privileged group of
institutionalised disciplines, or by the never quite definable notion
of disciplinarity. Our core subject of study is that epistemological
leaping, our core activity the liberating of imaginations, our core
service the training of intellectual athletes (in a world where
doping is inconceivable, and sport is done for the joy of it)?



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | 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 Sat Jul 29 2006 - 05:01:43 EDT

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