21.379 merely engineering

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 29 Nov 2007 06:41:45 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 379.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 28 Nov 2007 08:29:22 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: merely engineering

Neven's transcription of the vox populi on the phrase "merely
engineering" is more useful to me than he supposed, though
my query was confined to the dismissive attitude of scientific
theorists. Like common uses of similar phrases, such as "merely
mechanical", the put-down of engineering suggests the old
aristocratic prejudice against those who work with their hands, or
more radically, those who *do* anything at all in a serious way, have
a job, work etc. I enlisted the aid of people here because I was
ruminating once again for purposes of an ongoing essay on the
distinction between "pure" and "applied" research, specifically
unpicking the prejudices packed into the supposed purity of research
that is motivated by curiosity rather than by the requirement for
deliverables. There seems to be a cry for freedom in that opposition
which I would not want to get lost by getting confused with
repugnance for the physical and with ignorance of epistemic practices
aimed at "thing knowledge".

In a recent conference paper, Martha Nussbaum adopted the primatologist
Frans van der Waal's term "anthropodenial" (by which he means our
denial that we are animals of a certain kind) to explain much human
cruelty and misery. She went more than a little bit over the top with
her thesis (which involved an astonishing idealization of non-human
animal life), but there does seem to be something in the need to separate
or at least adjust the balance between body-life and mind-life. In his recent
review of Geoffrey Lloyd's book Cognitive Variations (2007), which steers
a course through various topics, considering the opposition between
nature and nurture (or culture, as Lloyd prefers), Ian Hacking concludes
at the very end, "If, despire all the differences of detail, we go on asking
the same questions in each domain, is there not something suspect about
the way we have carved them up?" So let me ask: how better might we
talk about the research we do (and that we avoid doing) than always to
be rattling on about pure vs applied, or curiosity-motivated vs mission-
orientated or whatever?


Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26).
Received on Thu Nov 29 2007 - 01:58:01 EST

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